Graeme Fife

Writer

            In 2016, I began to keep an intermittent diary. The early entries are widely spaced, I never had the intention of marking each day. It was more a form of limbering up, maintaining the discipline of writing when there seemed to be little writing going on. Gradually the filling of the diary picked up and, latterly, I’ve added my greetings to the blank page more regularly.

            There is no dear diary here, no record of feelings, other than a fairly steady theme of mockery, of stupefaction at the twaddle our so-called leaders come out with, the mess they are making, the ballyhoo and bollocks.

            I note trips here and there, book reviews, a few poems, photographs, chatter about this and that, cabbages and kings sort of thing, unconsidered trifles, amusing, I hope, diverting, always, casual and off-beam, certainly, motley subjects to entertain. And I have, this day (22 October 2020) just included a ghost story written yesterday and finished today.

            The blog is long but please look on it as a text to dip into. A lucky (possibly) dip.

 

2016

20 January

News comes of the death of a dog I knew.

 

ELOGIUM

For Sid, the lurcher, to whom I used to give elementary maths lessons. It was more fun than telling him he was a good boy.

in memoria Sid, canis optimi, obit. mmxiii

 You became more in us,

As we made more of you.

Doglike devotion cuts both ways.

I offered you numbers you didn’t need,

You paid with affection, and that we all need.

Your puzzlement over plus and minus

Was no dottier than our bafflement over

What to eschew

And what to pursue.

Go joyously, Sid, in whatever Elysian fields you romp,

Chasing Eternity’s rabbits.

It’s we who are in the doghouse.

3 February, Sevenoaks

After an hour’s consultation with the man from Amtrak, I put the phone down and reflect in some bemusement what I’ve signed up to: Raleigh (North Carolina) to Charlotte, on to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington DC and back to Raleigh, all but LA new to me, visiting a number of friends en route. Having asked him whether I can collect all the tickets at one station he says: ‘Sure you can, but check’em through. Remember, you’re dealing with humans, we all make mistakes.’

 

22 February, Bole airport, Addis Ababa, 6am.

I get up at 5am, wash, shave, make a cup of coffee, eat a banana and preen myself on being ready for the taxi at 5.30. The guard shows me out through the gate, the taxi’s waiting. Rucksack in the boot, off we go along the empty roads of the sleeping city, street lights shine aloft like fairground lanterns. I’m heading for Lalibela to see the sunken churches.

The queue of taxis outside the airport car park is long, tail- and head-lights glow in the darkness. I get out of the car, shoulder my rucksack and set off for the terminal, another glimmering force of light. As I trot along the walkway through the car park, past other passengers wheeling trolleys, a sudden flashback: I see the musette in which I’ve stowed passport, tickets, book, notebook, pens, spectacle cases, lying by the side of the bed I vacated an hour ago. I’m in bad trouble and dash back to the car park exit…maybe my ride will still be there. It’s gone of course. Dithering with misery, I fumble with the phone by the feeble light of the sentry box at the entrance to the car park and call the friends with whom I’m staying. Charlie’s sleepy voice answers. If the word idiot and accompanying coarse epithet stepped lightly onto his lip as to a springboard, he hustled it back, reassured me, and, half an hour later, Therese drives up. What’s the point of apology? I apologise. She waves this aside – they get up at 6 o’clock anyway. She hands me the bag and I race off, nerves crackling through my entire frame like an allergic reaction. I scrape the flight.

 

1 March

The wilderness

At first, the children of Israel weren’t happy, not happy at all. At least in Egypt there’d been food and drink, decent living accommodation. Whips and scourges, yes, but, win some, lose some. And now? Well, ‘on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt…they said unto [Moses and Aaron], Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus ch. 16 vv 2-3) Moses had to admit, privately, that they had a point. He was none too pleased, either, though being the leader he couldn’t show that, naturally. He hadn’t been through what he’d been through to let a rumbling stomach come between him and the top job. Aaron, his brother, had a lean and hungry look about him, too, and history has at least one fatal example of the sinister consequences of a lean and hungry look. Whereat Moses had a quick one to one with the Lord their God saying: ‘Listen, Lord, whose name means I am that I am, which doesn’t tell us much, you got to admit, the people are kicking up. Not too keen on their relocation, mainly on account of the fact that there’s nothing in the food or drink line available. You need to come up with something or else I can see the whole bunch, the entire twelve tribes – is it twelve? I forget, so many of them, can’t see the numbers for the multitude –decamping back to gilded captivity, though I imagine Pharaoh – whose heart, if you recall, you hardened against us, for reasons of your own, no doubt, so far unexplained – is going to be more than a little pissed off if the entire flock of asylum seekers reappears, en masse, on his doorstep. Especially given the plagues etc etc. Well…?’

And God spoke out of the cloud, which he used as an amplifier, though, in truth, it had more the effect of a dampener: ‘How about rain and manna?’

Moses reflected. He was a negotiator. Bad idea to seem too eager. Plus, he knew the Lord their God. Never could get much of a straight answer out of him…Him. ‘Rain will do it,’ he said, ‘we have the pots and vessels, but…manna? You having a laugh? What is manna? Matzos, I know from matzos, but…’

God interrupted him. ‘Believe me, you taste manna, you won’t need matzos. Trust me. Be good to yourself.’

Moses had to think about that one. He didn’t answer. God pressed him.

‘Deal?’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do say so and listen, Moses…’

‘I’m listening. My shell-like ear is inclined.’

‘It’s in my interests as well as yours to make a success of this thing. I want you a homeland, you want you a homeland. I assume you’re not getting cold feet. You do want a  homeland, right?’

‘We want a homeland.’

‘Right. And, frankly, there are times when I just want you out of my hair. I get very tired of the endless carping and complaining. First down by the waters of Babylon, and then –’

‘We’ve been through all that. Rain and manna?’

‘Rain and manna. And, I tell you what, as a goodwill gesture…’

Moses narrowed his eyes. He knew, he knew to his cost, that there was no such thing as a free good will gesture. ‘Yes…?’

‘I’ll throw in quails. For the evening meal.’

‘A bugger to pluck.’

‘There you go, kvetch kvetch kvetch. You want the quails or not?’

‘I want the quails.’

‘Right, you want the quails. Only, you need to snap them up pretty fast, before they get to the manna.’

The manna was a big success, went down a storm. It was white as hoar frost, like the best flour, flavoured with what may have been coriander seeds and, according to the publicity, ‘the taste of it was like wafers made with honey’. As for the quails…buggers to pluck.

 

 

21 April, Durham, North Carolina

After a three-week round trip of nearly 8000 miles, I’m back where it began, with my friends David and Lauren, in North Carolina. I take them out to dinner. Our waitress has a plait which falls to below her waist. She’ll grow a similar braid when this one has gone, to donate to wig-makers for cancer patients. As we leave the restaurant, in the gloaming, from our table outside on the porch, somewhere in the near distance, an Amtrak train blows its horn. The discordant mouth harp chord sends a shiver through me, as if it’s signalling: ‘So long, buddy, until next time.’

Summer Solstice, Ariège, France

My friend Nick is seriously ill in hospital. I’ve come to see him, not at all sure what I’m going to find. Having discussed his will with him, I go to see the Maire, a former notaire, in Massat. Nick is twice married and has five children. I pull the chain attached to the bell at the front door of the ancient chateau where M. Gasparrou lives. He appears at an upstairs window. I ask if I might come some time to seek his advice. He says: ‘Give me two minutes.’ An arthritic hip makes his descent of the stairs something of a travail.

In his kitchen, I explain that Nick wants to bequeath his house to the son and daughter of his second marriage. I say: ‘I believe French law is complicated on this issue.’ He smiles. ‘No, French law is quite clear, it’s M. Flanagan’s life that’s complicated.’

In the hospital, the first day I went, I had a long conversation with one of the nurses about what he was suffering from, the circumstances in which he’d been taken in, the treatment he was getting and so on, and supplied her with contact numbers. I explained that his son, Dominic, lived in France but that Jane, his daughter, was in England, at which the nurse said: ‘Oh, I’m English, too.’

 

23 August, Swiss Alps

A four-day hike with my friend Susanne. Her birthday. We began yesterday (Monday) with a six hour loop from the road where the bus from Davos deposited us to the first of the chalets. This day, in bright sun, one long ascent and round the rim of the far slope to a narrow river running at fast rate between rocks. Suse wants an idle lunch break. We dunk in the cold water, eat sandwiches and settle down for a siesta. I swathe myself against the rays and lean against a large boulder. By the time we set off again, after two hours, I am deeply relaxed and quite unaware of how bad this state is for me. My mind disengaged. I’m not thinking. It’s not generally understood that the extreme of physical exertion requires the extreme of mental attention. Mind and body together, or, as the founder of the Tour de France put it, in his assessment of what it took to win the race: Head and Legs.

The next three hours of walking to the classiest chalet I’ve ever been in – my experience of chalets is, admittedly, limited – were grim. Suse went far ahead. I had no fight, no strength, no drive, no will. By the time I reached the final gradient up to the chalet’s curtilage – why are they always situated at the top of a slope? – I was finished. I slumped onto a rock, Suse brought me a beer and I was semi-comatose with fatigue. The result of never engaging mind to body. A lapse of concentration, a failure to put my thought to walk. A disaster. I barely made it up the three flights of stairs to the dormitory where we slept.

The next day was going to be hard, we knew that: a very long ascent in the middle of a quite challenging distance of walk. I was badly troubled, even scared. I slept ill and, in those wakeful hours, pondered a strategy to combat possible failure and the misery of another terrible slog. Concentration was the clue, it must be. I must think of a mantra to repeat as I walked, a way of focussing my thought on the effort I needed to keep planting one foot in front of the other. The poem written by a young woman I found in the museum to the Résistants outside Annecy…that would be my help. Je trahirai demain, pas aujourd’hui.

And so, at the foot of the ascent, Suse always quicker than I, the inner chant began. I had misremembered the lines and rather abstracted them, but in French. ‘Tomorrow I will betray, not today. Today I will harden myself against the pain, I will harden myself against the torture…against the hatred of my captors…against their cruelty…against the sickening temptation to betray…not today, not today, but tomorrow I will betray…that will see me through, the fact that I will have blessed relief from these torments tomorrow… tomorrow…’

(In fact the poem, which I quote in full in Great Climbs of the Northern Alps, is far more graphic in detail. And, when tomorrow becomes today, she will say the poem over again. The writer was Marianne Cohn, nickname Colin, code name Le Pax, held in a Gestapo cell in Annemasse before being executed.)

I plodded up the steep mountainside, one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, in what I was told, later, is called Himalayan shuffle, repeating my mantra, innerly, wondering how on earth I was ever going to get to the top at such a slow, such a halting pace, but there it was, the summit, Suse already long there, briefly guardian of the huge perspective in both directions. I was neither tired, nor elated. Not elated because I knew I was going to make it, knew in every nerve, every response of my being, that my instructions to myself, to narrow the attention to this one task, had worked. When I arrived, when I looked both ways from this high place, yes, then, I felt elation – but nothing to do with what I had just done, everything to do with where I had come to.

 

27 August, Lake Como

After the hike Swiss alps – hard and uplifting in equal measure, stupendous views, glorious weather – we’ve come back to Tremezzo. As last Saturday, I make use of the Grand Hotel pontoon, along from our hotel, although there’s no groundsman to oblige me with a towel, as there was last Saturday. But once again, I have the joy of the fresh water, and the sun rising over the ridge across the lake. As with the Highgate pond where I swam all year round for ten years, it’s like swimming in the sky.

Some while ago, Pete, the photographer, and I finished our final research and photography trip for the last of the four books on the southern European mountain ranges – from Atlantic to Adriatic – with two nights at Belluno and the first day in ten years when we did no work. Not entirely. Pete had to log some pictures from the day before but, when he proposed that we done of the two climbs we yet had to visit that day, I suggested that we’d be better doing them en route for the airport next day.

I began the Saturday, free day, morning with a swim in the lake. Walked down from the hotel, one of the alleyways that link the upper road to the lakeside, to where the ferry docks. There was no easy access to the lake itself that I could see. However, the Grand Hotel, which more or less faces that other Grand Hotel across the lake, lay just along the road.

I walked through the large entrance gates past a parked Ferrari, the imposing front entrance to the building some distance away on the cusp of the semi-circular drive, left onto the terrace, sunbeds in position, on to the railings along the top of the wall down which led steps to a concrete platform from where an iron ladder takes swimmers into the water.

I stripped off, left my clothes on one of the sunbeds, and took my swim, luxuriating in the silky feel of the freshwater, gazing up at the sky, round at the girdling heights, across at the far shore, noting the passage of boats even at that early hour. When I walked back to my clothes, I found that a kindly groundsman had left a towel for me, supposing that I was of the hotel. I dried off, got dressed, caught his eye – he was busy with other tasks across the terrace – and waved thanks, asked him where to leave the towel, he pointed to an open building at the side of the terrace and I went back to the hotel.

Next morning, I walked in past a Fiat 500 – eclectic if not selective, Catholic if not entirely demotic, the Belluno Grand Hotel, possibly even egalitarian, not to over-egg it – and, this time, seeing a groundsman already at work, called out if I might have a towel. Cheery compliance, and I proceeded with my scrumped bathe.

 

25 September

A girlfriend from schooldays, loomed out of the ether a year ago and writes to me now: ‘Don’t work too hard. Life is too short,’ thus spectacularly missing the point and misreading me.

To her, however, I owe a great debt. I was a Warrant Officer in a school cadet Corps with a steady tradition of sending boys to Sandhurst. Run by professional soldiers, the level of military training and discipline was high. Having passed what was effectively officer selection on a special course (Joint Services Cadet Badge) at the age of just short of 17, I was heading for a life as an army officer. One Saturday evening in November, as I walked my girlfriend to the bus stop on Totteridge Lane, she said, out of the blue, à propos of nothing we’d been talking of, ‘You’d do well at university’. I didn’t reply but went home after she’d caught the bus and told my father that I didn’t want to go into the army but rather to university.

That Monday, I resigned from the Corps and, having done very little work in the year and a bit of the Sixth Form, I began to study with demonic energy. Writing essays till 3 in the morning, doing extra Latin unseens. Working, working, working.

One of my contemporaries in the Corps had already settled on his ambition, to become an architect with a declared mission: ‘Better Bogs for Britain.’ Monumental porcelain?

5 October, Deia, Mallorca

This was later broadcast on From Our Own Correspondent:

I returned to Deià after nearly thirty years, drawn by curiosity. Not nostalgia. For, if I felt at home in the many times I stayed there, it was never home in any deeper sense. I’d become friends with the Graves family, first drawn, like many others, by the power and mystique of his writing.

On this occasion, I stayed some distance away and twice walked the Camino, the old mule track along the Tramuntana ridge in this mountainous, north-west corner of Mallorca. Its stone paving is somewhat dilapidated after centuries of use, its girding wall collapsed in several places, ruined casitas next to untended olive trees speak the degradation of much active agriculture hereabouts. Many of the stones were laid by local forced labour under the Moorish occupation. Yet, slicked as they had been in the sweat and blood of the chain gangs, they’ve lasted far beyond the enslavements of that empire. And the woodlands, deciduous and pine, through which the track threads, hold their dignity, the long views across to the sea and the bays which scallop the ironbound coast still enchant. I ran the track, years ago, but memory of it faltered. It diverts from the woodland down to the road before branching off onto the dusty path I habitually walked to the Cala, Deià’s own inlet. I pass the stand of ilex, evergreen oaks, that might have been a sacred grove, then across the open headland, dotted with olive trees, past the fisherman’s cottage where I stayed that first summer, and the Mirador, the belvedere where Jakov Lind, the Austrian writer, spent his summers. We sat there one morning and watched a violent storm marching across the sea towards us, then drove up the rocky path into town, lashed by rain of tropic force. That afternoon, against all glum, local prediction, a fiery sun in a flawless sky vanquished the deluge and, having weathered one tempest, that evening our small band of actors performed Shakespeare’s Tempest in the stone amphitheatre below the Graves house.

So much has changed, of course. I walked the long flight of stone steps down to the Cala where the waterside restaurant enjoys a new celebrity – it featured in a recent BBC television drama. I found it, alas, charmless, now. The village is busier, too, with regular buses plying from Palma, tourist coaches, cars, racing bikes, visitors, boutique shoppers, car parks, all signalling prosperity if at cost of tranquillity.

I visited La Casa de Robert Graves, Ca N’Alluny, ‘Faraway House’, where I’d stayed so often, now a museum. It’s engaging, very well presented. I enjoyed the visit but was puzzled. Lucia Graves, who grew up there, told me I’d see ghosts and, as I walked away, at invalid pace, as if in a trance, I realised I had: myself, a revenant from that distant past. I wasn’t troubled or upset. I was, simply, a stranger who knew his way around.

In the restaurant, originally a bar where, on my first visit, I stopped after the ride in the tubercular, pre-war bus which made the daily journey to the mountain village up the narrow road from Palma, the waiter spoke no Spanish. I ordered in English. An elderly couple at an adjacent table addressed him in German. He didn’t understand. I asked, in German if I could help. I conveyed this, and his response, in German. Then, the man and woman conversed in another language at which the waiter said (as they explained, afterwards) that he was Russian, too.

Once, every morning in a side street, a mournful blast on a conch shell announced the arrival of fresh fish from the bay for sale. No more, but fish still swim. At midsummer, the village continues to celebrate its patron saint Sant Joan with a fiesta. On Epiphany eve, three kings process down the mountainside by torchlight and up to the church, and the Mallorcan Slingers’ Federation, Federació Balear de Tir amb Fona, descendants of the renowned Balearic slingers whose origins stretch back, it’s said, to the 7th century BC, still thrives. Because it’s unique, their annual champion is also, automatically, world champion.

Years ago, a nearby hotel dug up an olive grove to make way for a tennis court. It didn’t take long for the decapitated trees, many of them reputedly over a thousand years old, to thrust back through the asphalt into the light. Graves would have reminded them that in Deià strange things happen and there’s no impunity for those who offend the ancient ways.

 

22 October, Sevenoaks

6.48am. I’ve missed the alarm, (first time ever), set for 5.55am so that I can clear and lay the woodburner for the evening, shave and set out for the Park-market walk at 6.30. I get dressed and am out of the house within five minutes. At the market: the fish van, which parks behind the fruit and veg stall, was late so their set up was delayed. The man who comes to help the woman set up the flower stall at 6 didn’t show, nor could she get hold of him. The son of the fruit and veg stall owner whispered to me that he’d forgotten to bring the cash and had to go all the way home to get it. When I check my phone at home, the alarm had been switched off. Not by me. And all this a week before Halloween’s demonfest of spirit mischief.

 

25 October

Tax return. I think of the man, Alan Evesham, who, in response to the question ‘do you have anyone dependent on you?’ wrote: ‘2.1 million illegal immigrants, 1.1 million crackheads, 2.2 millions unemployable “Jeremy Kyle” scroungers, 900,000 criminals in over 85 prisons, plus 650 idiots in Parliament and the whole of the European Commission.’

The answer was deemed by HMRC to be unacceptable. He wrote back: ‘Who did I miss out?’

 

27 October

Posted a doggerel poem to David and Lauren in Cambridge, Mass.

 

LOBSTER

For Ollie, the labrador of New England who loves to swim

Now, then, Ollie, here’s the thing:

Shaking the lobster is your schtik.

We get that. We do, we get it.

We may join in, or not, concur, demur, from time to time,

And that’s our schtik.

Truth is, however, the lobster is of no practical interest

To us, tough as it is to share that hard fact with you.

We can register the hint of your disappointment

When we explain about not playing along.

Nothing to be done about that.

The lobster shaking has limited entertainment value, too.

It’s a stuffed gewgaw, Ollie, a doggie chew-jaw.

We know the deal, of course we do:

You shake it

We try to take it.

You hold on, jaw tight clamped,

Shake shake shake
As we try again.

The bias is against us.

Your teeth? Our hands?
No contest. Except you will, eventually,

Let go, for us to chuck and you to chase.

But hey, Ollie, listen up:

You, long past pup years,

Still doing pup things,

Whether we join in or not?

The best we can say to that is

‘Go, Ollie, go.’

Because, being long past pup years

But still doing pup things

Is no bad lesson for us.

Whoever said – and believed – that

Childlike glee should be

The exclusive prerogative, monopoly

Of children?

Well, screw them.

‘Go, Ollie, go. Shake that lobster, sh-sh-sh-sh-shake that thing.’

Bonfire Night

I think of the time I went to Lewes to see the annual fire and No Popery brouhaha, commemorating the immolation of the seventeen Protestant martyrs, burned at the stake in June 1557, under the Marian persecution, for ‘resisting and denying the erroneous and heretical doctrines of the pretended Catholic Church of Rome’.

There are six bonfire societies, each with its own field of conflagration, and they parade through the town, the main street barriered off, dressed as pirates, native Americans, Roman soldiers, Vikings, witches, ghosts, black-face Zulus, some carrying aloft burning crosses or flaming torches, others dragging metal oil barrels sliced in two, mounted on wheels and filled with combustible material ablaze, drums beating and a general oppressive air of nastiness. Impatient with standing behind the barrier, I decided that the best way to get a closer feel of the pagan violence, and so it felt, it would better serve to join the procession. I hopped over the barriers and mingled with the lunatics.

A man came up to me. He wore a blazer encrusted with metal badges of one sort and another, proclaiming his membership of a variety of clans, associations, clubs and barely secret fraternities, I assume, I didn’t look that closely. His eyes were blear, swollen and red rimmed, perhaps from peering too directly into the braziers or from the effect of the swirling smoke. He scowled and said: ‘Do you mind telling me who you are?’

This wasn’t the moment for any kind of lengthy biographical detail. ‘I’m with the BBC,’ I said. He studied me briefly, as if he might pursue the veracity of this, but, inexplicably, decided against, and left me to it. Pathetic, I thought, to be so lightly fobbed off.

The bonfire to which I then proceeded had drawn a massive crowd – and this only one of the four pyres. They hoisted effigies of priests to the height of the stake protruding from the faggots and there was much howling and yelling, obscenity and anti-Catholic abuse. I didn’t stay.

The annual bonfire in Corpusty, where Rob, the cabinetmaker with whom I worked,  and Mary lived, was a more seemly affair, albeit that the very conceit of the fire and the guy – a sickly immortality, that, to give one’s name to the sketch of a barbarity – is, at root, more than suspect. A troupe of villagers in various forms of everyday dress and make up, hats prominent, processed round the whole community pulling the funeral bier borrowed from the Saxthorpe church – that village joined to Corpusty but sited across the river Bure here in its infancy. On the bier sat the guy and the procession was led by Forty, a farm labourer, so called because it was said that even as a littl’ ol’ bairby, as they say in Norfolk, he looked, spoke and acted like a man of forty. Curious distinction. Forty wore, as he always wore, a Bo-Peep mob cap and an absurdly tight, floral-pattern, summer cotton dress with short, bunched puff sleeves, into which he forced his heavily muscled frame, so that the thin fabric stuck like a layer of clingfilm, and. The company knocked on doors and rattled contribution buckets in a collection, which continued at the bonfire itself, the proceeds of which went to buy sacks of coal for each of the pensioners resident in the village.

The pile of timber destined for the fire accumulated with successive deliveries – of brushwood, discarded timber, broken fencing and gates…- over some time on the burnt patch in the scrub grass of the common ground just off the main road that sweeps through, past the ironing piece on which stands a signpost, and on over the bridge by the old mill and up the hill to the Saxthorpe church. This area has not the grace or dignity of a green and it serves for little but a place for kids to play and the annual bonfire.

[Ironing piece: Norfolk idiom for a triangular patch of ground, generally sward, set in the centre of a three-way inter-knit of roads. I sent this to Robert MacFarlane who’d asked for contributions to his collection of lost words – he included it. Hurray.]

One year, the heap of timber was set alight by some young hooligans the Friday evening before Bonfire Night and all but razed, leaving an affront of charred stumps and debris. A rescue crew of villagers raced round next day in tractors, vans, pick-ups, cars, to scrape together replacement wood – old beer crates from the Norwich brewery always came as a late addition anyway, but the trawl for fuel went much wider.

The procession arrives at the bonfire, the guy is lifted from the bier and hauled by Forty up the long ladder placed against the pyre to fix to the stake at its summit. Men stand in a circle round the fire with blazing torches. A huge crowd looks on, most of them come from far afield. The collection buckets circulate. The fireworks display is ready, overseen by the master blue-paper men to one side of the pitch. Forty fixes the guy in place and then, standing up there next to it, denounces the little varmints who’d all but wrecked the show. The speech was short, punchy and impassioned. He rounded it off with a curse: ‘An’ may their feet rot in their socks,’ and climbed back down whereat the torch men walked slowly towards the wood and set the fire going.

Forty was illiterate and, when he went to the seaside by himself for a week’s break from work, one time, his wife, June, wrote out her name and their address on a stamped postcard for him so that, once he’d arrived, he could put his cross on the message side and send it back to her. A strapping cove, died long before what seemed his time, victim of a predatory malice lurking in his body, biding its time

Forty’s brother, Blink – so called because he blinked a lot – was also a farm labourer, skinny, nicotine stained, sickly of complexion and his feeble proportion scarce meriting the word ‘build’, the very physical opposite of his burly, rude-health, brother of sanguine complexion and slow but powerful energy and strength. Forty was married, Blink had a woman he visited for sex and meals, referred to by him as his ‘bit of ol’ farnicher’. What her response to this ascription was I do not know, but she may – or may not – have been that woman resident in the village who once delivered herself of the opinion that ‘all men are the sairm, most on ‘em’.

Blink lived at the bottom a row of five houses set at ninety degrees to the flow of the river, in whose waters he periodically tethered one of his shirts – ‘shuts’ in Norfolk – to ‘frashen it op’, more conventional laundry practices being alien to him, as was evident.

One morning, as I cycled down the hill on my way to Norwich, a light drizzle falling, now, I raced past Hilda, her of the Post office – stamps, dole, pensions and cake and groceries for people who couldn’t make it to the shops. Clad in bright yellow oilskin coat and a sou-wester, she stood with both hands on the bars of her sit-up-and-beg bike, its basket with plastic cover under which the newspapers she was delivering.

As I went by, at some speed, clad in no impermeable, Hilda tilted back her head, the drizzle blurring the large lenses of her spectacles, and called out: ‘Is yar shut water-pruff?’ the last syllable treated to a sharp upward climax of a strangled soprano gargle.

In the year before I left teaching, I bought the first of the five-house row, next to the Street that runs through the main part of the village. Rob had phoned me at school to tell me the place was for sale. Being just along the road from the workshop, it was ideally placed. I went to the estate agent in Holt and asked for the details: two-up, two-down, brick-built house, large lean-to shed attached to the blank wall at the road end. No running water or sanitation. I then went to the bank to settle the finance, having sold my house – the first Middle House, in Lower Gresham the winter before – and returned to the estate agent to buy the place. Later that day I went to look at it, what eventually became End House, the extension, roof timbers and tiling, floors, doorways, plumbing, electrics, decoration, all done by me with help from various people at various stages.

9 November

Email to Stewart in Pittsburgh:

Friends came to supper and Marie made HC muffins, as a talisman. I got to bed around 12.30 after clearing up when they’d gone. Switched on the radio now and then through the night and, just after Clinton conceded and the Dumpster was ushered on stage to chants of ‘Jew-S A’, I switched off – his oleaginous tribute to Clinton made me want to puke. Do they know that SA stood for Sturmabteilung, ‘storm troops’, the vile Nazi brownshirt bully boys? Probably not, or care. I set off in teeming rain to market – it all seemed appropriate – and many of the usual stallholders didn’t show…no offers on wind-up Christmas reindeer and novelty gift paks.

One of the CNN presenters recently referred to the occupant of the White House as ‘President of the Free World’. Count me out of that one, we’ve got shackles of our own here.

Thoughts with you this gloomy dawning.

 

10 November

Jacob Rees Mogg, Tory toff-boy MP and imitation human being, one of those conservative small islanders who gets interviewed all the time, god knows why – his delivery is of that ghastly ‘oh, dear, over there, do you see, poor people…how on earth did they get in?’ haughty soft-spoken with silver ladle stuck up the rear passage. He was on today actually saying that Trump – for whom he would have voted and lauding the dominance of Republicans in the chambers of government as altogether welcome, the way that cutting benefits from the shirker, workshy population (know them? aka the unemployed) – is a good thing, that Trump’s victory is a signal of great optimism, ushering in an age of hope and progress.

What’s not generally known is that as well as brain by-pass, common among our ruling classes, they also have compassion and common sense by-pass. In most cases it’s not a very complicated procedure – there’s very little in place to sidestep.

The tabloids launched a campaign last week against three High Court judges who ruled that excluding our parliament from discussion about the terms of Brexit was illegal. They were instantly branded by one rag as ‘enemies of the people’. Another clarioned ‘Who do EU think you are?’ and our Justice Secretary – namely, the minister of the crown appointed to defend the rule of law – found herself in a quandary because, as a member of the Cabinet,  she felt obliged to follow party line – hang any of the bastards who don’t agree with us – as well as to review such matters with a cool, judicial eye. Too big a paradox for her to manage. She probably locked herself in the loo, sat on the toilet and hoped that it would all go away before flushing her tears of vain struggle with this thorny intellectual impasse down the pan.

As Quentin Crisp – who referred to himself as ‘one of the stately homos of England’ – once said: ‘Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, draaaaag [pun intended, surely?] them down to your level…it’s cheaper. And when someone arrives at your door say “Come in, it’s a mess, you’ll love it.” ’

 

 

12 November

As if the prospect of a misogynist bigot occupying the White House were not scary enough, I discover something still more provoking: like Hitler and Michael Corleone, the bloviating narcissist is teetotal. When I told my German friend Susanne, she asked what teetotal meant. Another nice instance of the language crux. What on earth, for example, is the connection between kip and kipper? There’s none. However…the third meaning of kip (from Danish kippe meaning hut, low alehouse) is, as the illustrious Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘1. A house of ill fame, a brothel 2. A common lodging-house, also a lodging or a bed in such a house, hence a bed in general.’ Doss house in other words. Kipper, whose etymology is uncertain, refers to the male salmon or sea trout during the spawning season, when the lower jaw of the fish develops an upward hook which is used by the fish in fighting with another male for the same female. Second meaning is for the fish when it’s cured, now exclusively used of herring.

Another German friend, Rudolf, who died some time ago, once told me that his wife, having been quite ill was now ‘over the hill’. When I said that this didn’t mean what he supposed it to mean, he amended to ‘she’s past it’.

 

15 November

A racist Facebook post about Michelle Obama has caused a major controversy involving a town mayor in the US state of West Virginia. Pamela Ramsey Taylor, who runs a local non-profit group in Clay County, said: ‘It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified first lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an Ape in heels,’ she said. Local mayor Beverly Whaling responded: ‘Just made my day, Pam.’ Clay has a population of just 491 and, according to the 2010 census, it has no African American residents. In Clay County as a whole, more than 98% of its 9,000 residents are white.

19 November

Picture in the Guardian yesterday of Trump’s meeting with the Japanese PM – released by a Japanese source, there being no American press there, a serious break with protocol, as we understand – and Ivanka is there, the daughter of whom he said she’s so hot he’d hit on her, save that they’re related. Didn’t stop Caligula. The room, moreover, in Trump Tower, is grotesque, worthy of Saddam. So fucking overdone: ornate, marble, gold encrusted, mirrors, sculptural excess…if taste were sugar, this man would be diabetic.

 

21 November

Long piece in the Guardian, written by a guy who travelled round the States, gauging the effect of the election result. He’s in a cab heading for the airport, driver says: ‘Did you see Trump in the Oval with Obama? He looked like a child, scared.’ He has not a clue how to govern, nor one iota of what it takes to govern and the great electorate who put him there have sure as shit no idea how anything gets done. This is to say what we all know, and the horror of it is that there are still people who eschew argument because, hey, this is democracy. We have people here who can’t understand why we aren’t out of Europe, now…didn’t we vote to leave? No fucking idea. It’s primary school reasoning.

panem et circenses…with majorettes. Only, sweet things, guard your pussies. As to the serial groper saying that the only thing stopping him from hitting on his daughter because she’s family…didn’t stop Caligula.

Apparently the KKK are planning a big celebration on 3 December, claiming the election victory as their own. Actually, good idea: acknowledge and confirm it as their own and then it’d be illegal, right?

 

22 November

Major disappointment with one of the dramas, in an area where the BBC so often excels.

Close to the Enemy is limp and dreary. The acting is wooden, hammy and entirely lacking in any emotional heat, in part because the script is so stilted and deficient, without any fluency. The direction is equally amateurish. As for the plot…characters popping out of the woodwork with no good reason to be there at all other than a mincing sideways look at another character on screen, a nudge-nudge wink-wink at some hidden sinister or conspiratorial purport, more twists than a fairground ride and about as interesting, and the intricacies. Oh dear. Schoolboyish tittering at ‘what we know and no one else does, hee hee.’ The complications are manufactured and baffling, though, in the end, who cares? They do nothing for a central story which really has very little fibre in it. If only there were a sense that anyone on screen. anyone at all, actually believed a syllable of what they were being asked to say, there might be some life in this sorry carcase of a so-called drama.

As to the means deployed by the central character, Cal, this mix in him of faux suave and knowing, who is neither, to reassure the hapless Lotta that she is safe, under no threat and that really life in a hotel could be jolly: to tear to bits the room in which she is required to spend most of her time in a violent manner, chucking furniture about while she sits and watches, as if this were supposed to be a clown show…puerile. One thing from which a child of her age, (10, or thereabouts?) especially one already traumatised, in a country with whose language she is barely familiar – where does her fluency come from, hm? – recoils is violence. As for the purpose of Cal’s melodramatic demolition of her living quarters, listening devices: what would she know of bugs, surveillance, the attentions of a clandestine secret service operation? And then for her to become docile and compliant as opposed to shrieking the place down because she wants to go home – not an unreasonable desire, given her grisly circumstances – it’s risible beyond credence.

This series is a turkey. Kowtowing to Poliakoff as the soi-disant, all-knowing auteur. Fie.

 

30 November

Sevenoaks station, the London bound platform crowded, a train standing with open doors. Its service has been suspended. It pulls out. Noting that my train is 15 minutes delayed, I walk to the far end of the platform. Another train pulls in, passengers aboard. The doors stay shut. Several waiting passengers remonstrate with the guard who says he’s powerless to do anything. The driver has been advised by management not to let anyone on. The train sits idle for several minutes, a mood of anger swelling among the people waiting for a train. The train pulls out. One woman near me vents her frustration. She’d got to Hildenborough, next stop south down the line, and was told she’d have a better chance of getting to London more quickly if she came to Sevenoaks. The train that’s just stopped and pulled out had stopped in Hildenborough to allow passengers to board. ‘I’ve been waiting an hour here Travelling on Southeastern is like playing Russian roulette,’ she says to no one in particular. I smile and say: ‘I share your annoyance, but no one died.’ This was, in the circumstances probably injudicious. Quite clearly, the exchange between management – who were not there to see what was going on – and the driver, who was, resulted from a failure of imagination. Perhaps Southeastern could add this to their catalogue of feeble excuses for delays, the wrong sort of snow, leaves on the line, etc.

I recount this story to my friend Richard with whom I had lunch, in town. (I once had to explain to a friend, not English, that, although it may not be the case now, when I was growing up in North London, ‘town’ invariably meant London, an ascription perhaps reinforced by the radio programme In Town Tonight, in which a reporter went out into London and recorded live vox pop on the spot.) Richard recounts a story of travelling on a train back into London which made an unscheduled stop in Reading. This in the days when doors could be opened and closed by passengers. The platform was crowded. As soon as the train drew to a halt, a tannoy announcement informed waiting passengers that they were not to board. At this, a young woman sitting in Richard’s compartment opened the door and shouted: ‘They can’t prosecute you all.’ At which, the waiting passengers opened the doors along the length of the train and piled in. Turned out that the young woman was a barrister.

And now I recall the story, said not to be apocryphal, of the professor of Philosophy waiting on Oxford station when a train bound for London made an unscheduled stop. He boarded. The conductor remonstrated with him. ‘You can’t get on here, it doesn’t stop.’ To which the master of logic replied: ‘If it doesn’t stop, then I’m not on board.’

 

3 December

On the water turned to wine at the Marriage of Cana: John records that when the first supply ran out, Jesus told the servants to fill six stone water pots, [as used by the Jews in purification rituals] each of which had a capacity of two or three firkins. The wine that issued from them was, by common consent of the guests who’d already polished off the first servings, to be of much higher quality. Now, then, a quick foray into old style measures of liquid capacity. A firkin, ‘fourth’, is half a kilderkin, a kilderkin half a barrel. A barrel was measured at 32 gallons of ale, thus a kilderkin held 16 gallons of ale or 16-18 old wine gallons (fractionally less than the Imperial measure of eight pints). Thus, a firkin measured 8 gallons in capacity. Each of the stone water pots held at least 16, up to 24 gallons and there were six of them. Do the math. However you look at it, the Marriage at Cana was what we used to call un piss-up monumentale. Organised by the Son of Man.

And how many were there at the Cana bash, d’you think? Family and the entire village? Either way you look at it, the flow of booze resembles the fountain at Radley – wasn’t it? – pumping out the vintage for a summer garden party.

True story: a man walked into a London pub by way of the conservatory attached to the frontage. He asked the barman for a glass of white wine. The barman, landlord it proved, said, with smug pleasure: ‘We actually have a house wine,’ nodding at the vine growing round one side of the conservatory. The customer said he’d try a glass. It came, he swirled, sniffed, tasted the wine. The landlord, preening, said: ‘What do you think?’ ‘Hm,’ said the man. ‘Doesn’t travel, does it?’

 

6 December

Another Richard who came to lunch with his wife Steph two days ago, told me that the peerless Duckers of Oxford in the Turl would probably close on 20 December unless a buyer for the business could be found. The present owner is 70, the craft base is dwindling. I have worn a pair of Ducker plain Oxfords for years and was deeply saddened by the news. On 5 December, my photographer friend Paul came to supper, I spoke of the sad news and he, being the generous cove he is and having a free day on the morrow, said that should I care to go to Oxford, he’d happily drive me. I phoned the shop in the morning, they had no shoes of my size, but it would be a pleasurable jaunt. I phoned him straight away and, at a little after 10am he called to collect me.

There was no parking to be found in the city, Paul pulled up at the end of Turl Street – I’d always supposed it to be The Turl, a local sobriquet, must be – and I slipped along the way to the shop. The familiar interior, old lasts in a bundle tied with string hanging by the top of the stairs down to the basement. Boxes and boxes of shoes lining the floor to ceiling shelves. More shoes on surfaces along one side. The counter at the far end, the aperture giving onto an office. Cardboard boxes already packed and waiting for despatch. An array of laces hanging from hooks along a rack near the counter. I bought a pair, not because I needed them but because I wanted to take something of Ducker away. I had mixed feelings about there being no shoes of my size. They’re expensive. My current pair, whilst still in good repair and some way off what is known, technically, as ‘distressed’, will not last forever and, when they go, Ducker will, in all likelihood, be gone, too.

At Sunday lunch, we spoke of the sorry demise.

We lamented the passing of Ducker

Whose shoes are a byword for pukka.

For even a clod

If in Duckers is shod

Is a god of footwear, not a sucker.

 

Sad as the reason for the mission had been, and impossible to find any parking space in Oxford – Paul chanced hazard lights as he sat on a double yellow in the High to wait while I scampered along to the doomed shop –  it was a pleasurable jaunt. There were no shoes my size, alas, but I bought some Ducker laces (having no need for them, in truth) but a token. I stood us lunch at a decent pub in Bessels Green. The hamburger for me. Not a success, alas.

9 December

From a novel shortlisted for the Booker:

‘…bred a closeness between my sister and I.’

‘…had not seen my sister or I…’

‘…not for you, or for I…’

Not that the author is unacquainted with the word me. He does manage ‘…stared at me…’

Anita Loos made joyous play with this hapless vulgarity in her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her protagonist, Lorelei Lee, refers to herself as ‘a girl like I’.

The origin – fault – seems to be in a false politeness and, as ever, seems to have got rooted first in America. So, the entirely grammatical ‘my husband and I…’ (eg) as subject appears to have established itself as a double-barrelled singular noun to be used whether in nominative or oblique cases. Which reminds me of the greeting offered to their newly born daughter, Dido, by the uncle of her parents, my friends Seb and Marrilyn [sic…her father misspelled it on the birth certificate]. A Virgil scholar, public orator at Oxford, he floated by as they sat on the lawn at the big family home, Greatham, in Sussex, in that long stride academic lope induced by habitual wearing of a gown, and, with scarce a nod at the child, harrumphed: ‘Hm, Dido, no oblique cases.’

The novel is also riven with split infinitives. There are grammatical reasons why a split infinitive is a bastard form but the more compelling argument against them is, I think, that they sound so bloody awful. Jarring, dysphonious, clunky. A violent dissonance. They’re mostly split by the intrusion of an adverb and adverbs are to style what a gold-plated elevator is to taste. Best used most sparingly. But, adverbs have become zimmer frames for the support of verbs which, jejune and enfeebled, can no longer stand up on their own. Obviously, literally, hopefully, not necessarily…One prominent author has said that no one can write decent English without being imbued with the prose of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s an extreme opinion and one I’d moderate, but the point is a strong one. English prose was brought to a new perfection in that liturgical book and its modulations, cadences, rhythms and structure were part of the aural experience of every English citizen, weekly and even day by day for nigh on a century and the non-conformists held true to its sonorities even when they’d broken with the liturgy per se. The Founding Fathers, the language of New England, the limpid prose of John Bunyan. The influence is clear to hear in the prose of the finest American writers.

And William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament, in particular, is the first exemplar of what may be termed muscular prose, a spare economy of expression, uncluttered and free of surplus frippery. When a senior cleric steeped in Roman Catholic dogma said: ‘We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s’ Tyndale rebutted him: ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you.’

To resume: in the novel, the crassest splitting, perhaps, is ‘to daily shrink’. This might properly refer to the diurnal visit to a psychoanalyst but as stated it’s a fright. Consider a revision, echoing the cadences of the 16th century prose: ‘to shrink, day after day…’ Sonority, lilt, roll…

A woman who gave an account of being groped by Donald Trump said that, in endeavouring to fight him off, she ‘had to physically say Stop…’ Well, fancy.

The air stewardess who tells us that, if the lifejacket doesn’t fully inflate we can top up ‘manually by blowing in the tube’. Now, there’s an example of the sort of dexterity that would make a monkey look ham-fisted.

‘Manually’ no longer, it seems, is taken to mean what it does mean, performing an action by hand, but ‘without any technological assistance’, no hands, feet or bumpsa-daisy.

In his Hillbilly Elegy, the author, JD Vance speaks of a big house being situated ‘quite literally on Main Street’. Well, fancy.

 

11 December

A clear, bright sunny Sunday morning. I havered, whether to go for a good bike ride or do some essential repairs in the garden. I decided against the bike, with some misgivings. Winter rides are not so easily had. However…

One section of my fence has leaned drunkenly for some time. I investigated last week, finally, perhaps because I didn’t want to find out what was wrong – subliminal aversion. One of the posts has sheared at its foot, just above where it sinks into the concrete base poured there when we erected it some years back. The adjacent panel, moreover, had sprung clear of its fixing at the bottom and preliminary inspection showed that it had been pushed out by a dumping of earth. This morning, therefore, I removed the panel – the fixing screws luckily not at all corroded and cleared the mass of soil flung and compacted against the panel. This had clearly been done on purpose. Underneath the soil, I found two concrete slabs jammed vertically down against the gravel board. What villainy. The slabs I brought onto my side, fearing that were I to leave them, they’d be used again for the same purpose. (I later dropped them over the vile neighbour’s back fence, behind one of the sheds in what used to be a garden and is now a cross between a breaker’s yard, repository for discarded junk and dilapidated smallholding of outhouses.)

Once the gravel board leading edge was exposed and the earth pushed back, I replaced the panel – this took some levering, squeezing and pushing, but it finally went home.

I came inside, had a shower and then went for a rather shorter ride, in everyday clothes, on the town bike. Town, in this phrase, being generic not specific. The Sevenoaks Christmas market had already done two days’ business in its plot next to the Vine and I’d noted the Churros stall in passing. The first time I had churros was in Valdemossa, Mallorca, on the evening of the Santa Catalina Tomás fiesta one year when we spent some weeks on the island. Wow. Lucia told me that the Spanish for ‘to sell like hot cakes’ is se vende como churros. Deservedly. Another memorable encounter, in Salamanca on the way back from Portugal. Nick, driving the other of the two vans, stopped in a layby on the motorway and said he’d spotted a hotel by the side of the road some way back. I said: ‘But we’re only a couple of miles from Salamanca. We can’t miss that.’ And, in response to his evident reluctance I assured him – with no inside knowledge – that there’d be somewhere to stay. There was and, I told him, so captivated was I by the old city, that I intended to get up early and walk it for an hour. I got back to the hotel and told the others that I had not only been further enchanted by the place but that I’d found the perfect place for breakfast: freshly squeezed orange juice, delectable churros, the best hot chocolate I’ve ever drunk and then a cup of fine coffee.

I stood in the sun by the churreria van and told the men running it – not Spanish – about the time that Pete the shutterbug and I, on the first of our many trips for the mountains books, stopped in a little village in the Pyrenees, north of Ripoll (north of Barcelona). There, in the main square, a churreria van. I asked him if he’d ever had churros. He hadn’t. You’re in for a treat, then, I told him. (In a tiny village in the Alps, south of the Col d’Agneau, I introduced him to raclette.)

It felt marginally decadent scoffing (not very good) churros and sipping thick chocolate – which they served as a dip, the man topped up my cup when I was halfway through the deckle-edged doughnut sticks – but as I told them, I was not going to pass up on churros.

At the far end of the market, another stall offered British burgers and Currywurst. The Italian contingent, small, was selling a thimble glass of Prosecco at £4 a pop. Rather too much for that measure of pop, I thought.

 

12 December

With the help of Stuart, my stalwart next-door neighbour, I hauled in a goodly quantity of timber from the copse behind the house. This we then cut up – Stuart on chainsaw, me feeding through the sawing horse – and I bagged and stacked after he’d gone. Two good hours work. As they say in Norfolk: gathering firewood makes you twice warm, once in hauling and cutting, second in burning.

 

I was walking down one of the boulevards towards Place de la Bastille one time and passed a woman of a certain age, sartorial overstatement and cosmetic fragility, leaning down, solicitously, over her minuscule dog, the size of a bloated rat, and, in tones which might suggest ‘Good boy’, said, as it cocked its leg and pointed its wart of a penis at the base of the plane tree: ‘Va manger des rosbifs.’

 

13 December St Lucy’s Day

An exchange of emails with Susanne on the slight puzzle of a caption to a postcard I bought in Bergün after our walk in the Swiss alps. The picture shows a low-slung trolley as used by inspectors of rail tracks, four passengers, snow. The four people –  track inspector, a friend and the friend’s son and daughter – sit upright, posing for the camera. To the right of the picture, anchored in the snowdrift, two large concrete bastions, avalanche defences. The scene is the Mulierakurve, ‘the Muliera bend’ above a halt on the railway which we rode at the start and finish of the walk. I wondered if Muliera was a local name. Susanne wrote: ‘Yes Muliera is a local name I should think. I wondered whether it might come from Mulo = donkey and would be the way they took down the hill? It comes from the Italian/Rätoromanic direction (east of Bergün) so would make sense.’

That sounds entirely plausible. For a long time, in the study of mountains, I’ve pondered the origin of the roads, goat and cattle tracks threading down the mountainside, barely visible in the rocky ground in their beginnings, a trace of the footfall guided by the walker’s eye roving over the landscape ahead, a sort of movement by instinct and feel for the terrain. We walked one such on the third day, a narrow spoor over the lower grassland of the steep ascent, followed by a minimal path across a scree of large, broken stones, the way scarce evident, save for way markers and the sight of the ridge’s yoke ahead and aloft.

 

14 December 

Marie’s neighbour, Goff, tells her of someone he knows who, suffering from an inoperable cancer, has been cure, completely cured, by taking liquid cannabis. ‘Completely cured. And do you know the reason why no one knows about liquid cannabis, why it isn’t available on the NHS?’ he said. He lowered his voice. ‘It’s a conspiracy. The government knows all about it but they’re keeping it secret, because they want to reduce the population.’

Marie, who is suffering from a particularly virulent bug of some sort, that moved in the other day, said that reduced as she felt, this conspiracy theory gave her a moment of hilarity.

 

17 December

A brisk, chill morning, still quite dark, when I set out for the Park and market at 6.30. The moon, full on 14 December, its cheek two days eaten, shone high in the western quarter. Walking along the cut between Blackhall Lane and the steps in the Knole wall, I was suddenly aware of a black shape following me, a little behind, to my left. It startled me. I then realised it was my shadow, cast by the moon, a sharp silhouette. How silly.

A broth of pallid grey mist seethes in the hollows of the Park and, when I walk down into the first of them, the temperature drops markedly to biting cold. The ground is skiddy wet, mud fringed with light frost at the grassy edges. It makes a sound like munching cereal.

Two runners in black track suits lope past the perimeter wall of the House, towards the Bird House. Last week, I had the Park completely to myself, the first time that’s happened – it made me giggle with pleasure as I walked up the long avenue to the town road. Half a minute later or earlier, and I’d have missed seeing these two other people. They’d have been there, but unseen and unheard by me. I could then say I’d been alone in the pleasant acres of Knole, walking out of the night into the murky dawn.

The moon was swamped in cloud by the time I walked up out of the hollow but she reappeared briefly as I rounded the curtilage of the house to wink ‘good morning’.

Nearing the metalled drive at the foot of the track through the woodland, I see, trotting down the main drive to the cattle grid and the wrought iron gates, a cackle of women, really quite loud and disagreeable. They gave me cheerful greeting as we crossed direction at the swing gate, but I moved once more into quiet and they took their shrill chatter with them.

 

18 December

A Christmas letter that arrives with a card – run of the mill, family activities, dull to anyone but those involved – starts off with a mild self-reproof: if only the writer had taken out bets, on long odds, against the Brexit vote, Cameron losing his job and Trump winning in USA, he’d have made a fortune, which seems to me rather short on the implications of a wider perspective, but then, this is a person of such niggardly spending habits that even had he made a fortune, I doubt whether he’d ever have been able to bring himself to dispose of it in cheerful prodigality. He once barked sharp rebuke at his wife for putting an egg on to boil without covering the saucepan with a lid and thereby wasting all that extra gas.

 

The Daily Mail works on the premise that its opinion obtains as a universal definition.

 

21 December

I celebrated the Winter Solstice with lunch in town: a large gin and tonic, a good bottle of Rhône, chicken liver pate and sourdough toast followed by boeuf bourgignon. Returned home as the daylight faltered and chose not to light the stove but, instead, put the four-stem candlestick on top and ate a green salad by its sole light before concluding the packing and going to bed early for reveille at 4.30am.

 

FOR LUCY

born

2  xii  2016

Around 10.30-11pm on the evening of Monday 1 December 1980, your mother and I retired for the night. Before she clambered up into the high cedar bed, she said, almost casually: ‘I think the waters have gone.’ You weren’t due to be born until 18 January. My immediate thought, which I did not voice, was: ‘Oh, no, this is going to spoil Christmas.’

I say thought, as if a word of such clarity can grace so murky a sentiment. Thought, a result of reasoning, of studied cerebration, a construct of intelligence, of analysis and assessment, a process of imagination, the fruit of the workings of the brain’s formidable armoury of comprehension, invention, decoding, devising and forming in its cave of ingenious abstract making, the sorting of order and disorder, the matching of things similar and the separation of things dissimilar, can all that apply to Oh, no, this is going to spoil Christmas? This is how I addressed the realisation that the great event of your birth, some two months distant, was suddenly upon us. We weren’t ready. We’d had two more months in which to get ready, to be prepared. And how had we – I – proposed to use those two months. Wisely?

But how can anyone be ready for such a thing?

On that occasion when you and I went riding through Blickling woods, you already an accomplished rider, me no better than make do, as we cantered down one of the leafy alleys, the woman leading us – she’d drifted back alongside me as the novice – said: ‘Have you ever jumped?’ I said no, I hadn’t. And she, as I remember – and you’ll know better what she must have said – told me to ‘lean forward, hold the reins firmly, grip with your knees and keep your head down.’ Then, no more than five seconds later she said: ‘Here we go.’

It wasn’t a very big jump, no more than a log, but the horse rose in a shallow, graceful arc and landed, scarce a bump. I’d made my first and, almost certainly last, jump. And I said to her: ‘Your timing was perfect. If you’d told me any longer in advance, I’d have been in such a jangle of nerves I wouldn’t have had a clue what you’d told me to do.’

At the moment of the jump, I’d been in some marginal sense ready only because someone had told me what to do. But now…?

So when your Ma said the waters had broken, catapulting us both into the unexpected jump, so to speak, what did I do, how did I react? I went to sleep. There must have been some exchange. I said ‘what needs to be done?’ she said there was nothing to be done, yet, and went off downstairs to the loo. Something on those vague lines, nothing markedly coherent or decisive. Fact is, I had not a clue.

I did mentally run through the standard plan, whose elements I might well have absorbed from the movies: basket full of baby blankets, a packet of sandwiches, thermos of hot drink, location of the nearest garage likely to be open in case there’s not enough petrol in the car…yes, all that which we’d – I’d – need to attend to when the time drew near for us to drive to the hospital there to explain that we were a bit early, but this was an emergency. An emergency I’d been content to sleep through? Yes, until your Ma came up into the bedroom, switched on the light – still pitch black night, and said: ‘I think we need to go.’

This was my moment, swing into action, get things done.

I got dressed and went downstairs. The fire was burning in the grate, there was a basket with all the needful ready packed. Your mother had been up all night, getting things ready. I’d done nothing until she woke me, at which point my function, my sole function, became that of car driver. I could do that. It was around 6 o’clock.

Delivery room

Jane will remember better than I when the contractions began to kick in hard, but it was probably around between 8 and 8.30. The nurses plied the oxygen mask. I who’d been to one antenatal evening with your mother, knew about giving her the gas ahead of the contraction and, against some mild protest from the nurses, insisted on it. As the spasms redoubled, a small audience of doctors, students, casual visitors accumulated in the room round the foot of the bed. Daylight strengthened and subdued the glare of artificial light. The contractions were almost uninterrupted, by now, your mother riding the waves of hard labour. A consultant obstetrician, an Australian, strode into the room, gave her a brisk examination and rounded on the uninvited spectators: ‘This baby is ready to be born, leave the room, all of you, hurry up, out.’

I was standing beside your Ma, at the head of the bed. The consultant said ‘Episiotomy’ and was handed a knife with which he cut a slit in the wall of the vagina to widen the aperture. I can only hope that the added pain of the incision, without anaesthetic, may have been swamped in the general distress already racking her body. Suddenly, your head emerged and, without even time to count the seconds it took, you were born.

The reaction of the nurses was a patent, unrestrained delight, as if you were the first baby they’d ever helped to deliver. This may have been no more than a projection of my own amazement, but not, I think, altogether so.

Even as you were taken off to be put in the incubator, there began the grim business of sewing up the episiotomy, the room now empty save for Jane, the consultant and me. Standing there, holding her hand, poor Jane, some hint of the pain she was going through flowed through my arm, another trauma to be endured, confusing the joy, the relief, of giving birth.

It was shortly before 9.30am, the final pangs of labour had been short, I’d shared little of the build up to them, but knew, even then, that men who say they can’t share in the birth of their child, that they feel shut out, who can’t face being there, who shrink from the difficulty of it – migod, the difficulty, as if they had any inkling –  are talking bloody nonsense.

Jane was taken off to the delivery ward and I went to the waiting room to phone round with the good news. How little did I know how close to peril you were, born so early, how blasé I was. I dialled Granny and Grandad’s number. It was engaged. There was a man sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. I said: ‘Long wait?’ He looked up, expressionless, wan, tired, and said: ‘Ours was stillborn last week. We still don’t know whether it was a girl or a boy.’

The dull shock of his grief, the fact of what he was saying, the uninflected tone in which he spoke, fatigue seeming to override any capacity to process the reality, was awful. I muttered some idiotic platitude about trying again – oh, the fatuous shoddiness of that – and left the room. How could I speak about you in his hearing? I didn’t even commiserate. The horror of what he was going through against the joy I felt rendered me a dumb fool.

And then, what of the rest of that day? I don’t remember much. I do know that I stayed overnight in Norwich – one of the men who sang in the UEA choir put me up – so that I could go back to the hospital. In bed that night, I wrote the ‘Lucy knows why…’ poem I gave you some while ago. And, in the course of that first day of your life, I looked back at the person who’d said Oh, no, this is going to spoil Christmas? and said to myself: ‘Who on earth was that? Who was that?’

In the very moment of your birth, in the instant of ‘the miracle that happened in December’, as I put it in another poem, I’d changed, been changed, irrevocably changed. It might seem banal to emphasise this, the momentous nature of birth and the overpowering sense of wonder, but for that, nothing can prepare you. For at least a week thereafter, I couldn’t even say your name without crying. Tears were unstoppable. Friends in the choir at the Thursday rehearsal, people in the village, Jane’s parents, my parents…You know, I guess, that my father chose not to meet you until you were 3 years old? He was, that first winter of your being, preoccupied entertaining the children of his builder and, having dug his private hole of cowardly estrangement, he skulked in it.

 

You were in the incubator for much of the three weeks you stayed in the intensive care unit. Your Ma stayed with friends of mine, Sam and Maggie Freegard, both doctors working at the hospital, who lived across from the main entrance, on Newmarket Road. That was happy luck, their cheery hospitality. I drove in each evening, of course, with a list of questions for Jane relating to the knitting business about which I knew nothing at the time. That done, I went up to the ward where you lay asleep. Almost the entire course of my visits, asleep. I was allowed to take you out of the clear plastic pod of the incubator and hold you – four pounds in weight, two bags of sugar – and whisper ‘Wake up, wake up’. How little I knew. There were infants in that same ward, in similar plastic pods, who didn’t make it. But, it was your impulse to get born so early. You didn’t want to miss Christmas. You’d chosen your time, made your time and, naturally, I knew that it must be the right time.

I was working as an independent builder, also going down to Rob’s workshop whenever I could on a rush job, to make a crib from sycamore wood, its lid with two rockers attached to either end so that what’s now a linen chest can be converted into the cradle in which you slept until you outgrew it.

And then Mike Greenwood pitched up, to bore me sick with his woes as he’d bored me sick so often at Durham and countless times since. Monotonous maunderings, on and on and bloody on. Self-generated morose prophecies of his pain in the echo chamber of his self-pity. Why did I ever put up with it? He was like the Ancient Mariner without the glittering eye. He paid no heed to my presence. He, nearing 40, had fallen for and bedded a girl just out of school, she’d wised up and fled, he, spurned lover, was howling at the perfidy of it. My loyalty to him as a friend of long date was entirely and foolishly misplaced. What was I to do with this lovelorn, hangdog loon? Boot him out, tell him to find another shoulder to cry on, I’m busy? I should have done. It was all so familiar and tedious. Thank goodness, Roger jolted me out of my inattention. He told me we couldn’t possibly have Mike in the house, once you and Jane left hospital. And so I told Mike he’d have to leave. His entire lack of sympathy, even interest, in what was happening to Jane and me was also too drearily characteristic. And this was another element in the change in me: the new and compelling sense of priorities.

The evening before you were to come home, Saturday 20 December, I got back from working on a roof in Aylsham, wet through. The immersion heater had just packed up, any supply of hot water depended on the open fire’s back boiler. I needed a bath. It was near dark. I came into the house, no lights on, to find Mike slumped in the gloom, on the settee, in front of the cold, empty grate. Without looking at me, he groaned: ‘I should have lit the fire.’

This wasn’t worthy of any response. I said: ‘We’re going out, I need food and drink.’ I changed out of the wet clothes and we headed for that pub in Baconsthorpe in torrents of rain, along the unlit lanes, the headlights sweeping across the blackness of fields, hedges, sky. Suddenly, I felt the car shudder to a halt – we’d ploughed into a small lake, flood water off the land. The engine cut. I got straight out into calf-deep water, set my shoulder against the forward door post and started pushing the motor to dry road. Mike? Huddled in the front seat, he mumbled: ‘I should be helping you.’

The car clear of the water it started again, hurray. We made the pub and, after supper, I delivered Mike to the ever-tolerant Rob and Mary.

 

Sunday, the Winter Solstice, broke in glorious sunshine. I cleaned the house through and drove to Norwich to bring you and Jane home.

And sometime, then, I wrote a poem which I’ve now revised.

 

 To Lucy at the Winter Solstice

Shortest day. The sun’s in a hurry.

No time to spare. Shine out, shine out.

It bursts on the winter’s dead grey pallor

With a flash of light like the upshoot of flame

From the Old Year’s bonfire out of its kindling,

Darkness and still time aglow in its blaze,

As sparks and burning flinders speckle

The skyfield awhirl with pluming smoke.

And, as the wide gold-splash of sunshine

Layers the pools of yesterday’s rains

To fix the gloss of Norfolk’s earth glazes,

We, in a new fire, a new flame, of our being,

Greet you home, our kindling.

Middle House

Winter Solstice 2016

 

22 December

Taxi to collect me and three large bags. 5.40 from Sevenoaks. Taxi from Waterloo to Kings Cross for the 7am. Two seats free in the Quiet Coach, on the east side of the train, for the views on from Newcastle, in particular. Change at Edinburgh, Leuchars at 12.27. The alternative – not practical on this occasion anyway, because I have so much luggage – to go by plane, has no charm in it.

Lucy met me at Leuchars, we stopped for lunch at Balgove Larder and, when we got to Cairnhill Gardens, I handed Lucy the text of the story of her birth as we sat on the settee in their front room, the dog settled in between us. She read it through immediately. When she finished, I said: ‘I’m not going to say any more on the subject, but the best reason I can give you for having a child is sitting next to me…I don’t mean Emmett.’ [Their dog.]

 

23 December

Lucy and Scott collecting food from town. Rain slashing down. A knock on the door. It’s the postman, hunched over his bulging mail sack top shield it, insofar as is possible, from the downpour.

‘Miserable day,’ I say. He doesn’t answer, straightens up and hands me a parcel, then dips back into the bag for the large bundle of letters, bound about with elastic bands. These he unpicks to extricate a couple of envelops. Rain drips off his nose. He wears no hat. Unlike many of the posties hereabouts, however, he has long trousers. Even in biting cold weather, a number of the Sevenoaks postmen sport short trousers. The rain worries at him as if telling him to get on with it, get on, hurry up.

‘You must be fed up,’ I say as, once more not catching my eye, he passes me the two envelopes. He says, more or less under his breath: ‘It’s not the weather. It’s my boss at work.’

Sympathising, I say: ‘Bloody managers,’ but, even as he picks up his sack and turns to go, I realise my mistake. I should, more pointedly, have said: ‘Bloody so-called  managers.’

 

Belated birthday lunch with Lucy at a splendid fish restaurant Sea Food near the Aquarium in Saint Andrews. Apart from us it is, and remains, empty. We have a fine view across the rain-swept beach – some hardy people out there – and the slightly choppy pale jade waters of the sea coursing onto the sand, its surface lined with jabot frills of surf. For three hours, attended by waiter and waitress who glide unobtrusively about their business, we talk of many things – morality in cinema, the central topic.

 

24 December

Dawn here breaks a full hour or more later than in Kent. Thinking of Cathryn, Duncan’s cousin, now in Belise, a paradise of sun, with the boyfriend from whom she wishes to separate but already having second thoughts, I write to Duncan: ‘But paradise is a very bad environment in which to make any kind of sensible decisions. There’s good evidence…’

 

Pandora, ‘all gifts’ and yet her gift box must surely be the very last thing you’d want to open and rummage through, as in ‘here’s a can of worms…help yourself’. The woman I knew with a mischievous disposition, to whom I said, once: ‘Don’t make trouble.’ With an expression of perfect innocence and wonder, she said: ‘Why not?’ as if to suggest, doesn’t everybody and isn’t it fun?  To which I said: ‘Because there’s enough about as it is without manufacturing more, adding to the misery of nations and their peoples. That’s caprice.’

 

A walk through the woods and along the beach by Kingsbarns, where I stayed on the final stopover of my East Fife Coastal walk in October last year. A curious ramshackle structure at the side of the field down the track from the car park by the distillery. The burrow shape of a Nissen hut, clad in plastic sheeting braced on wooden hoops and framing, the seams secured with broad strips of masking tape, protruding from the roof, a series of large-bore black plastic corrugated lengths of pipe, as might be used in ventilation, as indeed these seem to be, albeit of lash-up design and making. No one about.

On our return, there’s a van parked, the door to the transparent cabin is open and a man emerges. To L’s apparent vexation, rather cross about my wilful intrusion, I peel off to quiz him. He’s Australian and this – he refers to it as ‘the spaceship’ – is where he and his wife dry the Mara seaweed they gather from along a 30+ stretch of coastline here, to north and south. I say: ‘I wondered if it might be an annexe of the distillery…where they made the illicit stuff.’ Rather po-faced, although there’s a flicker of a smile: ‘Oh, no, else I wouldn’t bring the kids here,’ at which, appears in the doorway, a girl of about 9 and then, behind her, a sister, possibly, several years younger.

I can pretend to no expertise in the matter but am assured that: it’s packed with nutrients and, once dried, the minerals in the seaweed – 56 elements essential to good health – become more concentrated, and therefore go further. It’s also a rich source of fibre, protein, calcium, iron and iodine, and is known as ‘the superfood of the sea’ it lacks calories, however. It also substitutes for crops grown in mineral-depleted soil. The peerless Alys Fowler, in The Guardian, has written that she will never use any other fertiliser than that based on seaweed. So there.

 

Christmas Day

A good walk through the woods of the Falkland Estate, in the loom of the East Lomond Hills, the tracks well-maintained, broad and hard underfoot – loggers’ paths, no doubt.

 

Boxing Day

The three of us in the front room of the Cairnhill Gardens house reading, afternoon sun at the windows, pulsing out of the febrile glare against a grey felt sky, drifts of snowy rain. The score of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (vinyl), a present from Scott to Lucy, plays. Some of the music, in the film almost certainly intended to be very unsettling, out of context, curiously soothing. This is followed by a record of William D. Drake on the piano – mithering runs and unshaped plinky dithering, like random scatterbrain ramblings and burbling, lots of notes, no music.

 

27 December

Between Leuchars and Edinburgh, the train is so crowded, there’s barely room to stand, because of the crush of people and their luggage. At Inverkeithing, where I began the long coastal walk round the Neuk of East Fife, just over a year ago, I scamper with my bags along the platform to the coach in which I have a reserved seat to claim it. At Edinburgh, a general exodus denudes the train and the journey thereon is calm.

 

28 December

The five nights I spent in Saint Andrews, I slept long, catching up on sleep from some way back. This morning, after my first night at home, having woken around 4 o’clock and read for some time and then gone back to sleep, I eventually woke and got up at 8.45. I wrote to Marie saying that this must be that I’m working off a backlog of sleep. This prompted memory of the meaning of that which I learnt from The Pattern Under the Plough by George Ewart Evans, whom I met and who subsequently became my friend in the early 1970s.

He speaks of an Edward Gepp who traced the connection between the Essex dialect and the speech of the southern blacks in America. A number of emigrants (dissenters et al) were part of the Great Migration from eastern England to North America during the 17th century. They seem to have taken with them the old Essex custom of kindling a Yule log with the rekindled charred piece of the previous year’s log, to bring prosperity to the house. Another writer from the Southern States recorded that in the slave plantations, the Yuletide festival lasted as long as the Yule log burned in the open fire place of the big house. The slaves whose job it was to pick out the log, made sure it was green wood with knotty bark and, like as not, soaked it in a stream before delivery, to ensure a good long burning and a protracted period of rest for them.

Originally an English word – first citing 1684 – with no greater significance than that of the log burning at the back of the grate, shoring up the heat for the added timber, it returns thence from America in the later nineteenth century (1882) in a more pointed definition: ‘A back-log big enough to smoulder for days.’

For my part, I don’t believe that any but the most benevolent plantation owner – was there ever such a being? An oxymoron if ever there was one, surely? – wasn’t fly to the subterfuge. Even if the outer rind of the sodden log had been left to dry out sufficiently to deceive, the extra weight of the saturated inner core must have given the game away.

 

I was once asked – at a particularly difficult time when work was stalled and I felt a clot – ‘are you successful?’ and understood that to mean ‘are you any good?’ except that it meant ‘do you make a lot of money?’ It’s entirely to my detriment that I didn’t clock the difference. John Wells, the comic writer, once said that he felt obliged, now and then, to make a translation of an obscure German text in order to redress the – as he saw it – unmerited ease with which he made rather a lot of money in comedy. It seemed to me that I’d got that the wrong way round.

On the other hand, the late John Mortimer’s agent said of him that he could have been a good writer instead of just successful.

 

On the day of the Winter Solstice, 1985, after an eve of solstice party – this was in Norfolk – before which we stood outside Corner House, Jane, Lucy and I to remember Robert Graves who’d died two weeks before. I’d taken a single peat from a large pile on Hoy in the Orkneys – we’d been there for the midsummer Magnus Festival – and this I lit in a makeshift grate of bricks. Jane and I sipped malt whisky.

That night, our company ate of the food I’d prepared, including stand-up pies, and come outside when I lit the Old Year bonfire which went off with such a roar and a geyser of flame that, observed from the village in the hollow, it seemed to have engulfed the house.

The morning of the solstice dawned bright and still and, mid-morning, a postman walked up the path to deliver a single letter, addressed to me – from an editor at Penguin, asking whether I would consider having the composer stories (written for Radio 3) published by Penguin.

I went to London to meet him on 23 December, we had lunch, he said he was very excited about the prospect, that he’d like at least one story rather longer than those written to conform with the 20 minute concert interval slots, and told me of Schumann’s stay in the asylum and how he’d told Clara that he was writing music again, ‘music dictated by the angels’ he insisted.

I went back to Norfolk and, that night, got up in the pitch dark, not knowing what time it was, stole downstairs to get dressed, noted the clock  – it was 3.15 – and went out to the caravan to write up the story. By 8.30, it was done and typed up, and I came in for breakfast, after which Lucy and I went out to buy a Christmas tree.

In the story, Clara visits Robert and, looking at the music he shows her, sees that it’s all music he’d written years past. She leaves his room and goes out into the asylum grounds and, sitting in tears on a bench, she’s discovered there by the asylum director. She speaks of her grief. He thinks a moment and then: ‘Come with me…’ and leads her to the chapel. They go inside – ‘they all come here, you know’ he tells her, pointing up at the ceiling. It’s Baroque, decorated with ornate encrustations of putti, clouds for descending from, cherubim, seraphim… ‘Church angels,’ he says, softly, ‘perhaps they were church angels’.

I sent the editor the long story he asked for – about Berlioz, A Passable Tune on the Flageolet. He was very pleased, but left Penguin some time afterwards and that was that.

Lucy and I went to Edinburgh Zoo when she was about 6. We arrived at 2 o’clock and the woman at the ticket guichet said: ‘You must watch the Penguin Parade. You’re in good time, it starts at 2.30.’

Delighted to be able to attend such a happy event, we proceeded to the Penguin pool and stood by the surround wall, looking down into the enclosure – the shaped pool itself, the concrete surround, its denizens. Many of them looked rather sullen, their coats somewhat shabby, like something you’d buy at a jumble sale. Some of them looked more than sullen, downright morose and disaffected. Others, revelling in the sunshine, were plunging into the water and glass clear as it was, skewered in plain sight from one side to the other, fast as fish, stubby wings either clamped to their sides or flicking all but imperceptibly as fins to switch direction. They had the joie de vivre, all right. As for the others, the pool-poopers, nothing like.

2.30 came and 2.30 passed, and, minutes into the delay, an announcement on a tannoy system: ‘we’re terribly sorry to announce that there’ll be no Penguin parade today because the penguins don’t want to come out and, since the Parade is voluntary, we can’t force them.’

 

New Year’s Eve

At home, by myself, and content to be so.

I’ve spent some three months this year on foreign soil, not counting an evening in Dalston Junction. As for the rest of what’s happened…o tempora, o mores. Ne plus ultra? If only.

Parties have, generally, been a disappointment, an expectation usually dashed of meeting someone interesting or a woman with whom I might fall instantly in love – that did happen once, I felt like a teenager, the thrilling rush of desire for her on the instant, the desire reciprocated, her saying (conspiratorially) that she didn’t know whether to have another child or take a lover, knowing which would be more complicated, she was married, we became lovers. There is, too, the awkwardness of getting stuck with a bore and not knowing how to extricate oneself from the predicament of being bored. I have devised a stratagem – to say ‘now, that’s very interesting, what you’ve just said, I need to go away and think [hard…optional extra] about it’, but haven’t, yet, had the need to deploy it, largely because I don’t go to parties. At one daytime gathering, grandly labelled cocktails, I think, though there was nothing more exotic on offer than gin and tonic and not much of that, I had found someone, a woman, who was interesting but, having conversed with her for some time, the hostess – an occasional lover – homed in and said: ‘You two have been talking for far too long, I’m going to move you on’, and shunted me off elsewhere. She must, I think, have been jealous.

Parties at Durham, to which I went on my own, on a soon to be deflated promise, were always excruciating. I stayed apart with a face modelled, probably, on Beethoven’s famous scowl, believing it made me look intense, deep in significant thought – surfing the light years of a profound and exalted imagination, and, therefore, fascinating. Instead, I probably just looked like a morose git and deservedly. I had few social skills, was on my own for most of my time and resented, worst, college high tea on Saturday (5.30) and Sunday (5 o’clock) when women were invited with boyfriends. Women duly came, joined us at table in company of their beaux, (I was too naïve to imagine them smelling of sex, although some of them oozed it)  and, after tea returned to rooms where, before tea they’d been at it, to get back to it, whilst I returned to resume study. I acquired a masterly grip on Greek irregular verbs, [eg], of which there are many, as a result but very little on at it. There was a woman at one of the women’s colleges who, according to a friend of mine, was a notoriously energetic and demanding sexual athlete. I recall her striding into their college tea with a fierce look in her eyes, her bloke – apparently exhausted by another hard session – trailing behind her, torpid with slaked lust.

The mild hysteria of countdown to midnight also sends a chill through me. When someone told me, years past, that during their first visit to Greece, they were so enchanted they felt like ‘dancing in the street’ I rather moodily thought: ‘It’s feeling the same in Kentish Town (say) that would really count’. Or Croydon…

And fancy dress.

2017

New Year’s Day

A ride on the fixed wheel bike. It’s been a while since I rode it and the first few minutes are dicey as I accustom myself once more to its puritanical ways. This process is dogged by a sense of being very far off any comfortable level of fitness. Indeed, the early part of the ride was hard work, as it might be trying to force my way through an avalanche of large, empty cardboard boxes. I can’t say I fought through to any kind of smooth strength, but the fluency came eventually and I felt cleansed. By way of Blackhall Lane, Godden Green – walkers setting off from near the pub, surely aiming to return thence for lunch – past Bowpits, by Fawke Common, down the dips and up the flips to Bitchet Green, Stone Street, Ivy Hatch, along the side of Raspit Hill and back.

Eventually, a proleptic word. In French, éventuellement is current, meaning ‘now, as we speak/write’.

I cross direction with a few cyclists, most of them as boorish as is the general pattern, failing to acknowledge salute or greeting, as if they’re on a mission of serious import – dedicated training (albeit they don’t, for the most part, have the look of being so, it’s a showaway, adolescent sort of thing, a vacuous swagger). One even overtakes me without a word – disgraceful lack of courtesy and he’s no stylist, but grudgingly responds when I call out ‘Good morning’ to his back. Since being on the fixed wheel means curtailing any attempt at speed going downhill – result of letting go, a human turbine, legs spinning beyond control – and, in fact, applying the first braking system by holding the pedal strokes back, (part of the usefulness of riding the bike: you never stop working), I am easily overtaken. This overtaking happens on the first drop near Fawke Common.

Pooh to them all, the curmudgeons. A greeting costs nothing.

 

1 January

I note the advice on the side of a packet containing a chocolate pudding: ‘Devour (use) by 22.1.2017.’

 

5 January

Marie’s friend Page, a cellist whom I met with Ingrid (Marie’s sister) last April in Seattle, is here for a week and keen to go to Leeds castle. I agree to take her – I’ve never been there and it’s not cyclable in any friendly way.

Black swans and a multitude of other varieties of water fowl. Mute swans doing the beating wing and stand up on tippy toe in shallow water act, coots circling, moorhens skittering, heads forward as if into a stiff breeze, like city workers heading for the tube, an information board rather hopefully listing kingfishers as a regular visitor, but the water of the lakes is very exposed and the linking cuts do not offer much privacy for those shy birds.

Of the visit itself, little to say, except that some of the wooden panelling, some linenfold, is fine, the spiral staircase a delight, the Latin poem on the theme of mundus abit  teasingly out of immediate view – I ask one of the stewards where it is because a laminated notice speaking of it does not indicate. I suspect a dark, varnished canvas on the wall to the right, behind the keep out wires, indiscernible from where I stand. He leads us through the no entry barriers, unhooking chains from posts, by short cut back to the room. It is indeed this framed canvas. He beckons me to take a closer look. Barely legible, even now – a problem with a number of the rooms, the light from the windows inhibiting proper scrutiny of the paintings hanging on walls opposite their beams. I should like to have had a copy of the text – it’s long.

For the rest, the décor, largely the work of the American heiress, Olive Baillie, who lived here from the ‘30s on and made it a socialite’s mecca – actors, filmstars, politicians…- is dreary, like any museum of furniture in situ, somehow. Another steward speaks of Ian Fleming developing a pash for one of the visitors when they were here at the same time. She, by the name of Money, may well have inspired the name ‘Moneypenny’ for the secretary in the Bond novels. ‘Perhaps it was a bribe,’ I say. (To get her into bed…but I didn’t have to gloss it, she got the inference. Cool.)

Page has a yen to go into the Maze. I have no interest in a maze, but I am the cicerone, here, and go along. We get lost. At the hub of the twirly-whirls of the muddy paths hemmed in with yew hedges, is the grotto beneath a circular rough-stone gazebo from which there is, it seems, a fair view of the maze’s extent and configuration. A lissom, attractive, young Spanish girl, 15 or 16 years old, whom we’d seen earlier, coming towards us in one of the roofless tunnels – ‘I’m lost,’ she said, in the emphatic way of a language student trying out her expertise – is standing up on the vantage point, endeavouring to talk her mother round the ambages of the maze to join her. We tag along with the instructions, to no great purpose. The same roundabout and back to the start happens twice, three times. We call out to our pathfinder: ‘Can you show us the way out, please?’ In studied English she says: ‘Okay,’ and assumes the posture of a thoughtful seeker after truth, sketching the twists and loops of the paths with her right hand to fix the direction before calling out instructions. ‘Go right now and stay right, and you will come to the way out’.

We obey and, lo, we do come to the way out. I stand up on the lower bar of a gate and call out: ‘Adios y muchas gracias,’ waving. She grins and waves back. She lights up the day.

I can’t fathom the lure of mazes. Nor do I feel that a surly aversion to them has anything much to do with not being able to let go and have fun. I don’t see the fun in them, not one iota. The fun seems to reside in getting lost in the immediate vicinity of other people who are lost but whom you cannot see but only hear, audible shrieks and expostulations. There’s a lot of getting lost about much of what we do and what we experience and a lot better fun to be had without playing at getting and being lost, without trying to outsmart the penetralia of mazes. Lunch, for instance, which is what comes next.

 

6 January

Epiphany…Dido, whom I mentioned earlier (‘no oblique cases’), was born this day in whichever year it was. She was, therefore, christened ‘Dido Epiphany…’

Joe Biden, outgoing Veep, has rebuked Donald Trump, in fairly mild terms for petulant disregard of the need to consult with and take the advice of America’s intelligence agencies, something that, as President, he’ll be asked (if not required) to do every day. Trump has said that he’s smart and doesn’t need to be told the same thing day after day in the same words. Biden suggests that this is like telling a physics professor that you’re smarter than him, because, even if you haven’t read the books, you just know. Biden said that it was time for Trump ‘to grow up, be an adult…’ A politician – a genus humanum not much given to sane pronouncement – referring to this said that he thought it insulting to children. Good.

 

7 January

As I walked across the Park in the early dark, the ground in the lower reaches very muddy and slippy underfoot, a couple of hills difficult to negotiate – I resorted to the ferns at the side which gave better grip, came into my head an occasion of ambush in the cadets. I pondered the word and went via French – ambuscade  – surely Spanish, too, embuscado? and realised it must have originally meant lying in wait in the cover of trees, in a wood. English ‘bosky’And here it is: Italian imboscata, bosco, and a number of English citings, here an early mention: ‘Thare lay ane vale in ane crukit glen, / Ganand for slicht to embusche armit men.’ 1513 translation of the Aeneid  by one Douglas, expanded in 1598 in a definition of the Spanish word: ‘Ambuscados…are to be done in places of couert as woods, thickets, etc.’

Bosky is a variant of busky not used between 14th and 19th centuries, busk being itself a variant of bush, via several changes of its root bosco.

There is the occasional muffed ambush from a posse of deer in the Park.

 

Reflecting… on the not necessarily always but nearly always tendency to routinely and, indifferent to the clumsiness of it which would once upon a time have literally disbarred an applicant for American citizenship taking the entrance exam because it was reckoned to show poor command of the English language, split infinitives now. Seems to be de rigueur. And as for adverbs…oh, my. What anaemic items they are, and yet, illustrating that queer way the weak are capable of such strength, the force of ego usurping the true power of the inner core, on what prominence they’ve trespassed. Adverbs have become the zimmer frames essential to clarity, handed out gratis and for free to all and sundry, ie en bloc, etc, because of a perceived incapacity of the enfeebled and superannuated verb population of old timers to carry much weight of sense on their own, if any. They need help, those poor doing word suckers. They need support of the most robust kind and, hey, adverbs are the thing. Let’s hear it for the adverb. Absolutely. Obviously. Literally. Immediately. At this present moment in time we need those charity angels. An end to verbal distress. For now, no verb need ever go out alone in fear of collapse in a sentence, of being mugged by an adverb junkie, by a patrol of fundamentalist overstaters, by a sort of lexical flat-earther who sees in the abyss between ‘to’ and pristine verb an equivalence of the pit of hell. No longer. A verb, every verb, can rejoice in having the crutch of an adverb to help it on its way, to survey the path and protect its essence of meaning which, without the superfluity of a jingly –ly to usher it onto the alloquial stage, would be so depressingly diluted if not obscured altogether by the very fact of its shocking nakedness and stubborn insistence, still, after all this time, on autonomy. Sad, really.

 

8 January

I walk from Charing Cross to just beyond Camden Square for lunch with friends. Nearing the old Craven A (‘will not affect your throat’) building opposite Mornington Crescent station, the two Egyptian black cat statues still flanking the entrance steps, the rainbow deco flashes on the façade also protected, a man is walking along with his young son – 5 years old or so – who’s riding a bike with stabiliser wheels. He goes through a shallow puddle. Father (I assume) says: ‘I try to miss puddles, but we’re different ages.’ The likelihood of stumbling into a sink hole concealed beneath a very shallow pool of water a foot in diameter on a Camden Town pavement being remote, nevertheless, he rationalises this: ‘Because puddles can hide things and you never know what you’re going to find in them.’

My mother told me how once when Lucy, aged 2 or 3 at the time, was staying with her in Suffolk, rain appeared to jeopardise their habitual walk after lunch. Lucy was not to be dissuaded. She put on her wellie boots and insisted on the walk. They set off and, coming to a large puddle spread full across one of the tracks on Aldringham Common, Lucy strode in determinedly. Mother held back. Lucy, she said, turned round, wellie deep in the water and said: ‘Come on Grandma, you can do it.’ This story she told me when she emerged from, an MRI scan – cocooned in the tube, me in the room sitting with her. ‘It’s what I was thinking of in there, that time, Lucy saying ‘Come on Grandma, you can do it’ and her lovely little face, full of go.

When I underwent an MRI, I nearly called out ‘get me out of here’, the onset of claustrophobia was so immediate and debilitating. Fortunately, the tube was open at the head end and, by tilting my head backwards as far as possible, I could breathe air from the larger open space of the room and look into it. The illusion of feeling myself in the room rather than the tube. That machine was very much smaller than the one into which my Ma had been fed. Braver she than I.

On the radio this morning, reference to an invitation, as part of team-building in the workplace/office environment (as they say) to a ‘wear your Christmas woolie to work day’. The idea, woolie and corporate wearing of one. ‘Well, my dear, it’s one of a number of methods we’ve developed for promoting departmental liaison, interdependent thinking and colleague bonding, you see?’

Is that how to spell woolie? Frankly, I don’t care one way or the other.

 

10 January

A large white van painted with its company livery. Automotive Cleaning Solutions…car wash? Sponge and bucket?

 

11 January

The Wednesday ride via the Park into town. Last week I arrived at the car park which is commandeered for the mid-week market to find it deserted – not a single trader. Occasionally the Council will call off the market for some reason – threat of high winds, possibly – but this was no more than post-hols moratorium.

The ground is too wet and claggy to make riding across the grass feasible – this is my usual itinerary – so a long diversion by road to the new kissing gate – easier to negotiate than the old which it replaces, a circular swing rather than side flap – and onward by the metalled paths. The usual route includes a quite stiff climb on very uneven ground early on, before my lungs have been fully opened up, and it’s always something of a facer. Last week, I chanced the ground but this climb beat me halfway: the wheels had no traction, I strove but skidded and came off. The awkwardness of my shoes still clipped to the pedals…took a while to free them.

Today I get to market, buy fruit and veg then go to the fish van, but I’ve forgotten to go to the cash machine on the way down through town. I stuff my gloves into a pouch in my track suit top and tell Leigh the Fish I’ll be back. Return with the money and discover, in the pouch, one glove only. I hand Leigh my wallet, bag and glove and ride off. There, on the lid of a waste paper bin, the glove, kindly left by a passer-by. I think of the days when we had our gloves linked by long strings of elastic passed through both sleeves of the raincoat to keep them safe to hand. I think of the sadness of a lost glove, often a child’s, fallen or thrown from a buggy, lying sodden wet in the grass of the Park, on a pavement, in the road. And the oddity of a single adult trainer. How does one lose a single shoe?

And, for no reason connected, that I can divine, I think of the occasion when Peter Thorne, with whom I wrote two musicals and various other stage works, and I went for a curry in London. We perused the menu, the waiter stood by the table, we hesitated over poppadums, dickered and dithered. The waiter did what waiters do and waited, but finally decided we could use some help and said: ‘Well, sirs, a poppadum is a very flimsy item.’ He all but sang flimsy. We ordered poppadums.

 

12 January

A programme on radio about The Book of Common Prayer, lauding its sonorities, poetic lyricism, rhythms and pointing of the prose. The producer, however, had seen fit to edge the programme in at the start with Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the relevance of which escapes me. Besides, Tallis was a Catholic. The presenter began to speak. The music continued under. He began to revel in the wonder of the liturgical text shaped by Cranmer and inspired, to a great extent, by the translation of the Bible made by Tyndale (arrested for blasphemous sedition by Holy Roman Empire thugs and strangled at the behest of Henry VIII, fidei defensor…blah blah). The music continued under, a groundswell of distraction. Then, the narrator actually read out a passage from Tyndale’s rendering of the moment when Eve tastes of the forbidden fruit. Bloody music underneath, like an upstaging actor. Now, Vaughan Williams’ music is fine, Tyndale’s muscular prose is fine. To crush the two together serves the virtues of neither and mars them both. It really was a very bad idea and to what purpose? To underline what? The programme was about the Book of Common Prayer. We don’t need any other information than that and cluttering the talk about the glorious musicality of the language of the book with utterly extraneous noise, which is what background music becomes in such a context, is daft.

I wrote and the producer replied inmost mannerly fashion:

Dear Graeme Fife,

 

I listened to this programme this morning and made a mental note that the music under the Tyndale section was too intrusive. I’ll adjust this for any future broadcasts. And I have been through tomorrow’s episode to check the levels there; I hope they meet with your approval.

In the meantime thanks very much for your interest in the series, and apologies for detracting from your enjoyment of it with the music mix this morning.

With all good wishes,

Dixi

 

The presenter then spoke of how Cranmer translated the Latin of a much earlier (Catholic) hymn and glossed the word for snares with ‘perils and dangers’ [of the night. This was a stylistic trope which recurs, often the marrying of a Latinate word with an English synonym, as in ‘erred and strayed, sins and wickedness, perils and dangers [of the night], strait and narrow…’ This last indicates the solecism of ‘straight and narrow’, for strait, from Latin strictus, is a synonym of narrow – the straits of Dover, ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,’ [Matthew vii 14], strait-jacket, dire straits – and may be as twisty and contorted as you like. Indeed, old moralising non-conformist pictures illustrating the journey to heaven, in the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress, show the broad straight highway leading to hell and perdition, and, winding up the mount which leads to paradise, the narrow, twisting, perilous, strait and narrow path taken by the righteous.

And here, from that bewitching ballad Thomas the Rhymer, spoken to him by the Queen of Elfland:

O see you not yon narrow road

So thick beset wi thorns and briers?

That is the path of righteousness,

Tho after it but few enquires.

And see ye not that braid braid road,

That lies across yon Lillie leven?

That is the path of wickedness,

Tho some call it the road to heaven

 

And the Microsoft snoopers in the machine, arch meddlers in linguistic and grammatical rightness, underline ‘strait’ like a nagging dominie of limited scope reproving a much brighter, recalcitrant pupil.

 

13 January

A Friday. Last night, in my workroom, head down, I looked up at some way past 6pm to see the windows above the desk blanked with snow. As I came downstairs to light the stove, I looked out on road, garden, paths covered in a thick layer and pondered whether to draw the curtains rather than leave the windows clear and the tinselly prospect open to view through the glass. I drew them.

At around 5am, I got up for a pee and the bright electric radiance of a full moon filled the room. Nearing 7.30, the moon sank into a nest of trees on the skyline. I watched it disappear, the striking flare of the full orb slowly latticed across with the bare branches. And, from my seat at the table in the big room, after breakfast, I looked at other bare branches of the trees and shrubs in my front garden, hung with cotton boll blossoms of snow.

Day takes over from Night and says to Night: ‘Time to let go. We need to shed a bit of light, see what’s going on, here. And what are you good for? Mushrooms and rhubarb?’ Night keeps her counsel. Grievances not to air. Dark secrets aren’t necessarily bad secrets.

 

14 January

The waning moon, two days chewed at, rides high in the clear, Bombay sapphire blue western sky, as I set out for the Park-market walk. From time to time, there’s a mottling of clouds, but when they’re about, the large corona about the gleaming lunar face has the pale colour of a healing bruise. The ground is treacherous – I nearly toppled on a couple of skid pads – but I dinted new prints in crisp virgin snow as well as plodding, rather, through crunchier stretches. When the sunlight began to strengthen, the clouds in the east took on magenta, dove grey, faint, purplish blue streaks but the moon still held its radiance, even partly diminished.

To my delight, I had the Park to myself, only the second time that’s happened. Hurray.

 

16 January

I had the idea, once, of making a collection of conversation stoppers. ‘History does not relate whether Potiphar’s wife was good looking or desirable.’ Perhaps the attraction she had – for Joseph – was political or she was bored or…anyway, conversation had foundered. In answer to the question: ‘What kind of things do you write?’ which is a sort of conversational stubbed toe, one sensible response might be: ‘Sentences, mostly.’

Original sin: God in a permanent sulk after that hissy fit which drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden. And a newly aware Eve saying, after The Fall: ‘Not now, darling, I’ve got a headache,’?

 

18 January

Woke early and was reading by 5.30, to finish Maggie O’Farrell’s electrifying novel The hand that once held mine. It’s beautifully written, the modulations of prose and richness of description, a compelling delight. Her evocation of the exhaustion, absorption, frantic grasping for mental and physical balance of women in the first months of motherhood put a lock on feeling in a way I’ve never encountered with such force…all men should read it. The emotional charge, the savagery of the climax, drive the story to a conclusion which is at once draining but, in the truth of it power, utterly riveting. It reverberates with humanity, an honest and unflinching exploration of our cowardices and our courage.

The Park-market ride, across frost-stiffened grass, the tyres making a sharp hush sound like a brush through tangled hair, was exhilarating, hard – the first hill, steep and uneven ground, particularly hard – but uplifting.

On the way down Seal Hollow Road, the sweeping corners of the upper reaches no longer any terror for me – I’ve learnt the line and overcome my nerves, long since – to home and breakfast, I passed a number of houses outside which were stacked rubbish sacks (it’s collection day) and discarded Christmas trees. Rather late…? In Berlin, the festive pines get piled on street corners in Prenzlauerberg, at any rate, for gathering up and transport to the zoo where the elephants love to eat them – a desiccated coniferous lollipop.

 

19 January

To London to record another piece for From Our Own Correspondent, my second contribution to that wonderful programme. When the first piece was accepted, I was utterly thrilled – in everything I’d done for the radio, it came near the top for excitement.

John Murphy, the producer, urbane, friendly and relaxed in the recording process, which was brisk and swift. In conversation afterwards, he told me how his predecessor, Tony Grant, who produced FOOC for 24 years, had got a job with Newsbeat. The man who produced it said – where was this? Somewhere with chandeliers, a lunch, dinner, therefore – ‘If you can lob that bread roll into the chandelier, you can have the job’. He did and got the job. I said: ‘Like the old stories about entry to an Oxford College – catch the rugby ball the interviewer passed you as you came into the room, you got a place, pass it back and they gave you an Exhibition, drop kick it into the waste paper bin…Scholarship.’

Showing me the way out of the place, the vast yawning atrium of the news desks in its centre, the open-plan offices on every floor like galleries round it, John says, cheerfully: ‘I hate this building.’ I remember the warren of corridors, the doormen, I suppose you’d call them, dressed in blue uniform with embroidered badges, assigned to walk visitors to the office or studio to meet a producer. Now it resembles more a high-tech cake tin.

I walked to the restaurant in St Martin’s Lane for lunch, through Soho, via Amathus in Wardour Street, where I bought three miniatures of Ferdinand’s Saar gin, infused with Schiefer Riesling – grapes grown on slate (Schiefer) ridges of the Moselle, one for me, the other two for Steph and Richard.

After lunch, I met Steph at the Courtauld where she now works, coordinating a big rebuilding and refurbishing programme of their galleries. And, later that evening, when they’d each written to say thanks, I replied: ‘I sat by the blazing stove with my wee bottle and thought of you, and the quality of Ducker and things made well and saluted your  malt spirit, the well-tempered being…it’s an important jig for us to know the best and acknowledge it and so I do.’

Richard it was who alerted me to the sorry news that Ducker was closing.

And the story of the Soho toper – French Pub, Coach and Horses, Colony Room… – who’d gone to live in the country, somewhere, a remote cottage some distance from the nearest village. He had no car, licence revoked, so each day wrote a postcard addressed to himself which the postman then delivered, driving up the muddy track to the cottage, for the man to beg a ride to the village, where he posted the next day’s card and repaired to the boozer. How he got back home is – was – not recorded. Perhaps after another good session in the pub, he walked, careless of anything much at all. As in Tam O’Shanter

While we sit bousing at the nappy

An’ getting fou and unco happy,

We think na on the lang Scots miles,

 The mosses, waters, slaps and styles,                                   

That lie between us and our hame…

21 January

I continue to deliberate on another novel. Since the novel is mostly set in France and centres on L, her sisters and Ma, her father, the shocking events of that Easter…I decided to take the notes – a lot of them, so far – in French to help me sink back into that atmosphere, the curiosities of misprision between languages, my own intimate involvement with a culture so different from my own, the love affair at its heart. This adds a certain difficulty, of course, a struggle to clarify, but that makes the work more penetrating, I hope. One of the best compliments I ever received was when L, having said, not long after we’d met, that I spoke French ‘like a Spanish cow’, a standard insult, though to be really cutting they say ‘a Basque cow’, Basque being a language so impenetrable to outsiders that not even the Devil can learn it, save only seven words, presumably the deadly sins to which he is most fondly attached. Anyway, a letter arrived one morning – she always wrote in French, I in English, in England we mostly spoke English, in France, French, but often oscillated between both. In the letter she wrote: ‘La vache espagnol est morte.’

 

Gleeful short piece in the Guardian on Saturday about the place of books in Trump’s life. Ha ha. Does a clod appreciate music, a drowning man the majesty of the ocean, an accountant prodigality? Even the man who ghosted whatever garbage it was that became a hot seller has disavowed any claims he makes to basic literacy.

Years past, when the hockey Mum Sarah P was governor of Alaska, there was a long line outside a local bookshop to buy Ivana Trump’s latest spill, signed, naturally, by the belle lettriste herself, and Palin, apparently, cried out: ‘That’s what we need, more culture round here.’

The young smart-ass Jew who scoffs at the Rabbi’s pilpul learning, denounces all that mithering Shivah nit-picking and declares himself an atheist because no amount of bookish hum-hah could convince him otherwise, not that he’s done much of it. And the Rabbi says: ‘Nah nah, you’re not an atheist, what you are is an ignoramus.’

Kingdom of the benighted…

Reminds me of the old jibe: Two Jews, three opinions. And the man who, hearing a linguistics professor say that two positives or negatives emphasise yes, and (before he could go on to ‘two negatives…’) responded; ‘Yeah, yeah.’

 

 

23 January

Message to a friend: ‘In these uncertain times some things hold fast and true and one such constant is friendship so let’s salute that essential fact soon, damned soon. Good cheer will see us through. This is no juncture for indignation, it will not help, albeit there’s much to be indignant about. Ruin your diary with blue pencil erasures and find a date, eh?’

 

24 January

The post-truth politics hoists a new banner headline: alternative fact.

Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

 

The White House press man interviewed:

Can we talk about the numbers who attended the inauguration last Friday compared to those who attended for Obama in –

Fake. Lies.

Compared to those who attended for Obama in…

Fabrication.

Which show that the numbers were much larger for Obama than Trump.

Mr President Trump.

If you will. But the crowds manifestly were much larger for –

The evidence contradicts that, quite plainly.

The evidence?

Absolutely the evidence.

You mean what we’re seeing here?

I mean what you actually don’t see.

In the same way as the then President elect captured on screen flapping his hands uncontrollably in imitation of a disabled reporter whom he was mocking?

[sighs] No no, that didn’t happen, as President Trump made abundantly clear subsequently. Didn’t happen and he’d never do such a thing.

It didn’t happen.

Did not happen. The tape was doctored. You’ve heard of Photoshop?

You mean that what many people, large numbers of people, witnessed live on screen didn’t take place?

You have a question?

[pause] So, the visual footage of the inauguration crowds last Friday as against the images of those for January 20th 2009…

Your point?

I have the images here – there’s this large, empty space here on the first image – note the digitised date and time – for January 20th 2017 and the same space here, packed with people, roughly the same time, packed with people.

Roughly…? Who took these so-called pictures?

They are publicly available.

On whose authority are they, as you say, ‘publicly available’?

You need authority for taking photographs of civic events, now?

You need authorisation for authenticity.

Interesting word.

Authorisation or authenticity?

Your point?

We have aerial photographs here, taken at the time which –

You can’t always believe what you think you see. Ask anyone.

They do, though, suggest a discrepancy in numbers, I’d venture to say – empty space here, same space, full, here.

That’s easy to explain.

I’m agog.

Your point?

Your claim that soon to be President Trump pulled a much bigger turnout than his predecessor Mr Obama.

Not a claim as you put it, not a claim. We did the math.

On the evidence of the aerial photographs?

We monitored the situation very closely. That’s our job.

I see.

You say.

So, let me put an analogy to you, such as when, let’s say, such as when you get images from a drone which indicate the presence of enemy insurgents in plain view on the ground and you need to hit them, or else they indicate you do not have enemy insurgents in plain view, none there at all, so, de facto, you can’t hit them?

Who says not?

Well, I…

We’re talking national security here.

We are?

If you’re not, you should be. These are delicate issues, not for the public domain and pursuing your analogy, if that’s what it is, the validity of which I doubt, the insurgents would be there if they were going to be there so that’s exactly where we hit them, straight off, that’s our job, to protect the United States of America.

An empty space?

If you can’t follow the logic, I can’t help you. This is alternative fact. Now, I have business to attend to.

 

 

25 January, Burns Night

I’ve saluted the haggis this night on four occasions. The first, in Norfolk, before which I had the most devilish job in securing the words of the poem, even though I am usually quite a quick study. I walked the lanes near our house in the country repeating the lines over and over again. Now, these years later, they’re pretty well secure in my memory.

The second time, at a small gathering for dinner, haggis from McSween’s of Morningside, naturally, neaps and clampit tatties to order, there was, in the room, the miniature Highland terrier, name of Ailsa, or possibly Elsa, either way, a sound Caledonian name, belonging to the hostess. When I reached the line ‘And trench your gushing entrails wide’ which called for the drawing of the skean dhub – which in my case I did not have but rather a large carving knife.  I reached for the weapon and brandished it high. This dramatic gesture, apt for the presence of two actors in the company, one of whom I’d directed in a play of mine in Edinburgh, startled the pooch to the extent of a minor convulsion. She fled beneath an upholstered wing chair and remained there, trembling, for the rest of the evening. This craven act of cowardice was a singular blot on her Scottish ancestry and did not pass unnoticed or unremarked. The hostess was less troubled by this than the fact of her darling pet’s fit of extreme angst. It didn’t serve our friendship, such as it was, very well.

The third time, in Hebden Bridge, I marched from the kitchen to the dining room in a hotel, behind a piper who led in the platter on which rested the ‘great chieftain of the pudden race’. I wore full highland fig, (sans glengarry), but Black Watch, not the MacDuff, the tartan to which I’m entitled – this was not to be hired from Moss Bros. Too singular. I was relatively happy to wear it, since my grandfather wore the Black Watch as a soldier in a Canadian Scottish regiment during the First World War. I would have jibbed at the Royal Stewart, which anyone can wear. Imagine. Having never worn the kilt and all the trimmings before, I felt rather a goof, dressing up not being my thing. However, the owner of the hotel asked for it and I obliged.

On the fourth occasion, I recited the poem in the presence of two born Scots, from near Glasgow, at the time and still resident in Prenzlauerberg, former East Berlin. I took the haggis with me and was mildly concerned about its passage through customs. I considered the possibility of buying two haggises and ferrying them in a bra. A tentative transvestitism would surely go unchallenged through the Berlin customs, but Luton? I decided against the experiment.

Blushing, rather, to essay the native Scots in the presence of two native speakers, my rendition earned their praise and we pressed on to eat – neaps purchased at the vegetable counter in Galeria Kauhof, a big department store across the road from Alexanderplatz station – and a good bottle of the malt which I’d bought in Luton airport.

My pronunciation coach for the first rendering was a charming, vivacious alto in the University of East Anglia and Aldeburgh Festival choirs, originally from Burns’s native Ayrshire. She was, as a singer, most assiduous in her coaching.

 

26 January

The notion of America, per se, America, is a fiction, surely? E pluribus unum…? As if. The great sprawl of place and peoples is too diverse, too dispersed, too opposed in its raw elements and cultural differences to exist as an identifiable whole. It’s what makes for the fascination and the great richness of the fiction which explores the contrarieties. As for the cheat of the dream and the toxic reaction to the disappointment of that dream, another fault line in the false picture of unity.

William Faulkner: ‘The past isn’t dead and buried, it’s not even past.’

 

 

28 January

Memory of Deià

Of Martin Tallents, long-term resident, master cabinetmaker, apprenticed after severe trauma and nervous breakdown in the Royal Navy, friend of Robert – he was with Graves when I first came to the house. Martin took to writing silly song lyrics, which he sang to tunes he probably dreamed up on spec, jaunty and without any clear musical merit. The most celebrated of these ditties, Marmalade, launched off: ‘Marmalade, you spread it on your toast, and Marmalade, it’s what you love the most, oh Marmalade, the very thing for breakfast…’ along those lines.

Martin lived in a house on the hill which leads up to the church. It was sparse of furniture, the entrance room onto which the front door gave, dominated by a limed oak refectory table with benches either side. On this table gathered guests for the afternoon teas which were a feature of Martin’s life in the village, keeping up standards, vignette of polite English life, the ingrained rituals of daily routine upheld. The crumb tray, with soft brush, in a dark wood, possibly mahogany, an exquisitely made object, one of his final apprentice pieces before being pronounced Master. Martin was courteously flamboyant, dotty and, quite plainly, of an extremely edgy and febrile disposition, a psychological fuse on the constant verge of blowing.

At one tea, the other participants in the ritual unknown to me, but three women, Martin and myself. Bone china crockery, fresh-baked bread on a lime wood board, home-made jam in a pot, butter – and butter knife, of course – a large teapot, silver spoons, sugar bowl, slender-necked milk jug, embroidered napkins.

Somehow the conversation, a mite stilted, moved on to books and, specifically, D.H. Lawrence, though why him I could not say now and probably could not detect then. Perhaps a private beef of one of the company. Conversation homed in on the subject of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Evidently LCL had not, in the view of the three women, at least, been a good idea. During the ensuing discussion of the book’s merits – not many – and demerits – a fair number and lamentable, sorry lapse of taste – one of the women, in that clipped, disapproving tone of the upper middle class observing some particularly nasty aspect of contemporary moeurs, said: ‘Of course, a close reading of the text shows that it’s mostly to do with buggery, may I,’ she continued, without pause, ‘have a little more milk, please, just a nuage?’ Provocative tosh. Open her thighs p 129, cunt 177ff, pregnant 261

 

I buy a kipper at the market fish stall. A man waiting says: ‘Breakfast?’

‘Yes, and I’m looking forward to it, I’ve been up since four.’

‘That makes you a part-timer,’ says the fishmonger – who drives here from Lowestoft – with a smile. ‘And if you don’t mind my asking, what were you doing at four?’

‘Writing,’ I say. Amongst other things, this, on the occasion of my friend Richard telling me that the magazine he edits is being folded and the contents switched to an online publication, for very little saving of costs:

 

THEIR VOICE IS FULL OF MONEY

Oxford Today…gone tomorrow?

Thoughtless cause of lasting sorrow.

Of those who scorn our editor,

Let this by us be said: It earns them

Our contempt, in the belief

That scrimping is a bilious thief

Of riches too diverse to name,

A stingy currency of shame.

Their counting beans and paring cost,

With all the treasures thereby lost,

Show poverty of soul and mind

Deserving that same fate – unkind –

They mete out on the few who stand

For worth in work not cash in hand.

 

I went to Lowestoft with Lucy, once – the only time I’ve been – when she was six. I’d got to know the Punchman – otherwise the swatchel omi, slangcove or simply ‘showman’ – though I have no clear recollection how. Via someone who worked in local television, I think. Swatchel, in the odd cant, or ‘parlary’, of the show’s Italian origins, is Punch, therefore ‘Punch man’. All this from Robert Leach’s splendid book about the Punch and Judy Show.

Our showman actually took us inside the booth to see the puppets and to demonstrate the swizzle, a considerable honour since the mystery of the craft has always been jealously guarded. Are there still shows?

More of the parlary: omi a man, mozzy, his wife, nanti medzies [pronounced ‘majjies’], no money, snow is silver, bionc or deaner [presumably from denarius] a shilling and clod a penny. Hambone, a poor showman who ‘flobs’ his characters, ie lets them droop, scarpering omi, the policeman, ‘nanti parlary, scarper de letti,’ means ‘keep your mouth shut, there’s a copper behind you’, questra omi a vardring the slum, scarper it orderly, ‘there’s someone watching the show, get lost, quickly’. Slum can also apply to the swazzle, though nobbing slum is the collecting bag and slum fake the coffin. [Scarper is Cockney rhyming slang, Scapa Flow, go.]

29 January

A delicious exchange in Home by Marilynne Robinson:

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I wouldn’t care if you were a petty thief.’

He smiled. ‘That’s very subjunctive of you.’

‘All right, I don’t care if you are a petty thief.’

 

The American practice with the subjunctive is rickety. The common usage is to use a double remote voice: ‘If you would be a petty thief I would not care.’ Hm.

Ours is not much sounder: ‘The law demands that such and such is…’ instead of ‘should be’, our concept of the conditional having withered to a vestige. When people, in response to ‘good morning’ say ‘what’s good about it?’ this is either a very lame supposed witticism or unaware that the greeting means ‘ may you have a good morning’ on the lines of ‘goodbye’ ie ‘god be wi’ ye’…jussive subjunctive, a toothsome éclair straight from the grammar sweet shop.

 

30 January

Deep in work and slow business it is, but tracking what monsters lurk in the murky middle of things and what strangeness of plant and luminescent fish, the seemingly inexhaustible. I just came up against lethal ambiguities and am licking my lips, in an inky way, at the prospect of grappling with that one, but tomorrow, having announced it to the page.

Walking from Bat and Ball station in the early darkness last night, sickly light of the street lamps, the woodland on the left by the road in thick shadow, I reflected on this Robert character in what I’m doing, now, making notes, sketching out scenes, tracking a story long held in me, sifting through the gutter of all that’s past and been done but still there, still inhering, still cluttering heart and mind, and I realised that he’s not Robert, he’s Jack, from The Arrangement. How could I have missed that? Partly not paying attention, partly shying away from the obvious, a sort of shrinking, cowardice.

 

31 January

I watch the cock blue tit standing at the tiny window of the bird-box on the wall by the door into the garden, feeding the brood inside.

 

Memory of Deià

Robert gives a poetry reading in the olive grove amphitheatre below the house, the stone benches full, some of us sitting on the ground, including Lucia, me and a man who is plainly drunk. Worse, he has been fucking the muse, Robert found out, so the man is most emphatically persona non grata. Robert, standing at the lectern, begins by welcoming everyone and saying: ‘And you are all friends, there’s no one here we don’t like and who isn’t welcome.’

Mr Sot is muttering, during the reading. I get vexed and am ready to tell him, brusquely, to shut up. But Lucia, so very sage, leans across towards him, puts a finger to her lips and, very softly says: ‘Shhh.’ He clams up.

At the end of the reading, Beryl comes up to me and says: ‘Keep Robert talking, distract him, we need to get that man out of here.’

 

4 February

Only last week, the night still hung heavy as I walked the cut from Blackhall Lane to the steps in – over – the wall into Knole. This day, if not broad daylight, markedly gray dawn, full visibility. Along the incline on the other side of the steps, a blackbird hopped a yard or two in front of me, as if showing me the way, before, having ascertained that I was heading in the right direction, he flew to perch on the curtain wall, quite close to the left, my patient guardian, before flying away altogether as I neared the brow, the first high point I top on my hebdomadal walk in the Park. A crow craarked in that Tom Waites rasp from the upper branches of a stand of Scots pines. The raised root over which, in the pitch dark, I’d stumbled two weeks past and pitched flat on my front – excruciating pain, I couldn’t get up for a minute or two, the lingering pain last nearly till now, surely a cracked rib – was in plain view, now. As I crested the brow, a clock bell tolled 7 o’clock, followed by another half a minute later –  Knole succeeded by St Nicholas, I presume. Very Frenh – that way they have of alerting people working in the fields, first to the new hour, then so that they can count the chimes.

I met but one person, a runner coming down the surfaced ride towards the Bird House – built by one of the estate owners to house his collection of stuffed birds. We exchanged cheerful greetings, I passed on, that my solace for the rather silly disappointment at not finding myself alone in the early morning, the fact that we did so.

After groceries in Waitrose, fruit and veg at the stall and fish – kipper and two red mullet – at the van, I proceeded to the dry cleaner to collect my black sheep wool sweater. The Irishman behind the counter who’s been absent for six weeks following replacement knee surgery, spoke of the time he and his then girlfriend (later wife) were walking across the Park one summer evening – after a visit to the Buck’s Head on Godden Green – along the track, through the airlock gate, down the track into the curving valley towards the exit road, and they saw, some way off to the side, a man in baggy white trousers and sweater, white boots and cricket cap, all old style. He did not speak, or acknowledge their presence, then walked ahead of them and, quite suddenly, disappeared. ‘It was a ghost, I’m pretty sure it was, must have been, and I know we’d been to the pub and were it just me who spotted him the story might not bear credence, but, well, my girlfriend saw him too.’

A short discussion here the other night – with Marie, Kate and Max – about the colour mauve and associated violet, light purple, indigo…The OED refers me, of course, to mallow and its Latin name, malva. Pliny speaks of two kinds of the plant, ‘greatly celebrated’ (in magnis laudibus), one cultivated, the other a wild genus found in woodland distinguished by the size of their leaves. Greek petalon means a leaf and the Latin borrowing, petalum, refers to a thin sheet of metal, so maybe Pliny’s folium can also mean ‘petal’. I don’t know, the dictionary doesn’t say.

However, mauve is taken to be pale violet, the French also take it to mean periwinkle, but the claim of Wikipedia that, according to the OED the word was first applied to the colour in ‘1796-98’ – how vague can you be? – is wrong. The OED cites 1859, not long after the young chemist William Henry Perkin discovered a chemical substance which formed the base of the first aniline dye, ‘aniline purple’ or mauve, 1856. He subsequently opened a factory at Greenford Green to manufacture the colour and to refine methods for silk dyeing. [DNB]

Aniline is a colourless substance, originally made from distilling indigo with potash, and used as a base in the manufacture of dyes. Indigo comes, ultimately, from Pliny’s indicum, ‘Indian blue’ (Indicus is Indian) derived from the plant known to the Arabs and Persians as anil – al+nil, ‘the blue’, from the Sanskrit word nili, blue.

In the course of our discussion, touching on lilac, wisteria, purple (derived, in the ancient world, from the rare crustacean murex, Greek porphura, thence porphuros, the royal colour), I quite forgot and might have told the story of the two Welshwomen at a cloth stall in a market in Cardiff, deliberating on the colour of the stuff on sale. One said: ‘Pink I’d like, purple I’d rather but I’d die (dye-ee) for puce.’ It’s better in a Welsh accent.

 

French guimauve, (the gui- is pinched from hibiscus), is a marsh mallow (plant), marshmallow, confection, thence a sugary or feeble poem, finally, the penis. Presumably flaccid.

 

5 February

Stiff-neck, opisthognathous, snoot-face Fakenob Grease-Hogg has declared – in Parliament – 23 June 2016 a day to rank with St Crispian’s Day 1415 and 18 June 1815.

What…?

 

7 February

Souvenir of Deià

The sweet softness of a southern voice I heard on the radio this morning reminded me of Ginger, married to Tip, a winsome young couple from Kentucky with whom I became friends in Deià, one long summer I spent there. I called by to see them one hot afternoon. Tip was half sitting, half lying, in the shade of an umbrageous fig tree in the back garden of the little house they were renting for the year. He was a lawyer, they’d saved enough money to take a year out. He told me about scrumping on melon patches – about which I knew from Tom Sawyer, I guess – and being chased off by irate gun-toting farmers. I played blues guitar in those days and, once, in the cool of their hallway, as I sat picking, Tip, in his fraying straw hat, duck trousers and open shirt, soft-shuffled across the marble tiles to the music.

Now, in the garden, he called out in a dulcet, sunkissed drawl: ‘Ginger? Ginger? What I would dearly love is a egg mayonnaise sandwich.’

She appeared at the kitchen door, tall, lissom, ash blonde, and replied in the soft lilt of their southern state, a deeply loving answer: ‘Honey, you shall have a egg mayonnaise sandwich.’

 

10 February

Upheaval of works on the raised beds – the admirable Chris doing the job, me cutting and stacking the part-rotted tantalised planks of the old structure as well as clearing out the shed, mostly of timber which I’ve also cut for firewood. Deliberations on three ideas for radio programmes – essays or short series – on hold. However, I’ve managed to shape one to completion, The Aesthetics of Being, dwelling on our five senses, how they work, in physiological terms, how we process the messages and how, thereby, we perceive the world and register our experience of it. This will also take in the sounds, sights, tastes etc which we make – music, art, words, perfume and so on, as a construct beyond the essential capacity of our own sensors.

In the course of pondering, I recalled a mishearing with comic result. My then girlfriend at Durham, in the first year, had a French pen friend, Marie France, from Strasbourg, who came to visit her. We went out for dinner at an upstairs restaurant in Old Elvet. Before the food came, she asked if I could tell her where – I thought – there was a boîte aux lettres. This struck me as odd, but I knew where there was a post box and took he downstairs, out of the restaurant and, a few yards away from the front door, was the red pillar box. She was a gracious young woman. She smiled and repeated: ‘Non, toilette.’ At which we went back upstairs and I showed her the way to the loo.

The following day, we went to a barbecue somewhere. One of the male undergraduates chatted her up in what he clearly thought to be suave command of French. He said: ‘Etes vous froid, mademoiselle?’ to which she, with the same grace and aplomb as she had dealt with my clottish misunderstanding, said: ‘Non, j’n’suis pas froid mais j’ai froid, merci,’ and put on an extra sweater.

 

11 February

A frosty mist across the Park, ghostly, ice white veils, like a scene in a Sheridan Le Fanu novel. Small motes of snow blew slantwise across my path driven by a lateral wind, sharp enough to sting when they hit my eyes or eye socket.

Les Misérables I failed to note this at the time of reading but a glorious opportunity for a bad translator to make a comic error. On page 247, M. Madeleine en deuil: ‘M. Madeleine parut le lendemain tout en noir avec un crêpe à son chapeau.’ Monsieur Madeleine appeared next day, dressed all in black, with a pancake on his hat.

I finished the Waterloo chapters last night, as I sat by the stove. A remarkable tour de force and a striking conclusion: triumph of the counter-revolution.

 

Valentine’s Day

In my second year at Durham, I spent some time in the basement of the University Library investigating the story of Valentine, priest of Rome, and the various folk traditions which agglomerated from the story of his martyrdom – how to predict whom a young woman was going to marry and so on. Young men had to be the object of desire, here, unless they were fixedly of the opinion that ‘there are plenty of young women to be had, why should I be tied to one?’. There was, I recall – the long verse I wrote incorporating the elements of all I’d gleaned poem is lost – something to do with boiled eggs. Better not go there.

Exchanging emails with a friend about a poem she’s written referring to young children’s laughter as ‘cacchination’: I’m all for giving flight to rare words but mazarine is a deep, rich blue, which would mean near stormy sky, wouldn’t it? And cacchinations…yes, I know, but it’s not a very euphonious word, is it? I arrived at Cley beach in Norfolk one morning, for a swim, and as I rolled the bike up the shingle bank, the sea and strand as yet out of view, I heard the peal of children’s voices hollowing out the sky, pinging round the china bowl of the day like glarneys and the shrieks and squeals outdoing the seagulls. I would not wish to pile cack onto that…too resonant of cackle.

 

17 February

The list of submissions to publishers and agents is long, the lack of response general, the delay between date of submission and today shocking. It’s difficult, therefore, to stick to Mark Twain’s admirable caution on the lines of: ‘A man faced with disappointment ought not to get upset, he should make up his mind to get even.’ How, quite, to get even with someone who has not the courtesy even to reply and reject is a puzzle.

 

18 February

Two weeks ago, there was dark when I set out at 6.30am for the Park-market. Today, broad daytime illumination from a quilted sky the colour of suet. I felt, as I walked, as if I were being overtaken by the light, that the speed of its gallop as it comes back was more than I could keep up with, that it merely underscores my own lack of movement, at the moment. Work, thought, organisation. It’s true that much of my time is taken by Les Misérables – I’ve never encountered a book like it, for energy of thought, description, narrative, sheer drive – and am happy at that: to undertake the reading of such a work is a singular labour in itself.

For the first time, I walked round and across the Park and saw no one, not even anyone of those who live and work on the estate, no one at all. There was a curious delight in that, even to the top of the long drag up to the entrance gates by the main street opposite the church. And, by the time I sat down to breakfast – fruit and granola, Lowestoft kipper, fresh bought, pot of coffee – I’d been on my feet for 4 hours.

The evening sky a gorgeous pale porcelain cream with gash strokes of robin’s egg blue and carnation pink.

A woman on radio saying that the reason why Henry VIII managed to hold on in face of Anne Boleyn’s denial for nearly 7 years – from 1526 to 1532 when he first bedded her, was that he was a hopeless romantic, that love kept him going, love and respect for her chastity. Of all absurd notions. The man wanted a legitimate heir. He’d fucked her sister and got her with child, a bastard, and Anne wanted wifedom. She almost certainly coveted the crown as well. Her sister got the sex, she wanted the sceptre, phallic symbolism obtains. The paunchy monarch was almost certainly getting full penetration elsewhere but Anne-me-touche pas kept him dangling as some women can: in her case not for the power of the tease but for the power that came with the issue.

I took a short break, sitting by the stove, from Hugo, to polish off the Latin crossword snipped from the Times. The small leaf of paper it covers I place, next morning, on the kindling of the newly-laid stove fire as an offering to Lexica, goddess of words.

 

20 February

An hour after breakfast slicing up some of the planks which encased the raised beds for not long shy of eight years but, rotted and bowed, replaced. Had they been alder or elm they’d have lasted better, like the piles of the wharfs, piers and bridges constructed by the Romans. The tanalised timber has far less vigour in it.

 

A new colour in the Farage and Crawl range – Creep Yellow.

 

21 February

As I pushed the plunger of the cafetière down this morning, I recalled that time in the flat of a friend in Glasgow where Lucy and I stayed on a camping jaunt to Holy Loch. The friend wasn’t there but her assistant, a charming, young Scots woman, arrived in the morning to begin her day’s secretarial and administrative work. She stood by the dresser in the kitchen and watched as I pushed the coffee pot plunger down, but inexpertly: somehow, the entire contents of the cafetière burst out onto the floor, liquid and grounds. I held onto the empty vessel and the plunger and, by great good fortune, was not scalded. The lass stared at the spill and, in a soft voice, an accent born, I swear, of Morningside; ‘Oh, that’s substantial.’

During the long drive back to Norfolk from that trip, when we’d come to the end of Nicole Williams wonderfully vigorous reading of The Hobbit, for so long our staple listening in extended journeying, that I pulled a cassette from the cubby hole in the Citroën Deux Chevaux and pressed it into the machine. It turned out to be a tape of Madonna – I know not where from, it wasn’t mine. And here, issuing from the tape deck came ‘Like a virgin’. When the song finished, I heard Lucy’s five year old voice piping up from the back seat: ‘Dad, what’s a virgin?’

Here we go, I thought. ‘It means someone who hasn’t had sex with another person,’ I said, or something to that effect. I couldn’t believe this brief explanation would serve and waited for the follow up question: What’s sex? What’s having sex with another person?’ but it didn’t come. Madonna moved on. Hanky Panky…? I don’t remember.

 

22 February

A good hard ride through the Park this morning, first time in a while that I’ve ridden across the ground rather than the tracks – it’s been too wet. The ground is soft and made heavy going, even so. A fresh-bought kipper at the market for breakfast, with fruit and granola to start and so to work.

This from a while ago:

 

VAMP

Horatii Carmen I v

quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa…

 

I can picture the scene: low lights, the velvet drapes, the rose-scented candles,

The cashmere throw, your fox-red hair pleated in glossy coils,

Your make-up artfully understated, virginal. Virginal?

And who’s the latest cocksure dope, suffused in deodorant?

How he’s going to spit and rant –  ‘led me on, the bitch, with her sexy pouts,

Her whoozy sighs, her meaningful glances, her…[choking] all promise all…[choking] ’ –

His suckered expectation: ‘she’s gagging for it’, lashed into a black rage: ‘fucking prick-tease’.

But, for the moment, basking in the hot gold sheen of your come-on, he thinks he’s in,

Light breeze on a flat calm sea, false hopes, reckons you’re a pushover.

‘All that crap they gave me – like, quote, “she’s a nightmare”, unquote –

The look she’s giving me right now? No way, man.’

Naïve or what?

Oh, the numberless poor sods at whom you’ve smiled, to whom you’ve tipped your chin.

(Facing imminent extinction, you pray like hell. ‘O God, if you just

Save me now, I swear my devotion, et nunc et semper.’)

My balls still ache, I still haven’t washed the shirt with the smell of your perfume on it,

I’ve still got the bruise from the bite on my shoulder, but I got away.

 

24 February

It has just occurred to me this Sunday morning of patchy blue sky with impasto of murky whiteish cloud, and autumnal cool and a melancholy soughing of wind, that Christ was monkeying with the truth in his pronouncements on the Cross, with or without God’s collusion. What complicity was there between them? Was the harrowing in Hell the ultimate betrayal after the abandonment – ‘Why has thou forsaken me?’ – shortly before the consummation of death?

As to truth itself, he’d already poked that wasps’ nest in the exchange with Pilate, that morning. He speaks of bearing witness unto the truth. [John ch. 19 v 37] and Pilate says: ‘What is truth?’ No reply is recorded.

To one of the malefactors dying with him – we got the word malefactors long before I learned Latin. Malefactor. Not murderer or robber (with violence). Not brigand or stick-up hooligan, not career criminal. Malefactor. It may say thieves in the Bible but malefactors had the added potency, the evil tinge, a deliberate, wicked nastiness, a sort of technical term, a pedantic fussiness that has the ring of sophistication. Like calling a serial killer the perpetrator.

So, anyway, one of the malefactors, at first defiant, is wavering  faced with death, much as Jimmy Cagney in one of the gangster movies in which he, as the ultra sanguinary thug, is being hauled to the electric chair and, having seemed to resist behaving as a coward – an act of moral bravery to deter those witless juniors who might be tempted to emulate his tough-guy heroics – suddenly complies and starts to holler and beg and plead, screaming for his mother, the Toc H, God, anyone who might deliver some comfort. Last-minute repentance, abjuring everything he’s always stood for, rank villainy, the psycopath comes through, reverts to the terrors of his childhood, maybe. Similarly, the malefactor tells Jesus he’s up for a promise of remission on his crimes, a lastminute.com offer on redemption.

And Jesus says: ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.’

So what happens? Jesus flaked out, didn’t show up, left the penitent to pitch up at the pearly gates unannounced.

‘Jesus sent me.’

‘Got no record here. Who did you say?’

‘Jesus.’

‘No…no sign of him.’

‘Jesus,’ the tone more raw.

‘Hey, no blasphemy.’

‘He said we’d be together in paradise.’

‘Not here you don’t. We have entry requirements. You see the Waiting Room on the way up? I suggest you go back and do what it says: wait.’

‘How long?’

‘How long have you got? How long has any of us got?’

As for Jesus, he descended into Hell. To harrow it. Did he even think of his late companion in agony, did the promise cross his mind? The records seem to indicate not. His mind was on other things: first and foremost, coming back to judge the quick and the dead.

What happened with the malefactor who’d signed up, history does not relate and it remains equally quiet about the one who didn’t sign up and went to his own oblivion cursing because Jesus didn’t do what he could have done, had he been what he said he was, and get them down off the cross. No. The circumstance would seem to indicate that it was he who joined Jesus, in the other place.

‘So,’ he may have said, ‘all that stuff about paradise, blah blah, look at you, no better than any of us, all your fancy talk.’

 

25 February

Two male deer, quite young, were playing at the rutting ritual in the small stand of trees at the top of the first hill I climb in the Park this early morning. Necks craning down, eyes to the ground, they lock antlers, click click click, in macho play, but straighten and stare at me as I walk past. I’d made no more noise than my boots on the firm ground had produced. They continue to stare for a long time, as if caught out and embarrassed, or like children wondering if they’re to be twitted or worse. It does seem such a silly, if essential, game in their maturation. Not the first time I’ve observed it but not, before, so close at hand.

 

26 February

Postcard showing Fra Angelico’s three angels, gold sheen and delicate jewel hues: the angel on the left playing a teardrop shaped viol with peg-piece at right angles to the fingerboard, left-handed, she to the right plays an early trombone, pointing it high, heavenwards, she between them, in the centre, a tambour. Their wings are long, eagle-like, two red mantles, in the centre blue, but each frock from the same maison de couture, evidently

I add the caption: ‘We’d like to play you a number from our latest album, God Cares. This is Jesus wants me for a sunbeam. Take it away, Tracie…’

I go to Massat tomorrow to see Nick, fortuitously on his birthday. The card I’ve bought for him shows a black and white photograph of Mary Wedlake at her wedding reception, Throwleigh Village Hall, Devon, 1978, in scoop-neck bridal gown with a Regency style modesty curtain of muslin from bust to neck, and tiara on her light bouffant tipped back with veil attached. In her right hand, a pint of lager with a foaming head on it, in her left, a half-smoked cigarette. It’s clear from her expression – head thrown back, mouth gaping, teeth parted, eyes narrowed with convulsive merriment, that she’s laughing uproariously. I give her the caption:

There once was a bridegroom from Devon

Whose absolute idea of heaven

Was ten shags in a row

So he gave it a go

But ran out of steam after seven.

 

27 February

From Toulouse airport down the motorway, off through Saint-Girons to Massat in bright, warm sunshine. The distant mountain ranges crested with snow, white as icing sugar in the brilliant light. A happy return, Nick in good form.

Next day, we drive up to Liers, a miniature village of long date, a huddle of buildings, most still inhabited, squirreled away on thickly forested mountain slopes. There are few means of transport up here and the community is, for the most part, supplied with provisions from an occasional visit by van up the road from the valley. This narrow way, its surface pitted with wear and off-land rain and water, skirts the brisk flow of an unnamed stream from its source below the crags of the Trois Seigneurs mountain, (2199m), which preside with lordly hauteur over the valley minions. Perhaps locals saw in that morgue of high aloofness a stone-faced disdain and named the triplet peaks accordingly, voicing the grudge in a discreet mumble.

The Liers torrent runs into the Arac, rising somewhat nearer the Three Lords, and both flows are swollen, at the hamlet of Le Port, by the influx of another torrent, the Courtignou, which siphons off from a lake, the Etang de Lers, off to the east of the Seigneurs. The Arac keeps its name for what becomes the valley river from Massat halfway to Saint-Girons. Each of the courses is in burly rush now and will gain more volume when the snows on the tops melt and tip down into the natural conduits, tumbling in a rush iover the loose stones and boulders in the stream beds till they reach the larger push of the main river carving its way along the valley floor.

The -ac termination indicates Latin ager, a field, land, and the ar- may suggest arena, sand. Perhaps, therefore, sandy ground from which the stream springs.

In Liers, houses have names which appear on the memorial tablet for the men – quite a few, from the community who died in the First World War. This tablet hangs on the wall of the church, under a large archway entranced to the forecourt – broken paving – and bears the family and forenames of the men and, in a third column mysterious appended names which, I conjecture, are indeed, the houses where they were born. The church is now a gîte d’étape. Just beyond it starts the forest track which runs along the flank of the mountain as far as the Col de Port. I walked part of it, years past, in the snow, from the col.

There’s no one around in Liers. It might be a ghost town and many of the inhabitants who stay are quite elderly, probably born here. So very cut off from other centres of habitation, whether tiny, like the scatter of hamlets on the mountain road south of Massat, heading for the Col d’Agnès (which Nick insists on mispronouncing ‘Ag-nay’ instead of ‘An-yes’…I’ve told him) and on over towards the next line of peaks along which runs the border with Spain, or the larger village of Massat, itself. It’s a relic of how the communities formed in these mountains, in recesses of the valleys and higher places, the exigencies of life so reduced, to us, unimaginably.

On Wednesday evening, a text from a producer at Sky News asking if I might talk about an announcement to be made the next morning by British Cycling. I text back: of course. I may have renounced writing about the sport and its participants, but if I can earn a small chunk of change by chatter on screen into a microphone on a subject in which I have, I suppose, some expertise, then I’m happy to do so. I add the proviso that I’m in France. Can I get a Skype connection? I check: seems I can. Rendezvous set for midday on Thursday.

Nick organises the setting up of the restaurant laptop in the bar and is on hand to ask people to keep the conversation down during transmission. A phone call from Sky: they have my Skype name and will now check the connection. There follows an extended period of failure to connect, of demands for passwords relative to the machine which no one knows, William, its owner, being off this day and incommunicable. Various attempts to bypass the stubborn insistences of the techno tyrant on proper form and digital exactitude appear to succeed only to falter. Several phone calls from the Sky people, evincing no impatience, suggesting that we try this or try that – the call signal comes through but the machine fails to offer any means of answering. An image of me appears, so the camera is hooked up but the sound link continues to elude.

After a while, it becomes apparent that this system is not going to work and, reluctantly, the Sky people say that we’d have to abort. They’ve been so mannerly and understanding. I thank them, apologise for the complication which has stalled us and go out to the terrace, in bright sun, to pour a glass of rosé from the pichet as an apéro for lunch.

I’ve barely sat down when there’s an excited call to me to come back inside. Anja, the young German woman who has observed and intervened in the so-far failed efforts to make the contact, is sitting at the table by the laptop, her left breast bared, infant child attached to the nipple. She has, miraculously, succeeded. She must have cursed the failure and determined to beat it and did beat it. Ausgezeichnet.

I thank her profusely. She just smiles and leaves the room, child still sucking away.

I telephone: we’re on line. The interview proceeds, I explain, first, on their enquiry where exactly I am sitting and, after the interview, a producer, whom I cannot see – the voices from the other end always disembodied – thanks me and says that he envies me as someone who has ‘just enjoyed an agreeable lunch’. I tell him that, no, I have not just enjoyed an agreeable lunch but that I am about to do so. And, thereto, do so, once more thanking Anja fulsomely and buying her a drink, of course. She says nothing. Her smile speaks for her: no big deal…

I leave Massat at 5.30 on Friday morning, first calling on Nick, as requested, even this early, to say goodbye and drink a cup of coffee. The drive down the twisting, narrow, dark valley road is a trial, the eventual emergence onto the motorway, although better lit, brings the added hazard of the swell of early morning traffic. As I near Toulouse, the sky blushes vermilion in broad swathes across its dark purple, saturnine brow.

 

7 March

As I was hanging out the washing this morning, a Tree Bumblebee came to my winter honeysuckle which grows alongside the shed, to which the line is attached. The weather bright, air still. The creature buzzed as it visited the florets then moved to a twig above one of the flowers and clung there, unmoving. I took a photograph. For a long while there was no movement at all, a feeble lift of one antenna, from time to time. Then it started to move the tail back and forth in steady rhythm and the body showed marginally more animation. I’ve contacted the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, of which I’m a member, to ask if this is normal – perhaps the bee is just taking a rest.

The reply comes:

Thanks for your email and your description of this bee’s behaviour. It seems likely that this bee had just emerged from hibernation, as March is the month when most bees begin to emerge. They can be a bit dozy for a while, and will often rest in the sun to warm their bodies up. This will be a queen bee, and she will hopefully have got enough nectar from the winter-flowering honeysuckle to power her flight until she finds a nest for this year.

 

8 March

News that Rio, the guide dog I was currently sponsoring, had been withdrawn from the training programme because of ‘his spending habits’ came some time last year. This arcane, if not esoteric, phrase was out of my ken. I phoned to discover that it means he did not keep to a regular pattern of where and when he peed and defecated. In fact, he failed and, in blind dog terms, I suppose may be termed something of a piss artist. Alas, poor Rio. Since he replaced the first puppy I sponsored, propitiously named Lucy when she, too, had to be withdrawn from training, but because of an unspecified malady, I wondered if I’d brought a jinx with me. He was replaced by Freya, who, according to the latest ‘pupdate’, (I know…) seems to be toeing the line, if that’s how they put it. I doubt it is.

 

9 March

Five bees at the winter honeysuckle this wonderfully warm bright spring day. A regular patrol. Hurray.

 

10 March

A friend tells me of a rather scary medical condition – he was going to call this morning to discuss some work but had to go to the doctor’s instead.

The man dials the surgery number, listens to the ringing tone, waits for the interruption of the dreary voice telling him that they’re sorry to keep him waiting and that his call is important to them and…but it doesn’t come. Instead, the receptionist:

‘Hello, emergency, how can I help?’

‘I need to see a doctor, please.’

‘Is it an emergency?’

‘That’s rather why I phoned this number. Yes.’

‘What’s the nature of the problem?’

‘Are you the doctor?’

‘No. I am here to screen calls and to felicitate the procedure. What’s the nature of the problem?’

‘I woke up this morning in a pool of blood and I…’

Fade out, fade in:

Doctor             Do come in, sit down, how can I help? What seems to be the problem?

Man                 That’s for you to tell me, isn’t it?

Doctor             [inner: Probably nervous. Hesitant. Could be serious. Probably over-

defensive. Scared.] What exactly is the matter?

Man                 I’ve had specks of blood in my urine for a couple of days, then, this morning,

I woke up and there was a big stain of blood in the bed. It seems to have come from my penis.

Doctor             Are you sure?

Man                 I can’t think where else it came from. And the specks of blood in the urine would suggest that. Wouldn’t it?

Doctor             You’re probably right. Do you practise anal intercourse without lubrication? Sorry, but I have to ask.

Man                 That’s all right. No.

Doctor             [referring to her computer screen – reading his notes? Playing for time? Going through the options?] Do you abuse yourself with a vacuum cleaner?

The nozzle?

Man                 [looking down at his crotch] With this? [not markedly under-endowed but no prodigy, either].

Doctor             You’d be surprised.

Man                 [Wow, a full-suction Nilfisk blow job] No.

Doctor             I believe you’re single at the moment.

Man                 I am, but only in the legal sense. Not the social.

Doctor             You mean…?

Man                 When the occasion offers. Not that I’m…

Doctor             Promiscuous?

Man                 As if…

Doctor             And has it? The occasion? Offered? Recently?

Man                 You mean…

Doctor             Yes. When did you last have penetrative intercourse?

Man                 A while ago.

Doctor             Days, weeks, months?

Man                 Weeks. It was a mistake.

Doctor             I see. Did you use a condom?

Man                 Yes.

Doctor             With a…?

Man                 Woman.

Doctor             Right. Well, we’ll run some tests. It’s probably nothing to worry about. A temporary issue. My advice would be to avoid intercourse for a while.

Man                 That shouldn’t be difficult.

Doctor             Do I detect a note of disappointment, there? [A large, Ghanaian woman, she smiles conspiratorially]

Man                 You probably do. [he smiles back]

 

12 March

What a flexible and supple word, personne.

‘Personne n’en est sorti depuis vingt-quatre heures mais personne ne manque.’

Les Misérables tome II p620

‘No one has come out of [the houses which seem dead but are alive] for 24 hours but there’s no lack of people.’ The translation of personne here is a pun – ‘person’ and, by implication of the context, plural although, in the first instance, singular. How else to render it? Nobody and people is possible, but certainly not by the singular in both uses. To do so qould require an absurdly tortured circumlocution. And, further along in the same passage: ‘Qui accuser? Personne et tout le monde’, nobody and everybody.

 

The other day, 30 people were shot dead in a hospital in Kabul by Taliban or Isis militants disguised – the signature white coat – as doctors, Kalashnikovs for stethoscopes. A US general, who’d served in Afghanistan, declares: ‘This war is no longer winnable.’ Really?
Have they no historical perspective at all, these people?

Elizabeth Butler’s 1879 painting The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842 painted in 1879, at the time of the second Anglo-Afghan war, (and there was a third,) depicts, in the foreground, a man in army uniform with sheepskin jerkin, clearly wounded and at the limits of endurance, barely able to sit the pony, which is similarly on the verge of collapse, body cranked, neck lowered, gasping for air. A stony desert floor, along the horizon in the background, the serrated line of the Afghan hills, in the nearer view, the crenelated walls of a fortified city, a body of horsemen riding out from the city gates towards the man, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon. When asked: ‘Where’s the Army?’ he replied: ‘I am the Army.’

That army of 4,500 men and many more civilians with them had been wiped out during the retreat from Kabul. It seems that even today, sales of copies of the painting are brisk in the capital, totem of the Afghans getting rid of the foreign invader.

 

14 March

I had a sort of epiphany the other night. I woke up and, for no obvious reason, ran through a song by Brassens Saturne in my head. (I know it by heart.) Since the beginning of the year I’ve been taking extensive notes – character study, recall of events, background, analysis…- for a novel, but writing in French. It concerns French people in France, based on a true story.  The idea was to project myself into a different mindset, to pose the intellectual challenge of processing everything in my second language, to get the feel of France deep into my pysche. However, I simply couldn’t get a handle on how to fictionalise the story – changing names, places, all that surface detail – and, as I went through the song, singing it in my head, Saturne the god of the dark season, when the main woman in the story was born, I suddenly clocked what the whole thing meant. It had escaped me before – oh, parts of it, of course, clear enough, but the whole, the full import – there’s a lot of slang in it – no. And, as I understood I also realised: not, not fiction, the story as it happened, the true account. And I began  and it’s flying. Hurray. I do know, however, that it’s letting me in for a lot of very painful recall, and I don’t relish that, at the same time I do know that that is what – if I can manage not to flinch – will make the story hurt and the more veracious.

 

From Lucia

How is the new book going? How does the French feel? I took some time to decide what my writing tongue was, and now, when I write in Spanish, I’m almost a different person. It’s odd how all those sounds, words and expressions change your feelings, your views even. Translating yourself is even weirder!

 

 

Ides of March

I finished Les Misérables by the stove last night, a dry evening, first of the week’s two fast days. I rather skip read the final 100 pages. Wonderful book as it is, Hugo does bang on sometimes and the digressions do not always persuade. The dénouement does proceed so very slowly and in a spinning of such verbose detail and animadversion so very much at odds with, by comparison, the more restrained approach of modern fiction, that I found myself willing the pages to turn turn turn as quickly as they would. However, I remain amazed at the sheer force and vitality of the novel.

The disquisition in chapter XX of book V (second volume) is utterly seductive. I single out this statement in a larger argument which dwells on the conflict between the issues of personal interest against the larger obligation, the considerations which first arise in his discussion of the difference between an émeute and an insurrection, the moral questions: Or, il arrive quelquefois que la vie momentanée des individus fait résistance à la vie éternelle du genre humain. [p 621-2]

Alas for his prediction that ‘le dix-neuvième siècle est grand, mais le vingtième sera heureux’. [p567]

As for this: ‘Une conte d’orient dit que la rose avait été faite par Dieu blanche, mais qu’Adam l’ayant regardée au moment où elle s’entrouvrait,elle eu honte et devint rose. Nous sommes de ceux qui se sentient interdits devant les jeunes filles et les fleurs, les trouvant vénérables.’ What pernicious nonsense to us, now, but rooted in that misty sentimentality with which such delicate issues as love were managed in a gentler age of fiction. Hugo’s idealisation of pure young love is an oddity given how coarse, by contrast, our more cynical view. Love’s young dream, the poetically fraught mayfly brevity of first love, the yearning unloaded with experience. How I blush now to ponder those early blushes and hesitancies, the thoughtless certainties, the desire untrammelled by disappointments. The quickness of romance, the shock of chagrin.

Mention of Vincennes [p 590] puzzled me at first, then I remembered, it’s the site of the old Cartoucherie which became a theatre. I saw a café-concert there, once, with Laurence and her family Tu ne voleras point. One line has stuck with me forever – the entire show was about theft, property….’Si vous perdez une main dans la machine, est-ce que vous vous contentez à dire que ce’nest pas Perdue pour tout le monde?’

 

Emails ref a piece for From Our Own Correspondent

from: John Murphy

Sent: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 7:34 PM

To: ‘Graeme Fife’

Subject: fooc

 

Graeme,

Quick note to confirm I’m using your Deia piece in the prog tomorrow morning. Just been recording the cues early with Ms. Adie who has some kind of royal engagement during out normal recording session, in the morning.

All the best and thank you.

John

  1. Have I yet returned your Pyrenees piece? I should have done. If not, will do so tomorrow.

 

John

So, I’m to be preceded by the ermine…Hoo hoo. Thanks for the note.

When you say ‘return the Pyrenees piece’, is that – absit omen – because you don’t

like/want it?

My outreach support group will be huddled about the steam radio tomorrow, topping up the radiator and checking the batteries whilst cousin Flynn grapples with the aerial – not an easy task, the bent coat hanger is a deil [sic] to position when the holding device is fashioned of bluetack and fuse wire – to secure something akin to clear speech patterns, but, as they all admit, the listening’s the thing, whether you can hear it or not. All the best   Graeme

 

 

Sit down! Listen! That’s the message we like to send out from FOOC. John

As for sending back your script – only saying that I do actually read scripts and make suggested alterations. Some need significantly more than others. Yours are on the minimal end. J

The Pyrenees piece opens:

‘I drove up the valley in bright sunshine. Fly-fishermen stood thigh-deep in the waters of the Arac. Pre- Revolution, commoners were allowed neither to hunt nor fish. Nowadays, it’s only maggots that are banned.’

 

From John:

Graeme,

Here’s a slightly tweaked script.

Why are maggots banned?

J

 

Maggots are banned because (and I’m no fisherman) they pertain to coarse fishing – to the aficionado only one step up from flinging lighted sticks of dynamite into the water – and fly fishing, only, is allowed.

The tweaks good. I see that I have rather sloppily used pulsating twice. That can be emended.

Bombilating…? (ha ha)

 

One becomes so educated on FOOC.

Many thanks for the Mallorca one – on air this morning.

We need to fix a recording day and time for the next one. Whenever you happen to be in town.

All the best, J

 

Thanks, John.

 

16 March

 

The piece on revisiting Deià for FOOC broadcast on this morning’s programme.

 

A while ago, I talked to someone I hadn’t seen for years on the phone. She asked what I did now. I told her and she said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, are you famous?’ I said: ‘Well, I’m probably quite well-known in the cycling world but that’s a bit like being president of the Fancy Rat Society.

When Lucy was not quite a teenager, she had two pet rats, mother and son, and I enrolled her in the Fancy Rat Society which is an association for rat-fanciers, not a niche lobby for support and preservation of rats of distinct and exotic species.

 

A woman took her young son to Canterbury to visit her husband, his father, at the time serving a short sentence in the prison there. They first visited the cathedral – paying their entry fee – then the museum, paying for tickets, finally, after lunch, the prison where, going through the rigmarole of vetting and checking, no money changed hands. The little boy asked: ‘Don’t we have to pay to come in here?’ to which she might have replied – but forbore to – ‘No, Daddy already has.’

 

17 March

An access of misery, I felt quite stricken with loneliness, the result, I know, of weighing up the consequences of writing the memoir – which I began on Monday – about Laurence. It is a story which, of course, has weighed on me for years. When I told the bare bones of its shocking climax to Duncan in Edinburgh last summer, he lit with excitement: ‘Shit, Graeme, you have to tell that story and I think you should tell it in French.’

Since the beginning of the year, I have taken copious notes, in French, on the characters involved, the circumstances, the shape and pulse of the drama, with the idea of rendering it as a novel – names changed and so on. I foundered, got stuck, could find no way out of this cul-de-sac, as it appeared to be. The making fiction out of this straight narrative, if there is such a thing.

Then, one night, a couple of weeks ago, I woke and, for no clear reason, sang through, in my head, Georges Brassens’s song Saturne. Laurence’s birthday, 23 December, falls in the time of the Saturnalia, the god’s dark winter revels. But, the song is of his saturnine disposition – morne…taciturne…fort inquiétant…– and moves into an address of the beloved. There’s a lot of slang in the words and I had a general sense of its import but, suddenly, I felt I knew what it meant, I knew how Brassens was turning the story on its head – apt enough for the topsy turvydom of the Saturnalia. And, impelled by this revelation – how slow I am to plumb these shallows, good lord – I also suddenly realised that I was crazy to try to cast the story as fiction. It had to be the true story, in so far as I could tell it with fidelity, without side. And now, this day, I feel the weight of its grief boring in on me, the pain it will evoke, the terrible sense of loss, of failure – on my part – the crushing sorrow we went through.

I went to a song recital and sat, miserably, in the auditorium, bleak at this confrontation with parting, absence, the desolation wrongly called peace…solitudinem faciunt pacemque appellant.

            Ce qui est glacé est sincère…Hugo Les Misérables, tome II p 805

            Note. An editor once struck out ‘access’ in something I’d written and replaced it with ‘excess’ entirely ignorant of the separate meanings of the two words.

 

Mais non – ma jeunesse est finie…

Adieu, doux rayon qui m’as lui –

Parfum, jeune fille, harmonie…

Le Bonheur passait, il a fui.

Une Allée du Luxembourg Gérard de Nerval

 

Spring Equinox

Souvenir of Deià

 

On my first visit in April 1971, I was with Robert in Ca N’Alluny one morning, the main room, and he pointed to a thickish sheet of metal propped up against the side of the hearth. It was roughly square in shape, rounded at the top, to fit the hearth opening, with two small half-moons extrusions at the bottom edge as handholds.

‘You see that,’ he said. ‘I invented that.’

‘No you didn’t,’ I said. ‘That’s a bleezer.’

I knew the word from the family of Jen, married to my friend Alan, both from Durham, who lived near them in their first home in Ryton, by the Tyne. True, the bleezers I’d seen hitherto were not metal but cardboard, plywood, even the page of a newspaper – inclined to catch fire itself and be sucked on the up-draught into the newly roaring flue.

Robert’s eyes opened wide, his face an expression between annoyance and curiosity, and he marched off, me tagging on, into the work room to consult Wright’s dialect dictionary. There it was, north-eastern dialect form of blaze.

 

I told this story on Saturday night past, in Amberley, Gloucestershire, at supper with Neil and Alison and three other couple, friends of theirs, also known to me. Next morning, Kate, who, with Rob her husband, lives in Sevenoaks, asked me what exactly my connection with the north-east was. (I’d mentioned other words emanating from Tyneside, learnt when I was at Durham, I think, rather than assimilated from the times I spent in North Shields and Tynemouth.) I said that my father had been born and brought up in North Shields. Where exactly? she asked. Tudor Avenue, I said. His mother had been widowed and married again, to George Wallace, Wally. At this, Kate’s face lit in amazement. And she was called Mae…? Yes. George was my grandfather, she said. I don’t believe this…what number was it? 47? 46, I think. (Later, she phoned her mother, Wally’s daughter, and she said it was indeed number 46.)

She knew my uncle George and his wife Elsie, the Canadian, my aunt Della, but not my father. Also Della’s daughter, Berenice, Berry.

All this sudden upheaval of memory and remarkable coincidence not helped by the fact that I didn’t much like Mae, whom I called Nan. Of that I said nothing. So, not quite related except by jointure of two separate families.

 

22 March

A Green Woodpecker flew across in front of me as I rode off from the top of the first, steep, steep hill in my ride of the Park. I watched the chrysoprase flash of it dipping away towards the next cover of trees, a lovely sight. A privilege.

 

25 March

A calamitous explosion in Birkenhead this morning. A local vicar, who opened his church to people forced to leave their home, said, before describing what he saw – the devastation, ruin, chaos – prefaced his description with ‘If I’m totally honest’. The word seems to have been leached of its true sense long since. Thus Tony Blair, forever saying ‘if I’m honest’ to which the response must be, ‘how often are you not, that you have to signal when you are?’

As for that meaningless triplet ‘any way, shape or form’ what on earth does that mean?

 

To the Royal Academy to see the exhibition of Russian post-revolutionary art, 1917-32. Most of the painting naïve and clumsy, garish colour, poor draughtsmanship, tortured imagery. A fine portrait of Lenin sitting alone in a room, in a small armchair covered with plain, grubby white cloth, a table beside him, sheaf of papers, a chair identical to the one in which he sits next to the table, his attention on a letter he’s writing. The exhibition caption says, of the empty chair, that it seems to invite us in to join him. Not the effect I felt: it was, rather, indicative of his solitude, his isolation, his self-absorption.

Nikolai Terpsikhorov (is this a Slavic form of Terpsichore, muse of dancing?) The First Motto, a man painting the white words on a red banner, but no explanation of what the First Motto was. This is sloppy. None of the curators knew, either. I searched it out and it was, strictly, The First Slogan: All power to the Soviet.

The overriding effect of passing through the many rooms – film clips of the proletariat happily engaged on productive work in the (inefficient) factories and the (failing) collective farms, or mechanistic kallisthenics in Red Square, all the tick-tock metronome marionettes the same in body and face. A group of maquette models of pompous civic architecture – for a regime which firmly denounced individualism, the abundance of heroic statues of the leader poses a large question – is of a dehumanised society. Chilling, depressing, sterile.

 

28 March

Full-blown, spring day – radiant sun, warm airs, blue sky with a few filmy rags of cloud. I began work in the garden straight after breakfast – this being a fast day, fruit and yogurt, coffee, no granola – scarifying the grass. An hour into that and Nick arrived. He aerated the grass with the hole puncher while I got the salad bar – stack of three shelves with pots – ready for the seeding. Then off to Polhill to buy various things necessary to the next stage. Back to set up the eyes for holding wires in one fence and Nick did that work, of training the roses which have got rather leggy and straggling, now neatly splayed and much tidier. Meanwhile, I spread top dressing over the grass, caught in a confetti drift of cherry blossom flakes. And then, reseeding grass.

It was an entirely pleasurable interlude, no word work.

 

30 March

To London to record another piece for FOOC:

I drove up the valley in bright sunshine. Fly-fishermen stood thigh-deep in the waters of the Arac. Pre- Revolution, commoners were allowed neither to hunt nor fish. Nowadays, it’s only maggots that are banned.

The road bringing traffic to Massat in this direction was constructed in the 1820s, when the village was more prominent than it is today, a town, even. Signs of that linger. A large hotel, now vacant, old houses, substantial in size, fairly shabby but still imposing, some unoccupied, impressive porticoes, the streets mazy. The economy hasn’t changed much – local produce, market garden, pasture, cheese – and the location, overlooked by high cols, part of its quiet charm. Eight miles (XII kilometres) south lies the mountain border with Spain. Plaques commemorate the passeurs, the local mountain men who guided escapees from German-occupied territory to neutral refuge.

William, 24 years old, from Nantes, greets me at the café/bar/restaurant, Le Maxil, which he runs. ‘How are you doing? Great to see you. Always welcome.’ When I first came – and I’ve spent much time in the village, indeed, lived here awhile – what’s now a friendly, social hub, was a very seedy, nicotine-stained bar. Massat wasn’t dead, but it was moribund: nothing much was happening, the streets went empty because there was little to do and no great attraction of eating or drinking out, no beating heart of rendezvous. William’s presence – as an outsider – and what he and the owner of the adjacent lodge, local man Dylan, have overseen, are palpable signs of an astonishing transformation in this village and its immediate vicinity.

Hippies arrived in the ‘60s, in search of the rural idyll. They stuck out the cold, largely sunless winters in the valley as the price of warmth in the summer and peace all year round. Their counterparts, what the French call marginals, are still here, living on the fringes. But they come to town, too, to Le Maxil, because now Massat is reborn: young couples having children, a fresh, pulsating vibe of life in this community of some 700+ souls.

Nick Flanagan from Liverpool, set up a cycling lodge down the road, 30 years ago. It took a while to get going but, as word spread, cyclists pitched up, encouraged, for sure, by the wider cycling craze. I spent several summers guiding riders, mostly American, round the nearby cols on twinkling roads through lovely scenery. In 2003, a bunch of them treated Nick and me to supper in an auberge outside Massat. The place was heaving, at least 60 diners, most of them cyclists. I nudged Nick: ‘Look round, you’ve done this.’

That much is true, but something else happened here. An osmosis of interest, maybe. As new life flowed into the village from outside, the basic sense of community that never quite died in Massat began to flourish again. Helped on by what the publicist types call foot-fall, I guess. The village had always had its elected Maire, and the present incumbent, M Gasparrou, has told me how, for instance, the bicycle has helped hugely. ‘Oh, yes, people come when the Tour de France sweeps through, other races, too, it generates business.’ Gasparrou, a highly-regarded, genial, kindly man of profound socialist views, also cleaves to that traditional call of noblesse oblige. He helps make things happen: for example a room in a municipal building, given rent free for an exchange store, run by volunteers, of clothes, books, utensils, records, anything useful.

The new butcher’s shop displays a blackboard giving the origin of the meat they sell, local bought. A bi-weekly market fosters trade and custom. Visitors explore, walk, cycle, ride horses, fish and swim in the river. Nothing fancy, all very simple, in old-style France. They frequent the new café/patisserie, the pizzeria. They eat lunch on the crowded, tree-shaded terrace of Le Maxil, as a farmer drives past with tractor and trailer full of muck and a party of workers lines a double table for the toothsome menu du jour.

On the last day of my recent visit, I stood in the market place talking politics with Philippe, owner of the wine-shop behind us. His analysis of the state of France was cool, incisive, no emotional tub-thumping. Very French. I told him that such an exchange was inconceivable in England. He evinced surprise. A shrug, a moue. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me, that here we were, in the loom of the old church belfry…the French for parish politics, l’esprit de clocher, spirit of the clock-tower.

 

2 April

A good ride in warm sunshine – Godden Green and down One Tree Hill, for the expansive view across the Weald – round the lanes to the bottom of Plaxtol Hill, on to Oxenhoath and up to the top of Roughway, another glorious vista, back up Plaxtol Hill and home. Most agreeably weary of leg but cleared out and happy.

 

4 April

A mammoth crow arrives to inspect the area which will receive topsoil and new grass seed tomorrow. I never saw a crow so big, sleek, haughty. It cast an eye on the patch of bare earth and then flew off. Since crows are – or were – reckoned to be prophetic, this one must be a sort of Nostradamus of the corvine species.

 

5 April

I slept ill – a difficult passage it he memoir about Laurence and me – got up early and did a curtailed market ride through the Park, back by 9 o’clock. A ton of topsoil delivered yesterday and I began the barrowing to the back garden just after 10. Nick and Arthur arrived and the three of us got sully stuck in, Nick raking and levelling as we ferried the new soil. The job was pretty well near done by 1.30 and Nick left me to the final raking, broadcasting of the special seed – recommended by the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh’s horticulturalist. I escaped there from the city last August for a balmy afternoon of tranquillity and was so struck by the quality of their grass borders that I phoned to ask what grass it was. A mixture of festuca rubra, (strong creeping fescue), festuca rubra commutate, (chewing fescue), and agrostis capillaris, (browntop bent).

I finished at around 2.45, had lunch and rosé of Provence, read in the sun and. Later on, prepared supper for Kate and Max. After they’d gone, I watched some of the peerless Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax and, still not tired – nor was I wired – I eventually got to bed at around 1.30.

 

8 April

Market walk, a green woodpecker flies across as I walk down the curving slope towards the main rift of the Park. A lone – and lonely looking – Greylag goose mooches about in the area from which I pass towards the Bird House. Across the way, a pair of muntjac deer graze, unconcernedly – they’re far less skittish than the more numerous fallow deer in the Park, a little posse of which I see on the far rise of the rift, young ‘uns chasing each other, playing at tag, switching direction at a sudden jink, full of zip.

At the market, I talk to James, a bowman, about archery, the woods used for bows, the technology deployed by today’s makers – controlled tests for torsion, compression, and stress factors, thus the use of laminated structure. The old single pole yew bows didn’t last much beyond 100 arrows and were then, as he put it, ‘fire wood’. Paul, the shutterbug, and I are going to see a demonstration put on by the Fraternity of Saint George, of which James is a member, at Chevening tomorrow. The staff of the house – official country residence of the Foreign Secretary, but now shared by the unholy trio of Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – are very twitchy about security and have put a ban on any media attendance. I told James that Paul and I ain’t meejah, we’re superior.

At home, I watch a coal tit busily plucking tufts from the lagging round the olive tree pot in the front garden. He dabs and dabs with his small beak, gathers a fair quantity, enough for some lagging of his own net, but keeps dabbing, dabbing, until he decides that he has enough – not discernibly more than he’d already stuffed into his beak, and flits away.

 

After the American air strike on the Syrian air base ordered by Trump as reprisal for the vile bombing of a town with explosion and sarin, a Syrian rebel is quoted as saying that  ‘Trump is better for us than Hillary because he’s honest and insane’.

 

9 April

To Chevening with Paul, my photographer friend, and James, from the fruit and veg stall at the market who is a member of the Fraternity of Saint George. I gave them breakfast here before we set out in hot sunshine on what turned out to be a day of 23-35 degree temperatures, more like July.

 

It is, perhaps, an indicator of just how deep the influence of the longbow runs in our national consciousness, that the name chosen for what has become the longest-running soap opera on the radio is The Archers. Other surnames attest to the continuation of folk memory if not the formal practice of the skill and craft which went into the manufacture and shooting of the longbow – Bowyer, the artisan who made them, Fletcher, who put the feathered flights on the arrows, Bowman, another name for archer, both of which words first appear in print in 1297.

The Fraternity of Saint George is an association of men and women who perpetuate the tradition of archery with the famous longbow, by shooting at mark in open country. The mark designates the point at which the arrows are aimed, in the Fraternity’s context, a small plaque mounted on a wooden stake (whence the expressions ‘to stake a claim, to up the stakes’). In the original context, when the bows were deployed in battle, the mark would have been the enemy. But, for the moment, let me speak of the pacific practice of these devotees of the longbow, gathering from across the country, united in their love of every aspect of the pastime.

Dylan, aged 10, is from Birkenhead. He began shooting with a jelly bow – I know, you’ve never heard of a jelly bow. Nor I. It’s described as ‘a simple, yet effective, glass fibre compound bow’. Designed for beginners, it’s no toy, however. It may even be able to shoot an arrow a distance of 90 yards. Dylan is with his father and began shooting at 6 years old. From the other end of the country, Horsham in Sussex, Imogen, now 12 years old, began shooting when she was 5. Each of the youngsters handles a light bow but join the muster with all their fellow archers at 10.15 on a bright sunny morning to hear instructions for the ensuing day’s shoot from the Fraternity’s Captain, Brian Mooyaart and his wife, Catherine, the Secretary.

A disparate group of people, all ages, no fancy togs, the bare essentials of their trade –  bow, quiver containing around a dozen arrows, most slung from the belt, although one woman prefers the over the shoulder position, what one might call the native American style. Our guide, James, also prefers that method. He’s not shooting today. He’s been unable to practise and is, he admits, not in the right shape to draw the bow with any degree of efficiency. For, mistake it not, easy as putting an arrow against a string, opening the bow and letting fly may look, it demands strength, poise and stamina in equal proportion. But, more of that later.

The first mark is positioned a little over a hundred yards away and I make no apology for using yards as opposed to the metric measure. Those of us of an age were brought up knowing about the cloth yard and the cloth yard arrow which matched the distance roughly between shoulder and tip of the outstretched hand, that is, three feet or 36 inches. This was a standard measure used by early drapers and the arrow shot by the longbow was nominally the same. In fact, somewhat shorter, but let’s not quibble.

The mark is just visible behind a small clump of trees but since the trajectory of an arrow shot to cover the distance will be high, general direction seems to suffice for ranging in on the mark. The archers fan out in a long line across the brow of a rise above a narrow, shallow valley. They are to shoot three arrows, in their own time after the order.

I expect a similar sound to that in the soundtrack of the Olivier film of Henry V, a mighty whirring whizz, enhanced, of course, as part of the Walton soundtrack. In fact, the sound is quite different, even given that there are but 61 bows unleashing their arrows. A slight ping and the clack of the string snapping back into place after the draw and release. The slender arrows fly, flexing up on their lofty parabola into the cloudless blue sky of this glorious spring day. They shimmy and shiver like a bamboo thin plant stick, like elvers, all a-quiver on the draughting of the arrows at their butt end. And then they fall, out of the sun, invisible, at terminal velocity to the ground. Such is the force of their drop that they drive into the earth of the lea several inches. Impossible not to connect that with the effect on a human or equine target. Indeed, one of the male archers is wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the names of the famous engagements of the Hundred Years War, between England and France, in which the longbow played such a dominant role. Crècy, Poitier and Agincourt, of course, but Sluys, Aljubarrota, Castillon…? No time to ask. The archers move down the slope towards the mark to retrieve their arrows and for any scoring shots to be marked. Three radiating circles from the mark yield: inner at half a bow’s length from the mark scores 12, middle, three quarters of a bow length, 7, outer, 1 ¾ length, 3. The competition runs through the day. At this first mark there’s a bit of good-natured joshing about scores. I ask a nearby archer whether tempers ever flare. He smiles. ‘No.’ I glance over to the mark, people appointed to make the scores hold up calling out ‘12’ or ‘7’ for their owners to collect. For some reason unexplained, some owners don’t collect their arrows on the walk towards the mark. These are gathered up by anyone who spots them to be laid by the mark as ‘orphans’.

The Fraternity is open to all, its sole and driving aim, to encourage the practice of the longbow in its ancient tradition. To quote their principle, declared purpose: ‘You do not have to be a member to join. Archers from all walks of life just turn up, pay their shooting fee and join the event – all thereby become shooting members of the Fraternity. Openness and welcome that originate in the ancient tradition of free association. Freedom to shoot in glorious surroundings.’

The origins of the association date back to 1509 when the young King Henry VIII inaugurated annual payments to a small company of archers to be known as the Fraternity of Saint George, payment due each 23 April, the saint’s day. By then, the use of the longbow in war was on the way to being superseded by the rather clumsy but powerful new firearms. The last occasion when the longbow played a decisive role is generally reckoned to be in the decisive victory of the English over the Scots at Flodden in 1513. In 1537, the Fraternity was reconstituted as The Honourable Artillery Company, artillery being a native rendering of the French for ‘to draw a bow’ arc tirer.

Some technical background…English yew was not the preferred wood for the longbow, rather the yew grown in Europe. Indeed, during the Hundred Years War, the royal exchequer not uncommonly demanded payment for exports in yew. One of the archers showed me his bow made of Italian yew, from trees growing at high altitude, around 3000 metres, he said. This is unlikely – the treelines in the high Italian alps don’t soar quite that high, but no matter. The bow is unusual in that the maker has retained the knots in the shaped stave. Some makers will drill out the knots and replace with inset wood. Does this upset the structure of the material or not? As with all niche crafts, opinions differ. Some makers like to keep their secrets ‘under their hat’. Origin of the phrase? On an approach to battle, archers kept their flax or hemp string under their cap to keep it dry for action.

The range of woods formerly used includes wych elm and ash, but the modern makers, for the laminated bow (ie a structure combining more than one wood) will use lemonwood, hickory, American yew, osage, which one bowmaker to whom I spoke called ‘the king of bow woods’…The crucial qualities of a bow must be intrinsic strength, flexibility, and the capacity to withstand the extreme torsion of being drawn to full bend. As James tells me, in the old saying, ‘a fully drawn bow is nine tenths broken’, namely very close to breaking point. And, something not widely known, perhaps, after around 200 to 400 arrows, a battle bow would have lost its cast – its full efficiency – and been turned into a practice bow or tillered, scraped down, as a child’s bow.

It took a skilled artisan some 40 hours to make a longbow. The training of an archer for place in the battle ranks was a long and continual process, perhaps years. These two factors spelled the end of the bow as a dominant weapon of war. The musket which took its place could be manufactured very quickly in quantity and a man could be trained to fire one in a day. Rate of fire very slow by comparison, accuracy minimal but the combined effect of what could now properly be termed ‘fire power’ was damaging if not lethal, the noise bewildering, the acrid fumes of spent powder further discomfort for those engaged in the nasty business of war. As a writer said, in 1598: ‘A vollie of musket…goeth with more terrour…than doth your vollie of arrows.’ Some 5 to 6000 English archers were arrayed at Agincourt. Their volleys of arrows – each man was initially supplied with two dozen shafts of bodkin or else blade pointed tips – to a range of around 250-300 yards. It would take a mediaeval destrier, battle horse, around 28 seconds to cover that distance, allowing the archers to loose 4 to 5 arrows at aimed distance.  The famous arrow storm probably caused most injury to the horses of the French knights, which were armoured only round the face and chest. The knights themselves, clad in plate armour, will have suffered little because the arrows dropped at an angle and glanced off the metal. But the clattering noise of that storm of arrowheads, dropping at deadly speed out of the sky must have been terrifying, unsettling, demoralising. Add the kick and jaunce and screams of wounded animals, and the French had been dealt an early, if not devastating, blow.

We moved across the shallow trough of the valley and up the steeper slope on the far side. Here the archers once more lined up to shoot across the dip at the Lees’ Lion mark. The names of the marks derive, largely, from reference to marks laid out on their practice grounds in Finsburie (Finsbury) Fields to the north outside the City of London. One such, Primrose, recalls the spring flowers which grew in profusion on those fields before the advance of house-building. In a nice consonance, the Fraternity ceased shooting in the 1760s but was reconstituted under its present Captain and began shooting at its home ground Godinton, in Kent, and the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, born three years before Crècy, died fifteen years before Agincourt, wrote, in his tales of the pilgrims en route to Canterbury, how spring ‘bathes every vein of the plants in a sap which engenders the force and virtue of the flower’. We feel and smell it this day.

The archers wait. For in solemn show and in memory of one of their number who died earlier in the year, a chosen woman archer unleashes a black arrow towards the mark. There ensues a minute’s silence, broken only by the drone way aloft of a jet airliner. The sound dwindles, there’s a slight freshet of breeze and then three white arrows fly towards the mark. Rest in peace. I stoop down to investigate a royal blue object lying in the grass next to me feet. It’s a spent shotgun cartridge, the new amidst the centuries old.

There now plays out a slight comedy in that the next mark has to be reset because the Captain has removed its plaque to read out the history of it, the Gold Cup, also known as the Saint Agnes Cup, from its shape – the saint was martyred by having her breasts cut off. This done, one of the archers is chosen to run off down the slope to reposition the plaque. He’s no runner. He laughs. The reward is a clutch of minuscule Easter eggs. He pats his midriff and says: ‘Eating chocolate is part of the problem.’ Laughter all round. He sets off at what one might call a considered jog, repositions the plaque and, at rather slower pace still, resumes his position in the line, having covered his furlong there and back at what he obviously regards as his briskest pace. More laughter.

And now the archers take up position to shoot. James talks me through the dynamic of this: fleet planted square, shoulder width apart. The legs must not bend during the effort, the bending is done from the hips. The arrow nock (open slit) at the end by the fletching fitted to the string – often silk, these days – the arms brace ready to open the bow, as the body tilts down from the waist and the strength of middle back, shoulders and arms combine to produce the force necessary to draw the bow to full. Even as the arrow head moves to the passing point on the front of the bow the fingers holding the string at the archer’s lips, chin or upper breast, let it slip. The longer the arms hold the bow open, the more the propulsive force developed by the liberated string diminishes. The action is best done: nock, draw, release. And the same position each time, for consistency of shot and range. I ask James what the optimum angle of release would be. Instantly, he replies: ’42.3⸰.’ That precise. It goes along with the sort of intense laboratory testing to which some bow makers have subjected their bows.

We leave the field at lunchtime, buoyed up by the pleasure of amiable company, having been delighted close witness to an ancient mystery, longbow and the arrow, and, phew, not a single mention of Robin Hood.

 

Paul and I stopped at The Brickmakers by Chipstead Lake for a drink – James had another rendezvous – another noble English tradition, pint of bitter at a pub before lunch on a Sunday. So very pleasant to sit in the warm sun, the tables outside the pub well occupied, a ring of men standing by a litter bin just off the green where we sat, mothers with nippers installed on the grass, the water of the lake empty of boats – odd, given the yacht club along the lane leading off the road through. Perhaps a regatta at another club.

 

As I water the plants, in the early evening, I hear the sound of an ice cream van passing somewhere, the jingle inextricably linked to the coming of warmer weather – and today temperatures hit upwards of 23 degrees. Soon it’ll be joined by the boing-boing of trampolines and the shriek of the children producing the boing-boing.

 

12 April

A green woodpecker flips out of the rough grass as I drop down from the main metalled paths into the central rift of Knole and skims away towards the woods lining the slope tomy right. A brave sight.

One of the frissons of having a piece on FOOC is being introduced by Kate Adie whom I met in 1987 at the inaugural sea trials of the reconstructed Athenian trireme. I contributed to a book, made a radio programme and rowed on the boat off Poros, then went to join the Greek crew – a small number of Brits also stayed on for further trials, including an outing into Salamis Bay. An Athenian trireme afloat in those waters once more, quite something.

Adie was with a two-man camera crew, kicking their heels as they waited for the opportunity to go to Libya. I asked her if she’d give me an interview, she agreed, and we sat on the hard of the naval barracks in Poros, where we were quartered, and she talked. I’d been kitted out with professional Walkman, microphone and heaps of tapes and told by the producer – who, I rather felt, was not at all sure that I would bring back any material worth using – to get people to talk interestingly, and, most important, don’t interview them, tell them the question you want them to address and let them speak as if they wanted to talk about it spontaneously. John Theocharis, a Greek.

Adie talked freely, clearly, concisely and with great enthusiasm, at one point, gesturing to where the boat was moored and said: ‘Just look at her, she’s magnificent, compared to the gin palaces you see round about in these waters, wonderful.’ At the end of the conversation, I switched off he machine and she said: ‘Check that you’ve got it. Many times when I was a cub reporter, I lost stuff – left the Pause button on.’ I checked. I had the recording. Some while later when I got the Greek captain of the boat to talk, I checked the machine as he walked away: Pause button depressed.

Kate Adie was so very generous, showed no side, very unassuming.

I delivered the tapes and the indicators of who was speaking on each section of each tape, the length of time of their contribution recorded from the counter on the machine. There were hours of speech, numerous contributors. About a week after I’d taken the material to Broadcasting House, John Theo phoned me, in Norfolk, and said: ‘Well, you see, Graeme, this material that you’ve brought back is really quite good, really very good. However, we need you to come to London because your calibrations do not match those on our machine here.’  How daft was that.

I went to London, we worked through the tapes and, at some point, I mentioned my first visit to Greece – with a bunch of fellow students from Durham, the end of my first year, in 1965. They’d all gone off straight from Athens to Hydra, I stayed on to hitch hike round the northern Peloponnese and, staying in Athens before sailing to the island to join them, I went to the Odeon of Herodos Attikos, the Roman theatre below the Parthenon, to see a performance of Aeschylus’s Persai. In a taxi taking me across town, the driver told me how Greece had no government, it was all a mess, what a joke, complete chaos. Then he lifted both hands off the wheel and laughed.

This was a stage in the growing unrest and political upheaval into which the brutal Colonels strode two years later to impose an oppressive regime which the ancestors of these modern Greeks, with their aversion to such rule, would have called a tyranny.

In the play, the Messenger brings news of the calamitous defeat of the Persian armada by the Athenian triremes in Salamis Bay, 480 BC, to queen Atossa, mother of king Xerxes, leading the Persian expedition. Hearing his terrible news and incredulous – how could such a vast force of superior ships and men be brought low by a raggle taggle bunch of poor Greeks – she asks the Messenger whom the Greeks follow into battle, whom do they call master. (In the Greek, the image is of shepherd and sheep.) He replies: ‘They follow no man, they call no man master,’ at which the entire audience stood to cheer and shout and applaud and holla and hoot with joy.

The Chorus in that performance was composed of men and the choreographing of their movements, simple, unfussy, was stark and demonstrative of terror, of incredulity, of bafflement. By small flicks of gesture, turns of the body, swivel of the head, they conveyed a pent-up emotion scraped with fear and incomprehension. The music accompanying was, as I remember, deep gong notes together with muffled bass percussion of drums.

Telling John Theo this story, I saw his face crease into a light smile. ‘I directed that performance,’ he said.

 

14 April

I read: ‘With most Labour MPs having retreated to their constituencies…’ and ‘with someone having failed to ask a question…’. And of Delaware punch that the ingredients are of fruit ‘with grape being the most prominent…’ This otiose use of with, utterly superfluous, sloppy and vulgar. It’s all over the place. A syntactical irritant.

 

Easter Sunday, 16 April

Brunch with Marie and all. Then to London to meet Cathryn (Graham, Duncan’s cousin) for matinée of The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. A salutary rinsing out of the tear ducts. Late lunch in Joe Allens.

 

18 April

Notes for the intended itinerary:

Gatwick to Orlando. I had no interest in going to Orlando but my original plan of beginning a short trip in Chicago foundered on the cost of flights thereto. Crazy expensive – around £1000, no obvious reason other than the spring break. I therefore cast around for a destination whence I could take the overnight Amtrak service to Washington DC, for a longer stay. Orlando offered. Did no one want to go to DisneyWorld? I asked a few people if there was any good reason to linger a day in Orlando, in case my instinct – to get out as quickly as possible – was either precipitate or culpably ignorant. There was none, they said, unanimously. On the off chance of finally meeting the man Dylan who has been so generous in allowing me to stay free of charge in the lodging house in Massat – he lives and works in Miami – I told him I was coming to Florida. He replied that there was a possibility of his having some work to do near Orlando and asked me where I was staying. Travelodge Downtown, I told him. Hm, Downtown Orlando, not such a nice area, he said, referring I think, not to the architecture, rather to the prevalence of street violence. Well, I had booked the hotel and would be there but briefly and, arriving late evening, most of the time there would be broad daylight.

I travelled on Norwegian Airlines, paid £25 in advance for a ‘nice and tasty meal’, had no earphones for the movies, so concentrated on reading – American Gods Neil Gaiman, with which I was already close to disgruntled. The only book I was carrying. Surely even Downtown Orlando would have a supply of books?

I was in a rare pother about entry Visa. Last year’s was still valid, so the website told me, but initially uncertain about this, I had applied for another and had no reply. Is it fatigue that set off the alarm? Have I become neurotic? Was I going to get to Immigration Control, have the man check my passport and call for the scary people to cart me off to the interrogation room ahead of putting me on the next flight home? The anxiety came in waves. You’re just being silly, I told myself. But what if it’s true, what if the Visa has expired?

The nice and tasty was neither and, at £25 wildly over-priced. It came with a single glass of wine. I did scroll through the options for the movies I might have watched had I been equipped with earphones and found none in which I had the slightest interest. American Gods continued to elude my interest, too.

Immigration

            I reach the front of the line at last and hand my passport to the man in the booth. He scans it and proceeds to ask me the routine questions – why I was there, where I was staying, was I bringing in more than $10,000…? ‘If only,’ I say, injudicious reply, evidence of my relief and finding myself inches away from admission to America in these even more touchy times.

The pre-booked shared taxi into Orlando nowhere to be found. Enquiries fruitless. I go to another firm and pay another $20 for a ride, lone passenger in a taxi. The long strip of commercial depots and outlets on the main highway towards the city, eating joints, bars, hotels here and there, clumps of private housing interspersed, lights everywhere.

I tell the driver that I’d been told that Downtown Orlando isn’t safe. He responds: ‘Safe? Nowhere’s safe is something’s going to happen. You can’t prevent that.’

I remark on the numerous stretches of water we pass. There’s no river but there’s ample water not far below the surface and numerous lakes, large and small, supply the city’s needs. ‘And alligators, too,’ says the driver.

‘Alligators? What, in all the lakes?’

‘Pretty much.’

The skyline of the city as we nose into its labyrinth of streets very grand, modern, lofty, bright and shiny. Expressive of money, corporate power, branded architecture.

Just before we get to the hotel, he fields a call on his cell phone. I ask him what language that was he’d been speaking. ‘Spanish Creole’.

The Travelodge lives up to low expectation but the room is clean. It’s now around 10.15. I head out for a drink, on instructions from the woman at the front desk. A long walk, as it turns out, and, just after I left the hotel, I heard the horn of an Amtrak train – passing through Central Station, not ten minutes from the hotel, I discovered – and the sound reaches into me, fresh memory of the rock an roll and driving rhythm, of the big train Wabash Cannonball   A long tramp, premises, bars, restaurants, washeterias, coffee shops, dingy shops, all dark, but I find the Saddle-up All American bar on Orange Avenue N in what looks like the start of a livelier area than that through which I’d just walked.

Two gals serving the drinks –  red and black plaid shirts with tousled ringlet blonde hair and High-school smiles. I ask for a MacCallan 10 year old. Two television screens above the bar, the play-offs – ice hockey on one side, basketball on the other. The ice hockey, that mixture of dizzyingly fast exchange of puck and crash of deliberate collision between heavily padded jocks, integral part of the show. A small dance floor with several couples engaged in some form of western dancing – the place offers line-dance lessons. I reflect on being once more in America, friendly folks and easy style.

As I walked back from the bar, I glanced up at the open gallery of the bell tower of the Catedral de Santiago  – a figure in a dark cowl stands there, motionless, maybe at prayer. I wondered, at first, whether it was no more than a shadow but then a slight shift. Most definitely human, possibly sacerdotal, Black Spirit of the Angelus.

Having woken at 5am and not slept thereafter, I’d been up for 21 hours. At 6.30, after reading, I went out to water, feed the beds with seaweed fertiliser and introduce the nematodes. Now slept intermittently, in small spurts, having switched off the noisy air-conditioning plant in the corner of the room. Not necessary, in fact, despite the heat outside.

 

19 April

The fits and starts of sleep petered out into wakefulness before the light had encroached much on the holding dark. Since I had three time sources – my pocket watch (on BST), my UK mobile and the American cell, though not yet active, or possibly was, I don’t know – I might have been able to corner the exact hour then, but I could not, nor could I be sure whether BST made UK time four hours rather than five ahead of US.

I eventually set off for the AT&T store – for which I had the address and directions – at 8.45 believing it to be 7.45. I chafed at the lateness but it was just as well: when I tracked the store down, I was, even so, early for its 10am opening.

In close heat, I set off up Magnolia to E Colonial, a four-lane highway that may be a ring road, it had the feel of that. The store is at 2608, the number of the building at the intersection is 201. I walk for an hour, stop at a pharmacy to buy a small bottle of mouthwash and some back-up after shave balm (which I still haven’t opened), take note of a wine warehouse – supplies for lunch and supper – at the entry to a plaza and descry a Barnes and Noble at the end of the open space beyond the car parks.

I have to wait outside AT&T for five minutes, until the man inside who is busy plying the vacuum cleaner puts it away and opens the door. He discovers that the number on the phone given to me last year in North Carolina has been reassigned. So harsh. The prickly fruit of my perceived neglect. A flash of concern when I wonder if this means a new phone. The guy continues: ‘But it’s okay, I can give you a new number. Where would you like it to be located?’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’m going to Washington. That’d make sense.’ ‘Sir, it would.’ He duly assigns me a number from DC and, in the words of that most sweet-natured friendly expression, I’m set. Nine days for $18 and I thank the man and head for the wine store.

‘Good to get out of the heat for a while,’ I say to the woman at the checkout as I arrive with a bottle of Rhône and a claret.’

‘Where you from?’

‘Kent in England. We’ve had a bit up and down weather lately.’

‘Is it always cold in England?’

‘No.’

‘Damp?’

‘Not recently.’

‘We haven’t had rain for months. It’s dry dry.’

She doesn’t know whether the bus I’ve seen on the highway will take me back to the intersection though it must surely do. However, she summons someone who lives locally who tells me it surely does and will but runs only twice an hour, no idea exactly when. I leave the store, decided to eschew Barnes and Noble on the chance of another place downtown and cross the highway. At a bus stop some hundred yards along, I ask a woman who’s just arrived, when the bus is due. She says it’s due right now and, five minutes later, here it comes.

Back to the hotel, packed, left my single, small rucksack at the desk and went to the diner next door for late breakfast – two eggs over easy, four slices of rye toast, bacon, hash browns (shredded) sliced tomatoes, uncooked, they go on the last of the slice of rye, and coffee coffee coffee.

Back to the hotel to checkout. A man behind the desk. ‘They gave me two [credit card] keys,’ I say. ‘I don’t know why,’ and hand them over to which he: ‘Too many is fine, it’s too few that’s always the problem.’

The train is due to leave Orlando at 13h35. I make my way in good time to Central Station. As well I do. The Amtrak service does not leave from here but from another station some distance away. A man tells me I need to get the 40 bus. I walk across the tracks of this outpost, into a large area of bus stands and ask a driver about the number 40 bus. He tells me there’s one an hour, at quarter of the hour. Thinking that this means there’ll be one at 12.15, I sit down. He astutely clocks that I haven’t registered what ‘of the hour’ ie 15 minutes to means, he comes over, asks me when the train leaves and advises me to catch another bus which will deposit me within five minutes’ walk.

I go across to wait. Ten minutes, the bus arrives, I board, the driver gets off and strolls around on the pavement. Prickle of nerves. I know there must be bags of time but not being at the station unsettles me and, when the journey begins, I am so very grateful to have had spare time.

The departure is delayed. The southbound service of the New York-Miami Silver Meteor [originally known as the Atlantic Coast line] pulls in on the station building side. We wait, therefore, till all its passengers have left the train and eventually make our way over the tracks. As we wait, a woman rejoices in ‘going to New York, I can’t wait, all that food they specialise in there, that’s gonna be such a thing – I want hot dog bagels and I can’t wait, the energy, all that great food.’ This stimulates other people round her to chip in with ‘real pizza…Chinese food…bagels…’ ‘I wanna get to Katz’s deli…’ ‘Yup, in the Bowery. Anyone who knows pastrami goes to Katz.’ [Oh, yes, indeed. David, Lauren and I went that time when I joined them in NY before we drove to New Hampshire to ride the Kingdom Trails.] At this, the guy of ample girth standing next to her said: ‘The only good thing about living in Florida is the diet – I don’t go out for pizza and I don’t go out for bagels,’ the implication being that in Florida, such items suck.

I dump my bag in the roomette and scoot to the dining car. It’s now 14h05. A Big man, the guy in charge, self-evidently, spreads his arms across a table near the counter whence comes the food and service.

‘When’s the latest I can come for lunch?’ I say.

‘Now,’ he says.

‘Now?’ Like…you really serious? No time for a bit of repose before the business of choosing food and…

‘Now.’

I’m shown to a table, order a Stone IPA craft beer and settle in for my reacquaintance with Amtrak, primary reason for my being here. The rewads I earned from my 8000 mile odyssey last year and the $200 transportation voucher I was given for the disppointments of the Nola-LA leg mean that the cost of most of my two train rides is covered.

The train rolls out over the crossings, through Central Station -without stopping – a road sign promises INFINITE MASSAGE, a grown man waits on the sidewalk, sucking drink through stawspoking out of flared styrofoam cups with plastic lids, incongruous, somehow.

Natural tanks and reservoirs much in evidence, ponds and depositos, waterholes and meres, Orlando squeezing the precious irrigation up from the table. Trees arrive i a screen between a broad expanse of lake and a single track of rusted rails immediately below the window as I look out, wooden sleepers rotting and overlaid withleaf and leaf mould, stone and grit. It runs some distance, that abandoned track, before age and redundancy curtails it and it’s gone. Now a thick umbrage of immature wood and rampany undergrowth, stick-thin, wand-like saplings with crochet twig and leaf pinnacle caps, reachigniup for the light. They might be unschooled hop poles

The waitress arrives to take my order. I ask for a burger.

‘Cheese with that?’

‘No cheese, absolutely no cheese. And a single helping of red wine, please.’

At this, she looks askance at the near empty beer glass. I’m remined of Bill and Peter of Mainstream at a restaurant in Washington DC ordering a large gin and tonic apeice and then calling for a bottle of white wine. The waitress remonstrated: ‘But you’ve just had a gin and tonic.’ ‘Yes, and we’re going tohave a bottle of red wine after the bottle of white wine.’

The burger comes – swiftly – with cheese. I send it back. This rejection doesn’t go down well at all. I over hear the exchange in the galley: ‘He said he wanted cheese.’

I wait a long time for the replacement and watch other food, probably ordered after mine ferried toother tables. After around 15 minutes, I go to ask if my lunch is on the way and get an old-fashioned look and a curt rebuff. ‘It’s coming.’ Another wait.

Later, I pick up a fallen menu for the waitress and she thanks me, clearly tired. I say: ‘Well, it can’t have had such a long day as you.’ She does not take this blatant emollience amiss and laughs.

Woodland of more mature growth, a track running through, perfect for an MTB, which ends in green sward of land attached to houses as the track formaliss into a rustic road, grass down the middle as if getting primped to meet the adult road withwhich it fuses, the house on the hill, the road sweepign up over that same brow away from the crossing.

Past the city of Palatka, the forest trails and tracks give way rto a fully-fledged graduate road in tarmac gown with mortar board signs. The diversity of America, an acadeic quarrlefest of influences, west and east coast, central and mid-west, far south and far north,land, towns, cities disconnected from the metropolitan centres, a disconnection so often linked with disaffection.

‘This is Saxaville, Florida where we will stop. Will all passengers leaving the train here please check that you have all your possessions with you – phone, charger, wallets, leads…there are people who leave these things behind [scattering, he might have said, like unsecured objects thrown out of a jouncing stagecoach pursued across the plain by hostiles] so please do ensure that you have left nothing behind when you leave the train. It’s been a pleasure having you on board and please do return soon. Have a nice day.’

 

20 April

This roomette has a toilet incorporated, a nifty arrangement beside the door, plus a tiny handbasin. Thus I am self-contained for the night.

Up at 6am, breakfast to be served from 6.30, arrival due at a little after 7am, the train is stationary. An announcement:

‘Following a mechanical incident with a freight train followed by an emergency issue, the train will be held up by approximately 3 hours which means that you will be getting to your destination with a significant delay. We have dealt with these issues and would like to apologise and so we will get you to your destination as quickly as we can and as safely as we can.’

 

I go along to breakfast. A sign near the galley informs us that this used to be the Seaboard Air Line Railway ‘Through the Heart of the South’ NY-Miami, the Famous Train to Florida Orange Blossom Special, a weighty cargo of monnikers to be hauling.

As usual, I’m seated at a table already occupied. The American predilection for hutching up, which may be no more than a way of introducing folks and ennabling friendly exchange. When I ate my first breakfast in the Common Room at Rossall School, north of Blackpool, on teaching practice, I sat opposite one of the Classics masters, thinking that would be the thing to do. I was there, after all, to teach Classics. He looked up from his newspaper and shook his head. Uncertain what this implied, I leaned forward and, responding to the dampening effect of the silence, whispered: ‘What?’ He, clearly pained by the need to voice his qualm, whispered back: ‘Allotted seats at breakfast. No talking,’ and resumed his reading of the paper. I got up and moved to another vacant seat some distance away, uncertain, of course, whether I was poaching on someone else’s privacy and incommunicado.

The couple sitting opposite are from New York, she a psychiatrist, he a physician, accents betraying Brooklyn Jewish, so I perceive. Before we make any more significant contact than good morning, they’re served thei choice of starter. She, to him, ‘Well, at least I got my yo-grt,’ but without evincing any patent delight in the fact. Instead, the statement comes with a heavy tinge of unexpressed disappointment, as if she’d asked for a lot more and yogurt was all they could come up with. He looks gloomily at his fruit and granola, suggesting that this is duty eating and, if he had his way, it’d be a bagel with lox and cream cheese, perhaps.

Another man joins us, so we are now four. He ignores me and talks with some animation to the couple oppopsite, their shoulders shrunk in their jackets, thus enhancing the sense that life is something of a burden and they all too familiar with the chafes and let-downs the burdenb brings with it. He’s a musician, name of Mendelssohn. This declaration comes way into their cursory exchanges and I say: ‘Good name for a musician,’ thus securing my -shaky – involvement in the conversation. I’m going to Washington. Each recommends a place to visit – Architectural Museum, built post-Civil War. [Actually the National Building Museum, built between 1882 and 1887 to house the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, to provide a suitably grand space for Washington’s social and political functions, and to commemorate the service of those who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.] National Arboretum, National Gallery, Rock Creek Gardens.

Why I mentioned the lobster rebellion I can’t recall but they chimed in with instant recognition – oh, yes, the prisoners in the gaol in Maine who protested against the monotonous diet of lobster, nineteenth century. Even as we speak, the musician says: ‘Talking of prisons…’ and indicates out of the window to the right. The squat, characterless, box-like buildings of a penitentiary, possibly Caroline Correctional Unit #2 near Hanover.

There’s some talk of the current climate of cutting funding for the arts in America – I assure them it’s the same here – and the way multi-culturalism has not encouraged, rather stifled artistic enterprise. Not entirely sure what this is about, I propose, instead of multi-culturalism, a-culturalism

The desultory talk hops on. The medics have been on a birding trip to an island off the South Carolina coast. She speaks of the welcome break from patients. ‘I manage not to think about them at all and that’s so refreshing.’ Her delivery on this expression of what might be construed as pleasure is notably short of calories on the joy temperature scale. She now speaks dismissively of Obama Care, a disaster. I ask whether this is because it was incompetent, badly put together or that she had an reflexive resistance to the idea of universal health care – the pioneer right of each individual in America to be ill on their own terms. The heat in her critique rises. ‘More the idea of relieving people of responsibility for their own lives. They need to accept that this is their obligation.  We need to emphasise individual responsibility. The idea that each person has to answer to their own actions.* So you may have somebody who drives recklessly thinking that if anything happens, the cost of rectifying damage won’t fall on them. Someone else – hospital, doctor, tax – will pick up on the bill.’

This is an argument familiar from the Tory blanket dismissal of the scroungers and wastrels, the benefit pirates, work-shy, tax dodgers. ‘Very well,’ I say, ‘but there will always be freeloaders and you can’t legislate them out of existence or eliminate that tendency by moral pressure.’

‘Even so…’ implying that what’s needed is the full rigour of the law and an exertion of unflinching moral pressure, in the form of social anathema.

‘Similar to the principle on the question of the death penalty, that it’s better that nine guilty people go free rather than one innocent be condemned.’

‘Not a fair analogy.’

*‘…the outsiders ignorant [of Wyoming]’s unwritten motto take care a your own damn self…Pair a Spurs, Annie Proulx

I think it is. And, in the light of their litigiousness – a felon suing the people he’s just burgled for negligence when he skids and slips on the pool surround and breaks his ankle as he makes his way off the premises with the stuff he’s just stolen – the creation of a victim cult: someone else has always to be blamed, the notion of any effective moral pressure loiters a long way behind the practical reality. And from Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin:

‘…I might be more kindly disposed to this ultra-secular notion that whenever bad things happen someone must be held accountable if a curious little halo of blamelessness did not seem to surround those very people who perceive themselves as bordered on every side by agents of wickedness…the same folks who are inclined to sue builders who did not perfectly protect them from the depredations of an earthquake…’ [p.80]

‘This is Washington DC. Be careful to take all your possessions with you when leaving the train – your wallet, your watch, your children…’

 

Paige arrives outside my first lodgings, 3rd St NE. Almost exactly a year ago that we had breakfast together in Union Station before I set off on the final leg of the round-trip, back to Durham NC.

Off to Downtown and lunch at a Spanish resto before the National Archives to see the original document of the Constitution, the rotunda in which it, and associated papers, are housed, overhung with a broad drape on which are printed the various amendments of the Constitution proposed since 1789, 11,593 in all, of which 27 have been adopted. The first ten amendments, added in 1791, are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. To my surprise, I learn that Georgia and both the Carolinas were signatories of the Constitution passed in Convention, 1787.

From there we walk over to the National Gallery of Art and my preferred choice – the American paintings. Eakins, Singer Sargent, Remington, Homer, Russell, Blakelock…Russell’s The Buffalo Hunt putting the blame for extinction of the big herds squarely on the charge of the native Americans, the shy stance of the third of the Boit sisters in Eakins’ study of the four young girls of the wealthy Boston family, left foot placed slightly forward as if in tentative ballet pose, hands behind her back, the floral garland binding the tumble of tousled hair, her expression caught between curiosity and timidity, her dress, a transitional girlish red whereas her older sisters in the alcove, both in grown up black, her infant sister, sitting on the carpet, in baby white, the three older girls in prim white aprons, instinct with the starch of their formal upbringing. Homer’s young girl in white, but a full dress, swirled by the side wind, her left hand placed akimbo on her hip, right holding the hunting horn she’s blowing for call to dinner as she stands outside the wood cabin out in the country. The positioning of her feet, ankle-booted heels together but the right pushed slightly forward, a perfect evocation, somehow, of her youth. She’s been taught the modesty of her female caste.

 

21 April

Ebenezer’s Coffee Shop at 201 F St – ‘coffee with a cause’. I ask for a black coffee, nothing complicated because, on the evidence of the blackboards they do complicated, even small time complicated. The board isn’t crowded, but among the five or so exotics on offer are Birthday Cake Latte, Salad Caramel Custard Latte, Honey Lavender Latte…all small, medium or large, the small quite enough for me, the large sufficient for a family.

The young black woman serving me says: ‘Is that an England accent?’ To her visible delight, I confirm that it is and she now tells me that she’s learning to distinguish various accents and I tell her about the three Englishmen encountering some locals in Alabama who ask them where they learned to speak English. She laughs. Politesse friendliness comfortable

I walk past the great portico and façade of Union Station. In the central panel of the pediment, flanked by the statues of Apollo – for inspiration or imagination – and Themis – freedom or justice – the inscription concludes:

MAN’S IMAGINATION HAS CONCEIVED ALL

NUMBERS AND LETTERS ALL TOOLS VESSELS

AND SHELTERS – EVERY ART AND TRADE ALL

PHILOSOPHY AND POETRY – AND ALL POLITIES

THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE     [my italics]

 

The last line something of a contentious point, generally, at the moment, and I feel it most pertinently in this epicentre of the current insanity.

I proceed down First Street and then climb the hill up to Capitol Plaza. Washington DC’s Forum. Supreme Court to my left, Capitol to my right. Across the portico of the court building: EQUAL JUSTICE FOR ALL BEFORE THE LAW, echoing Cicero’s dictum salus populi suprema est lex. Across the next street, another monumental construction, the Library of Congress, long queues snaking down from the entrance to the sidewalk. Another day. A brief look in the Capitol building – all dates for visits during my time here were taken up.

Down the hill, round the Reflecting Pool – images of the Capitol Dome and the memorial to Ulysses S. Grant shimmer in its waters this bright day of hot sun – and onto the Mall. I stick to the path, shaded a little by the trees, all the way to 14th St and cut up to the intersection with F St, across Constitution Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House, (which is closed to foreign visitors at the moment) to the left.

On the sidewalk outside the Press Association building, I put on the bow tie I’ve brought with me in case the dress code for lunch in the PA Club requires it. Here comes Paige, smartly dressed, on the same premise, and we take the elevator to the top floor to meet David Schuchat, a friend of David and Lesley in Berlin, who has invited us to lunch. ‘I’m mostly bald with a beard and I’ll be the only 86 year old there.’ Since he’s the only man of any description there when we emerge from the lift, the recognition is instant.

‘I wasn’t sure what the dress code was,’ I say.

‘This is the press. You could come in with a torn tee shirt and it wouldn’t matter.’

David is very good company – engaging, amusing, warm, modest, self-deprecating and we sat in the elegance of the club’s panelled dining room for two hours of lively conversation. At one point, Paige asked him about his background in journalism. He chortled. ‘I’m not really a journalist at all. I’ve worked all my life in real estate and I wrote a column on the subject for the Washington Post. That’s it, though once somebody wrote to me after I’d explained some aspect of house-buying to say that it was the first time he’d ever understood that. It’s always wrapped up in so much jargon and professional stuff.’

From the city, we drove out to Virginia, across the Potomac to Alexandria where Paige and her family live. Suddenly, in slow traffic, the car jolts forward – we’ve been rear-ended. The shock isn’t great but an indication of just how serious whiplash can be. The culprit is apologetic, helpful, friendly as he and Paige exchange addresses in the side road into which we pull off.

‘Are you okay?’ she says, as we drive off again.

‘Sure. You?’

‘Yes, I’m fine.’

‘I don’t know about the psychological damage, of course, and I guess it could take a few sessions with a shrink to get over the mental trauma.’ And now I’m sounding po-faced American telling a not very funny joke. Lance Armstrong comes to mind.

Anyway, she laughs and, in truth, my rendition was more skittish than it may sound. I should shut up.

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s House

We arrive at the ticket office around 4pm, next visit to the mansion itself is at 5.20. However, the grounds are extensive, there are gardens to see, estate buildings, the Potomac wharf and its octagonal brick-built pavilion – deliveries of furniture and other items from Alexandria and shipments of commodities from the estate, whisky, wheat, tobacco…they’re still making whisky in the old distillery. A tree-lined walk up to the tomb containing the two sarcophagi for George and Martha Washington. The plain, unadorned memorial to the slave workers buried on the estate. The avenue flanked by various outbuildings – stables, (a buggy comprising chassis on which sits a wooden chair), smokehouse, bakery, laundry, shoemaker’s shop, workers’ quarters – men and women segregated – salt house, storehouse, smithy, blacksmith in attendance, making hooks, tools, nails, spinning and weaving room, the overseer’s office…

In the city, on my walk, and here at Mt Vernon, I saw some fine arboreal millinery, lacy blossom of springtime white and pastel. One tree at Mt Vernon particularly pleased me: an oak leaf hydrangea spangled with delicate, four-petal, teardrop white flowers encircling the central pin-cushion of tiny lime green stamina.

As we stood in line under the arcaded cover of one of two walkways attached to the house, for ingress and egress, we saw a smudge of rainbow over the thicket of trees across the river, the sky moleskin grey, the sun burnishing the water and foliage.

Unlike other celebrated domiciles, in which no one would ever choose to live – the Newport mansions, for example, which scream vulgar Croesan wealth and daylight robbery in their lavish décor and soulless, yawning, inhospitable spaces, a cluttered vacancy intended only for parade, languid pose and display  – Mount Vernon is well-proportioned, light, airy and homely. The verandahs which is canopied over, and stretches the full extent of the house’s back wall, looks out over the river, a line of chairs set for anyone who chooses to enjoy the sight and contemplation of the peaceable view.

The walls of the house are made of bevel-edged wooden blocks, painted and layered with sand – so-called rustication.

In a small, glass-fronted box, in the central passage, the key to the Bastille presented to Washington by Lafayette who fought in the War of Independence. The staircase with its walnut banister, the Washingtons’ bedroom – an ample double bed, whereas the visitors were given far shorter shrift. The study – an early copying machine invented by James Watts, the lamp, bright as six even eight candles, according to Thomas Jefferson, named for its inventor, Aimé Argand, the fan chair, a leaf of wood suspended over a chair beneath which is a treadle that sets the fan in motion. The dining room, moulded plaster ceiling, the walls painted green, a common way of displaying wealth, the paint being, at the time, the most expensive of purchase, a round dining table. I failed to ask about the food prepared in the kitchen, situated in a building separate from the house, but vegetables aplenty, from the kitchen gardens, I imagine, and meat from the flocks and herds raised on the estate farm, Virginia hams from the pigs.

But, I contacted the people at Mt Vernon by way of the website and their Director of Interpretation Guest Experience wrote:

 

Dear  Graeme Fife,

The Washingtons ate two main meals each day. Breakfast was served at 7a.m. and usually consisted of tea, coffee, and cold and broiled meats.  According to Nelly Custis Lewis  General Washington’s favorite breakfast was “ three cups of tea without cream, and three hoecakes swimming in butter and honey.”

A three-course dinner was served at 3:00p.m.  It was a very large meal, much like our Thanksgiving dinner, except that it was prepared every day, instead of once a year.  The first course consisted of several meats and platters of vegetables, which were grown in the kitchen garden. The second course was mince pie, tarts, and cheese. The last course, which was served after the tablecloth was removed, was wine, nuts, raisins, and fruit.

The Washingtons had tea between 6 and 7p.m. Along with tea, bread, butter, cold meats, and fruit were served.

Some colonial homes had a light supper  around 9p.m., but this meal was rarely served by the Washingtons.

Thanks for your interest in Mount Vernon!

Linda S. Powell

 

Dear Linda Powell

Thanks you so much for this. You’ve taken such care and given the question such thought. It’s most kind and generous of you. I so enjoyed my visit to Mt Vernon and this simply emphasises the devotion you all put into the maintenance of the house and the estate. It’s a very special place and you keep it beautifully.

I brought back to England some packets of seeds from your garden shop – Speckled Purple Cowpea, Love-Lies-Bleeding and Cardinal Flower: some for my daughter and her husband, some for a dear friend who lives nearby but was born and brought up in Seattle and some for me. I hope, therefore, to have a little bit of George Washington’s garden here at home. I also bought a Columbine plant for my dear friend Paige, with whom I came to Mt Vernon for her to plant in her garden in Alexandria.

So, your message here rounds off a memorable experience.

Thanks again

Best wishes

 

The plant and seed took some organising. The garden shop was closed when we finished our visit and I went inside to ask one of the cashiers if I might get a plant, even so. The woman I elected to make the request to, was buttonholed by a man declaring himself to be from Ohio and keen to share most of his immediate plans to her. This took minutes. As soon as he had used up his quota of getting to know you folks, the phone by her cash register rang and she was off to check something on the shelves. She came back and relayed the answer to whatever question it was she’d been asked and, at last, was free to field my enquiry. She told me to see the supervisor, at the jewellery counter in the next room. The supervisor said it would be fine, she could make the purchase if I simply went in and found a plant. I went outside to find Paige, unhooked the chain across the entrance to the shop and walked in to find the woman in charge behind her counter, waiting for the official opening time. She said we were welcome to look round. I searched out some seeds and Paige found her plant.

On our way back to the entrance, we’d talked of the campaign of vilification directed at Hillary Clinton during the election campaign. One of Paige’s woman friends, a musician, played in a band resident at a pizza parlour in the city and was caught up in a scandal, the story floated by a hostile press, of a supposed child sex ring organised by Clinton and one of her associates. I told Paige I’d heard nothing of this – or else missed any report of it here. The accusation was so vile, so plainly unsubstantiated, so ruthlessly pursued, that her friend suffered appalling trauma – shrill denunciation, photographs, venomous attacks. As to the effect on Clinton’s standing, already undermined by the FBI’s investigation into the misuse of an official email account, who can say?

 

To the bar/restaurant adjacent to meet P’s friend Gioia and, later, her husband, a lawyer, who’d concluded a big case, after a year’s work, with victory in court. He asked me what I thought about the upcoming election in Britain. Of this I knew nothing. Theresa May had called it on the day I left for America. (I later heard the speech she made announcing it from the front of 10 Downing Street, unctuous and creepy.)

I took the metro back to Union Station. Three deaf teenagers boarded the train accompanied by an older man whom I took to be their guardian. They’re signing and one of them, catching my curiosity, looks at me and grins. Hey, Mr. Curious, what’s the interest? Do you think we’re play-acting? Goofing around?  Later Paige tells me about Gallaudet, a university for the deaf, originally chartered as a school for the deaf in 1857 and named for its first supervisor, Edward Miner Gallaudet. (The station which serves it is on this Red Line.) I smiled back and pondered making some attempt to communicate that my Ma had been deaf but decided against, needlessly ingratiating.

And I recall my mother’s cremation in Ipswich. We arrived, Lucy, Lindy and I, early for what was going to be a brief procedure in the chapel. The room was quiet, her coffin on the raised slab curtained off at the business end. We laid lilies on it and sat down. Behind me, the funeral director. After a minute or so, he leaned over and whispered: ‘Would you like some music?’ Thinking it wasn’t appropriate to tell him that Ma had been deaf so it wouldn’t make any difference, I said no, and we kept the peace.

 

22 April

I have to move lodgings tomorrow and open my notebook to check on the address of the new place. Number of the street, not the number of the house. My brain froze. Now begins a fruitless muddle of enquiry: a trawl through the air bnb website, places for rent in Capitol Hill. Three times, end to end, no sign of Master Suite. I open the plusnet emails but the phone gives me only the most recent correspondence. A text to Marie to ask if she’d mind going to my house to open up the computer – she’s at work. Then, a message from the owners of the house giving me instructions about lockbox for key and alarm code for entry into the house, in case they’re not there. At the bottom of the message, a photograph of the house: olive green between a house painted blue, another painted beige. It’s something. I send a reply asking if they’d text me to tell me the number. I know that the place must be at the southern end of 13th St. SE, in the vicinity of Barrack Row and Potomac Avenue metro station, but I will have to rely on this cursory evidence to find the house. So stupid.

I set off into light rain, walk round to Union Station and up towards East Market, by Pennsylvania Avenue, to find Capitol Hill Books. I’ve pretty well had it with American Gods. It’s a pokey premises with rooms extending back from the cluttered front area – minuscule desk at which sits the man taking the money and noting titles in an invoice book – and down into a basement. All titles scrupulously arranged in alphabetical order. I think of that defining moment when, on Christmas Eve after I’d moved into Middle House, 22 December 2008, the day they arrived to spend the feast with me, Lucy and Scott emptied the contents of the boxes of books I’d packed in categories – fiction, history, journalism, poetry, plays…- and settled them on the shelves round what I had designated the library, in the first floor. As they worked up there, I was in the kitchen opening yet more boxes, what seemed an endless succession of boxes since the first disgorging two days before. I’d got so that I almost left them unopened and chucked them out. But, Scott came into the kitchen and said:

‘Where do you stand on Mac and Mc?’

‘Strictly alphabetical.’

‘I’m pleased to hear it,’ he said and went back upstairs.

They were at work for some five hours, the latter part of their labours sustained and fortified with gin and tonic, as I cooked supper.

The day after they’d left, I spent two hours unloading the Latin and Greek titles. It finished me off. I woke next morning and could barely move, utterly exhausted. I stayed in bed all day, slept intermittently, but, by the evening, was a little concerned and hauled myself round to the doctor’s surgery, a painful traipse at invalid pace. No sign of ailment or malady. I came home, had a can of soup and went back to bed. Next morning, feeling better, I lay abed awhile, got up and had a hot bath and was restored. My system had quite simply shut down, enough, already.

On down Pennsylvania Avenue to Independence Avenue, a short scurry through the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, no queue to speak of, and on, across the Mall, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in January 2016. Long lines of groups snaking away from the entrance. I become aware of another smaller gathering, individuals waiting for admission.

At last, a man arrives with a scanning machine to check tickets. It comes to my turn. I don’t have a ticket, having assumed I could get one inside the building. He points to the kiosk 40 yards away, but one of four black women waiting behind me chimes in: ‘Oh, I have a spare ticket, here,’ and holds out her phone to be scanned.

‘How much do I owe you?’ I say.

She shakes her head, friendly dismissal: ‘Aw, forget it, my pleasure.’

It’s an outstanding museum: well organised and laid out, by theme, an exceptional diversity of exhibits, an unflinching account of the way that blacks have been treated in the USA, the legacy of what Obama, at his first inauguration, called ‘the swill of slavery’.

 

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and got 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs an denied simple human rights?…If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 millions of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

— Muhammad Ali

Shackles and an auction block, whip and a statue of Thomas Jefferson, sponsor of the Constitution which promised ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ to all citizens,  in front of a wall of bricks, each one inscribed with the name of one of his slaves. The linen sack given by a slave, Rose, in South Carolina, to her nine-year old daughter, Ashley, when the little girl was sold. Ashley’s own daughter, Ruth Middleton, embroidered these details on it, in 1921, and tells us that it contained: ‘a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of Roses hair. Told her [and now in pink thread] It be filled with my Love always. She never saw her again.’ A white Klu Klux Klan hood, a red silk KKK Kleagle [recruiter] robe, with hood, a Bible belonging to Nat Turner who led the 1831 Slave revolt in West Virginia, the names of 2,200 people known to have been lynched – the infamous ‘strange fruit’ – between 1882 and 1930 line the wall of one gallery…slavery, emancipation, segregation, Civil Rights Movement. It is a symbol of great courage and openness that such a Museum should exist and that a nation which has nourished such sentiments as those voiced by George Wallace in his 1963 inaugural speech as Governor of Alabama elected a black president in 2007:

 

‘In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’

 

Jackie Robinson, first African American to play Major League Baseball, was cursed and spurned by the members of the Dodgers team which signed him. The Manager, Lee Ducros stepped in. ‘I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.’

And, at the start of a game in Cincinnatti, 1948, when the chant of N* went up round the park, one of the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese, marched up to Robinson before play began and put his arm round his shoulders in a very public show of friendship and solidarity.

 

The African American museum is a triumph for many reasons and that it is sited not far from where the March on Washington assembled, in August 1963, a few months after Wallace’s vile spouting, a sweet consonance. And consider the meat of that utterance. ‘The greatest people that have ever trod the earth.’ Immigrants, every one. The difference between them and the blacks they despised is that their forebears chose to come, in the main. And did – do – the white supremacists of the deep south and their country cousins further north, include the trailer trash (so-called) the white poor and disinherited as equal members of that star-kissed genre of folks to which they themselves reckon to belong as an anointed elite? Blacks perceived as inferior because they’ve been so disadvantaged as to be generally incapable of being anything else, shut in not so much by a glass ceiling as sequestered in the deep shaft of a well, blocked off by a cast iron lid, bolted in place. As the old adage runs, blacks have to be twice as good as a white, half as good as a Chinese and four times better than the last black hired for the job they’re applying to do.

In one of the early scenes in The Magnificent Seven, there’s an exchange between the travelling salesmen and the small town undertaker, the salesmen paying to bury a man who had lain in the street, ignored by everyone for several hours. The funeral director praises the man’s generosity but ‘there’ll be no funeral…there’s an element in town that objects’.

‘Objects?’

‘They say he isn’t fit to be buried there.’

‘In Boot Hill?’ says the younger of the salesmen to which the older adds:

‘Why, there’s nothing up there but murderers, cut throats and derelict old bar flies and if they ever felt exclusive, brother, they’re past it now.’

‘They happen to be white, friend, and old Sam…? Well, old Sam was an Indian.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned. I never knew you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill. How long’s this been going on?’

‘Since the town got civilised.’

 

[‘Boot Hill’ was a common, generic name for a cemetery in the west in the late nineteenth century, nominally for gunfighters who ‘died with their boots on’.]

 

I walk out into rain, find a mobile phone lost on the path leading up to the side entrance, hand it to some other people going in to give to a guard and make my way across to where Pennsylvania Avenue curls round to the front of the White House for some lunch at a bar counter ahead of the March for Science, about which Paige had told me. They were going to a regatta – her daughter Magnolia was rowing.

The account I wrote of the March comes tomorrow. It was a wholly uplifting experience and though I shun large gatherings of people, I felt no claustrophobia, no jostling, no discomfort. It was all very mannerly, amiable, safe.

Of the placards which I don’t cite in the account: ‘I’m a Trump denier’… ‘Donny, you’re out of your element’…the letters Th over 90, In over 49, K over 19, (symbols and atomic numbers from the periodic table: thorium, indium and potassium.) To explain ‘Alternative facts are √ -1…’ This is the formula for an imaginary number, which put me in mind of an expression I first heard in Lancashire, about an ignoramus, that ‘he knows the square root of fuck all’. ‘If you breathe air, you should care’… ‘Science is what made America great’… ‘I miss the Holocene’ (the geological era which succeeded the Pleistocene, 11,700 years ago, its name derived from holos and kainos, ‘altogether recent’. The import of this message obscure.) An individual in a Muppet outfit. So far behind the curve of popular culture am I that I have to ask a bystander who it is he represents: it’s the scientist who’s always getting blown up in the show. I also had to ask about this slogan: ‘Trump made SNL great again’, (referring to the satirical programme Saturday Night Live which has had a resurgence.)

 

23 April

There’s been no text with the house number. I’d sent four messages asking for it.

Wake early and, at 6 o’clock, I begin writing up the March tailored to fit a From Our Own Correspondent slot, 750 words. Revise, adjust, count the tally, word by word in the notebook, get up, shave and shower, go downstairs – I’m alone in the place: the owners have gone away for the weekend – and laboriously, one-fingered, type the copy into email on the phone’s tiny entablature and send it off to the producer. He’s already expressed caution, saying that the report will be somewhat out of date. A week later? At the end of a week (I assure him) dedicated to the spirit of the March? For FOOC, which features topics not routinely fixed to the calendar?

 

Washington, baked in hot sun on Friday, woke to grey skies and rain on Saturday and the pink and yellow rain capes of the marchers might have been wildflowers in a wet meadow, the umbrellas sprouting overhead a sudden crop of mushrooms. Rain and climate change. The messages were strong, keen-edged, urgent and curiously optimistic as was the spirit running through a mighty crowd that gathered along Constitution Avenue. To one side the White House whose resident spends his weekends in sunny Florida. To the other the spear-like obelisk of Farmer George Washington’s memorial. Like the patience sitting atop that monument we wait. How many of us gathered? I ask a young woman: ‘More than came to his inauguration, d’you think?’ And she, with the studious care of an undergrad answering a question in a Finals viva said: ‘I believe it.’

A chant of March March March goes up with accompanying laughter. The placards everywhere might be plant markers in an experimental field…some of solemn message: There is no planet B…Science is not a liberal conspiracy…The thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it…and some with an acid satirical bent: Trump is like an atom, he makes up everything…another with two images: next to the worm whorl of a cortex ‘This is your brain…on alternative facts’,  next to a fried egg in a pan.

One cartoon puzzled me. It showed a small dumpy man with extravagant moustaches saying I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit. I have to ask. ‘Oh that’s the Lorax…Dr Seuss.’ Ah, children’s fable about the endangered plight of the environment.  The Lorax speaks for trees and trees drip tears along Constitution Avenue as the March finally gets moving. Grand government agency buildings to the left, a line of fast-food vans to the left serving up. Afghan kebabs, Mexican tacos, Lebanese street food…A clear plastic beach ball printed with an image of the globe bars up over the crowd. ‘Keep it going…keep it going’. Then a loud roar of cheers and hollering. What’s happening? A similar clamour erupts intermittently. What is happening? Nothing. A spontaneous joined-up cry that says: ‘We’re here and, like science, we’re not going away’.

In front of me surely one of the youngest marchers here – there are tots in buggies, one holding a card reading Teach me science. – but this titch, holding one end of her mother’s banner can’t be more than 4 or 5. Her future, that’s what this protest is about. And not far from her, a placard: ‘Do you remember Smallpox and Polio? Neither do I. Vaccines work.’

The rain falls, the jokes and laughter rise and though it might seem at odds with the gravity of the intent here – not an occasion for hilarity…? – the good humour is rooted in positive belief. There’s enough evidence of that all around me. These people will not be browbeaten. They echo Galileo: ‘By denying scientific principles anyone can maintain a paradox.’ Beware, therefore. And a sign underlines the point: Science predicted this rain.

FD Roosevelt loved Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and once concluded a dictation with: ‘And what I say three times is true.’ The intern taking the copy blinked and stammered: ‘Why Mr President, it would never occur to me to impugn your veracity.’  There are plenty of jibes at the current administration’s cavalier disregard for veracity. Alternative facts are…square root of minus 1.

As we pass an entrance to the US Department of Commerce, I mark the quotation chiselled into the stone of the portico: ‘Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.’ George Washington.

The March finishes in Union Square. On the height looking down on us, the bone white Capitol building washed in drizzle. The crowd disperses, marchers still moving on behind, like a slow drift of an ever-rising tide over a flat beach.    I stop for a coffee. The barista calling out: ‘One medium Salad Caramel Custard latte’, I talk to four young guys from a neuro-science research centre near Miami. Their closest March? No but this was the most important. Across the screen of the TV by the counter a strapline: ‘Trump vows to cut billions from the climate change program.’

Maybe the most cutting of the slogans I saw this day read: ‘Make America smart again.’

 

Breakfast, pack, leave my bag while I go down to the National Art Gallery for a look through the new wing which contains the modern art, stroll through a special exhibition of paintings by Frédéric Bazille. Incredibly prolific, the work uneven in quality. Friend of Monet and Renoir, enlisted in the French army and was killed in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, aged 29.

I also return for another view of the Urban Scene , 1920s and ‘30s, a special exhibition of lithographs and etchings, to view, once again, an etching on paper by Martin Lewis – an Australian who lived and worked in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, died in New York – Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children (NY 1929) which had captivated me on first sight. Early morning, people on their way to work, women dominating the foreground, they fill the sidewalk, garbed in clinging coats, high wrap around collars, cloche hats, a horse and cart, tramcar, motor vehicles on the broad avenue. A sprinkling of men, trilbies and overcoats. The way they are clutching at the front of their coat, hunching up, slightly, suggests a cold morning. One woman going against the general direction, nearest to us, in silhouette, substantial fur trim to both sleeves  – the shadows from the early sun (not seen) cast slantwise to the left. One woman, positioned slightly off centre, coming towards the viewer, holds the eye. She’s tall, smiling, long, slender legs, hem of her coat just above her knees, she walks, right foot almost directly in front of left foot, a sashay, therefore. She looks impossibly sexy.

Shops to the left – only one sign, name out of sight but the establishment deals in Victrolas – lamp standards, high perch, two suspended lamps, still illuminated, like elaborate, dewdrop earrings, draw the perspective back. Across the road, to the right, bulky edifices, two fenestrated barbican towers front a building from which soars another tower, square-built, which may be a church.

There’s no book on sale which contains any of the works on view. But, hey, I have a phone in my camera. How very cool and up-to-date is that. I take photographs.

Back to the house to collect my rucksack. Set out around 3pm for the next lodging, wondering, without any press of nerves, whether I’ll find it, from this 3rd St NE across to 13th St SE and then on south, all the way.

One of Washington’s charms is the mix of building styles. The magniloquent edifices of Capitol Hill, the massy Senate and Congress office buildings,  the panorama from the top of the hill all the way along the Mall towards the towering pinnacle of the Washington Memorial, the broad avenues either side, Pennsylvania Avenue moving slantwise, converging and ending up, catty corner, by the White House. And here, in the grid of smaller streets, the varied town houses in long terraces of detached and semi-detached larger properties, the more human proportion, trees dotted along the sidewalk, an altogether welcoming residential ambience.

No house answering the photograph, so far. The final intersection, at K St, what looks like a cul de sac some 100 yards along, last chance, no houses on the right side, but there it is, there it is: olive green between beige and navy blue. Thank goodness for that. Hurray.

Ring the bell, no answer, let myself in and sit on the sofa to wait. I check the books on a shelf. Kill the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, which I’ve read – about colonial genocide, the title a quote from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness…’these people are going to die, anyway, so it’s a kindness to anticipate their suffering by wiping them out’…Tasmania, the Congo…

Half an hour or so. I wait. The door opens and a black couple and white woman come into the house. I stand up, introduce myself, remark on finding the Lindqvist – not a common inhabitant of bookshelves. This draws blank looks. The black guy says ‘Make yourself at home,’ and all three go upstairs. Doors close.

I sit for another ten minutes or so, assuming that one or other will come down. They don’t. I do upstairs, hear voices behind one close door and knock. The man calls out: ‘Just a sec,’ and moments later opens the door wearing boxer shorts and a tee shirt. I’ve probably got him out of bed. I ask where I’m supposed to go. He looks mildly surprised, as if make yourself at home was adequate instruction, and then, most polite and concerned, shows me to the large room opposite, across the landing – bed, shower and WC, a small cupboard – iron and ironing board – indicates a printed sheet containing local information: food store, metro station, wifi code, instructions about washing cutlery…He then goes back to his room, the door closes.

I unpack, insofar as I need to, and, in the course of going through the sheaf of papers on which are printed tickets, I find a sheet with full details of the house in which I now sit. I had the number all along. I ponder…had the absence of an address been someone else’s problem, I would almost certainly have addressed it with a cooler appraisal. As it was, my brain froze and I had no stratagem for any resolving of the puzzle.

It is, by now, around 5.30. In half an hour I will be meeting Paige for supper. Her husband has succumbed to indisposition,. I suggest the sudden release from a year-long stress of work. She tells me this is almost certainly the case and not unusual with him. Had he been okay, I’d have gone out to their home for supper. No matter. An evening with my friend is a bonus.

We have two options, both on Pennsylvania Avenue, towards Capitol Hill: an American bar/eatery, Hawk and Dove, frequented by Senators during the week, and, a few doors along, a burger joint Good Stuff Eatery, favoured by Barack Obama. It’s closed and, in the absence of Washington’s moves and shakes, we go to the eatery, thus missing out on the ‘Prez Obama burger which comes with a filling of applewood bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese and delicious horseradish mayo. $7.65’. Note the superfluous ‘delicious’. So what are you going to put? Quite tasty? Middling good? Barely edible? As the man said, in reproof of the guy who puts a sign ‘Fish for Sale’ over his stall: ‘Nah, nah, don’t need a sign. People can see and smell the fish and what are you going to do, give it away?’

I think of the anomaly of the Presidential motorcade drawing up outside a burger joint and spilling scary block-built security men with earpieces, concealed pieces and impenetrable attitude before the President and First Lady skip across the pavement and place their order. ‘Eat here or take out?’ which they probably don’t. Instead, it’ll be a discreet visit by an aide for take out. Or not. Nothing now surprises.

Hawk and Dove opened in 1967 as a place where those for and against the Vietnam war (hawks and doves) could meet in peace. Forty-four years of ‘great bartenders, great company, smart people, interesting people’ as one regular since 1976 puts it. However, the owner never had a long-term lease and the proprietor of a number of other local bars and restaurants has taken over the lease and the place will close for refurbishment on 2 October. Part of the charm, for those who frequent the place is that ‘decades of cigarette smoke residue and old political campaign and sports bumper stickers cover the walls. Layers of dust also cover trophy animal heads affixed high on the walls’. The owner is rueful, but says: My father used to tell me it’s the five-letter words that get you in trouble, not the four-letter ones. And greed and money are two of them. But you know, it’s the American way, they have the right to get everything they want.’

 

24 April

Rain. I head off for the Naval Museum. A miserable walk, major roads and intersections, pounding traffic, desolate urban wasteland. The Museum is situated in the naval barracks. A control booth with barrier manned by naval personnel in blue camouflage fatigues. I ask where the museum is. ‘Do you have military ID?’ the man asks. By the cut of whatever jib I flaunt, this seems wholly unlikely but, I guess it’s a standard question, posed to all and sundry, sturdy and halt, young and old. My foreign accent might have given it away but the man is programmed to ask and ask he does. I demur. He directs me to an office where, of course, I’m asked by the unsmiling occupant of the desk behind a plexiglass screen for ID. I have none, save a credit card. Pathetic. This is on the lines of my being quizzed by the barman at a pub in Mill Hill to which I went with some school friends, all a year older than me and already bristle-jowled. I, baby face, asked how old I was, said: ‘Fifteen…and a half.’ I had to sit outside and wait for them to finish their pints. Friends.

I traipse back up the loveless hill and decided that I can do without the Naval Museum – a return visit to the house for my passport has no allure. Instead, up to Pennsylvania Avenue and a Pain Quotidien for some breakfast. All this time in America and still no pancakes.

Another visit to the Capitol Hill bookshop, just round the corner, a different man at the front desk, I ask whether he has any Larry McMurtry having failed to locate any on the first visit. Sure thing: they’re up on a top shelf above an author I don’t recall. I collar Leaving Cheyenne, Duane’s Depressed and then Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

Back to the desk to tell the man how happy I am to have found these titles. He ignores this and instead asks me, with a glum half smile, just short of sardonic, whether I’ve left the pile all of a heap, expecting this to be the case. I assure him that I haven’t, that’s not my way. ‘It is most people,’ he says, a grumpy sentiment expressed in flat, apathetic tone. I ask whether he has any collections of journalism, an enthusiasm which was first lit by reading Joseph Michell’s work. Yes, downstairs in the basement. I descend the shabby stairs into a shabby repository, look through some of the titles on offer, decide against and go back upstairs to pay.

‘Sorry, but nothing there caught my eye.’

‘You a journalist?’

‘I’ve written a lot of journalism.’

‘Published? Plenty of people write a lot but they don’t get it published.’

‘Yes, published.’

It’s a cheerless exchange with an obvious cynic that makes the visit to the place very far from agreeable, even if I come away with titles by two cherished authors.

At a crossing empty of traffic between 6th St and Pennsylvania Avenue, I walk against a light. A pick-up truck swings slowly off the main drag in front of me. The driver leans out of the cab and says: ‘Sorry, bud.’

As I pass the junction of 1st St and Constitution Avenue, a glance at the Library of Congress – no queues on the steps leading up to the entrance, a chance to visit. Exhibition of early maps of the States, America’s entry into the First World War, Thomas Jefferson’s library, the Reading Room, reminding me of the old reading room at the British Museum, which I used when I lived in London. Didn’t much like working in there but it was useful.

 

United States Botanic Garden

Another highlight of the visit.

The high-ceiling glasshouse Conservatory has a number of interconnecting rooms for Mediterranean, tropical, desert, exotic, primeval plants. Plants categorised as economic, medicinal, carnivorous, displays of orchids, cacti and other succulents, bromeliads, including pineapple, palms and ferns.

As I began my own ramble, there’s an announcement for a guided tour beginning at 12.15. The woman, a volunteer, is an excellent guide, informative, engaging. She introduces us to the coffee bean, a cluster on the tree. Bananas. A rare pine rescued from extinction. The golden-barrelled cactus and other rare and endangered species. She speaks of the introduction of alien species to an environment and, oh dear, the ecology of the USA is suffering from dandelion. Trump looks not dissimilar to an etiolate dandelion.

I passed a most delightful hour or more with the plants of the Botanic Garden, the lush greenery, the smell of leguminous surfaces and rich loam, the tang of damp from the humidifiers.

Out once more into the rain. A short stay in the Museum of the Native American – all the state-sponsored museums give free entry – in whose atrium a man is performing war songs and dances which involve a lot of very loud, rhythmic, beating of a large drum. I go to the café for lunch and look out on the water-feature, small canals and conduits, which run round the building’s exterior. A long walk back to quarters. All in all, by the time I got back, around half past four, I’d been on my feet and walking for around six hours in toto.

Rather weary, I sit to watch a couple of episodes of The Killing, the American series, on Netflix. The woman host, Noelle, arrives. I stand up to say hello. She says hello back and gets straight on with things in the kitchen. Jamaal arrives and says hi before going upstairs. But there’s no ‘How was your day? Are you all right? Are you enjoying Washington?’ In sharp contrast to the converse on Amtrak, this is odd and I find it vaguely disquieting. On reflection, however, I suspect that this is part of their make yourself at home, policy, the mi casa es tua casa, idea. When, later, I go out to get some food from the big store nearby, and settle on a mix of salads from their salad bar, to obviate cooking, I come back, ask if I might perch at the end of their dining table – both hosts are here, now. Yes, sure. Then: ‘Might I have a plate, please? A fork?’ Yes, sure, here.

I sit to eat and reflect further. This is more like student lodgings, everyone doing their own thing, contactless hospitality. I’m too old and too used to hotels to find this easy come, easy go approach comfortable. I feel like an intruder in their home, even if their policy is to say that it’s open house. A notice on the fridge door which I clocked when I first arrived, is from a neighbour who, hearing the music of a party, put this note through the door asking if he might join the bash, and that he had some whisky. Admirable neighbourliness, although the retention of the note does not confirm whether they did, or did not, admit him. Souvenir of an acquaintance made or warning against interlopers. Well, they’ve let me in because I paid but I’m not altogether sure what the fee covers. The lemon slices I poached from the fridge for early morning hot drink? Possibly not. Who knows?

I did ask how long it might take me to get from the house to Union Station early next day. Jamaal tells me that there’s an app which will calculate the time, then Noelle, who’s watching television on the other side of a projecting wall which cuts halfway across the room calls out that half an hour should be ample, at 7.15am.

Above the bed in the room assigned to me, a motto board: Travel is the only thing you buy which makes you richer. Not books, concerts, music, theatre, meals with friends, time…?

 

25 April

Union Station. Amtrak Silver Meteor. The stretch from New York follows the eastern seaboard, a journey familiar to me from trips to Rhode Island and Boston.

Wisteria by the tracks in Baltimore, rather straggly, asthmatic from fumes of the diesel, maybe.

An article in the Washington Post which I read the day after the trip, warns of closure of Penn Station, New York, following a recent derailment in the station whose tracks are woefully substandard, old, in grave want of repair, so, all in all, we were lucky to get through.

As the train noses up through the city and into Harlem and the projects, I ask a guard: ‘Can you tell me, please, when we arrive in Boston South?’

‘Arrival time is 4.35, as per schedule, sir.’

It’s the weighted placing of the sir, dragging the end of the response down to brusque, which delivers the scorn, and, probably, the intrusion of that please, which, to these men of few words beyond immediate information, may sound unctuous. Humphrey Lyttleton said that, on his first visit to America, he did the studiously polite thing, would you mind…please…I don’t want to be any bother…and was, generally, regarded with sniffy disdain. He wised up and was soon telling the bellhops to ‘get the bag’ and eliciting a firm and amicable ‘Yes, sir,’ with salute and big grin, because bellhops get the bags and that’s the deal, they don’t need no soft soap.

In Connecticut, a massive billboard informs anyone who sees it that ‘There is evidence for GOD. 855- For Truth’ and beside it, the picture of a young child.

And an announcement over the intercom from one of the onboard staff who’s rather more garrulous than the norm:

‘In three minutes, New London, Connecticut. You can exit the train only where you see a conductor. Not all the doors will open. New London Connecticut in three minutes. Take care, some of the vestibules are slippery where you see a conductor – from rain that has intruded through the open doors at several stations through which we have already passed. Go to where you see a conductor. Exit only from the doors where there is a conductor. Next stop, New London Connecticut…’ all this delivered in a continuous stream, without a pause.

Moored near the station in New Haven, a handsome schooner, sails furled.

And I read in Homer and Langley: ‘I’m me and what the hell can I do about it…I, the solemn investigator of useless things.’ [p 201] This is Fernando Pessoa, Portugese poet and writer, died 1935.

This will, surely, be the last time in a while that I ride the railroad in an Amtrak train, swing in the rock ’n’roll of the carriages, my sensibilities immersed in the driving rhythm of the wheels – both those elements, pulse and movement, deeply embedded in blues music. The full-throated blare of the horn, too, the discord of both jazz and blues, a sound so evocative to me, now, so frequently does it punctuate the soundscape of the rides I’ve made, the rides I’ve been about to make. There’s no chimney on the boiler to spit out the smokestack lightning of the old locomotives, but what a terrifying sight they must have made, those ironclad monsters when first they were seen, speeding along the tracks into the open wilderness of the western territories they were helping to claim as part of this continental omni-gatherum of old states and new.

 

Red Line from Boston South to Harvard Square, but my memory of where Surrey Street is fails me. I know the general direction but need to ask. A young woman pulls out her cell phone, checks Google maps and I can home in.

David has promised to be at home and he answers the door, accompanied by Ollie, sans lobster. [see above] A happy greeting, a year ago that I was with them in Durham, NC, Lauren still at work. We stroll out to give Ollie a walk – and a poo – in a nearby park designated for dogs to play in, Lauren phones to ask whether salmon for supper is acceptable and we pass the evening in cordial talk and report of doings, and asides on all that’s happened this last topsy turvy twelvemonths.

 

26 April

David and I to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, at Columbia Point, by the water. It’s raining. The GPS tells us that we’ve arrived at our destination and we’re on a mud-streaked road in a vast building site. David asks a passing woman where the Library is, she tells us, he winds the window down again and says: ‘Did you hear that accent? Pure Boston. None of my students speaks like that.’

‘I guess that’s what Kennedy had, but the way he said he-yer with a slight nasal inflexion, sounds southern to my ear.’

‘Hm, never thought of that.’

David is from Alabama.

What single thing do I bring away from the visit? An informative film of his early life, the slack student at school. As David said, he’d never have made it to Harvard had it not been for his family’s influence – and money. However, gaining admission was enough of a boot up the jacksey to squeeze the work ethic out of him. Sometimes it takes tat. Charm and native intelligence go only so far and reliance on them is a fair weather attitude. Exhibits of domestic paraphernalia from the 1960s. Film of his Inauguration speech. Photographic record of events at the White House, his and Jackie’s Camelot, as it was dubbed. Artefacts and documents, very little about the Cuba missile stand-off and nothing that I saw about the Bay of Pigs catastrophe. Yes, all that, but more a general impression of a life cut off, so much promise dashed, a sense of what a heavy burden it is to sit in the Oval Office and, by contrast, the impression that the present incumbent, who has said he thought the job would be a lot easier, hasn’t got a bloody clue.

Advised by Lauren that I might find a soft-collared, self-coloured American shirt at a Galleria in the city, we go there and have lunch in The Cheesecake Factory, a place with open tables and booths, low lighting from deco wall lamps with panels and stained glass to match the epoch. I say to David: ‘I’ve never been in a Cheesecake Factory but I can’t say this is what I’d expect.’ Apparently, it’s a chain of restaurants.

Hamburger for me, cob salad for David. His arrives piled high in a large dish.

‘I’m pretty sure I ordered a medium. Did I order a medium?’

‘I think you ordered a medium.’

‘Think what a large must be.’

On our way out, later, we pass by a table at which sits a small group of people, one young woman with what must indeed be the large cob salad. It’s gargantuan.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, housed in a building modelled on a Venetian Palazzo, (admission free to anyone wearing Red Sox memorabilia and anyone called Isabella), contains the private collection of its owner, gathered in travels across Europe, as well as featuring the work of two artists whom she patronised directly, John Singer Sargent and James Whistler.

An atrium open to the sky, surrounding galleries, the great medley of paintings rather poorly lit, vast rooms on each floor – one used as a recital venue. Sargent’s portrait of her, which her husband hated and refused to display in public, shows her standing against a background of wallpaper, patterned in swirls of subdued red and old gold, leaf shapes, ornamental wreaths and roundels, it might be a sort of Paisley. Her head is surrounded by a central medallion in the pattern, like an aureole. She wears a black dress, vee-shaped deep plunging neckline, her wasp waist looped about with two strings of pearls, at the centre of which – by her navel, and just below it  – two pendant red stones. Another string of pearls encircles her neck, from which drips a third red stone, possibly a ruby. Her arms hang at her sides, her hands loosely knitted across her pudendum. She wears nothing on her head, but the wallpaper tiara serves for that. Her lips are slightly parted, a seductive image. On her feet, which show below the barely ankle height hem of the dress, her shoes are adorned with two more bright red stones.

Supper at the Russell House Tavern. I ate cast iron speared swordfish with braised  chard, calamari and tomato and drank Rising Tide Ishmael Copper Ale, from Maine. Lauren says that there’s a clutch of craft breweries in one of Maine’s seaboard towns. As ever, the list of named beers ripples with verbal hop and jump, but all, here, the multifarious brewery sources, from Allagash in Maine to the Twenty First Amendment brewery in California. The 21st Amendment, 1933, repealed the 18th Amendment of 1919, (came into force a year later), which introduced Prohibition.

David drinks porter and asks whether it’s much sold in Britain these days. Answer is, I don’t know, although a few breweries make it so it must have a following. I tell him about the old lady who used to come into The Cricketers in North Finchley where I worked after I left school. First time, she asked for a ‘Mackinson’ (Mackeson, a milk stout, containing lactose, a sugar derived from milk, ‘looks good, tastes good and, by golly, it does you good’), and slapped 1s 8d on the counter. I handed over the bottle and glass, picked up the money and told her that the price was 1s 10d. She glowered and pushed the money towards me, without a word. I went off to tell the landlord. He said: ‘Oh, it’s okay. She’s been coming in here for so many years that we charge her the old price.’ Word was that she used to come in as a young woman, park her baby in pram outside the open window of the snug and sit on the window cill with her stout so she could keep an eye on the infant. Which reminds me of the story in a paper years back, of a line of prams parked outside a supermarket in a shopping centre in a small town, and a woman making her way along the line, swapping the babies round.

 

27 April

One time before, I’d looked for a place that serves pancakes here, without success, and once again I search, and fail. Yogurt and granola and coffee in a coffee shop, therefore, before I head off to the Fogg Museum, part of Harvard’s outreach. Fine collections of Greek and Roman antiquities – cases of coins, statuary, red and black pottery – rooms dedicated to American, French, wider European art…One of Whistler’s riverscapes makes me think of Ruskin’s jibe, that he had thrown a paint pot in the face of the public. Whistler sued, won the libel case and was awarded damages of a farthing. This painting shows a dull palette, as if the colour has been pressed out of it, a vacancy which neither draws me in nor makes me feel at ease, for it’s a yawning, washed out emptiness: the river, the water, the vague limiting of the banks. A pictorial impression of a bad fit of the blues.

I spent an agreeable two hours strolling the galleries and made my way back, in bright, hot sun, across Harvard Yard, to Cardullo’s deli to buy sandwiches for lunch: pastrami on rye with Dijon mustard and pickle, mozzarella, tomato and basil on rye, a bottle of Chateau les Clauzots, 2012.

Called in at the Harvard Bookstore, went straight down to the basement, the second hand books department – I avoid buying new books anywhere but in the admirable Sevenoaks Bookshop, my local emporium and still independent –  and found Paul Auster’s City of Glass. I offer the thin, rather peaky individual at the desk my copy of American Gods. He flicks through the pages for about 15 seconds, his nose visibly wrinkled, before saying: ‘Sorry, I don’t want this,’ to which I say: ‘Neither do I. Keep it.’

I then call in on a shoemaker, a few doors along. I ask if he has a thin leather lace which will hold my pocket watch – the lace currently attached had snagged on a door handle, snapped and is inconveniently knotted. He considers and says: ‘Why not this instead, much stronger?’ and holds out a wax treated, close-plaited cotton lace, thin and tough. He admires my rolled gold Waltham, bequeathed to me by my grandfather, nearly a century old, now, and tells me that he has a watch he bought when he was in the army, in 1936. It’s still going. He cuts me two lengths of the new lace and, because he has a pronounced accent, I ask where he’s from. Greece, Sparta. As I leave, I say evcharistō and he responds parakallō.

The pastrami sandwich is a little heavy on the mustard but I’m pleased to be eating a favourite item. With pickle. Of course with pickle. Why would you hold it on the pickle? Or the mustard?

David returns from the university – talking students through the matter of their exams the following week – we walk down to the metro, stop for a beer en route and I am on my way to the airport.

 

This concludes the account of the two journeys I’ve made in America this past twelvemonth. Seeing a country is not to know it nor is meeting its people to get to know them or their place in the identity of the nation, its sum, and their perception of it. It would be arrant presumption to claim otherwise. That perception, if, indeed, it exists in any coherent form, is and can only be fragmentary. For what is an American? Of all the disparate elements that constitute the citizenry of the USA, at basic definition those enfranchised to vote for the nation’s elected representatives, what and who may we say is typical, more deeply rooted in the origins of these United States, this conjoint association of more from one, which began as thirteen and, by slow accretion, argument, petition, debate, admission and federation became 50? How many languages still show in the amalgam of American English, the legacy of the early settlers from Europe, the colonial backwash? E pluribus unum but of what does that unity consist? A constitutional fiction. Lionel Shriver, in her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, says that America is an idea. Drawing from that, the hope of pinning anything remotely like an embracing identity on so widely diverse a conglomerate of separate administrative states, of peoples so disparate, is daft. And what is British? We’re all mongrels, aren’t we? The ethnic DNA calling card of the average white supremacist has been dipped in the swirling rainbow of the gene pool many times over and what makes them appear unstained colourless, is the anaemia of their sickly opinions.

It must also be said that the impression I get is conditioned by own identity: white, middle class, English…this, as well as my choice of prescribed exploring, insulates me from much.

I meet, encounter, talk with, observe, random strangers, on a train, in a  restaurant, in museums, on the pavement asking direction and brush with the people who live and have their being here but what do they impart to me, other than their own individual take on what’s going on? This is neither general nor universal and yet, and yet, I have been to America, I’ve seen more of America than most Americans have ever seen and will ever see. But what have I seen? Only these snapshots which, in accumulation, resemble those spatterdash clips of photographs on a family album board, a display of postcards. They indicate an impression but no coherent narrative. A journey is episodic. The narrative is built on the day by day report, the dating of diary or note entries, disconnected until assembled into a story. Perhaps they are, or would be, more telling if left as snapshots, a collage from which any number of patterns may be discerned. The connection is in me, through my eyes and ears and conditioned by my own partialities. My comprehension absorbs, my incomprehension stumbles because amongst much that is recognisable, so much else is unfamiliar, strange and, occasionally, quite alien. It tests my valuation. That adds to the interest of my enquiry, if it does not enhance my capacity but maybe sense is not what’s at stake here. Maybe contradiction provides a sharper focus because, after all, the condition of our existence is, for the most part, contradictory. As Whitman says: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’ Oh, read, o read his Leaves of Grass. Go first, though, to the early, unexpanded version.

Any wilful evasion of that crucial centrality of contradiction in our being, our experience and our capacity to process it, is mendacious. Let us be comfortable with what does not make sense. The mild-mannered man who loves guns, the curious aversion to cuss words in a society which seems to accept the right of every citizen to kill anotyher citizen who wants to rob him or her. The sheriff didn’t mind fighting, but he couldn’t stand nasty talking… “I don’t like filthy language,” the sheriff said. “Who started this fight anyway?”…’ (McMurtry op.cit. p82)

So much, in my own experience, that is warm and welcoming, laid-back and accepting, friendly and helpful, set against so much which is utterly baffling – The Lord’s Disciples who believe, I presume without irony, that Jesus was born in Texas – and disturbing. As Marie, from Seattle, said to me, when I voiced this dichotomy, ‘that about sums up America’.

 

The line between antebellum Virginia, named for the English queen, Elizabeth I, and Maryland, named for Henrietta Maria of France, wife to Charles I, king of England, was disputed. The inconvenience of the dividing river Potomac exacerbated the problem of boundaries. Post bellum, the river marked the line between the two states decisively, a clear marker of those who’d won and those who’d lost the Civil War.

Travel may go some way towards some knowledge beyond fleeting acquaintance but under whichever sky we find ourselves, it’s our self that does not change. Besides, travel is the same word as travail, and, as the cynic said: ‘Modern travel doesn’t broaden the mind. It squeezes it to a poisonous pancake of misanthropy – stagnant queues, endless waiting, shuffling from one mindless procedure to another. Whatever happened to the transport of delight?’

 

 

29 April

I come home to hear that a number of vineyards across south-east England have been devastated by a severe frost this past week – the tendre croppes, the potential harvest, nipped in its bud, by a revenant winter’s icy teeth. And so, too, my vines on the pergola, blackened, shrivelled and crisp, which means only no home-made grape juice. For the professionals, a year lost.

 

3 May

An American billionaire interviewed on the Today programme this morning was asked what his company does. He answered in the slick speak of weapons-grade financial jargon but the subtext was: ‘We pick up shaky businesses, give them some polish and sell them on.’ He was asked whether Trump would be good for business which is like asking a burglar whether leaving houses unlocked would make his thieving easier. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I believe he will.’ Why do interviewers not ask these plutocrats what they do with so much money, how much money they shell out to help those in greater need? As Rockerfeller (I think it was) said, it’s no disgrace to be born poor but it most assuredly is a disgrace to die rich. While it’s not likely he died poor, he embraced philanthropy, a concept apparently alien to these latterday pelf pirates.

 

6 May

As I walk up the track towards the steps in the wall of Knole Park, a solitary Barnacle goose flies overhead, honking. A melancholy note but solitary for a goose means lost, forlorn, abandoned. Where did the others go?

On top of the first steep hill out of the dip between the top ridge and the long slope down towards the House, by the spinney where I saw the albino squirrel some years back, a parley of Barnacles is giving a small flock of Roe deer a querulous beakfull, their waddling gait as they approach the animals adding to the aggression. Suddenly, the deer break for it, signalling take off top the geese who take off and fly over the scattering deer.

The house by St Nicholas on the main road out of town is in full wisteria regalia – a magnificent rampage of purple up the frontage, along and over the side walls, curling into the hedge on one side. The scent of the bounty of blossom wafts over the road to the pavement I walk and I revel in the sweetness until a motorbike snorts past and laces petrol fumes into the air.

The wisteria that fills the trellis by the civic garden at the top end of the Vine grassland and cricket pitch, is in full show and its perfume drifts about me as I go by.

On Hollybush, the house with a high wall to the left has wisteria using two yew trees as climbing frames. Tufts of the blossom appear pinned to the dark green needle shock at the height of the first and fronds and festoons hang about the branches of the second.

 

8 May

Phone one of the magazines which has bought the article on longbow and archery, to check that they’ve received the pictures. A man answers. Then: ‘Are you the Graeme Fife who wrote the book on the Tour de France?’ His son is a mad keen cyclist and loves the book. Then the man, whose name escaped me, tells me that he remembers me from Polzeath, Crusader Camp. Blimey. What on earth did I do to plant that memory so deep? I can barely remember the place myself. He goes on: ‘And you were at Bede College, Durham, weren’t you? With Michael Milton?’ (Not really with. We were both there, from the same school, at the same time.) ‘Do you mind if I give him your phone number?’ I say I don’t mind although I have no wish for the call that may ensue. After all these years…?

 

12 May

Trump has claimed to have invented the expression ‘prime the pump’. Useless, I imagine, to float the name JM Keynes past his candyfloss mullet.

 

14 May

All morning in the garden: cutting the grass, including the strips of new grass – seed that mix as detailed for me by the horticulturalist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. One section of the new owing has taken quite well, the area at the top barely at all. A herbal alopecia. I then aerated the existing area of grass for sowing new seed and spreading of top dressing, reseeded the new sections and raked and rolled, all in the sunshine.

The onions I am seeking to grow from seed are still very thin and sickly. I have little confidence in their swelling to any decent size, alas. Chitting seed potatoes almost ready to put out. The wisteria gives me a puff of scent each time I pass. Cleaned a rather begrimed and Verdigris stained earthenware pot and planted five sweet corn seeds – a birthday present for Mike who used to live down the road here. He and Tracie, Luke and June, Linda and Bob for supper this night.

 

15 May

Stuart next door texts me: ‘Hi gray you had a large rat on your shed roof’

Trap? Warfarin? The cats who prowl my garden and shit in it?

Custom-built box with poison arrives in the post.

 

18 May

Woke at 3.15 and that was that. Get up at 4.30, leave the house at 5.10 and walk to the station for the first train. The 7 o’clock for Edinburgh from Kings Cross and then on to Leuchars. Lunch in Saint Andrews, walk back to the house with Scott – Lucy at a symposium – then back into town by bus to meet Jane Stabler, whom I know only through a mutual friend. Cup of tea in the sun.

 

19 May

Early walk with Lucy up through the woodland to the fields and along, back down Lumbo Den into Spinkie Den. She cycles off to work, I watch Spotlight, the film about the scandalous abuse of scores of children by a multitude of Catholic priests in Boston, and then walk into town along Lade Brae, past Lawnmill Pond, Boase wood, the Memorial wood – in memoriam plaques at the base of a number of trees by the side of the walk. A long circumambulation of town, various bits of shopping, a pint of Fife Gold in the sun outside the Saint Andrews Brewery pub and then the walk back for a very late lunch. All this constitutes the sheer effrontery, the reckless indulgence of not doing any work.

On Lade Brae, a pair of mallards twisted and turned above the path, furious quacking. The duck landed on the path and waddled away as the drake landed behind her and pounced on her, squirming into position over her back, his beak clamped on her neck, she trying to wrench her head away, he biting harder as he thrust into her. A brief session of shuddering and he climbed off. Thus, every duck-fuck a rape. And, since the Latin is anas, a parody of buggery, too.

 

20 May

With Lucy – Scott at work – to Kilconquhar and a walk along well-maintained woodland tracks by the eponymous loch – there’s no path that makes a circuit of the water – round past Elie House, a farmhouse with sizeable outbuildings, no grand estate mansion, and a loop to rejoin the way we came, in steady drizzle. A cuckoo let forth its mournful, idiot call. Lo-ser, lo-ser, lo-ser in snide mockery of the usurped hen bird and her jettisoned chicks.

From the village, (the name means ‘church of Conquhar’, a Scottish saint mentioned in the 15th century Perth psalter, festal day 3 May, otherwise unknown), to the Ship Inn at Elie by the broad, sickle-shaped sandy beach of Wood Haven, where I stopped for lunch on the Coastal Path walk in October 2015.

And here’s a thing…we get a table upstairs in the pub’s restaurant with a good view out over the broad, low-tide expanse of flat strand and observe members of the Elie Cricket Club preparing their pitch for that afternoon’s fixture against the Seagulls of the University of Saint Andrews…on the sand.

It is, for sure, a quite daft notion. Two of the Elie white flannel wallahs earnestly roll the pitch, a strip of the sand running at right angles to the low sea wall. Another of their companions fixes both sets of stumps, others gather in game togs, cream sweaters rimmed at vee-neck, wrist and waist with variegated stripes, the club colours. The sky is overcast, the rain holds off, just, kayaks ply the waters of the bay, a mild swell munching foam on the slight crests.

Crab linguine for Lucy, fish and chips for me. At the bar downstairs I ask the lad serving for a light ale, not too strong. He, an Australian, tells me I should probably choose one from the Saint Andrews brewery – which has a Land Rover outside the pub, barrels and pumps in the back, a blank hatch on the side for the taps. A man standing next to me suggests that from what I’ve asked for – ‘a light ale, right?’ – I’d be best with Crail Ale. I ask to taste, it’s the hue of straw, hops, malt and citrus to the taste, loose on the tongue, frisky on the palate. Yes.

We finish lunch before the first ball is bowled, alas, but I discover they use a wind ball, (used in coaching), explained, thus, by the landlord of the pub and captain of the team, to whom I wrote to ask: ‘We play with a “wind ball” which is effectively a rubber cricket ball.  Performs on sand like a cricket ball does on grass – i.e. it takes spin and can swing.  A cricket ball just doesn’t bounce on the sand.  The other advantage of the wind ball is that we don’t need to worry about gloves and pads.’

He added that the university team was nine wickets down needing three runs off the last over. They got them. The game ended in bright sunshine.

 

21 May

After breakfast, I look through the Merchant and Mills Sewing Book which Scott has – he’s just made a hold-all shoulder bag in touch blue cotton from instructions therein. I discover a page devoted to pins, their variety and specialist use. Thus: standard, lillikins or duchesse, dipped-headed, glass headed, cawkins or toilet, entomology. The odder of these names not found in the Oxford English Dictionary, in which a cawkin, or calkin, is not a pin but a nail used to fasten a horseshoe and entomology is strictly food for birds. I contacted the writer of the book and she told me that her mother had boxes of lillikins, somewhat blunt of tip, not to tear fabric, used for attaching material to a block or a mannequin. She added, that they are, generally, not to be found, now, and got the names from documents relating to pin-makers from the East End of London and a guild which no longer exists.

 

And of passementerie…what a cheerful jumble of words gathered in its haberdasher creel: tassels, fringes, ornamental cords, galloons, pompons, rosettes, gimps…

 

23 May

News of the suicide bombing in Manchester Arena, the audience for the most part young girls, some not even teenagers. Some 22 killed, many more badly injured. Those bastards who commit these acts – this one a local man – a sickening mix of vanity, self-aggrandisement and sheer fucking stupidity warped by false ideals. Imagine their fancied paradise, packed with morons of their ilk and the virgins they’ve violated, as their reward. One hump and an eternity of institutional celibacy…that they couldn’t even work that out.

The place where life (in perpetuum) is just a bowl of cherries. Their signature tune: After life is just a bowl of cherries, in 5/4 time. (A composer, Peter Thorne, with whom I wrote a number of theatre pieces, used to play piano at a pub on the Kingsland Road. He had a request, one evening, from a man who was very drunk, for Life is just a bowl of fucking cherries, the routine, stock epithet ‘fucking’ added much as a belch or a burp might interrupt speech and no sense that it takes up any room…same time signature required.) I wonder what the female suicide bombers get as their reward: exemption, perhaps, given that they are probably virgo intacta still, from pestering or, if they’re eager, first pick of the latest arrivals? And, given the male:female segregation of worshippers in the mosque, are they accommodated apart in a bunk dormitory, a sort of harem without sex?

The whole notion of this defloration premium on martyrdom is so disgusting that it’s not surprising if certain dislike of Islam is fuelled by the repulsion such an idea provokes.

 

24 May

Donnie Strump on the eve of his visit to the Vatican repeats his line that ‘The [new] Pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much,’ he who said, during his campaign: ‘If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president,’ albeit his overkill on the subjunctive – ‘would have been’ – is common in America and no further indicator of the man’s illiteracy, minimal grasp of historical perspective and narcissism.

At a campaign rally in 2015, Trump told the audience: ‘I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City…where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.’ When challenged on this grotesque fabrication, he said: ‘I have a very good memory, I’ll tell you. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago. And I never forgot it.’

It’s a function of ego to distort, to slant report of a story to the egotist’s point of view thereby making him/her the centre of attention, the sole fons et origo of the story. Always to perceived advantage. The rudiments of one-upmanship. I’ve listened to a man telling an audience that I had plagued him for ages about an opportunity to go to Mongolia, where he was setting up a business. This was so blatantly not the case that it astonished me to hear it. In fact it was his son who asked me to go out to write material for a sales brochure. It was late October, I had a deadline to finish a book by the end of January and several interviews to conduct before I could complete the text. This involved travel to France. I said that I couldn’t go out until the end of January. He needed the stuff by the end of November. I left the room to go to the loo wondering how on earth I could make time to fit this all in, but, equally, how I could possibly turn down such a chance. I went back and said: ‘How about Monday week?’

In a period of the three and a half months leading up to the end of January, I spent only thirteen nights, not consecutive, at home. I travelled to Tenerife, France (several times), Manchester, Norfolk and Australia, as well as the two weeks in Mongolia.

 

25 May   

Piers Plowright, with whom I did a lot of radio work and whom I used to see at the Highgate Pond most mornings, sends me a blurb for a new book about wild swimming. I reply:

 

Thank you for this. However, I don’t recognise these descriptions:

‘Stagnant warmth at the top of the lake…’ and ‘The sharp cut of freezing water…’

…not at all the sensual imagery with which I connect swimming in the Pond. The only cut came from the tiny platelets of ice which floated on the surface, like frozen fragments of leaf, the scintillae in a kaleidoscope, and they nipped, but, so much more enchanting, the sizzling noise the unbroken sheet of thin ice made as it bent and buckled in the ripples. As for stagnant, hm, nothing about those swims was stagnant, but all in a sensuous movement, a permanent shift, of water, sensation, perception and the drifting vision above the water level of trees, sky, clouds, water fowl in their forays across and round the water.

The cold does not cut, it penetrates, is absorbed, willy nilly, sinks in, finding its way through flesh to muscle, blood and marrow, and muscle, blood and marrow hold it, carriers of its change in them. The flesh reacts in colour and pimpling, dyed with the cold’s blueish pallor, lips bruise purple. Cold does not cut, it possesses and occupies and must, of its settling residency, be thought of, its presence is too urgent not to be thought of, but not thought of with the same intensity of its investment. The mind, the putamen which controls movement, must stay apart, separate from the body, for as long as the separation holds. I used to stay in the water even on the coldest days, for 20 minutes – sometimes, especially when a swathe of nainsook mist cloaked the Pond, to the concern of the keepers, especially, too, on those days when, as they told us, as if we couldn’t feel it, that there was, that day, a ‘very high wind chill factor’. On those immersions, I felt the separation of mind and body keenly: the mind processing two discrete strands of its function, namely, physical sensation – the effect of the cold lodged in the body, but, because inured, neither apprehensive nor uncomfortable – and perception – what the eyes saw and ears heard, of surroundings and the burble of water, whisper of wind, a bird taking off…

And I think of Jack the Jew – his name and title – having come in from his lengthy ablution. He used to stand on the steps, up to his lower chest in the water, soaping himself from the crown of his near bald head, down his chest and flanks to his waist, perhaps nit soap but some emollient for an afflicted, dry skin, possibly the reason he was allowed to do something so obviously injurious to the purity of the water – and, when he was done, sitting on a bench in the changing area, shuddering deep to his bone and core, as if an electric pulse were throbbing through his nerves and sinews. And seeing him there one time,  I said: ‘For gods’ sake, Jack, put some clothes on,’ to which he, in his gruff, low Cockney growl, but kindly in tone, said: ‘I’m not cold, boy, I’m only shivering.’

Jack was of indeterminate age. Old. Wrinkled. Somewhat bowed of frame. Slack-skinned. Not so much, I think, that he’d let himself go as that he’d been bundled through the bends of Time’s long wind tunnel and well scragged by circumstance and event on the way.

He had to be carted off to the Royal Free across the Heath in Hampstead, probably more than the once I heard about, suffering from hypothermia.

A friend of mine, supposing that we swam in the nude, when I told him that this was not permitted, retorted: ‘Swimming trunks? Oh, well…’ as if a pair of Speedos had the insulating power of a wetsuit.

 

Piers was known for his particular exploration of the relationship of sound to its ghostly twin, no sound. I said:

I thought, last night, of the matter of sound, what you’ve spoken about it, and of an independent radio producer whose contempt for the BBC vitiated so much of his work – an egregious second-rater. He used to speak disdainfully of ‘the la la world of the BBC’ as if every standard the BBC promoted, and from which I learned so much and to which aspired and still strive to match, were meretricious. He refused, for example, to speak of FX, saying that it’s all sound. Well, so it is, and what is the real sound? Is the anger of an actor, clearly unleashed as the play requires, a false anger, simply because of its calculated timing? I’d say not. And if ears hear the sound of sausages frying in a pan accompanying an image of sausages frying in a pan, is that mere and manipulated association? Were they to know that the sound had been made not by sausages frying in a  pan but by James Blades crumpling tissue paper very close to a microphone, would that render the association invalid or, more important, less seductive of the taste buds and the juicy thought of fried sausages to eat?

In brief, I think his despite of FX was stupid, unconsidered and very lacking in inventive fun. For the Arthur plays, Doreen Birkeland, one of the SMs, came up with the idea of flapping a pair of my leather gloves together to make the dry sound of a hawk, on a perch, beating its wings. On another occasion, as we left the cubicle, another show came in and I saw two SMs in the studio experimenting with a plastic bowl and a squeegee bottle: squirt into bowl at a certain angle, tilt the angle, another squirt, tilt the angle again…and so on, till they got what they were listening for. Ha.

Piers replied: Quite agree with you about FX and seeing the lovely name of Doreen Birkeland, who was my assistant for a while, made me think back. She and I recorded the sounds of the dead in Highgate Cemetery [We made them ourselves!] for the programme on Death, ‘Setting Sail’. And I heard from her a couple of years ago. She lives in the Far North and swims round the year in some icy loch or sea. Also reminded of the brilliant and maverick David Greenwood who created the sound of a steam train crash by blowing close up into a mike, slowing it down and adding echo. Perfect.

 

26 May

I started reading at 5.15. Having been told that the finale of On Chesil Beach , Ian McEwan, was masterly, I decided to read it. I haven’t so far enjoyed Any of what I’ve read of his: I find his work manipulative, contrived, emotionally dishonest, lacking inhumanity, unfunny – the attempts at humour are glaringly obvious and consistently lame. However, I began to read in the spirit of openness to persuasion. And very soon became irritated. The literary deftness and subtlety of an emoticon. Two-dimensional characters of minimal sympathy. Forced drama. Mechanistic narrative device. A subject of very limited interest or scope: aversion to sex, eagerness for sex on the male-female divide of a more inhibited time? Please. Meretricious. Adolescent stuff. Clever. Only that, clever. As for the vaunted finale – I reached this having broken off at 7 o’clock to go out into the garden for a rather more uplifting hour of work on the forthright muddles of my garden and, even as I wondered where the hell it was, my frustration and annoyance swelling, I wanted a good big wave to surge out of the sea onto and over Chesil Beach and swallow the hapless duo who’d been shoe-horned into this stale fiction. And then chucked the book at my front door step – I was, at the time, sitting outside in the front garden, a pleasing wildness of its growth on view.

It is, I was once told, unfair to use one author as a stick with which to beat another. This example of the author’s oeuvre would yield to a side-swipe from a single paragraph. It had not helped, I confess, that I’d come to this piece of dross from two samples of the peerless Maggie O’Farrell’s work, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and This Must Be The Place.

Example: in the scene where the husband – don’t believe him – doesn’t enter the newly-wed wife – don’t believe her, either – he ejaculates prematurely, and, somehow, his come sperm seed gism semen sperm spunk seed spill load ends up on (I quote) her ‘belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid’. Un. Quote. Flaccid writing and, wow, hell of a spray, a veritable cascade, as if he’d grabbed the engorged eructating tool and waved it about like a fire hose. Whereas we, who have been there, know that the last thing you do, in such an excruciating moment, is to level and aim.

 

To London to meet David and Lesley over for the weekend from Berlin. Their flight delayed out of Schönefeld because a Currywurst stall parked by the front entrance to the airport caught fire so the whole place was locked down.

Walking up Charing Cross Road, I pass along a walkway, narrowed by hoardings to shield a building undergoing renovation. At the far end, a man stands guard over a pile of sheets of plasterboard. I recall the story told me by a painter who lived in Corpusty in Norfolk. He’d been working in London and arranged to meet a pal for a drink. Walking along Shaftsbury Avenue, he saw that one of his laces had come loose. He stopped by a large pile of scaffolding boards and poles, planted his boot on a board and tied the lace. A lorry drew up alongside, the driver leaned out of the cab and said: ‘How much do you want for it?’

He looked up, bemused. ‘How much for what?’

‘The scaffolding.’

‘Two hundred…?’

The driver got out of the cab onto the pavement, even as the other man in the cab got out and started to load the scaffolding onto the back of the lorry, and counted out twenty £10 notes. The painter pocketed them and walked off, left them to it.

His friend was already in the pub. They exchanged greetings and the man gave his pal a wad of notes.

‘What’s this?’ the pal asked.

‘I had a bit of luck. That’s your half. I’ll have a pint, you’re paying.’

 

Mutual disparagement is the style among building tradesmen. The gibe at the brush and pot wallahs is: ‘If you can piss you can paint.’

 

27 May

Damned magpie lurking, murderous eyes on the blue tits in the nesting box – the brood must be near ready to fly the roost. I scared the predatory creature off.

 

28 May

I sit outside the front door in early sun with David Jones In Parenthesis. As an evocation of the sounds and perpetuum mobile of life in the trenches and the constant nag of military orders, discipline, parades, longueurs of the army routine, I’ve read nothing more immediate, chaotic, provoking. By scattered image, staccato interjection, wild allusion, literary reference, word painting, its startles and surprises constantly. Of course I miss much – to slow to the pace of chasing each conundrum would be to lose the pace of the narrative’s onward push, the relentless current, but the impression sticks.

Curious (to my ears) solecism of split infinitive – maybe a wilful and conscious vulgarity –  and the poetic and archaic, (OED) preterite forms – swimmed, builded, spreaded, digged…as with Blake’s ‘And was Jerusalem builded here…?’

On p. 50, he notes that pronunciation of Ypres as ‘Wipers’, though general early on in the war, later became ‘Eepers’.

Bees visit the flowers nearby, announcing their arrival with the low buzz and I take a picture of one dipping its nose into a California poppy. Marie’s father called the blooms weeds, they grew so prolifically in their Ballard garden. Thus ‘Bee on weed…’ not quite high as a kite yet but comfortably whoozy, perhaps.

 

29 May

Straw under the strawberries, weed the new patch of grass, still bald patched, herbal alopecia, in readiness for the reseeding. Rake and roll. Rig strings criss-cross and catty corner and tie to the strings rags of kitchen foil against the predatory birds.

A short break to drink the hot water and lemon and I observe one of the fledglings from the nesting box, on the terrace, under one of the benches. He, or she, ignores me, flutters a short way, clearly testing the wings. I dart inside for the camera but am too late – the wee creature has gone, flown, out of danger, I hope. His father appears shortly after – has he been watching over young’un to make sure he’s safe?

 

30 May

Very early start, notes for a review of In Parenthesis for Writers’ Review, slept another hour, up at 6, reading We Need to Talk About Kevin – not far in but much taken with the work of a woman who is clearly an exceptional writer. A bit past 7 out into the garden to work.

Came into my mind the sad case of the boy known as A1 at Greshams because he, from a very wealthy family, was forever trying to abscond and always called the local A1 taxi firm for the first leg of his escape bid. He occasionally made it as far as Norwich Station and was there caught or else his nerve failed, before he could buy a ticket. That was a small part of the sadness – was he yearning for the bosom of the family or was he heading home, bent on revenge for the parental cruelty in sending him to the penitentiary of public school? The more poignant sadness about him was his thick, bottle lens glasses – purblind without them. His ambition? To be an airline pilot.

 

1 June

The review of In Parenthesis:

In Parenthesis grew out of the seven months between December 1915 and the Battle of the Somme. Its seven parts trace the journey of a unit of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with whom Jones served from embarcation to France and the grim fighting in Mametz Wood. However, although rooted in the experience of an individual soldier, John Ball, and his fellow privates, it concerns itself more with the minutiae of their life than in the horror of their death. Indeed, Jones said that although ‘it happens to be concerned with war, I should prefer it to be about a good kind of peace,’ in part, thereby, explaining the title of the work, the war itself being a sort of brackets within which they existed and out of which they were glad to step.

The style of this essentially poetic work is complex but not baffling, even if the literary cross references, the passages of demotic language, the peppering with slang, the evocation of particularly Welsh myth, in the epic poem Y Gododdin, and Arthurian legend call for author’s notes, much in the way they were deployed by T.S. Eliot.
I have never read so moving and richly coloured an evocation of the sounds and perpetuum mobile of life in the trenches, the constant nag of military orders, discipline, parades, longueurs of the army routine. And the cheery and scabrous joshing of the men subject to it. I’ve read nothing more immediate, chaotic, provoking. By scattered image, staccato interjection, wild allusion, literary reference, word painting, it startles and surprises constantly. Of course I miss much – to slow my reading to the pace of chasing each conundrum would be to lose the pace of the narrative’s onward push, the relentless current, but the impression sticks. And the impression, of men drawn into a plight which mirrors, somehow, in extremis, the human condition in any circumstance, is of deep humanity and what Jones called ‘the extreme tenderness of men in action to each other’. This is something rather more than camaraderie, though such is obvious, largely in the humorous banter with which the text is sprinkled. Of a wounded comrade-in-arms: ‘Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know…Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound…go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him…’

These men, drawn from worlds apart, from Wales to Bromley-by-Bow, have their counterparts in the misted past of ancient battles fought in these islands for whom the elegies of the ancient Welsh poems were written. They have their shades in the Arthurian knights, and in that continuum of human courage, of suffering, of simply making do, they unite the theme of compassion: the sacrificial lamb, the goat cast into the wilderness to bear the burden of guilt, the vast multitude of the men along the Western Front who ‘lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke…’ that play on the two senses of Jerry underlining the pity of this conflict.

I’d liken the language and the eccentric pointing of its punctuation, rich in its shifts of tone – jocular and even scurrilous here, exalted here, matter of fact here, a sudden descant of military terms and indicators, numbers and letters, largely incomprehensible without the maps but curiously comic – to a symphonic score. The language of music is not generally susceptible to explanation, not logical, but it has a suggestive power which Jones echoes in his blending of elements of a voice which speaks direct as well as in passionate digression and ornament:

‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’

But: ‘…who gives a bugger for the Dolorous Stroke.’ This last an allusion to the wound inflicted on the guardian of the Holy Grail by a mystic weapon, counterpart to the spear which despatches Christ on the Cross.

This is a world where mundane details of a sort of substratum of mortal existence plays out, subject to the rules and regulations of the army, often needless, meaningless, plain daft – ‘groundsheet not to protrude under pack more than two inches’ – but where, nevertheless, an innate nobility holds, a nobility which extends beyond the imperatives of this sordid business of waiting in water-filled trenches to visit death upon those who wait to visit death on you.

‘The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? – bugger all to report? – kipping mate? – Christ, mate – you’ll have them all over.’

 

2 June

A message to Howard Jacobson:

 

Dear Howard Jacobson,

I so enjoy the brief spells of your company in Point of View that I felt I must write to say so. Ten contented minutes of deft language, a weave of provoking ideas, muscular humanity and insight, a deeply compassionate take on what we do and do not do, think and might think harder about. All this without affect or obvious side. I salute you.

Thanks,

Best wishes

 

This morning a reply:

 

Dear Graeme Fife
The BBC has passed on your message.  Thank you for the graceful things you say – I couldn’t want for more.  And thank you for taking the trouble to say them.
All the best

 

4 June

A memory of Alf, whom I met at the Pond. Left school at 14, became a regular soldier – Burma and Kenya – during the Mau Mau uprising – highly intelligent, widely read, a man of great humanity, humour and magnanimity. He married a Chinese woman, Linda, whom he met in the first years of his service in the east. He told me that they had some friends round to their house and one of them confronted Linda: ‘You don’t like me much, do you?’ he said, to which she: ‘No, yor rohn. I doan like you atorl.’

They moved to Derbyshire where I stayed with them once, on my way to see Lucy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I was having a cup of tea with Alf in the kitchen, Linda came in, pointed at me and said to him: ‘Duzz he wonh brek-fa? Whass he wonh for brek-fa?’

Alf was a Catholic, so relapsed that it was amazing that he even remembered let alone cared about confession but remember he did and pitched up to tell the priest that it was a long time since he’d been to confession and that he had once, some while past, committed adultery.

‘Do you regret that?’ said the priest.

‘Not in the least.’

Pause. ‘I see.’ Pause. ‘Do you regret the fact that you don’t regret it?’

Pause. ‘I think I probably do.’

Sigh. ‘Very well, I think we can work on that.’

 

5 June

Supper on Saturday last comprised a lentil and sausage casserole brought by one of the guests. A portion left over, I reheated this evening. The interior of the saucepan was left mottled and stained from the lentils and resisted washing with detergent. I doused it with tomato sauce slightly diluted. Worked a treat.

And Nick tells me of his experience with the little dog Maxi – that she, in common with other dogs, it seems, loves to roll in fox shit, a particularly glutinous, evil-smelling pooh. The one thing sovereign for removing it: a bath after a good slathering with tomato sauce, though who discovered that and how is not explained.

 

7 June

A message to a friend, lamenting our long absence:

After France, I don’t aim to be anywhere but here, harvesting my strawberries and lettuce, waiting for the cherries, blueberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and apples to ripen, snipping clumps of Swiss chard, waiting for the broad beans to swell and the tomatoes to achieve their prime, runner beans to finish running and American Cowpeas to plump in their pods, urging on red onions and potatoes and measuring the size of the sweetcorn for readiness. Oh, and rhubarb.

 

9 June

A hideous dream, in which I thoughtlessly batted two bees to death, thinking them flies.

 

10 June

Paul and his son Noah – whom I had not met but of whom Paul has spoken much, naturally: what an engaging little boy, bright, interested, alert, well-informed, mannerly – call to collect me to drive up into town where we meet James, member of the Fraternity of Saint George, for some extra pictures to accompany the article for Country Life. Our rendezvous is intghecar park byt eh Leisure Centre, at the entrance to the little recreation area whose winding paths dip down through trees to Knole. I’d scouted the place for a likely spot on my way up to town earlier, the weekly walk to market.

Lots of kids playing on the swings, running about the place, along the path adjacent to the patch of ground on which we were working, parents in view, or not, James with a lethal weapon of war, notching the arrow, drawing the string full, once, twice, thrice…the strain evident, the risk, well contained – he’s very strong – but the risk, even so…then came a moment when we needed to sling the quiver at his waist – he prefers the over-the-shoulder style – which required a belt. I swiftly undid mine and handed it over. ‘All we need,’ I said, ‘kids exposed to you waggling a bow fitted with a deadly arrow and then my trousers fall down. What would the Chronicle make of that?’

(James later told me that it took until the following Wednesday to ‘get my arms back’, he’s so out of condition for such sustained effort, the weight of the draw taking a heavy toll. Testimony to just how strong and resilient those military archers had to be.)

 

11 June

I step out of the plane, first to leave, (reserved seat), into a furnace heat at Carcassonne airport, march swiftly through the intense bakery of the concrete grounds and surrounds into the terminal building straight into what is, by abrupt contrast, a chilly, air-conditioned customs hall where two gendarmes occupy the passports booth.

‘What heat,’ I say.

‘You prefer the cold?’ says one.

‘Somewhere between the two, maybe?’

First at the car hire counter, I’m on the road at 6pm, within half an hour of touch down. The first expansive view of the mountains beyond these low rising bumps of the transit comes near Mirepoix – the whole line of the horizon blurry with heat haze lit by a westering sun, like a theatre backdrop, far away but dominant, stark in presence, as if this terrain I cross is really of no account, that geology has shown no interest here, consigned these flat fields to the secondary use of vines and agriculture. Are not mountains the best evidence of a majestic design?

And so back to Massat, to Nick’s house where he’s cooked supper. Happy reunion. He’s now installed back in 3 rue du Port, having vacated the small apartment where he spent the winter. So restored in physical health and mobility that he can manage easily in his own property, stairs and all. An entirely happy outcome when, a week short of a year ago, I came down to visit him in hospital, not at all sure what I would find, whether, indeed, he had much time to live, the reports of his reduced state of health had been so dire.

‘You may notice,’ he told me. ‘Massat is very sad right now. One of the young women lost a baby – fell out of the bed they’d put him in. Not much more than a year old.’

 

12-13 June

I made a translation of Mountain for Wind, a scena for narrator and wind instruments, plus French horn, which I wrote over twenty years ago and for which have failed to get a composer. I sent the text to Alan Ridout who phoned me from his home in Normandy – I didn’t know him nor he me – to tell me that he’d looked for such a text for years and was eager to set it, but was, for the moment, busy with other work, alas. And then, alas, before he could turn to it, he died. The sense of doom lay heavy on me, indeed.

On Tuesday evening, I took the translation with me to Nick’s house so that his son, Dominic – to whom I’d given the English – might go through it with me. Dom grew up here, is therefore bilingual but I’d say native French before English. His help was invaluable, minor adjustments, mostly (I yield to flutters of vanity) and marked improvements in expression here and there. Indeed, his quiet encouragement of interest, pushed me to further improvements over the next two days, more after I came home and typed it all up.

Once, when Dom was around five years old, I was conversing with a French couple in the lodge and said something at which he shrugged his shoulders, moued and, eyebrows raised, said: ‘Non, c’n’est pas ça,’ like a little viellard reproving my slipshod French. All he lacked to complete the image were a flat beret and a half-smoked, papier maîs black tobacco cigarette drooping from his lip.

Massat pot plant

View from my window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 June. 4pm. Cemetery.

Torrid sun. Crowds gathering at the cemetery gate. Some lean against the high boundary wall, its blank face turned eastwards, in the only shade available, others congregate at the entrance, still more across the road opposite. Very few talk. I see people I know – Nick and Dom down near the gate. I have no wish to talk and, indeed, no wish to announce my presence, here. I come because I love this place and feel at home here. I didn’t know any of the people immediately caught up in the tragedy. I know by acquaintance a good few besides, but I’m at a remove, as must be many others who’ve come. I share with them, simply, the responsibility to be here, the respect we owe to those who have suffered so terrible a loss. What difference it may make, this peripheral swelling of the numbers of mourners, I cannot say or guess at, only that in seeking to be anonymous, I want not to intrude on grief but, equally, to allow that grief my acknowledgement of it. A small compassion. For, if not all death diminishes us, a death close at hand most certainly does. We do well to see, and feel, how such a death, in a small community, touches all who are permanently of, or else are, at any one time, temporary part of that community.

A car moves slowly past down the road towards the col de Port. The church bell in the cyclindrical tower overlooking the burial ground chimes four. No one moves. A minute or so later, it chimes four once more. The first toll always to alert to the change of hour, the second, its count.

The funeral party – is that what it is? The funeral party? Funeral detail? Transient complicity of grieving parents and the bitterly unwanted presence of the funeral directors who do their professional best to be discreet, attentive, considerate, efficient? How best to put it? There is no way to put it, really. There is the fact of death, here, and the living who remain to mourn the death. There is the tiny coffin and the body of the infant. All concerns and attachments are tied to both so fast they cannot be separated, albeit the distance that death has put between them is beyond them to cross.

The crowd gathered begins, very slowly, to move into the graveyard. I follow, walk along the main path which cuts across the field of tombs, the alleys at perpendicular leading up the slight incline to the back wall and the shading of cypresses and shrubs, already thickly lined with people. A stillness of heat and air too baked to be stirred. Weeping from up there, near the wall, where they must be, the mother, the father, their intimates, their family. Dogs yelp outside the cemetery. The commingling sounds are melancholy, they’d be melancholy whatever the circumstance.

I make a rough count of the numbers standing in silence under the sun-baked peacock blue sky. Around 150, maybe.

Music from, I find later, two speakers set up by the grave. Songs, picked for the occasion. Unknown to me.

What shall we choose? I don’t care. I don’t want just any old thing. It has to have a meaning. I do care. I don’t know. Does it matter? Of course it matters. To us. It matters to us. It’s not the last word. It’s music he had heard. Music which is important to us. That’s all. We have to have music. Not because it’s expected, though probably it is, but because we want music, don’t we? I don’t know, any more, I don’t know. Yes. No. Yes.

A woman comes forward to speak, gets a sentence or two into what she has to say – inaudible to me at this distance, and then breaks down in tears, her words choked. Another follows. Much the same, a line or two in a strong voice and then words break on the massive impediment of what the words refer to. A treacherous reef they cannot get past. They fall and dissolve in lamentation. A further burst of audible anguish, tears, tears that tear at the heart, the unhaltered wailing of unutterable distress that lances into the air and the song, which continues, is lost, becomes an irrelevance. The articulate attuned voice yields to the tuneless inarticulate.

The ceremony concludes and the crowd begins, even more slowly than the pace at which it arrived, to move up towards the grave. I walk up the outside alley to stand, some distance from it and watch as, one by hesitant one, people come to drop a flower, a handful of earth, a token, into the gaping hole. A single stem drops, a sprinkle of granular soil patters onto the box. By the hole, the pile of spoil, of earth, of stone-shot dust dug from the ground to make the cavity. So much soil for so tiny a being. Lying on the mound, framed photographs of him, of him with his mother and father, smiles, smiles, happiness, the joy of parents with child, child with parents. On top of the heap, a soft toy.

A woman brings a bouquet, white and cream flowers, lilies, of course, with sprouts of greenery, white is for death, green for the pulsing fuse of life.

A curious version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow plays. The words the same, the tune quite different, not even a variation, an anomaly.

One man makes a small performance of his witness – self-regarding, it seems to me. Perhaps I am unfair. I do not know his kin or acquaintance. Only he lingers long and brooding at the side of the grave and then walks off, stands, ostentatiously raises both arms towards the heavens and looks up, pointing. In hope or reproof? A public demonstration that he has more grief than others of us who stand by, it would seem. I had wished him more reserved, not to draw attention to himself. The spilling of his emotions does not make them more deeply felt. This isn’t his show.

A young woman in a dark dress, her face varnished with shed tears, she has, for the moment, none left, pushes a buggy down the alley at the top of which I stand, in the buggy a tiny chick. I learn, later, when she’s working behind the bar at Le Maxil, that she is one of the sisters of the bereaved.

Leading away from the graveside, an alley formed by the wall on one side, the dark-leaved, tall cypresses on the other, a sombre tunnel away from this focus of decease. I see people whom I know and hope none sees me. That’s unlikely. They are not looking.

The coffin is white and impossibly small.

At the gate, a book of condolence. The dribs and drabs of the crowd move towards it, their slowness surely part of a reluctance to sign because, having signed, the ceremony is done, and those of us who are here without immediate business to be here save of a blank sorrow, a numb reaction to the awful fact of a child dead before the expected longer counting of its time by church bells or clocks or birthdays or dated snapshots had hardly even begun, are also perhaps taking a privilege of inclusion on what we simply witness and are excluded from. It is important to be here, not good to be here, but there is ambiguity, too. No matter. Our names, unknown, will not matter. They will be there and that does matter. Someone once, struggling to write a letter of condolence to a friend agonised: ‘I don’t want it to be wrong,’ she said. ‘The only letter that’s wrong,’ I said, ‘is the letter that doesn’t get written.’

A baby’s life is counted first in hours, then in days and weeks, moving on to months and, finally years, but, for a while, even years have months attached to them, like tethering cables which will not allow them to stray too far out into the unknown of years, only years and the first claims on the bigger time that will mark them from then on.

And now I see the young couple whose loss it is of all that time. Friends embrace them. There is no consolation. There can only be comfort, the embrace, the long hug, the warmth of body to body, spirit to spirit, the closeness, the mutual attention, the exchanged sound of their breathing, the muttered nothings, the stifled sobs, the limbo of feelings so overstretched they need time to recover before welling up once more.

I sign my name and go.

In the graveyard, the grass is parched and crackles underfoot. The walks are of dry dust, gravel, impacted pebbles and stones. Artificial flowers hold up their artificial heads where true flowers droop and wilt. Everything is dessicated here. The only dews are those which course down cheeks. The tombs, large and small – some of bourgeois grandeur, big as car trailers on raised plinths, surmounted with stone panels, on the frieze of the sarcophagus:

JEUNE   FAMILLE   AINEE

Some of the memorials consist of horizontal slab with rear vertical panel like an embossed metal fireback and affixed to the lying stone a metal crucifix or some other bit of religious tat, rusted, like abandoned scrap. Generations and generations of Massat citizens laid to rest under the earth, some more grandiosely memorialised than others, which speaks nothing of their time upon the earth.

As we walk away, we do not leave death behind. Death, this death, will stalk the village for who knows how long, not to be forgotten but subsumed. It will lie heavy upon and haunt the young woman and man – she one of three sisters, early 20s, each of whom had a child at around the same time – forever, in whatever diminishing degree. But they live on.

As I wrote in a play about a mining disaster:

Death has had his crop. The fields have been left fallow to grieve

the sickle awhile and now they’re ploughed again for a fresh harvest.

15 June

I meet, for the first time, Dylan, owner of Le Maxil, the café and restaurant, as well as the old apartment building where I stay, as his guest – ‘because you have done so much for Massat’. This is generous. I was pleased, of course, to give him and the place a good plug in my account of the 2015 Tour de France as it passed through the village:

‘I was there to watch them with a man who’s done so much to foster interest in cycling in this lovely area, Nick Flanagan, to enjoy the essential aperitif to the arrival of the Grande Boucle in the community: a good lunch. And we join other fans at Le Maxil, now Massat’s hub for cyclist visitors and the enthusiasm for and of two wheels. Dylan’s the man.’

This was untrue – I hadn’t been there. Nick had to explain to Dylan the concept of a white lie.

And, at midday, we sat in the bar to listen to the transmission of my piece about Massat on From Our Own Correspondent:

 

I drove up the valley in bright sunshine. Fly-fishermen stood thigh-deep in the waters of the Arac. Pre- Revolution, commoners were allowed neither to hunt nor fish. Nowadays, it’s only maggots that are banned.

The road bringing traffic to Massat in this direction was constructed in the 1820s, when the village was more prominent than it is today, a town, even. Signs of that linger. A large hotel, now vacant, old houses, substantial in size, fairly shabby but still imposing, some unoccupied, impressive porticoes, the streets mazy. The economy hasn’t changed much – local produce, market garden, pasture, cheese – and the location, overlooked by high cols, part of its quiet charm. Eight miles (XII kilometres) south lies the mountain border with Spain. Plaques commemorate the passeurs, the local mountain men who guided escapees from German-occupied territory to neutral refuge.

William, 24 years old, from Nantes, greets me at the café/bar/restaurant, Le Maxil, which he runs. ‘How are you doing? Great to see you. Always welcome.’ When I first came – and I’ve spent much time in the village, indeed, lived here awhile – what’s now a friendly, social hub, was a very seedy, nicotine-stained bar. Massat wasn’t dead, but it was moribund: nothing much was happening, the streets went empty because there was little to do and no great attraction of eating or drinking out, no beating heart of rendezvous. William’s presence – as an outsider – and what he and the owner of the adjacent lodge, local man Dylan, have overseen, are palpable signs of an astonishing transformation in this village and its immediate vicinity.

Hippies arrived in the ’60s, in search of the rural idyll. They stuck out the cold, largely sunless winters in the valley as the price of warmth in the summer and peace all year round. Their counterparts, what the French call marginals, are still here, living on the fringes. But they come to town, too, to Le Maxil, because now Massat is reborn: young couples having children, a fresh, pulsating vibe of life in this community of some 700+ souls.

Nick Flanagan from Liverpool, set up a cycling lodge down the road, 30 years ago. It took a while to get going but, as word spread, cyclists pitched up, encouraged, for sure, by the wider cycling craze. I spent several summers guiding riders, mostly American, round the nearby cols on twinkling roads through lovely scenery. In 2003, a bunch of them treated Nick and me to supper in an auberge outside Massat. The place was heaving, at least 60 diners, most of them cyclists. I nudged Nick: ‘Look round, you’ve done this.’

That much is true, but something else happened here. An osmosis of interest, maybe. As new life flowed into the village from outside, the basic sense of community that never quite died in Massat began to flourish again. Helped on by what the publicist types call foot-fall, I guess. The village had always had its elected Maire, and the incumbent, M Gasparrou, has told me how, for instance, the bicycle has helped hugely. ‘Oh, yes, people come when the Tour de France sweeps through, other races, too, it generates business.’ Gasparrou, a highly-regarded, genial, kindly man of profound socialist views, also cleaves to that traditional call of noblesse oblige. He helps make things happen: for example a room in a municipal building, given rent free for an exchange store, run by volunteers, of clothes, books, utensils, records, anything useful.

The new butcher’s shop displays a blackboard giving the origin of the meat they sell, local bought. A bi-weekly market fosters trade and custom. Visitors explore, walk, cycle, ride horses, fish and swim in the river. Nothing fancy, all very simple, in old-style France. They frequent the new café/patisserie, the pizzeria. They eat lunch on the crowded, tree-shaded terrace of Le Maxil, as a farmer drives past with tractor and trailer full of muck and a party of workers lines a double table for the toothsome menu du jour.

On the last day of my recent visit, I stood in the market place talking politics with Philippe, owner of the wine-shop behind us. His analysis of the state of France was cool, incisive, no emotional tub-thumping. Very French. I told him that such an exchange was inconceivable in England. He evinced surprise. A shrug, a moue. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me, that here we were, in the loom of the old church belfry…the French for parish politics, l’esprit de clocher, spirit of the clock-tower.

 

Before the broadcast, I visit Philippe. We talk, drink a glass of rosé. After the broadcast, lunch with Nick on the terrace of Le Maxil. Later that day, I go to see M. Gasparrou. We talk for an hour.

 

Summer Solstice

I renounced all writing about cyclists and cycling some time ago, reserving the possibility of another book about the Italian Alps and Dolomites – which was published last year – and here is how the decision was shaped. It had first presented itself most urgently that morning in July 2012 when, having left the hotel outside Pau at 7am, destination  the Tourmalet, we eventually made our way through traffic hold ups, crews filming, the usual mad press of spectators, lines of idling cars, up over the col to the far side of the mountain, some ten minutes walk from the cafe – which would be a zoo – by 9.30. The race due to come through at 3.15. Another day of my life, I thought, parked by the roadside in flaying heat, waiting for the Tour de France. Another one of many, too m any, these past few years.

Gerard took off to the ascent side of the col for his pictures and, by the time he got back to the car, the essential beacon of the sign Fin de Course on the back marker van having long passed, private cars were already forming a queue to get off the mountain. We nosed into the queue to join what might be hours of waiting. I was fuming. I got out of the motor, ran down the long line of cars, explained to the gendarme that we were Press, he asked if we had the banderolle, I said we had, he waved us to come though. I ran back up the line, luckily there was space for us to overtake and, phew, we were away, free.

And then, one bright November morning that same year, I found myself in yet another bike-related factory. There have been more than a few of them. Writing about wheels, components, frame-building, tubing…This time, outside Milan. As I wrote in last year’s letter, though in different circumstances, I once more asked myself ‘What am I doing here?’ I picked up a catalogue and opened it at random. You’ve heard of Sortes Virgilianae?

On a page about a controversial form of handlebars, (there’s a radical idea to conjure with), in a cartouche, the famous line from the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid bk II, infandum regina iubes renovare dolorem…Aeneas to Dido who has asked him to speak of the Fall of Troy. He recoils. He cannot, should not, because it’s ill-omened, (infandum, not to be spoken of) dredge up the horror of it, the grief, in words. (And then, naturally, does so. Amor vincit omnia.) The Latin of one of Rome’s finest poets applied to rogue bits of bicycle? Booksaboutbikes? Hm? No. Enough, enough. That was when the decision hardened. So when, a week later, I was offered four times more than I have ever been offered to write a bike-related book, with what joy I turned it down. A joy elevated by the happy chance of being able to pass on the job to a friend who wanted, and needed, it.

There was other work to be done, much of it begun, and whilst I can still, disgracefully, talk myself out of starting, I have never yet been able to talk myself out of stopping, which is, however, not the same as finishing. There’s no such thing as finishing.

American friends and I were cycling in New Hampshire, one Fall some years back. We stopped for lunch at a café out in the wilds. The guy serving asked me: ‘Where have you come from?’ I said: ‘I don’t know.’ Then: ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘I don’t know.’ Sometimes, this work I do, all the work I do, feels rather like that.

And, this morning, I wake and look idly at the carved ebony lion from Ethiopia standing near the little metal cyclist which came from Rapha, both planted on the tall shelf unit next to my bed.

Eros and Psyche, lion and cyclist, myself and I, with me in the nimbus between.

Frankie Boyle refers to the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by the late Rev. Ian Paisley, that well-known moderator of inter-faith cooperation and understanding, as ‘the political wing of the Old Testament’.

Delivery of one case of Bordeaux and one of Rhône, paid for with money earned by my solar panels. Thus the sun’s heat converted into electricity in exchange for beakersful of the warm south.

 

22 June

An appointment with the doctor, arranged a long while ago, for a general check up. These past few days, I’ve felt very out of sorts, waking up breathless, struggling on some of the inclines during a walk with Marie along the old pedlars’ ways through the woods near Stone Street and, yesterday, when I woke, my body was depleted, my head stuffed, a sick, worn out malaise. I began a fast the day I returned from France – breakfast, no lunch, supper, no wine – and imputed this shocking disorder to the hay fever pills I’d taken. On the ride to Park and market yesterday, I began thinking I was going to crawl all the way and had no possibility of tackling the first hill, which is a brute, short but steep with a wretched surface. After the drag up Seal Road, Blackhall Lane and the weed-crowded narrow path with winds round to the Park kissing gate, I began to sense a slight lightening of my system and, even as I dropped down into the shallow valley leading to the climb, I decided I would do it. Deciding to do it means doing it. It’s not beaten me, yet, but will, some time.

In fact, the effort opened my lungs and the rest of the ride, admittedly a little curtailed, went smoothly. Later, I tied the over-large, very noisy cooling fan in its box onto the back of the bike and rode up into town, taking it back to Waitrose – not wanted. Later still, a phone call from the electrical store intown telling me that a delivery of smaller fans was in, so I cycled back, strapped a smaller box to the bike and rode home.

However, the doctor tells me that the lovely sinus rhythm of my heart has lapsed and I’m back to atrial fibrillation. The news is depressing. She does tell me, too, that the recently recorded high aggregate level of cholesterol, albeit my good cholesterol is abnormally high, is, as she put it, ‘familial’, ie inherited, and there’s nothing to be done about that.

This evening, I feel low, and a familiar (though not familial) longing to be looked after, coupled with a dread of such a thing. I suppose this is rooted in no recollection of ever being looked after in this straightforward manner of comfort. The approach was, rather, medicine and duty. My father even bragged that he could control my tears. His methodology was, in his terms, subtle. If I cried, for whatever reason, he shouted at me. My mother, cowed by his strictures – ‘don’t wrap the boy in cotton wool’ – was, at best, brusque. They’d each been so hardened by mutual animosity, there was no softness in them. They reserved that for other people – cubs and scouts, mostly, my father, in particular, wanting to be the avuncular friend to all young people, good old John. It’s true, they both had a lot to contend with, so much of it stemming from rankling disagreement and a fatal inability to talk about it, emotional stunting, aphasia, pressurised resentment which exploded from time to time. So much of it was closed off to me – how could I know or guess? – just as they closed off so much from each other. How many times did I ask my mother ‘When are we going to have another baby?’ – needing an ally, I guess, not that I could have voiced that or known it – and years later how he told me, as if he’d just discovered an awful family secret: ‘I never knew your mother wanted another child?’ Did she say and he ignored it? Did she not say and he couldn’t guess?

How could I have divined any of this? I was aware of their intense neediness directed at, bearing down on, me – involuntarily…they weren’t aware, either, I think – though I could not identify it as such. Only that it stifled and trapped me – the prime motive for wanting to escape, to breathe. Oh, the violence, too, the outbursts of fury, the coldness, the unspoken yearning. My mother asking me, in abstract: ‘If you love someone, do you think you should be with them?’ I was sixteen, my thick head stuffed full of Keats and Hopkins and the fevered measle pullulation of puberty. What the fuck did I, could I, know about that? I learned, years later, in appropriately melodramatic circumstances, that she’d been referring furtively to a lover, of long date.

 

23 June

I did not know that until a law of 1967, Aboriginals in Australia were classified as fauna and flora, animals and plants.

 

Midsummer Day

Someone on radio this morning complaining that they’d ‘been given a lack of support’. How does that work? Schrödinger’s cat racing up an Escher staircase…

The lime blossom on the small clump of trees near Knole house delivering a glorious drift of their scent. I linger to inhale.

Circumspect at the start of the walk, having been a bit rattled by the news about the return of the fluttering pulse, most certainly because I recall how grim it was first time. Breathing by and large fine although my legs were very heavy and I didn’t find much fluency of walking rhythm till well into the walk. I did slow the pace a mite but felt no discomfort.

Barbecue on the terrace. Bob and Linda, Luke, Nick, Vanessa and titch, John Roy.

Despite the overcast sky we sit out. I light the wee brazier I brought home from Ethiopia – which they use to keep a coffee pot hot. I scatter frankincense, sniffings of right ecclesiastical pungent odour swirl.

They leave late, I wash up then listen to Jasmin Levy’s engaging collection of songs which arise out of a fusion of Ladino (Sephardic and Spanish), Moorish,  and Flamenco-gipsy influences, with reference to the sonorities of the Jewish cantor (Chazan) and Moslem muezzin – what she calls ‘una reconciliación musical de la historia’, while I fill in the Times Latin crossword.

Daytime washing up view

26 June

A man talking volubly about his love of Scottish music, a passion which he shared with his late father. And his favourite in the great array of Scottish airs and songs he had on his tape? Galway Bay.

Cycled to Tonbridge to meet Emma Harding, BBC radio drama producer, to discuss the possibility of a play based on my story Spem in Alium, broadcast some years past. A pleasant interlude in the sun sitting at a table outside Kelly Holmes’s café, 1809 (the number she wore at the London Olympics where she won two gold medals, 800m and 1500m). Emma enthusiastic. There remains the hurdle of commissioning editor. I told her of the day conference of independent radio producers at the ICA in London 10 years ago. Simon Elmes, invited guest, sitting on the platform vapouring about the way the commissions process works, gives it as his opinion that ‘a good idea will always get through’ which prompted, from me, in the raked seats of the auditorium, ‘bullshit’. He then made the foolish error of endeavouring to justify what he’d just said, to which I repeated ‘bullshit’. A frisson of palpable agreement round the assembled audience. As soon as the lights went up, for the tea break…I the pariah. Hoo hoo.

I said to Emma, that long association with the BBC will almost certainly lead to a trace of paranoia, at which she laughed. I recalled, without his name, the time when I was sitting with a friend for lunch at an outside pavement table near Broadcasting House when a producer, later head of drama, walked up with a woman. He was a known philanderer. ‘Oh, hello, Graeme,’ quotha. ‘I see we’re doing a play of yours.’

‘Oh,’ says I. ‘Which one?’

A Breath of Fresh Air.’

‘But that was turned down.’

His glabrous face folds itself into what passes for a smirk, unless it was toothache, smug, at any rate. ‘Yes. I turned it down,’ at which he sashayed off, young woman in tow, for a prandial shag.

 

27 June

I come down at 6.45 this morning to make a cup of hot lemon and observe a scrawny fox ambling down the grass in the back garden.

 

28 June

Knole Park: stag into tree…tree into stag…

30 June

Two weeks after the appalling tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire, displaced residents are still farmed out to hotels, the promise to give them housing broken, some of them still being charged rent for the burnt out flats they were lucky to escape from alive. Now comes a declaration by the council that they will not be charging rents on any of the destroyed properties until at least the new year, as if this was an act of staggering magnanimity, a large gesture of charitable generosity.

 

2 July

Whenever I feel the close wrap of the sun’s heat about me, I think of the misery of wearing the rough battledress and woollen, hair shirt of cadet uniform, standard issue for the British army until well after the Second World War. The serge of the trousers and waist-length, tight-fitting top called a blouse – blouson has some weight, some substance, but a blouse is, irresistibly, a very flimsy item – coarse as an army blanket, possibly cut, if that’s not a misnomer, from the same rough stuff, was horribly itchy and wearing them was bad enough in cold weather, in blazing heat, a purgatorial torment. After Friday parade, I took the tube to Woodside Park, I walked home and, as soon as I got to the bottom of the back garden, which gave onto common land, I started stripping off and let the garments lie. The moment of standing in my room with trousers dropped to my ankles, feet still shod in boots, my body free of its clinging, poaching, scratchy cocoon was one of exquisite relief and pleasure.

And, this blazing hot day, I add to the catalogue of that misery by memory of getting back into the torture apparel in the gym changing room after PT, the fug of hot bodies and post shower steam adding to the discomfort. I suppose many, perhaps most, if not all, the others who wore the uniform didn’t suffer as I, with extremely sensitive skin, did. They seemed not to, anyway.

And still, I shudder to recall that hateful itchiness and overheating, a junior version of garments smeared with Nessus’s toxic blood, the rashing of my flesh.

 

3 July

In the gym, I had a lesson in sweeping technique from the assistant caretaker, Charlie Drake. A diminutive man, sparse of hair, wearing the dark blue boiler suit which was his badge of office, his frame and mien bowed under the harsh yoke of the tyrannical Lord High Caretaker himself, Mr Holmes, a sour-faced man without humour or give, Charlie was, one day, busy with his wide-headed broom on the gym floor. How the lesson came about, I do not remember, nor whether he was deploying the damp sawdust scattered in those days to make the dust lie ahead of sweeping, though I think not. However, he instructed me thus: ‘When you’re brushing up dust, you have to keep the head of the broom down, not like most people push it and lift at the end of the stroke, ’cause that only makes the dust rise back into the air so it hangs about and drops back and you’ve wasted your effort, so you keep the dust down by keeping the broom head down, like this, an even stroke, then another even stroke pushing what you’ve swept up further along the floor, see?’

Thus I learned to sweep from an expert.

 

4 July

Celebration of Independence Day on the Bat and Ball roof terrace – for which I built the set of steps to replace the rickety chair, which used to provide a chancy hop up access – that is, the flat roof of Marie’s studio at the bottom of the garden.

No singing.

Korea sends up a missile with sufficient range to land on American soil, a gift, says the podgy infant who runs the show in what is laughingly known as a Democratic People’s Republic, for the USA on Independence Day. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State responds by saying that the only thing preventing war is self-restraint. What does he expect? Congratulations?

As for the tyrannical toddler, his boss, attention span the shelf-life of a fresh oyster, one wonders whether calmer minds have discreetly swapped the contents of the so-called nuclear football for a pig’s bladder, just in case.

 

5 July

Our PT master, Montague de la Pomfrey, had once been declared Most Perfectly Developed Body by whatever panel of judges assessed such things on the French Riviera in the 1920s. In Monty’s private room at the side of the gym, his office, cubby hole, personal museum and gallery, hung photographs of him in his lissom prime: tall, of slender build with an athlete’s chest, arms near akimbo, hair, dark sleek with brilliantine, parted in the middle, a matinee idol’s moustache, pristine white vest on his upper body, legs sheathed in leotard tights, feet in dancing pumps, his entire posture one of languid self-assurance and, yes, masculine beauty.

Racks held a line of fencing blades, one of them certainly his, skill with the foil being one of the defining shapers of his striking poise and comportment. We never fenced but he clearly would not be parted from the blades. There were other mementoes, too – the certificate of his acclaim, naturally – not least the leotard tights, wrap-over loop under the instep, and the dancing pumps, somewhat frayed, which he still wore. These he complemented with a long black overcoat of a silky material with a large astrakhan collar, also black.

His hair was silver by then, but still crinkled in small waves, the moustache, too, but the facial sculpture evoked the youth and the twinkling eyes, knowing look, carefully rounded aristocratic drawl filled out the raffish style of the man. And the sweet aromatic scent of his favoured Jermyn Street brilliantine, of course. He took a shine to me and called me Blondie, in the studiedly rounded tones reminiscent of the butler in the famous ‘The same procedure as last year…’ film.

How he became aware that my father worked in finance, managing the investment fund for a large oil company (Iraq Petroleum), I don’t know but on more than one occasion he took me to one side and, conspiratorially hugger mugger asked me if I would seek advice on this or that investment – sound or shaky – from my father and relay it to him. This I did. Monty invariably winked in gratitude and treated me to a confidential smile. There was never any hint of impropriety on his part. He was an old world gent who’d once been a latterday Adonis.

 

8 July

To London to meet Marie and her friend, Tim, on a brief visit from Erfurt. We arrange a rendezvous outside the National Gallery. Trafalgar Square is crammed with people, the residue of the Gay Pride march that had taken place that afternoon. I text to suggest outside the Portrait Gallery instead. M and I meet and wait for T. I stand, holding her cello case – she’s come from a recording session in the Maida Vale studios (where I had a couple of shows recorded, as she, tired, sits on the ledge of the railings.

An unsavoury individual in face paint, oversize dungarees, straggly hair and beard, sidles up to me and asks if I’d give him a tune on the cello. I ignore him. He, with the brashness of the lonely, wheedles as if his decision to talk to me demands, by right, my response in kind. I look away. I do not wish to be chatted up which is what this is. He persists and I wave him off. He, all hurt vanity and miff, shakes his head at me – spoilsport – and flounces off.

I have long pondered the relationship between writer of the love poem and inspirer/recipient, usually male to female. I speak as one who was the inspirer/recipient of love poems written and given to me by my English master in the sixth form. They were destroyed by my father in one of many acts of spite, years later. There is decidedly something of the cat delivering the inedible vole on the door mat as a sort of gift offering about this transaction.

 

9 July

Iraq…When I arrived at Christ’s College Finchley, the Iraqi Charles Saatchi, then in the LVI, was one of our house prefects. Round-cornered, starched attachable gleaming white collar on a discreetly patterned, grey (I think) silk shirt, tightly knotted silk-weave tie tucked into a low-bosomed waistcoat, fob chain looped across the abdomen, tailored jacket, tapering stove pipe trousers, no crease, glistening shoes, orchidaceous face caught in an expression between hauteur and sneer, crimped hair, he patrolled our lines as we waited to proceed into the school building and on down the long, main corridor for morning assembly in the Hall. He in his distinctive, dandy garb, eyeing us first former clones in bran new blazers with unbesmirched white badges, white shirts and house ties, grey trousers and black shoes, all identical, save that some wore shorts and others longs. It must have been that sixth formers were granted the privilege of wearing mufti.

He was later expelled for turning up to school with a flick knife. This he may have been carrying as defence against further violence from Joey Philips, a low-slung, crouch-stance, street fighter of electrifying pugilistic savagery. Whatever the grudge had been, the pair faced off in one of the fives courts. The match was cruelly one-sided. Saatchi was battered into swift and bloodied submission which Philips disregarded and had to be pulled off by a master drawn by the ruckus and the baying crowd gathered to witness the bare-knuckle show. Shameful voyeurism of my 11 year old self.

Someone declares that life is too short to be drinking bad (ie cheap) wine. Fine if you can afford it. Stuffing mushrooms is different.

 

12 July

The terrace is scented with jasmine, growing up over the arch from the two planters I made, placed either side the back door, and lilies in pots. At the top of the garden, the odour is of cat piss and fox poo. I plant another clematis in the place where the hop used to run rampant – not of my planting and it was an incorrigible bully, strangling anything that got in the way. I, myself, never stood still long enough to succumb.

14 July

I rode the Park this morning, third time this week. A pair of green woodpeckers flew across my path.  Each ride has gone well, no difficulty.  I hope only that this is keeping the worse incursion of the atrial fibrillation at bay…absit omen.

The Tour de France swept through Massat this afternoon. I was on tenterhooks as the escape of two riders flew down the Col d’Agnès – every inch of the road they rode today, from Saint-Girons to Foix, and the three mountains they crossed, well known to me – fingers crossed that the bloody adverts – which last up to five minutes – wouldn’t muscle in. Hurray, they didn’t, and I saw the leading pair right into and through the village, Nick and Dominic holding a banner outside the house, as they had to slow a little to negotiate the double bend, the narrow street, but too fast thence to spot anyone in Le Maxil. And then…ads, pooh, so I didn’t see the chasing group come through.

 

 

15 July

I woke at a little after 4am, the sky already showing light and was reading by 4.30, the bedroom windows showing a grey overcast above the line of trees just visible. Within an hour, I concluded a long and largely dispiriting trudge through The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which has had a great success. Fleur at the bookshop warned me to ignore the hype and just enjoy it. I did the first but struggled to enjoy. Some of it is beautifully written, some of it over-larded and by and large manufactured and tedious. It lacked the magnetic pulse which courses through good fiction, in my view, and has much of the construct about it, the parcelling up of effect, the slotting in of episode, the building of a structure whose fabric owes more to the design than the need for it to be there. A creative writing artifice. The text is further marred by a scattergun spray of exclamation marks. In one place, that vulgar show off of three, wow, look look look, surprise, wonderment, amazing, omigod. Since the novel purports to be set in the late 19th century this brash intrusion only adds to a clutter of anachronisms. True, the abbreviation bus, though not as consistently as both ’bus or buss, for omnibus is recorded in the OED but the synecdoche tube is not – quotations give tube train and tube tunnel – and as for grade, as in school exam or year, both far more common in America from early on, that’s a cuckoo. All emphatically modern. Furthermore, humourless.

I turned to Larry McMurtry Duane’s Depressed in relief.

 

16 July

Working in the garden under close scrutiny and supervision, John Roy as overseer:

17 July

Turned down by another agent – at least the rare courtesy of a reply – and very despondent.

Iannis Manuelides, with whom I made friends during the first sea trials of the Reconstructed Athenian Trireme, talked of kleos one day, the Greek word for ‘glory’ and how it might attach to the dazzling acts of a warrior – died young – like Achilles, but that it could also be applied to the dogged persistence of Odysseus, going on, going on despite all obstacles. Patience, hard thing, as Hopkins put it. So, that has to be the way of it, as I know and have known. Be wounded and acknowledge the hurt, then brush it aside.

Glory – from a Latin word for boasting – is of no interest to me and the word kleos is more subtle than that. It comes from a verb kleo which is to report, tell of and then means rumour, speaking of, recognition and, in the way of things, because if you have enough people talking of the same person at the same time, that amounts to the ancient world version of celebrity.

In the Achilles-Odysseus example, it’s clear that Achilles – ‘a short life but glorious’ – craved, and won, the instant renown contingent on his exploits, whereas Odysseus,  ‘of many ideas’ polumetis, (the Homeric stock adjective), always ready with a plan, a stratagem, works a very different trajectory. And, neither an éminence grise nor a publicity shy power broker, he holds on to a long objective, simply to get home, back to Penelope. (The Greek word for the stories which form the basis of the Homeric epic poems is nostoi: ‘the journeys home’, which gives us nostalgia, the ache to return home. So, the idea that you can be nostalgic for a past you did not know, is silly.) That kleos is the trickster conversation that we have with Death, and when humour deserts because of despondency or a failure of nerve, when wit cheats us of the nimbleness of spirit to dodge the pounding insistence of nogood nogood nogood, that dark angel’s only ploy – to discredit, to scupper confidence, to undermine the will – the talk becomes one-sided and oppressive.

In this light, I would say that this kleos is no more than the hope that a piece of work will be recognised as worth notice. No more. Best if that notice takes the form of a sandwich of hard covers.

 

22 July

A fine, bright morning as I set out for the Park-market walk. A skein of geese honks across the sky as I mount the first hill to the height from where I turn to look back at the North Downs ridge, clear and unmisted today. A short way down the other side of the slope and the best view of Knole opens, the cluster of chimneys – think of those early hours before the light of dawn as servants climbed stairways through the house with buckets of coal and wood to light fires in the hearths of the numerous bedrooms, the other rooms on the lower floors to warm the way for the occupants who’d never set and lit a fire in their life.

This sight of the house has only one impediment, a tree growing full in front, that might be put there expressly to interrupt the open vista.

The old walled garden, some distance from the house – perhaps to mask the odour of greens that might issue from the growing there – is in the course of refurbishment. One long section of the northern wall, which overlooks the pond, Bird House and a short fairway of the golf course, was rebuilt a while ago, half its length completely reconstructed with special bricks, not dissimilar to Norfolk reds, in English Cross bond (alternate courses of stretchers and headers), finely laid by real experts. The slight oddity of their having to accommodate a sloping base, so that the one archway and intermittent buttresses, needing to be perpendicular, are slightly offset, an interesting optical trick.

This morning, I hear noise from the eastern wall, so far untouched, but in relatively good repair, and find a man inside the garden, preparing to work – cement mixer to hand – and ask him if the plan is to restore the garden. There is still some reworking of the brick walls to be done. No, he thinks, but a vineyard.

At the flower stall, since my lilies are in full view – the scent of jasmine and lily on the terrace is tailing away, now – I buy episcopal purple Lysianthus, instead.

 

24 July

Final stage of the Tour de France. I’m relieved for, although I enjoy the race per se, having to go through the daily botheration of a mithering commentary – which, for the most part I eschew by switching off the sound – and the constant interruption of advertisement, the sheer inanity of repetition and bullshit – is an excruciating frustration.

The day of the Tour coming through Massat, I was on tenterhooks as the break of two riders dropped away from the Col d’Agnès, sped onto the approaches to town and then on in between the line of houses…but, hurray, the publicity held off and I saw them flash past Nick’s house and Nick standing there (in a blur) with a banner. Fantastic. Alas, the damned ads kicked in – migod, they go on for aaaaages – before the pursuing group appeared, but at least a view of the place I love.

[Nick insists on pronouncing the Agnès, Ag-nay, and Gasparrou, the mayor, calls it Anyh. I’ve known two women called Agnès but they lived in Paris so the correct pronunciation, Any-ess, probably goes as a poncey Parisian accent, with which my French is saddled. Unlike Chaucer’s Prioresse:

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly

After the scole of Startford ate Bowe,

For Frenssh of Parys was to her unknowe.

General Prologue 124ff

That is, her French will have been what she heard and spoke in the Benedictine convent of Saint Leonard’s at Bromley by Bow, founded in the time of William the Conqueror, a French deemed markedly inferior to that of Paris. So there.]

 

I went into the Sky studio this morning to give an interview. They wanted another yesterday morning, but my Skype connection was awry and the image on screen either froze or jumped, so I – and they – missed out.

I caught the 7.04 train from Sevenoaks, for Victoria, no ticket windows open so I had to used the machine and, foolishly, bought a single instead of return – the difference in price, 10p. At Victoria, I explained this to a young jobsworth at the gate who reached for the ticket, said he had to mark it and that I’d have to buy another fare home. I ignored him and walked off. Returned to the station, I sought the help of another gate guard who brushed off the request – nothing she could do. I went, therefore, to a luggage gate and walked through with some other passengers, waving the ticket. Luckily, no guards on either of the trains I then had to catch to get back to my burgh, by 10.30, so I was saved.

I walked up into town and had a splendid breakfast at the Italian deli/café in the pedestrian walkway.

 

 

25 July

In town, as I peel away from the Post Office – I’d gone to buy stamps for Europe, the queue was long, I could buy online, a printed label not so elegant as a stamp but worth it to obviate the long stooging in a line, a voice calls out my name. It’s Will (pianist) and his wife Noa, whom I have not met before,.

We go for coffee, talk of garden produce – Will, having for some time gone in for a large harvest of pumpkins to feed the Halloween trade – is now forbidden vegetable Jack O’Lanterns. My courgettes, as ever, have exploded into marrows and will have to go for soup.

We also speak of the madness that is becoming the political norm and Will reports that Trump is now on record as saying that, should he be held to account for any misdemeanour or wrong-doing in the matter of electoral manipulation, he will issue himself a presidential pardon.

 

27 July

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway, a compelling story of inhumanity, grotesque cruelty and a stark, raw exposé of the deep fissure which runs, still, through American society, the despicable mistreatment of the blacks. The writing has a terseness which points up the bite of the savagery visited on the slaves in captivity and, worse, those who managed to escape but were caught and mercilessly punished. The groves of trees with ‘strange fruit’ hanging from the branches. The appalling tortures. The relentless pursuit by slave catchers. All this, harrowing and a story that needed to be told. And yet, the one element which seems to me utterly absurd: the fact that he writes of the railway as if it was, indeed, a constructed underground line, a network of unlit tunnels, station platforms and halts, tiled and bricked walls, rolling stock, engines and flat-bed trolleys, even, at one point, a fully fitted passenger coach. The book has, I hear, just been awarded a prize for science fiction. I’d wondered if I was missing an important point. Seems not. The fantastical fiction diminishes the historic fiction, I feel. Plain silly. Across country, hounded at every turn, fearful of betrayal, the seeing eye of hatred never closed beneath the endless open expanse of the sky, the anguish of flight through woodland, across vast tracts of open country, over streams and rivers, the treacherous haven of outbuildings, the temptation of the quicker roads and paths…and a real railway?

 

31 July

I rode the long way round to town, Seal Hollow-Blackhall- St Julians- top road and along Blackhall culled some Agaricus mushrooms from the side verge. They’re more commonly found near the coast but if a road has been salted in the winter, the saline element in the soil of a verge will promote them. How do they know, one wonders, the wandering spores?

Not very tasty, I report.

 

1 August

I cycled up to the Hole in the Wall, through into Knole Park and up the long paved path to the flat of the mound beyond which sits the house. A cruel ascent. I had to fight through a breathlessness which nearly brought me to a standstill. This is the kind of plight to which I referred when I asked the doctor about pushing myself, not wishing my will power to do me any unnecessary – or damaging – disfavours. I persisted, however, and felt the blessed relief of the flatter ground at the top.

Coffee with Neil and Alison on their way through from Glyndebourne last night and back to Amberley Gloucs., where they now live.

Thence to Stafford Way and off to Hastings with Nick and pipkin, John Roy, born in April 2016, a cheery little chap, with a broad grin and a generally happy disposition. Hastings is thronged this warm sunny day, the car parks are cramful – we tried a number – and we rather thought we’d have to drive up the hill to find a space. However, along a road up the hill, parallel to the seafront, we found a place, no parking fees, not much of a walk and, buggy loaded with bags of nappies etc, toys etc and lunch box etc, the inevitable paraphernalia for the one-child army on the move, we made our way back down to the promenade and took turns to swim in a warm sea off the shingle beach – very hard on my feet (Nick sensibly kept his sandals on) and the water too shallow for much more than a dunk and float, but glorious for all that. Such a treat to get into the briny, to sniff deep of the ozone, to lurk in the junior surf – beat of the tide on the pebbles, seagulls mewing, shrieks of children at play, the musica libra of the seaside.

Late it was, by the time we moved on to refreshment, around 3 o’clock, for fish and chips at a café to which Nick and I (and Lucy, Scott and I) have been times before, and a pint of ale from the pub adjacent. Lines of boy and girl scouts parade the pavements in loose crocodile. I ask our waitress, a girl of around 16, with very dark skin, perhaps of Sri Lankan origin, if there’s a big event of scouts happening in town at the moment. Not that she’s aware, although ‘it’s Carnival this Saturday.’ Then she added: ‘I do know there are lots of foreigners coming over.’

What generation is she – first? Second? This remark, comical as it is, cuts into a more challenging question as to who the foreigner is. Aren’t we all mongrels? What is English, precisely? By and large, if it’s our version of American White Supremacist, I’d rather not be so labelled, myself, and prefer to be registered as hybrid, contributory elements various and unknown.

 

2 August

To London for lunch with Richard, whom I haven’t seen for ages. We meet at Côte Brasserie in Saint Martin’s Lane. I’m early and order a glass of white wine. I sit at the window table I’d reserved, the pierglass panes open to the fresh air, two other small tables to either side. That to my right occupied by two women, one very black of skin, the other light brown, and she talking very loudly. This could, I reckon, be a problem. I wait my chance and then, at a lull in their conversation, risk the enquiry: that I’m awaiting the arrival of a friend and we don’t want to set up in competition, sure it’s exuberance with your friend but it is just a bit loud, wonder if you’d mind…The woman laughs and her face breaks into a radiant smile. Of course, of course. She laughs again. Perhaps inadvisedly, though picking up on the levity of her response, I tell her friend that she can always turn up her hearing aid. This is almost certainly pushing it…my own fault (if that’s the word) of exuberance. And the volume does go down.

Later in our own conversation, and lunch, as the woman’s friend leaves their table, I lean forward and introduce Richard. She shakes his hand and answers to the name Ida, from the Dominican Republic. A brief exchange on the subject of Brexit and the threat to resident non-British nationals – she’s been married to a man from Tyneside, ‘a Geordie’ she says, though can’t remember instantly from where in Newcastle, begins with B. I eventually trawl it up: Benton. Yes. She took the nationality test. I put it that most Brits wouldn’t have a clue how to answer the test. Was it a joyous event, the handing over of qualification? Yes, indeed, good fun. In Dorking Town Hall. Not often you’d pair the concept of fun with Dorking anywhere.

I then ask her about the phrase that I first heard from a young woman from El Salvador, in Deiá, which Nick’s partner Vanessa (Nicaraguan) did not recognise: cuentas cabales, buenos amigos…cleared debts, good friends. (It may be caballes). Vanessa was stuck on caballos, which I knew, of course, so puzzled. But Ida recognised the phrase, for sure – ‘yes, fair, open money paid back makes for good friends, it’s advice against borrowing for any length of time’.

After lunch, in the teeming rain on foot to Condor Cycles in Grays Inn road to collect my racing bike, now fitted with the granny gears on which I’d decided before the doctor pressed me to get them. Prepared to ride the bike on to Blackfriars – I have bike clips – instead I walk, with the bike in one hand, an umbrella with a broken limb in the other, to the station and from Bat and Ball at this end, the same, home.

 

3 August

First Nick from Massat phone to wish me happy birthday, then Lucy, then Duncan, from Australia. In the course of our conversation, he speaks of the project on which he’s been working a long time, relationship between the aboriginals of the Sydney area and the immigrant – ie largely European – population. Interlopers, more accurate, maybe, given the treatment meted out to the indigenous peoples. Part of the project is to explore and reflect on the treatment of the insane in institutions along the Paramatta River. I suggest that a similar project, to enquire into what measures are being taken to manage the seriously deranged along the east bank of the Potomac by Washington might be a sound idea.

Lunch here with Luke – half a plump smoked Lowestoft mackerel, from the fish stall at the Saturday market, my lettuce, bought cucumber and tomato, couscous and strawberry tart to follow, para postres…which, Natalia, daughter of Lucia and Ramon, taught me, could be used in conversation, the Spanish equivalent (not the way she glossed it) of the German Ja, und…?

Supper at Vine restaurant with Marie. We walk up the hill in the warm evening sun. She nearly bungles the answer to the query at the restaurant door: ‘For how many?’ and we are placed at a window table laid for four, two covers are whisked away and we sit, talking, with an aperitif of white wine when I feel two hands on my shoulders: it’s Max, with Kate, Marie’s daughter, come to surprise me. Joy.

 

4 August

A sickening dream last night. I report to hospital after examination, two doctors greet me, one hands me a sheet of paper to read and advises me that I might like ‘to lie down’. I sit to read. It’s a screed of details on points of bureaucracy. I’m baffled: why such a document? Then one of the doctors tells me that I have only six months to live. Testicular cancer. The force of it builds in me like successive waves on a beach accumulating a body of water. What am I going to do? Where go? Whom see? I can find no answers to any of these questions. And, in the protracted course of my moving from waking to any determined movement this morning, I mirror the funk with which I have greeted this shocking news. Six months and that’s it.

I wake, eyes open, at last, and am exhausted, completely drained of energy, 6.40am. Make a cup of hot water with lemon slice, read for half an hour or so and then, terribly tired, sleep for another 40 minutes before getting up.

Inevitably I read the portent in this as a memento mori, to get on with the work. And, as if combing the ether and alert to my readiness to plug back in, comes this email, from Ella Kahn:

Dear Graeme,

Thank you so much for sending me your work. However, having considered it carefully, I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel it’s right for my list. I really like the concept and very much enjoyed the opening chapter, but reading beyond that – and judging by your synopsis – my concern is that the scope of the novel, in trying to detail her whole life, is too broad, and that the pace will therefore be slow. We don’t get to the crunch point of the story – so succinctly and effectively pitched in your blurb below – until nearly 4/5ths of the way through your outline. Whilst I appreciate your desire to show some of her backstory building up to this moment, I feel the book would be much more commercially viable if you focused in on the years of the revolution itself, in order to make her desire to kill Marat a much more central plot driver. Perhaps you could begin the story when Charlotte is already in the convent, shortly after the outbreak of the revolution (your current chapter 26 – halfway through the book – in your current outline), and simply have a few flashbacks,

if you feel they are needed, to relevant scenes from her childhood, in order to help establish her character?
If you were to consider revising the manuscript in this way I’d be happy to take another look; otherwise, I wish you the best of luck with other agents.
With best wishes,
Ella

 

My marching orders, therefore.

 

To London again, to collect my gold watch from the watchmaker/repairer. Fussed over, repolished, bright and clean, it goes into the small leather pouch I got from a jeweller in Sevenoaks to keep out some of the dust which filters in when I carry it in my pocket, as I’ve done habitually, every day, since I inherited it from Grandad in 1969.

 

5 August

An email to Howard Jacobson to whom I’d written a while ago, via the producer of A Point of View, in praise of a talk he’d given, this time about a piece in the Guardian.

Dear Howard Jacobson,

A scrumptious piece in the Guardian magazine this morning.

On a less toothsome note, I was once with a friend [Peter Thorne, composer/pub pianist, vide supra] ordering a curry in a restaurant near Piccadilly, we havered over poppadums. The waiter did what those who only stand and wait do, he waited, but, finally deciding that our protracted deliberations needed intervention to hasten the decision he needed for the completion of this immediate duty, he said, very gently: ‘Well, sir, a poppadum is a very flimsy item.’

We ordered the poppadums.

 

8 August

It seems to me that the dispossessed of America love Trump because he is the embodiment of the American dream, his wealthy provenance notwithstanding, and someone who, in reaching out to them, allows them to reach out to him, even if he wouldn’t dream of inviting any one of them into the gilded interior of his tasteless apartments in Trump Tower. He doesn’t have any taste but makes it okay not to have any taste.

 

10 August

When the Light Goes Larry McMurtry Houston Public Library, withdrawn from the shelves and, to my indignation – except that it is to my advantage – stamped DISCARD on its back flyleaf. I read it in a day. The conclusion of the story of Duane Moore, a touch sentimental, a happy ending which underlines just how sad McMurtry was to say goodbye to one of his best delineated characters. But, the writing, as ever, captivating, the story funny and moving by turns, the humour wry, the take on small town America knowing and light tease. Happily, there are still titles in the McMurtry canon waiting for my attention and plenty of wood here for the fitting of additional shelves to carry the books.

 

13 August

White Supremacist torchlight march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville Va, last night. Chants of ‘Jews will not replace us’, ‘White Lives Matter’, ‘blood and soil’. Opponents rallied to protest. Thirteen people killed when a car was driven into the crowd by a young guy. News came in this morning. I just watched some video footage. Those odious bastards, KKK allowed on the streets? Trump’s mincing response? That there had been unacceptable brutality ‘on both sides…on both sides’ in that second voice softer echo that he uses. He later said that ‘there are some fine people on the right’. The Governor at least spoke his mind: these racist, bigoted hoods are not welcome here.

Emails to various American friends

I weep with you, Stewart, it’s horrible, horrible, what’s happening to your country, what that moron in the White House is capable of doing. Seems even some of the spineless GOP seniors are speaking out, now. One can only hope that someone with some nous has surreptitiously replaced the nuclear football with an inflated pig’s bladder.

Stewart

Not a surprise.  When you cater to the fringe and win, you can’t blame them for celebrating.  But you need to own it, and he can’t do that.  But really, the GOP’s been romancing those folks since George Wallace stopped running, and each election cycle they’ve pandered to them more and more–from Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority to Fox News & the talk radio guys to Sara Palin.  It’s not like Trump invented any of this stuff.  He just focused on it more.  The hope is that it’s a last (and worst) gasp of the old guard.  The current electorate is very old, and may be the last white/Anglo majority in U.S. history.  Bring on plurality and cooperation.

Me

I guess the extreme shock of what those people do and say hits us so hard, is so outrageous – our whiteys are tame by comparison and by and large quiescent at the moment (apart from that sicko who shot one of the best women MPs we had, Jo Cox) – that we, well, I, don’t see much beyond the vile behaviour. The likes of Sarah Palin are so comic in contrast, that the deeper political strains of fringe lunacy gets obscured. Fake news and alternative facts…but old hat, really. I just finished William Shirer’s Berlin Diary a superb account of events, currents of opinion, the grim failures of other European leaders to read the runes…As to the propaganda machine driven by Goebbels and the posturing of Hitler: monstrous. And the German people apparently completely duped, although there was one joke told at the time: Hitler, Goebbels and Goering are in a plane that crashes and all three are killed. Was anybody saved? Yes. The German people.

Stewart

My visit to Nuremburg made everything plain.  When people’s worst prejudices are reinforced, they go overboard with them.

 

The roots of fascism it turns out run deep in American society. In the 1920s and ‘30s: Paramilitary Silver Shirts, founded by a radical journalist in Mass., 1933, obsessed with fantasies about Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Various fringe groups: the Khaki Shirts, ex-veterans bent on a coup, the Black Legion, wild talk of assassinations. Fritz Julius Kuhn’s German-American Bund, 1936 – a rally at Madison Square Garden, 1939, Kuhn ranting about Frank D Rosenfeld and Jew Deal. American Nazi Party founded in 1959 by the attention seeking war veteran George Lincoln Rockwell. The party’s current supremo sees Trump as ‘a real opportunity’.

In 1931, 7o years after the start of the American Civil War, W.E.B. Dubois (The Souls of Black Folk, essential reading) spoke of the grandiose inscriptions on monuments but recently erected to the Confederacy, that: ‘The plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.”’ Questions about the affront such memorials constituted began to be asked in the 1960s in the fight against Jim Crow.

There are now, I read, more neoconfederate groups – the restoration of segregation in law, even secession of the old Confederacy) – The Council of Conservative Citizens, The League of the South, Vanguard America (whose recruiting explicitly targets young men at college). As they proliferate, one can hope only that they’ll all fall out with each other and tear themselves to bits.

The civil rights leader, Cornel West has said that the heritage the statues – some of which have been torn down – are not worth commemorating. ‘The Confederacy is part of a tradition that’s grounded in hatred and is tied to one of the most vicious structures of domination in the modern world.’

Opponents disagree, naturally, seeing the civil war as the last stand of a proper, gentlemanly white tradition. They seem not to get the odious irony in that white. As the Black Lives Matter activist, Lisa Woolfork, has said: ‘There is no better context for these statues than the hundreds of white nationalists coming to defend them. You cannot tell beautiful lies about ugly stories.’ Lies is lies is lies.

 

14 August

On the terrace: bee on marjoram, nectar and herb.

18 August

Bee resting and preening on my front room window cill. When she was done, she flew up to the top window, waggled her bottom as a request to be let fly, I opened the bigger window and away she went, about the vital work.

 

19 August

Notification from Saint Martin’s, the homeless charity which I support, of their Christmas Cards for sale.

 

20 August

I finished Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train before getting up this morning. My initial reaction was one of frustration – that she, a well-known author, had done something which I’ve attempted in my long journal ot eh trip I made last year, and am still revising. So much of what she says about her reasons for travelling, the reflections on what travel was about for her, I found very absorbing. (That she was contracted to write articles…why did I not approach magazines, papers to that end? Because I did not think of it. Partly, maybe, because I wanted the adventure to be free of such a limiting responsibility, even if I kept notes and wrote up in a rush immediately after I got back, the first draft of what has changed much in the interim.) Her digressions did not draw me in the same way. I found her an uncomfortable companion on the page and the obsession with smoking repelled me. I could smell the stink of it, in the air, on the breath, on the clothes, the lingering clinging foul odour of tobacco. As to her second trip – going to stay with the woman, Bet, she meets on one leg of the first journey, and her husband, and the paranoia of wondering whether they were going to try to keep her as their captive – the film Misery (which I haven’t seen) the grim conclusion of A Handful of Dust, which chilled me quite – I found all that daft. And the fact that she effectively gave upon the train journey after leaving them was a moral defeat. Unlikeable. But, here and there a master class in reportage.

There are solecisms which don’t fit with a writer of her standing, though. The use of ‘he smiled…he cackled…he laughed’ to replace ‘he said’. Oddly, too, she places Hell’s Kitchen, (between 34th and 59th Streets on the west side, close by the water, known for Irish brawlers and whiskey priests), in the Bronx. And the editor didn’t pick up on it. Or else bowed and scraped and mumbled nihil obstat before the hallowed text.

 

Another ride after breakfast that found me out. Two weeks ago, my first outing on the new triple gave me sanguine hopes of a transformation in riding. Last week’s ride was so bad that I felt rather vanquished. In fact, I phoned Nick, in Massat, and said: ‘I’ve just come back from a real shit ride and I’d like to share it with you.’ ‘Thanks,’ he said.

On the long stubborn hill which begins in Ightam and crawls round and up to the radio mast south of West Kingsdown, I was passed by a number of other riders – who did greet me as they went by, it’s uncommon – and had to stop twice to get my breath. Barely relevant since I already knew, but I reflected as I straddled the bike, panting heavily, that my days of riding mountains are long gone. Not that I’m much in the way of making that an option, although I would still wish to be able to walk ’em.

Curiously, after the second stop, I rode on without any difficulty and cruised onto the flat top breathing easily, there to take in the glorious view over the Weald, a light haze over the far prospect.

Down the hill to Crowdleham, the hill that all but finished me off last Sunday, along to Kemsing and back via Noah’s Ark, though why the tiny village is so called I do not know.

Left into Seal Hollow Road, the short way along and, checking behind me, my hand out to turn right, I swung onto the left margin of the central line approaching the rise before my road. A car roared up past me on the left too close. I pulled away, a car breasting the rise, out of sight before, now comes into view, heading straight for me, I pull back to the left even as a bulbous monster people carrier snarling dogs bollocks of a motor vee-hickle, leprous white, burgled my space, nearly hit me, the driver launching into a fuckyoucunt less than friendly greeting or ‘mind how you go’ as I squeezed through the gap of contrary motion on either side of me and turned into the haven of The Crescent. My pulse did not race because my pulse, these days, flutters all the time and I did not feel discombobulated. Better that way, so I am – was – lucky.

 

21 August

Another close call, death squeezed down that narrow gap between two fast-moving cars, as if I vapourised momentarily to escape collision and then swelled back to normal size in the tranquillity of a road without moving cars and the safety of my house. And, this morning, as ever rather breathless on first waking and for a while thereafter, the immediate juxtaposition of survival and the urgency to keep on. So, I ponder the day’s address ahead of me, the changes and revisions of the novel and conclude…what changes and revisions to make.

 

And Dick Gregory has died. Humane, irreverent, cutting, funny. ‘I walked into this restaurant and the waitress said: “We don’t serve coloured people.” I said, That’s all right, I don’t eat coloured people, bring me a whole fried chicken.’

‘Segregation’s not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?’

‘I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.’

 

23 August

I’d wondered how many chimneys there are poking up above the roofs of Knole House – all those fires to lay and light in the chilly mornings, a scurry of chamber maids. Now I learn that it’s a calendar house with 365 rooms, 52 chimneys, twelve entrances and seven courtyards.

My view of the house on the morning ride is not as clear and striking as when I walk, on Saturdays, but I never go into the Park, the presence of the house there if not seen, without thinking how blessed we are to have freedom of such a glorious tract of land, the rides and tree-lined alleys, the hills and woodland. I saw but one person, and in the distance, this morning – always a strange pleasure to have the place almost to myself.

I emptied the soil from the broken half barrel I’ve had for many years – it came from Low House to its position at the front of Middle House when I moved in here – and prepared a new half whisky barrel to receive its resident: a rhododendron that Suse gave me for my birthday, this being hers.

Drilled drainage holes, lined the sides with emptied compost plastic sack, half filled with topsoil, topped up with ericaceous compost, fertilised with fish blood and bone, scooped a cavity and took the plant from its pot – so thickly root bound it took a while to hack off the matted fibres. Some Rootgrow in the hole and in goes the rhododendron and a good soaking.

 

24 August

A survey has shown that some 6.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 60 say that they do not walk for as much as 10 minutes at a brisk (3mph) pace more than once a month.

An hour out in the garden, lifting weeds from the grass, snipping lavender whiskers, trimming the strawberry runners snaking off for new ground, and there, a single, very large strawberry, second crop, itself a giant in a clutch of tiny green fruits. I guess they’ll not grow much and certainly not ripen.

Tea with Marie on the roof of the studio and we talk of Ireland – she’s going for a few days with American friends after the Last Night of the Proms. I tell her about Yeats’s recall of meeting an old man somewhere in the wilds and their conversation about faery and the old man pooh-poohs the existence of the fabled little people: ‘Noh, noh, ’tis a made-up story about them, the very thought, ha ha, all fancy and folklore, myth and legend.’ He paused, his eyes narrowed, then, in a ghostly whisper he added: ‘But they’re there…’

And of the man who chances upon a leprechaun and grabs him, knowing that a leprechaun who is caught by a mortal is bound by some fearsome faery world charter, to reveal the whereabouts of the crock of gold of which he is the guardian. The leprechaun, accordingly, leads his captor to a large potato field, the entire acre filled with flourishing plants and points to one of them. The captor marks the plant with a twist of red cotton. From where he got the reel of red cotton or why he should have been carrying it in his pocket, the story does not relate. However, the man instructs the wee man to wait for him while he goes off to fetch a spade and the wee man, curse bound, waits.

When the man returns with his spade, he looks at the field: every last potato plant is marked with a twist of red cotton. There’s nothing in the charter forbidding that nor any requirement for the leprechaun to reveal the whereabouts of the crock of gold a second time.

 

26 August

The barley field by the cut from Blackhall Lane to the steps over the wall into Knole has been harvested, the shorn stalks already mixed with green shoot of weed, like salon streaks in a cropped blonde nob.

 

The tickets which I ordered from Deutsche Bahn only yesterday, in conversation with the soft-spoken, thoughtful Simon, as he introduced himself, have just been delivered by post. Well…

 

A report in The Guardian ahead of a White Supremacist, Nazi, Alt-Right rally to be held this day in San Francisco. In advance of the racist indaba, locals plan to take their dogs into the park set aside for the fuckwits in order to stage a mass canine shit-in. They will return next day to clear up what they clearly hope, intend, to be an extensive layer of poop and hug each other. Cool.

 

28 August

The cardinal flowers from the seeds I bought in Mt Vernon.

29 August

From an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Dina Nayeri. She fled to the USA from Iran having been a member of an underground Christian church there, which heralded Rapture – the state of bliss after the Apocalypse – as a rescue:

A popular preacher in Montana asks his 17,000 followers on Facebook: ‘Is the Antichrist here?’ The answers: he would be Jewish, a charismatic politician on the rise, someone capable and hopeful, bringing peace to the Middle East, he would be represented by the number 666. The new candidate fitting this description? Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor. He purchased 666 Fifth Avenue for more than anyone had ever paid for an office building. He’s Jewish, handsome (moot point), ‘and under all that eerie silence could be charisma’. He has money, the ear of the President ‘and dead eyes’. Fit the bill?

 

30 August

The ride through the Park better, less stressful, than for a long time. Whilst I didn’t quite sail up the first brute of a hill, I took it with more ease than usual, was not badly out of breath at the top, as I often am, rode on – it doesn’t level out to flat from the steepness for some thirty yards – untroubled and much enjoyed the rest of the outing in a different way, feeling that I’d charged up some better flow of fitness and strength.

As I sat down to begin work, the phone rang. It was Andrew, the man who has edited all four mountains books – he’s scrupulous, meticulous, thoughtful, mannerly and very very good. He’s called for a chat, asks me what I’m up to. Revising and reshaping the Assassin novel, I tell him. This after what the agent who expressed interest in it had suggested. And then he said: ‘Couldn’t it start with her walking out of the door at the start of her mission?’

The Rubicon moment…

Yes. Crossing the river, the no return.

Actually, it’s no more than a stream.

He laughs.

But, he’s hit it, that’s it, the commonplace action which leads to the shattering deed. The embodiment of the decision. Suddenly, I see it, the scene, her wavering, her clarity, her doubt, her firmness, her indecision, her decision.

We talk on, but as soon as the conversation ends – I don’t know why I phoned you, I just thought ‘why not phone Graeme?’ So now you know why you phoned me: to tell me this. – I wrote the scene out. A DOOR, and sent him a copy.

Later, around 6.30, the phone rings. It’s Andrew. Yes, he says, that’s it. You’ve got it.

As he spoke, I saw, across the road, perched on a television aerial stand atop a chimney stack, a hawk, flexing its body and wings. Even as we ceased talking, the bird took flight, the big wings digging at the air like a butterfly swimmer, and was gone.

Before I went to bed, I ruminated further, having rejigged the order of the chapters somewhat, and decided to bring forward the episode of the necklace to follow the Door. It’s told in what I hope is an amusing way. And I think of the advice generally atrteibuted to Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens but, n fact, from their contemporary, Charles Reade: ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.’

 

31 August

Pressing on. So much of the time it feels like coming up against a blank wall, excluding me, no way through, but after thinking, thinking, going into a blank place, I find that the wall is made of rice paper and all that’s needed is to push and make a hole. And the hole opens perfectly, no torn edge.

But it flows, everything flows, not always in manageable form.

 

2 September

I had the Park completely to myself this morning, not even the golf course workers out. An obscure triumph to pass through without being seen by or seeing anyone else.

 

3 September

Nick, Vanessa and the pipkin, John Roy, to lunch, as well as a young couple, neighbours of their, Paul, (German) and Arianna (Italian). They had been last year to Ethiopia and, later, Arianna sends me a picture of her healing place out there.

I write back: The picture of your healing place spins me back to the moments of profound stillness I found on the Hudad plateau. Those feelings filter in occasionally with a sudden intensity. Yesterday, I walked through the Park, setting off at 6.30 which is my routine, and I had the entire place to myself – no one there at all – and though the view is not so spectacular, I might imagine myself sitting on that lofty prominence in your picture, contemplating the great emptiness and stark beauty of the place and its depths.

In all aspects of our being and existence, the parallels of what strikes us most intensely can be reproduced in the smaller events, if we remain vigilant and aware.

 

On the comfort of solitude: it goes back, surely, to my childhood when I played so much on my own, peopling my games with crowds from my imagination, but always crowds of opponents, never very distinctly those on my side – that wouldn’t call for much in the way of detailed analysis. The crowded world of introspection. I think that it was where I felt safest. A dependable solitary existence. One afternoon at primary school, I had a sort of breakdown, weeping and inconsolable, over what I cannot recall, but I think nothing specific, more an overflow of nameless distress. I’d just had enough. It was all too much. I couldn’t hold my emotions in any more. They surfaced and spilled.

The form teacher was solicitous. This must have been in the classroom, now empty – perhaps the new activity at the end of one lesson was what precipitated the outburst, a group activity, maybe, which repelled me at the time. The thought of having to be caught up in a crowd. Actually, what I wanted was to sit in the room, on my own, untroubled, in quietness. She, thinking, rather, that I had had my bellyful of school and wanted to go home, did just that: sent me off home, the last place I wanted to be. There’d be no one there, both my parents still in London, at work. And it was no place of comfort or happiness. Even going to Grandma and Grandad’s which I did most days seems not to have drawn me. Anyway, I had to leave, it was a kindness in my teacher. I might have spoken out, but could not. It would, I imagine, have sounded very ungrateful.

 

4 September

I gave up on Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which I bought in the Harvard Bookstore last April. I found it tedious, preachy and silly. I may be missing the point but had no urgent desire to find out what the point was, at the risk of ploughing on.

Instead, I turned to After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell.

 

 

6 September

Appreciation of Maggie O’Farrell’s writing for Writers Review:

 

‘I am somewhere. Drifting, Hiding. Thoughts running around tracks, random and unconnected as ball-bearings in the circuit of a pinball machine. I am thinking about the party at work at which John and I didn’t meet, how we must have circled each other round the room like moths at a light bulb…’ (From After You’d Gone)

This might be a considered analysis of O’Farrell’s work: the random encounter, the missed encounter, the light of the novel’s heart glowing throughout. Her narratives might seem to be merely playful: they hop skip and jump from serendipity to chance to puzzlement and surprise but rather she is exploring the disconnects in our experience. We do not see or feel what happens to us in linear and logical form, but often as a curious loose linkage of events. To shape a narrative on such a premise is bold but O’Farrell has a fine instinct for how to pull apparently disconnected events into a compelling, a coherent narrative which enriches the emotional currents of the story and the characters caught up in it. For, in this episodic approach, she mirrors the thought processes, the jump-shot cinema of our mind and memory, most clearly evinced in dream. The power of dream, often to mystify, sometimes to explain, always to beguile. This is O’Farrell’s chosen way and it is deliciously seductive. She weaves a story punctuated by What next? Where to now? How did that happen?

Occasionally she teases the reader by introducing a character who has no obvious place in the narrative so far but, in the course of unfolding her, or his, story, the connection is made. It is, perhaps, a way of avoiding a sequential plod, to interrupt the flow as a way of saying that this is how our moods run, this is the lurch of our thinking from what we think we know to what puzzles us, to the sudden certainties, which may appear to be too late…except that they may prove not to be too late. This is the charm of the O’Farrell novel: the piecing together of the story rather than the simple narrative line. Perhaps not to all tastes. As a friend of mine said, not a book to read in bed at the end of a tiring day. You need to be alert.

Her plots are close-woven, the forward drive of the story irresistibly powerful, in part because she manages to keep so many secrets hidden in the course of balancing the tug of the various strands she has spun to lead us on.

This is as far as I’ll go. I’ll give nothing away because it would do O’Farrell a grave disservice to dwell on the structure of the novels, even to hint at what happens. No spoilers and I add a plea: never read the blurbs of these novels. (In fact, I would extend that plea to any blurb. Go in unapprised, surrender to the writer.)

The great virtues of her writing – the skippy fluency of her prose, the colour of her language, the accuracy of her descriptions – embrace the emotional heat and the veracity of her insights. She knows the mind and heart, she writes without flinching from the uncomfortable aspects of human relationships, she is willing to prod and poke the wounds inflicted by love as well as to evoke the glorious surge of passion and the oddities of attraction. Nothing soft, often very tough, both her men and her women, in their yielding, their courage.

She’s particularly sensitive to the intensity and irrationality of first love and how it shapes its own reason. Thence, how, in the maturing of a relationship, the peculiar rationale melds with the practical into a more diverse – perhaps problematic – depth of mutual sympathy and, perhaps, failure of sympathy.

It was reading After You’d Gone that prompted me to this review. At that point, I’d read all her novels bar The Distance Between Us, (having been completely hooked by the first I read, The Hand That Once Held Mine.) That final novel I reserved jealously, like a kid hoarding chocolate for a feast to look forward to. And now…the feast is eaten. Damn.

After You’d Gone is a work of sumptuous gift, beguiling and very moving. The final section explodes in consummate drama. I gasped when the novel hit the buffer of the final full stop. And I began to urge people to ‘read this book’ just as a friend had urged me to read The Hand That Once Held Mine.

 

 

7 September

To Whitstable after the morning’s work, with Nick and pipkin. I stripped off and walked down the steep shingle slope into the sea between two breakwaters. The water rather chillier than it was at Hastings those weeks back but there was a thin sun, I revelled in the light buffet of the swell and cross thrust of the ebbing tide, bobbing and drifting for a good long while. Such a glorious thing to be in water. And a treat to come…

Fish and chips and good ale.

 

8 September

Summer has gathered up its beach toys, parasol, sun hat, sand-between-the-toes flip-flops, bucket and spade, lilo and bundled the whole caboodle into the back of the flivver and driven off into the westering grey murk that isn’t a sunset, more a sulky afterthought.

 

14 September

Russell Talerman’s workshop is in a cramped room with minimal outer office/reception, near the top of an old building in Maddox Street, off Regent’s Street, near Liberty’s. A row of six bell pushes beside the front door and Talerman’s brass plate, tarnished to a dull khaki, the writing barely legible. I push the bell assigned to his workshop, a few seconds pass and there’s a loud click as the catch on one leaf of the street doors pings open and I push the door itself open onto the small, ill-lit lobby.

I climb the seven short flights of stairs, dog leg half landing after dog leg half landing, to the third floor and Mr Talerman’s door. I press the bell and a very attractive woman I haven’t seen before opens and shows me into the tiny ante-room. A desk on which sit two computers, two chairs for the two women who sit at the computers – the other, whose English is halting and heavily accented, notes my presence but is preoccupied.

A filing cabinet, a chair for visitors, a couple of handsome etchings of mechanical workings, (Fourchette…Balancier…) evidence of the work being done in the workshop in view through a doorway, across which a hinged partition to make a hatch.

In the workshop, I see Mr Talerman and his assistants hunched over their work stations in close concentration on the watches they mend, here, magnifying oches screwed into the eye.

The woman who opened the door to me asks my name, why I have come, the make of my watch. It’s a Waltham, an American make, with handsome plain face, rolled gold case, a back cover which opens to reveal the shiny inner body on which is written, in Italic script: ‘July 1st 1919. W. Lickorish From Markham Tp. For Services to Canada in war of 1914-19’. The outer case is also engraved with florid, interlocked Italic capitals W L.

I explain why I’ve come.

Mr Talerman, a tall, well-built man of around 40, cheery expression and manner, quick to smile, recently serviced the watch which had clearly been much in need of attention. In need of Mr Talerman’s attention. He is a consummate mender, cleaner and precision craftsman of watches. I have worn the watch pretty well every day since that January of 1969 when Grandma told me, at the gathering in my parent’s house after Grandad’s funeral, that he wanted me to have the watch. I’ve never worn a wrist watch since then. Did I own one at the time? I suppose I did. However, looped on a length of leather lace, I’ve kept the watch in my left-hand pocket. There have been times when I’ve left the watch safely hidden in a drawer at home – when I went to Mali, for example – but, it generally comes with me wherever I go.

I first went to Mr Talerman’s workshop when a local mender told me that the watch needed a replacement part but that there was nowhere that such a part could be found and, when pressed, insisted nor could one be made. However, my friends Bob and Linda told me about the remarkable craftsman of Maddox Street and I took the ailing watch to him. He examined it, told me that there was no need for a replacement part and that he would effect the repair. This he did and I have been taking the watch that Lindy used to call ‘Grandfather’ to Maddox St. for a number of years, now. On occasion, there’s been no need for extensive work – Mr Talerman will simply take it to his bench and clean it, while I wait, and charge me nothing, handing it over with his lopsided smile and a gust of sheer bonhomie.

Since the payment for more extensive work is high, I suppose he views such cursory interim help part of the general tariff. Nevertheless, it’s kind in him and when I took the watch back a few weeks after the last major overhaul, to say that it wasn’t keeping time at all well, he received it from one of the receptionists, applied his expert gaze and, a few minutes later, came to the hatchway, beaming. The hour and minute hands were meeting and arresting the workings. I thanked him for his help, said how handsome the watch looked – cleaned and polished, like new – and that I had now got a leather pouch in which I kept the watch in the hope of inhibiting the constant intrusion of dust into the workings. He grinned and stuck up the thumb of his right hand. Smart move on my part. A good job on his part. Satisfied professional, satisfied customer. Pleased to be of assistance.

And now I am back in Maddox St, having come into London especially, because, once more, the watch is poorly. It manages to stay awake for a couple of hours and then falters and stops. I wonder, this time, if I am going to have to leave it with him. I really don’t like to be without it, though one woman with whom I had a sporadic relationship, complained that the ticking of the watch on the bedside table kept her awake. Preternaturally acute hearing, possibly, although the resonance of the ticking on the hard wood of the table will have amplified the gentle noise.

Mr Talerman receives the watch from the attractive woman I had never seen before who opened the door to me, and his scrutiny begins. I sit down to wait. Perhaps there’s something badly wrong – chronically wrong would be apt, if depressing, for a watch.

Mr Talerman comes back into the tiny reception area holding a pair of slender-nosed tweezers which might be those of a surgeon. Again the winning smile, the wry amusement, as he holds the tweezers up and says: ‘Is this one of yours?’ The item he’s trapped in the jaws of the tweezers is a hair, about an inch and a half long, very fine, near invisible. I adjust my line of sight and there it is, the bristle that had, somehow, slipped into the workings. The back cover is not as close-fitting as it was years past – I don’t open the case very often but it has grown slightly looser at its hinge than it was when it came to me.

I ask, nevertheless, whether he thinks it might be an idea to hold onto the watch for tests. He seems equivocal. Do I live locally? I’d never had occasion to say where I live but I say that I don’t live locally. He rocks his head, side to side. My decision. I decided to take it away with me. And then I say that the watch is nearly a hundred years old – perhaps it had been made some time before Grandad had been given it, I don’t know and there’s no way of telling, unless the watch has a number somewhere and might be traced in records but…that’s of no consequence. It’s life truly began that day in July when Grandad and all the other men who’d served on the Western Front came back home.

At the news of its near antiquity, the attractive woman whom I had never seen before, chirruped with pleasure. Mr Talerman then told me that the mechanical innards of the watch are in excellent shape, even old as they are and put to such daily toil as they’ve been and my visit is over. I loop the watch back onto the lace I bought in Cambridge Mass., from the Greek shoemaker/repairer who told me that the waxed cotton would be stronger than leather, walk down the stairs and proceed direct to the station to come home.

Grandad himself rarely carried the watch, although men of his generation were usually provided with a waistcoat. A waistcoat is a useful garment and I have always had a liking for them. Grandad, though, did not wear one. In the latter part of his life he was ill with the cancer that finally claimed him, was generally housebound, and, for a time in a Convalescent Home after a major operation. The watch came with a leather strap, about half an inch wide with a metal snap jaw fixed at one end for clipping onto the ring above the winder and a standard round metal bar at the other for holding the strap fast in the waistcoat buttonhole. But mostly the watch stayed in a cardboard box with soft lining, much as if it had been a medal.

I knew about the watch that way, I think. As a precious possession, rarely brought out to view, almost never used in its prime function as a timekeeper. The link between watch, as in stand watch, of a guard, a sentry or duty sailors aboard ship where the day and night were divided into watches, and the need for some means of determining the length of the duty, is how the watch, any watch, my watch first had its name.

Curiously, the maritime resonance may be of significance, here, because the family story was that Grandad was descended from one of the Spanish sailors in an Armada ship, when the fleet was scattered by the storm in the Channel and subsequently wrecked on the rocky north coast of Scotland. To be sure, his hair was black when he was a young man, he had a suntanned complexion – got from the work he did, driving a milk cart which entailed sitting on a narrow bench at the front of the cart, open to the weather. His hands, in particular, were always weathered to a nut brown. He had raffish good looks, too, but more of that later. The story may well have been made up but, if it were, it was a good one and, given that there’s no proof that it isn’t, wasn’t, true, we can be entirely comfortable about it. All stories have something of fiction in them, if not from the conscious bending of the known facts, the guesswork applied to the facts that aren’t known, the embellishment or the unwillingness to reduce a good tale to a humdrum report such as might be found in a lost and found column, so let’s be content with this one. Grandad, if not actually of blue blood hidalgo descent, was, then, of rather more exotic provenance than yeomanry of middle England.

Grandad and his brother had been millers, born and brought up in the village of Blisworth in Northamptonshire, now subsumed in the urban sprawl that is Milton Keynes. They emigrated to Canada some time before the War but, when hostilities began, each signed up with the Canadian Scottish and took ship for Europe and France. The sepia photograph I have taken of Grandad on board ship during the Atlantic crossing, shows a tall, slim-built young man in Glengarry, with ribbons hanging at the back, a chequered [red and white] band round its side, a cut-away khaki tunic over a Black Watch kilt with sporran, high woollen stockings turned at the top over garters with twin tabs plainly visible, khaki canvas gaiters and shiny boots. But the photograph is sepia. How can I know what colours there were in life? Because I saw them, the kilt, the Glengarry, and know that the khaki was always khaki. An Indian word meaning dust.

He’s smiling, relaxed, proud of the get up, oblivious, of course, to what awaited him and the others, including his brother. He couldn’t know yet how the kilt would get stiff as a board with mud and wet in the trenches and how it would rub at the back of his legs to chafe, chap and cut them till they bled, as if there weren’t discomfort enough all round, already. He told me about the stiff as a board kilt and I sympathised with the chapped skin behind the knees because it was something from which I suffered, as a boy, the hurt which came from the rude wind whipping at me spindly legs, already made itchy to distraction by the rough wool socks I was made to wear and told to keep pulled up, no slovenly letting them slip to my ankles for the blessed relief, not like the scabby street urchins with whom I associated, but only by being at the same school as them. Not my word. My father’s. I had a better class foisted on me, even if I hadn’t earned it – though how you do that, I cannot tell, even now. I was of a better class because I was, a decision had been made, and that was that. Not like Grandad and Bert, though: they were country boys. Clean-living, maybe, but in trade, working class, not blessed with much schooling. Country wisdom and nous didn’t count against schooling, which could serve as the passport to a better class than you had started out with.

But if the War finished in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, why is it that the watch is engraved with a date 1919, nearly a year after the guns fell silent? Plainly, after the Armistice, the Lickorish brothers had to wait a long while before they were demobbed and could travel back to Markham Township, in Ontario, about twenty miles south of Toronto. (The American soldiers were late to return home, too, and always count that year as marking the definitive end of hostilities.) By then, Wilfred Arthur Lickorish had saved the life of the woman who became his wife, Annie (Nance) Story, also, originally, from Northants but latterly of Highgate, north London, where her father ran a building firm, and, since a number of his employees were carpenters and joiners, a funeral service. Common practice, years past.

Nance caught the virulent strain of influenza which swept Europe after the War, an epidemic which killed men women and children in vast numbers. (Called the Spanish ‘flu, it actually began in America, but since newspapers were still censored in 1918, the reports of the virus in Spain were the first to receive international notice.)  Imagine surviving the horrors of the Western Front to be carried off by an advanced form of the common cold. She was alone in an upstairs room, very sick indeed, when Wilf came to see her. She’d been warned off him – ‘stay clear of that Wilf Lickorish, he’s a bad lot’ – possibly because he was working class and she middle class, in the days when class discrepancies mattered. However, his visit, possibly importunate, saved her that day. He summoned a doctor and she received the medication that fought off the damned ’flu.

As to that rascally reputation he had, it may have had something to do with the singular surname. How common it is – was – in Northants I cannot say. There is no one answering to the name in the telephone directory of the part of Kent in which I live. And it seems that Lickorish remains an uncommon name. French in origin and connected with Old French lecheros, meaning lecherous, it arrived with the Normans at the Conquest (lecheros, in Chaucer ‘lykerous’, later rendered lickerish, liquorish, ‘pleasing or tempting to the palate…fond of choice or delicious food…having a keen relish or desire for something pleasant…lustful, wanton’). I cannot speak to the currency of this connection in rural Northamptonshire villages at the turn of the last century, but it may be that there was one and Wilf, who was born in 1891 (Bert was christened Bertram), may have lived up to the nuance in the twinkle of his eye, and to that I can attest. The twinkle, I mean.

Some time after that close call with the white horse of Pestilence, they were living together. Grandma let that slip once and, suddenly realising that the secret was out, stuffed it back into closed memory, binding me with strict instruction never to breathe a word of it to anyone in the family. For six months they cohabited before they got married and she became (in the contemporary parlance) an honest woman.

Some while after she had let the risqué secret out, I made reference to it, thereby, in principle, breaking the omertá. Her eyes widened, she looked quite shocked and said: ‘Who told you that?’ When I said that she had, she seemed appeased and then amused. What a lark. And they’d got away with it. Unmarried men and women didn’t cohabit in those days, except in the racier echelons of society wherein, for all the codes of family honour, a slacker morality seems to have been the norm. But then, greenwood marriages (surreptitious copulation in the cover of trees and bushes) were a commonplace in the English countryside. Still, Grandma knew the score about proper behaviour and that’s why she bound me to silence, a silence I have not broken until now, it occurs to me.

Wilf returned to Canada with Nance – Bert had stayed and settled with Bett, also of Northants, in Stouffville, (formerly Stoufferville, from a prominent family) part of the wider compass of Markham Township and a few miles away from the small town of Markham itself.

It was on their journey back to England by sea, down the Saint Lawrence seaway and on across the Atlantic, that Nance, near term in her first pregnancy, gave birth to my mother, Muriel Hilda Lickorish, in Montreal. Since, for some reason, they weren’t issued with a birth certificate at the time, my mother officially didn’t exist for many years. Perhaps the French-speaking civic authorities in Montreal were unwilling or unable to take responsibility for acknowledging her birth. She had, after all, emerged from a Englishwoman who was domiciled on a boat making its way north out of Canada. A very fluid set of circumstances.

Perhaps, it occurs to me, Grandma and Grandad weren’t yet married, after all, and my mother was born out of wedlock. Imagine. Anyway, this lack of official record caused what seemed, for a while, to be an intractable problem. For, if there was no proof of her birth, other than the material proof of her very real existence, the issuing of a passport was impossible. Dr Johnson, asked how he refuted the theories on material existence of Bishop Berkley fell to kicking a stone and saying: ‘I refute him thus.’ Customs officials are less easy to persuade of the facts of existence, as the Windrush scandal has proved.

The problem of mother’s material presence and thereby her official existence was, eventually, ironed out. Perhaps someone of sense recognised the equally irrefutable proof that she was indeed alive, had a husband and a son and all three lived in a house in Finchley, having spent the first year or so of my life living with Grandma and Grandad in the house at 145 Long Lane.

Curiously, perhaps, though idiotically would be closer, my father was convinced that Grandad was going to leave him the watch. How little he knew of what they thought about him and his harsh treatment of their eldest daughter. ‘Oh wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us / It was frae mony a blunder free us / And foolish notion.’

There is this peculiarity about the watch, that it occasionally keeps stuttering pace with me when my own pace stutters. I’ve been despondent and the watch keeps poor time, as if acknowledging the faltering of my spirits. I have ailed and the watch ailed with me. Because I elected, from the outset when it came into my possession – how well I remember Grandma saying to me that day as the two of us sat, alone, in the front room of the house in Totteridge, that Grandad wanted me to have the watch, a precious passing on of his time to me – to keep it ticking, insofar as I could, reliant on its mechanism, it’s as if its slavish time has moulded itself to my erratic time and we tick together.

These last two hiccups in its rhythm and reliability, however, were strange. True, I’d been working very hard and rather forgetful – Lucy and Scott’s wedding anniversary (yesterday) the same day as David’s birthday (in Berlin) passed and then rebounded with the number clear before my inner eye. Damn. But, I suppose it is that the watch and I have grown used to a mutual rhythm, a synchronised ticking, heart and clockwork.

Afterthought. In the craze for playground Spoonerisms, my mother was dubbed Luriel Mickorish – two singular names turned into two even more apart from the norm. However, the Mickorish lost its suffix and the residual Mick stuck. She was, for the rest of her life, known as Mick, or Mickey.

And I knew her always as Mother, never Mummy or Mum…peculiar in that, too.

And now I am quite unsettled. As I wind the watch, the minute hand jumps back into a new position, ten minutes behind time. I continue to wind. The hand shivers, as if in gesture of disquiet, anger, even. I finish the winding and reset the time. Has the watch taken umbrage at my writing of it? Is there another message implicit here, a message that I am not reading, cannot read?

 

16 September

An old moon, ten days dying since the Full on 6 September, still shows in the 6.30am sky as I set out for the weekly walk. The setting is very pale blue wash but impastoed with a froth of grubby white cloud, like a pane of glass that needs a good going over with a chamois (shammy) leather.

Once in the Park, over the steps in the wall, the sun begins to show itself in burnished gold, the moon in the south-eastern quarter, sun and moon together.

The dips and dells of the Park are thick with a motionless filling of mist and Knole House resembles one of those mysterious islets off the Brittany coast which seem to lie  afloat on cushions of sea fret vapour.

As I walked up the slope near the Bird House by one of the ponds, I felt the warmth of the new sun on my back, in agreeable contrast to the chill of the first part of the outing.

I see no one until that stretch of sandy path alongside the southern stretch of Knole’s immediate perimeter wall which encloses the gardens, and here come five people, a sudden rush, a man running – with a navy blue t-shirt with the legend Team Canada – a man with a camera and telephoto lens painted with camouflage, a man I haven’t seen for a while with his friendly boxer puppy straining at the leash, and a couple walking a diminutive spaniel. But, I was near the drop through the trees past the Ice House so nearly had the place to myself.

 

18 September

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, under house arrest for years for her opposition to the military junta in control of Myanmar, of the expressed opinion, then, that ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it,’ addresses an assembly of their legislature as de facto leader of the country and say that she would like to talk to those of the Rohingya Muslims who have left the country and those who have remained. Her eyes are dead, she has ignored questions from journalists on her way to the hall, and she speaks as if a few families had decided to up sticks and nip over the border into Bangladesh overnight because they were fed up with their neighbours, people who shared the same religious convictions, as it happened. News of these defections having just come to her she admits a certain surprise, even bewilderment, that they’ve felt moved to emigrate. This after weeks and weeks and weeks of murder, pillage, depredation and wholesale destruction of villages by government forces which have led to hundreds of thousands – nearing a million – Rohingya desperately chancing the waters of the straits or the punitive journey overland to refuge in Bangladesh.

 

19 September

Marie and Kate’s cat Ger – brother to Gin (Kate’s idea to christen the twin marmalade cats thus), is sick, has been sick and ailing for a long time, his legs are all but gone, he is much reduced in size, too. Here he is in a picture I took last week, lying next to his brother.

I take easy supper round for Marie, Kate and Max, on the eve of my departure for Germany, to toast Ger, the date for his quietus set for two days hence, on Thursday.

 

20 September

I wake at around 5.15. My flight to Hamburg leaves Heathrow at 4.30. My original plan to go all the way to Berlin by train foundered on expensive fares and departure times which were beyond me here in Kent. So, to Hamburg and thence by train.

I lie in bed in the dark and a line comes into my head:

ultima lux cedit Ger noster vadit in umbras

and, before I get up to go down for a hot drink, I complete the elegy, if not in elegiacs:

O Ger fulve leo frater bone te salutamus

And translate:

Our Ger’s last light fails

He goes into the shadows

O Ger, tawny lion, good brother,

We salute you.

(I resist te saluto which would make an elegiac because he is not my cat. But an alternative occurs to me:

te salutamus Ger frater fulve leo

No matter.)

This I write in a card which I bought ages ago with no idea what it might be for: it shows the silhouette of a cat walking up a path between wintry, leafless trees – plain black line and white ground. The card was, quite clearly, meant for Ger.

Walking to Bat and Ball station I pass, without thinking, the post box which has a later collection time than others in the vicinity and have to dart back to post the card, risking missing the train. I get the train.

 

London

On the way to the airport, I leave my watch with Mr Talerman. The attractive woman whom I now meet for the second time, cradles the precious timepiece like a palpitating fledgling, her tender attention utterly disarming.

The eco food store near Piccadilly Circus tube station has a poster in the window showing two black children, who smile broadly at the camera. The caption: ‘We are growing strong children,’ as if they came from a bulb, a rhizome, a seed from a packet.

Heathrow

Three airline women in black and lime green dresses printed with a pattern that looks like frogspawn.

A man in a black tee-shirt on whose breast, inside two orange and white segments enclosed within crossed bands, the legend: NO DEPRESSION, glossed by the further declaration: Surviving the past, present and future of American music.

This rates with the caption by the photograph of a Luftwaffe ace I saw recently which read: ‘He became the wrong man in the wrong place at the right time…’ as enigmatic a statement as I have seen.

Aboard the aircraft, the man in the seat in front of me lets go a ripe fart. Its hostile vapour steals on me like a whiff of unidentified vegetable then settles into the full bouquet of rot and processed ordure. Nothing to be done. The plane is a fume cabinet.

The sick bag bears the apologetic inscription: Keine Angst, wir nehmen es nicht persönlich.

 

Hamburg c. 6.30pm

I’ve booked a bed in a room containing five other beds. This I did almost unwittingly, going for the price – £25 – for what would be no more than a stop over, imagining a room in a lodging house and not taking in the full import of the word ‘hostel’.

Directions from the Hauptbahnhof to the A&O Hostal are poor but I eventually find it and, first impression aside – it looks awful, worse than a Youth Hostel, a termite heap – I report to the reception where a young man looks through the reservation, then says that they have the reservation all right but there is no bed here, so they can accommodate me in another place across town. I tell him to forget it, I want my money back. Paperwork. I leave.

Ten hotels later – no rooms – I am back by the main station. The last hotel did have a room available but a double room. I ask the price. 400 euros. By now I am wondering if I’m in real trouble. However, further along the same street, I walk up the stairs to another hotel, modest in appearance, and they have a room, 60 euros. It’s basic, clean, a shower and wash basin and I am much nearer the station.

Phew.

I ask the taxi driver who takes me to the Brauerei recommended by David why Hamburg is so full. Dortmund are playing the local XI (I saw a supporter on the train from the airport) and a famous singer is giving a concert. He then breaks into one of her signature songs, I tell him I get the picture.

 

Autumn Solstice. Train 8.50am to Berlin

Awake very early and a thought about how to reshape No Common Assassin in revisions of which I am currently absorbed. To dot the narrative with episodes bringing Charlotte nearer and nearer to her journey to Paris.

I pay for the room some time before 8am. A different man at the counter. He says that I haven’t paid for breakfast. I concur, I haven’t paid for breakfast, however, I ask whether I might, even so, consume breakfast, on the earnest of paying for it separately. He repeats that I haven’t paid for breakfast, this being, in his firm view, clear proof that I am not entitled to breakfast. This he does with a finality of tone which indicates that the discussion about whether I have or do not have breakfast, whether paid for in advance (manifestly not the case) or in promptu for which there is neither prior nor present agreement, has no further traction, not for him, not for me, and is, therefore, a sort of ne plus ultra. I see no point in extending the colloquy about something which, from the gloomy, unilluminated look of the breakfast room adjacent, absent of any sign of breakfast being or having been prepared, would seem to be a poor option anyway, and decamp for the station, which is no more than five minutes walk away, where I sit at a counter and drink a mug of coffee. From there to a health-kick, smoothie and yogurt cross between a barrow and a pushcart, colourfully decorated with posters and bunting, for the purchase of a yoghurt, with a goodly sediment of fresh blueberries in the pot below the yogurt.

On the way into the station, I pass a silver bullet Airstream, motorised torpedo chuck wagon, with an interesting slogan painted on the side:

The interpretation must be something to the effect that: ‘We already have a potato for President, let’s chop him up into slim fingers, lob him into boiling fat and fry him, since this is, apparently, what he’s dead set on trying to do to the rest of us.’

 

Aboard the train

A string of summer chalets with small plots by the trackside out of the city. A number of transverse waterways under a succession of bridges crossed by the railway lines. The train stops at the intriguingly named town – little more than a halt – of Ludwigslust. A derelict full glass-fronted showroom surmounted by a sign, in peeling green, painted on the grubby cream plasterwork An und Verkauf, which, I guess, means FOR SALE…REALLY.

Nearby, a rill skitters, bubble-gleaming, through woodland. Then a new, brick built premises announcing itself as Arabic Grill.

            Fields of sweet corn, one half harvested. Open flat country. Impossible to suppress the thought of tanks, tank country, the advance on Berlin, the last phase of the war.

 

David meets me at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a magnificent steel and glass construction, three levels, the upper and lower for rail tracks, the middle for shops and connection. We hug and the conversation, which will rarely stop over the time I am here, begins.

S-Bahn to Alexanderplatz, M2 tram to Immanuelkirschstraβe, the apartment in the Hof at number 33 and Lesley to greet us. A scarf for her and After you’d gone by Maggie O’Farrell and Berlin Diary William Shirer for David.

Lunch and David and I set off by bike to visit the Reichstag dome. Fine views over the city, the best profit of strolling up the heliacal walkway inside the glass cover. From there to the Holocaust Memorial – a film crew from some moronic corporation recently chastised for a publicity shoot in there, models draped over the nameless monoliths.

The Holocaust Museum: shocking, moving, piercing. It firmly removed any conceivable attachment of the word ‘banality’ to evil of that proportion. I know what Arendt meant by the phrase but the enormity of what was done exceeds all whittling away of vocabulary veering to excuse. The horror can be neither dodged nor propitiated.

Back in Kent, after Ger has, this day, died, Marie and Kate dig a grave at the bottom of the garden, then place him in his funerary casket which Kate illustrates before burying him under a layer of stones to deter vulpine predations.

 

22 September

I sit on the balcony of the apartment to read, early morning, and on the window ledge above the balcony of the neighbouring apartment, a visitor appears…a small ginger cat. He might be a ghost, a visiting spirit.

Glorious sunshine. David and I ride a large circuit – across to Bemauer Str., down the centre of which ran the Wall. Across Schwedterstrasse, where a strip of metal – bronze? – has been inlaid in the ground, marking its course. Beyond it, on open ground, once the death strip, a long line of coarsely-cut iron stakes, now coconut fibre ginger with rust, a palisade making an open fence. Lower down the wide street, the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, the Wall Memorial. A short section of the structure has been left in place.

Many people opposed this. A relic of something they would rather forget. The local pastor says, rather, that its existence helps to instil a mood of acceptance, of reconciliation, of understanding. Better to confront the bogey than pretend it does not, never did, exist. (Isn’t that the driving force behind Grimm’s decidely grim fairy tales, confrontation of the things that go bump in the night in the security of the nursery?) Its remaining there, a fragment of the broken whole, serves as a reminder, that this Wall of Shame (Schandmauer) as they called it, was something the citizens of Berlin had, for nearly thirty years, lived with, hated and never submitted to, in spirit, at least, and which, finally, they breached, not least by the mounting pressure of their own dogged and continuing resistance to all it stood for. Virgil’s famous line about the newly dead yearning for the rest offered by passage across the waters of pain, the river Styx, may apply: tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore. They stretched out their hands, yearning for the far bank. [Aeneid VI 314] And, having breached it, peaceably, they learned to move on, embraced – not without tensions and anxieties, a certain rancour and anger, albeit, a resentment at having to pay the dues of the exigent late-comers – their new neighbours, the inhabitants of the impoverished East, fellow-Germans, still. And despite a fairly widespread feeling among the Easterlings that life had been, in many respects, better under the DDR. There has been much to resolve.

At right angles to one end of the remnant of ugly concrete curtain, a stainless steel sheet juts out, at the same height. Its glossy polished surface reflects – not altogether satisfactorily, it must be said – the Wall, so to suggest an image of its continuation into a limitless distance. A watchtower looms above the parapet on the other side, the erstwhile killing ground. Further on, the rotunda of the Kapelle der Versöhnung, the Chapel of Reconciliation, its inner structure encircled by a screen made of open lattice thin wooden slats to roof level, enclosing a walkway all round the inner sheath of the chapel. At one end, a side alcove into whose floor is set a plate glass panel, showing, beneath, an unexploded bomb, long since defused.

The Chapel stands on the site of a Church of Reconciliation consecrated in 1894, a large, brick-built neo-Gothic church, similar to many others in Berlin, built to accommodate the large influx of workers to the industrial Wedding district at the end of the nineteenth century. The large and sudden influx of newcomers to supply the demand for labour of the rapidly expanding German industrial boom caused social tensions with the original inhabitants. Hence the Reconciliation tag. In 1985, the DDR demolished the church, to make way for further improvements to the Wall’s security measures. They even dug up graves in the cemetery and disposed of the bones, as rubbish.

When the Wall was breached, on 9 November 1989, East Berliners marched in defiant triumph. One banner read Die Demokratie in seinem Lauf hält weder Ochs noch Esel auf in exuberant mockery of what Erich Honecker, Chairman of the DDR Council of State had said a month before on 7 October 1989 in Berlin, except that they substituted Democracy for his Den Sozialismus. ‘Neither an ox or a donkey can halt the onward march of Socialism.’

 

On to Friedrichstr., over the bridge, along the bank of the Spree, past the Reichstag and Centre of World Cultures, Siegessäule, Tiergarten, the formal – and not very attractive – English Garten hidden in a glade – whose lovely woodland rides make for such tranquil passage on a bike, the high bike of grace and fluid movement. Nordic Embassy on Smoke Street (Rauchstr.) where, in a blaze of sun, we sit on a balcony for lunch. Back to the park, beer by a lake and a peek at the emus in the zoo – strange creatures, forsooth – and, eventually, back to the Prater, Berlin’s oldest Biergarten, to meet Lesley for another beer.

Down Kastanien Allee past Berlin’s oldest squat, its smallest cinema and a café garlanded with gladioli…to the pizza place, where we’ve eaten before.

 

23 September

The three of us stroll down to the market by Kollwitz-Platz, a cheery medley of stalls selling food fresh, food cooked, sweets, chocolates, knives, clothing, postcards, herbs and spices, hats, gloves, scarves, things made of leather, pottery, wood, lavender in bunches, lavender-scented soap…

A refreshment stop in the Stockholm Café. On one wall, a sign: Nicht vergessen Kuchen essen and the aroma of cake, freshly baked, tempts me to a slice of a German version of BaChell tart.

 

24 September

The Berlin Marathon sets off at 9.30. Around 11.30, Lesley and I walk down to the intersection of Prenzlauer Allee and Mollstr., at the 10km point of the run, to see the action.

For ten minutes or so, what we observe would just deserve to be called action: one foot in front of the other, each foot barely lifted off the ground in the process of so doing, a discernible forward propulsion, no definable thrust from the upper body, more like a momentum drift. By this stage, however, the pack of runners has thinned out considerably. No matter. They are doing what they’d come to do, if not fully prepared to do. There’s evidence of chancing it. (The word ‘winging’ it also occurs but the association, even remote, with speed is against it.) Nothing, however, compared to what follows them, the extended shreds of the dribs and drabs, most of them barely moving at all, a lot of them walking, even this early in the challenge. I feel sorry for those of them who will make the full circuit of 42 point something kilometres. They are going to be plonking their ever sorer feet down, at the tips of their ever more weary legs, below their battered and strained torsos, for up to and way beyond six hours. The elite runners will finish in less than a third of that time and, although their effort is at the limit of extreme performance during that time, these plodders will suffer for a lot longer, in circumstances with which they are almost certainly not familiar. Hats off to them.

The first – of four – marathons that I ran was on what the veteran long-distance nutter Ron Hill described as one of the hardest courses he’d ever seen: in north Norfolk. Not ‘very flat’ that bit of Norfolk. Indeed, the first half covered a succession of long, steep hills, very little let-up. I ran with Paul Middleton – he stayed overnight with us – who’d been a star pentathlete at Durham. We agreed to run the initial 13 miles together, after which either of us could cut loose. I was running well within myself and from Aylsham – down the long, straight, ugly, 10 miles of the A140 to the outskirts of Norwich, unattended by anyone at all, let alone crowds of cheering bystanders – I ran off on my own. The final miles were excruciatingly hard, but I finished in 3h 4m and would, I am sure, have broken 3 hours, for all that it matters now, even then.

There followed another Norfolk, the New York and Paris, this last the worst organised by a long stretch. I came to it in poor condition, having caught a heavy cold a month before, and had to begin from scratch, all but. It set off at 6pm, the first refreshment I saw consisted of two trestle tables awash with water, the plastic cups from which the water had spilled strewn far and wide across the surrounding pavement. I was taken short in the Bois de Vincennes and had to drop my kecks behind a tree before rejoining the increasingly disaffected rout of the tail-enders slogging on to the finish. Imagine without the welcoming cover of trees…

Shortly after that, much relieved, from a bewildered Arab, wandering to and fro across the road with a battered cardboard box full of orange halves, I grabbed two of the juicy segments he seemed to be offering to the wide world and pressed on, the final three miles or so. At the line, I was so angry and exasperated with the whole exercise, I kept running, another mile to the hotel and swore never to get involved with such tomfoolery again.

 

Of marathons…

The distance of the marathon race was fixed at the imperial measure of 26 miles and 385 yards, thanks to a corpulent individual not noted for athletic prowess, outside the rapid-fire tweaking of shotgun triggers at sitting ducks and rising pheasants, who happened to hold the title Emperor of India, inherited from his Ma. Hence the imperial measure. King Edward VII leaned with his considerable weight on the organisers of the 1908 London Olympics to arrange for the marathon race to start outside the gates of Windsor Castle so that he might watch the runners off. The race had been scheduled to start at the bottom of the drive. Hence the extra yardage. The 26 miles, adopted for the first of the modern Olympics in Athens, 1996, we owe to one Philippides, whom Herodotos calls Pheidippides, a name virtually unknown elsewhere in classical Greek. Philippides is the spelling used by the historian, geographer and explorer Pausanias, who is rather more pedantic with his facts, and it is easy enough to confuse the isosceles triangle of the capital Greek D for the inverted vee which is their L.

Schoolroom legend, based on a poem by Robert Browning, has it that Pheidippides, having already run from Athens to Sparta and back – some 300 miles – in a little over five days, then hoofed off again to Marathon Bay to tell the Athenian army camped there that they were on their own against the invading Persians. Further, that after the heroic defence of home soil – Persians trounced, Athenians in triumph on the field – ran back to Athens, into the Agora, cried out ‘Hello, everyone, we won’ and ‘Like wine through clay, Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died – the bliss!’ So quotha old Browning.

The real story?

It’s late August, 490BC. A Persian expeditionary force of some 25,000 infantry and cavalry was closing in on the coat of Attica in a sizeable fleet of triremes, guided thither by the former tyrant of Athens, Hippias. Banished some ten years earlier, old Hippias did what a lot of disgruntled Greek leaders did, in their time: he went over to the Persians. Hippias was bent on a restoration of his power, he had support from a faction in Athens, this was his ‘welcome back to the tyrant’ trip. When news of the imminent Persian landing reached Athens, the Athenian Assembly, which could muster an army of only 9,000 fully-armed hoplites, (spearmen), all aristocrats – hoi polloi did not have the privilege of bearing arms – doubtful that they had the strength to repel the barbarians, sent plea to the Spartans for assistance. The Spartans, properly Lakedaimonians, who only ever took a break from training for war when actively engaged in war, were acknowledged to be the best fighters in Greece. The oft-quoted enjoinder of the Spartan mother or wife sending off her son/husband to fight  – ‘Come back with this shield or on it’ – is no fiction. The women were certifiable hard cases. Defeat meant dishonour. Retreat was unthinkable.

Given that most of the Greek nation states lived on suspicion and distaste for the other Greek nation states, Athens’ appeal for help was, given their singular pride, remarkable. They were the immediate target of Persian hostility. Nevertheless, the danger ultimately threatened every state. Now was the time for all Greece to unite, shoulder to shoulder, against the common enemy. The man they sent to Sparta, Philippides, whose name means ‘son of a lover of horses’, therefore a trainer or coper, was a hemerodromos, a day runner, an official courier employed by the state. He faced a journey of some 150 miles, along the Sacred Way round Salamis Bay, across the isthmus of Corinth, and over the wild bleak rock-strewn arid uplands of Arcadia. Another myth, that of Arcadia as a balmy paradise.

Finally, he ran down the long valley of the Eurotas to the curious scattering of nondescript huts which was the principal town of the men descended from Lakedaimon, son of Zeus, husband of Sparta. For a hardened long-distance man, used to running for sustained periods at around 5 or 6mph, a journey of around 30 hours wasn’t untoward, if still impressive. Herodotos said that he arrived in Sparta ‘the day after he left Athens’. Take dawn at around 5.30am, dusk some 13 or 14 hours later – it was the ninth day of the month, the moon was still young, he probably had to rest overnight – and the mission is eminently feasible.

The Lakedaimonians received him amiably and said they’d be glad to help but, deeply religious as they were, their sacred laws prevented them from marching before the full of the moon, a week later. Philippides had no option but to turn back, disappointed. Herodotos does not say whether it was on the outward or the return journey, though more likely on his way home, but Philippides encountered the god Pan on Mount Parthenium (Virgin’s Mount, sacred to Artemis, the virgin huntress) above Tegea in Arcadia. Pan, the wild, caprine, hairy semi-divinity, asked the startled runner why the Athenians paid him so little respect when he had been so good to them. Philippides reported this hallucination – the heroic equivalent, surely, of hitting the wall – to his fellow citizens who later established a torch-race (another Olympian borrowing) and sacrifices in the god’s honour.

So, Philippides arrives in Athens and has to run on to Marathon to deliver the bad news to the Athenian commanders in their camp by the village of Marathon: the army is on its own. One may suppose that after nearly five days pretty well non-stop running at the near extent of his powers, our professional fleet-foot was, by this stage, roundly pooped.

The 9,000 Athenians, reinforced by 1,000 from the small city of Plataia, vastly outnumbered, confronted the Persian forces – infantry, archers, cavalry – drawn up on the flat littoral of Marathon Bay, ground sacred to the hero Heracles. In the ensuing battle, large numbers of the enemy were slain, only 192 Greeks died.

Fortunes in the long drawn out battle fluctuated. The Persians broke the Greek centre and drove it inland from the sea. The Greek wings held – the god Pan in their midst, they reported later, unleashing his famous shout (the original of ‘panic’) to freeze the enemy blood –  and began to fold the Persians back off the beach into the sea. Fighting continued in the water as the invaders tried to scramble to safety aboard their boats. The dramatic poet Aeschylus fought in the ranks. His brother Cynegeiros had his hand lopped off by an axe as he reached for a ship’s stern. The battle ended when someone in the Greek lines saw that the Persians were embarking their cavalry. The cry went up: ‘Horses away’ and the Athenians regrouped.

The Persian fleet immediately shaped for Athens where Hippias’ supporters were waiting to give them the signal to invest the city. And, in Herodotos’ words ‘the Athenians hurried back as fast as they could to save their city’. They left part of the army behind at Marathon to protect the bodies of their dead from scavenging dogs and carrion birds. They’d won the day at Marathon, but it was no decisive victory. They faced another battle for the city itself. In the event, they beat the Persians round the gulf and were ready for them. The Persians sailed home.

They came back ten years later and it was an incident in the final battle, before Plataia, which, I believe, planted the idea of the epic ‘one last run’ and the dying cry of ‘Victory!’ The army that faced Xerxes’ hordes outside Plataia in 79BC was largely composed of Lacedaimonians, although men from Athens were there, too. However, the Athenians had won their famous shattering victory at Salamis the year before – every able-bodied male in the city, between 20 and 30,000 aboard the fleet of triremes. Their interest in events in Plataia could never match the euphoria of that astonishing day in the waters off Salamis. In their view, this scrap on land was no more than a rearguard action. The men from Sparta might crow in triumph after victory at Plataia, but they were no more than mopping up the tired and morally beaten remnants of the broken Persian armada.

However, Plutarch records that after the battle, one Euchidas ran from the battlefield all the way to Delphi – about 100 miles – to rekindle the sacred flame at the shrine of Apollo, in a single day. It was late spring, the sun was near full heat. He then ran back, tottered to a halt as he reached home, and expired. Given the example of Philippides, this exploit is credible but inconvenient. Plutarch, writing some 500 years later, was no analytical historian in the manner of Thucydides. He was drawn more by nostalgia for the golden age of Greece. Besides, since it is from Athenian record that we have the defining account of events – Sparta disdained such foppery as written record – this Euchidas’ feat had no place other than as a quaint romantic sideshow.

Does it matter? Only insofar as any historical truth matters, I guess. Although…Classical Greek has a verb which means ‘to be very like Philippides’, namely, ‘as thin as a lath’, the very model of a modern marathon runner. In fact, this Phil was a seller of salt fish in a comic play. That said, overall, it’s a fair story, give or take the few extra yards of embellishment.

 

David cycled down to join us, we walked back and we passed the rest of the day in perfect idling.

 

25 September

Train to Hamburg, plane to London, home.

 

26 September

Finally, the FOOC from Mt Vernon is recorded. I could have done without hauling my weary frame and brain into London after yesterday but best it were done quickly and I sat up early to read the script through and through and through and then continued final reading on the train to the deaf back of the carriage seat against which my knees were squashed.

To BH in bright sun, walking rather slowly.

 

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S HOUSE, MOUNT VERNON

‘Would you like to go visit George Washington’s house, Mount Vernon?’ This was my friend Paige, who lives in Alexandria across the Potomac river from the city built on marshland, named for the man who was adamant about his preference for gardening above politics. In fact the city which bears his name was plonked on what somebody at the time called ‘a mere swamp’ precisely because the site lay far from any commercial centre, in the middle of nowhere, free of the pernicious influence of bankers and speculators. The Founding Fathers were clear on one thing: the future of their new nation lay in agriculture, in the care of the land.

And so, on a hot afternoon, Paige and I drove out of the city, over the watery frontier of the Potomac into the lush Virginia countryside, to the estate whose management and ordering Washington himself supervised so closely. The grounds are extensive, there’s a wonderfully rich diversity of plants – trees, flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit. Even when he was inundated with the daily paperwork and anxieties of commanding a volunteer army of ‘Free men fighting for the blessings of Liberty’, Washington called them, in the War of Independence, he was writing a stream of letters from the garrison town of Manhattan to his estate manager about what to plant. Caught up in the fever of the patriotic struggle against the tyranny of an invasive foreign power, his priority was for American plants only. He wanted an exclusively American garden, no interlopers, no English trees.

So, as we walked we saw them, his American trees, and two from the southern states especially pleased me: the Magnolia grandiflora, with its voluptuous, smooth-cheeked white blossoms and the delicate petalled flowers on the Oak-leaf hydrangea, like white fascinators on hats made from layers of dark green foliage. There are northern white pine, too, alabaster dogwood, red cedar, live oak, one of the hardest woods known, embodiment of the south. We strolled through the various sectors of the grounds, every square inch lovingly maintained, appropriately enough, by volunteers – the vegetable plots with surrounding borders of fragrant and colourful flowers: that was the General’s idea. Varieties galore…oh, lettuce, strawberries, peaches, apples, garden peas, muscadines, low box hedges.

The outbuildings nearer the house – distillery, smokehouse, animal pens, spinning room, grist mill, sixteen-sided barn with treading floor for wheat, blacksmith’s shop, still in operation turning out nails, hinges, farm implements – all bear witness to the fact that this was very much a working estate, home production, self-sufficiency. At the waterside, below a thinly planted copse, lies the wharf where supplies from up river were landed.

As we waited to go into the mansion, we looked across at the broad sweep of the Potomac, a dense thicket of woodland masking the far bank, as a smudge of triple rainbow drew itself across the blue sky. Such a divide this great river makes, even today, between the business over there and what goes on here. Across that water, on 8 August this year, the current administration announced that it would be withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change, of 2015. And it was in Paris, in September 1783, that the treaty ending the War of Independence was signed. Only then, after eight years of fighting, was George Washington able to return to Mt Vernon and, as he put it, ‘to sit under my own Vine and my own Fig Tree’. He was quoting the prophet Micah for whom those trees symbolised a vision of peace, when swords would be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Now his real work could begin. ‘Nothing in my opinion,’ he wrote, ‘would contribute more to the welfare of these states than the proper management of our lands’. However, on one thing he’d changed his mind, looking now to profit from the influence of the tyranny they’d just driven out. For, he said: ‘No Country has carried the improvement of Land and the benefits of Agriculture to greater perfection than England.’ Indeed, this George, which is farmer in Greek, was regarded as the first farmer in America.

The house itself is gracious, with well-proportioned rooms, tastefully decorated and furnished, and, unlike so many such famous residences, it has the feel of a real home. One curiosity: the present brought by the revolutionary French General Lafayette on a visit – the key to the notorious Bastille prison in Paris, displayed in a glass case, as potent a symbol of a newly-fledged republic as there could be.

 

27 September

Market ride, mtb through the Park. Bit of a crawl. No energy. Bright sun.

 

Literary Festival event in the Methodist church on The Drive – Poetry in Radio, given by a BBC producer. Some wonderful echoes of past productions, an excerpt from the Louis MacNeice verse play The Dark Tower, incoherent and unpoetic, badly chosen, maybe, but gave no encouragement to explore further. Other examples much more compelling.

Toilet in a small corridor, opposite the door, an external door on which is fixed a laminated notice: Do you smell gas? With appended instructions as to what steps to take if you do. Large steps. Quick steps.

I wait to speak to the producer after the talk – we’d discussed ideas for a play and an adaptation of Xenophon’s Anabasis (for Classic Serial) in June. Proposals for play to be considered in September, adaptation in spring. I worked very hard to sketch out the play – wrote a lot of dialogue as I did so – and posted the proposal in early August. No response, then apologies for not reading, then no response. Now: ‘We have time – the proposals aren’t due until spring.’

Another six months lost.

 

30 September

As I walk towards the pond on the low brow above the dip leading to the Bird House in Knole, I see an installation choreography of Parasol mushrooms to one side of the grass track. All large items, one the size of a pancake, rather wet from late rain. I liberate one of the spare bags I carry in the shopping rucksack and cull them. Further on down the slope, another clutch. I cull them. The bag is all but over full. By the southern corner of Knole’s perimeter wall, overlooked by the clock tower, a male with his brood of bitches, looks fixedly at me, uncertain whether to light out. I spot a lone Parasol off to the right and, skirting the wild life, make for it to add to my haul.

Billy weighs the haul on the fruit and veg stall scales: 1¾ kg. James, he of the longbow, says: ‘Wow, Parasols.’ I give him the bag to help himself. Billy doesn’t like fungus. Richard takes one to try and I bring the rest home in layers of kitchen paper supplied by James in a light box he gives me. Later, I dry them and the great bounty becomes the filling of a large jar.

In this morning’s Guardian a picture of a Trump supporter at a rally earlier this year. Stencilled across the back of the top she’s wearing, the slogan: Make Racism Great Again.

I sit on the settee by the front window of the main room in dwindling light, that penumbra between being able to read easily and the growing need for more light. It’s around 6.30pm and I hear the sound of an ice-cream van driving by, its jingle calling out, like a lost child crying for mother. Incongruous sound of summer on this gathering autumnal evening.

 

1 October

I finished reading The Hundred Days by Joseph Roth before it finished me. Not wholly Roth’s fault, though I am equivocal about it, in large part because the so-called translation, by one Richard Panchyk, (an author, apparently), is execrable. Awkward, uneasy, occasionally downright illiterate, tin-eared and clumsy. ‘…on no account because of countless reasons …’, ‘they issued their shouts…’, ‘his snow-white breeches were loud in their dazzling brightness…’ He has the brass neck, in a translator’s note, to say that he ‘tried his best to preserve the rhythm of Roth’s writing…’ in observing Roth’s opinion that a good translation ‘is about the rhythm’. Even that dictum, ‘is about the rhythm’ is muddied, presumably translated by Herr Panchyk. The whole exercise is a sloppy mess and a cheerless disservice to Roth himself.

 

And now I finish Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot, imprisoned for two years in the Russian correctional facilities, her remarkable account of the grim life in them, six months in solitary confinement. The book is startling in its originality of presentation – not a continuous narrative, rather an impressionistic, episodic evocation of her physical and mental distress, the disgusting and harsh conditions in the prisons, the attitude and behaviour of fellow inmates, the tyranny of the guards, the blatant corruption of the system, the invasive lies, manipulations and naked vindictiveness of the authorities, the effect her protests had – to ameliorate conditions but at the cost, for long periods, of ostracism by the other prisoners for whom protest made trouble, no access to telephones and so on. The struggle with her own understanding of this fearful dilemma – whether to persist or to buckle, to yield. For long periods, other women were warned not even to speak to her at risk of extension of their own sentence.

The woman who shopped the members of Pussy Riot, after the protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 2012, is quoted here: ‘The punishment for their actions must be such that it would be terrifying to repeat them.’

But her watchword is Céder un peu, c’est capituler beaucoup (a slogan from the street protests in Paris of May 1968). She writes:

‘I would like to live my life in such a way that whatever I leave behind has something to do with freedom and truth and not with the emptiness that these words become as I speak them.’ [p 165]

Reading such a testament of courage and self-knowledge, of withering examination of the cruder instincts of humanity, oppressed by cold, hunger, a brutal regime, absurd regulation, makes me feel inadequate.

 

Prostrate with fatigue since I got home, not that we overexerted in Berlin. The effect of travelling and the close company of people all day long, which, even with friends, takes it out of me, since I’m not used to such extended contact.

 

4 October

Riding the narrow woodland lane which runs parallel to the two main paved walks to what must be the highest point in the Park, I hear the clash of what, at first, sounded like wood, cudgels, staves, maybe, but which, I realised, must be antlers. It’s rutting season and the Park’s male deer sport great crabs-claw antlers. Thwack, thwack, thwack, off to the right, but I could not see them, the pack of trees too dense. Then, as the belligerent clashes ceased, I did see them, in a clearing, one of the stags drifting away, some distance from his rival. Since there were no does anywhere visible, this may have been no more than a skirmish. Fight postponed, final verdict suspended, decision on leadership in abeyance.

 

5 October

A session of acupuncture to redress my lack of energy.

 

6 October

Richard Lofthouse arrives from London. I meet him at the station and we ride up the hill, down to the hole in the wall and into Knole Park, up the long sweeping drag to the top of the mound overlooking the house and on to the woodland lane, thence home and lunch.

 

7 October

Canal trip from Camden Town to Kensal Rise and back for Cathryn Graham’s birthday. The drizzle which had set in lifted, we sat in the bows of the narrow boat, drank champagne, ate various snacks, toasted her and regaled.

 

Supper with Marie.

 

8 October

The train to Stansted Airport is a hiccuper, it stops at and passes through a number of places I haven’t registered before, of curious names: Bruce Grove, Silver Street, Turkey Street, Theobalds Grove…none recorded in my road atlas.

I land at Carcassonne and, first off the plane, hurry to the car rental office in warm sun. I ask the man doing the paperwork for the car what the weather is going to be like. Fine, he says. I counter with the report of our variable climate: one day heat, the next day chilly and damp. ‘Chaleur?’ he says, mock amazement. ‘Même en angleterre,’ I say, ‘même si non la chaleur française.’ The exchange is entirely friendly.

Massat

Record time: 1h 50m. Hurray.

 

9 October

Nick and I drive up to the track leading up to the ridge of the mountains along which runs the border with Spain and the Port de Salau over which I came on my first visit here in 1997.

From Esterri d’Aneu on the Spanish side where we (John, Angela and I) had stayed the night before, after the descent of the Port de la Bonaigua, up the Vall d’Aneu on a narrow road that grew narrower, into the tiny hamlet of Sant Joan d’Isil where the cobbled street which picked its way through was so strait that one could pretty well touch houses either side with outspread arms.

I was, and had been all week of this foray across the Pyrenees, beginning in Bayonne, badly rattled. Mother, having gone to the brink of death several times in the past year, was now in the Hospice in Leiston and a mellay of indecision, bad conscience, faltering hope, misery, uncertainty was raising hell in my head. I’d barely slept. One night, a truckle bed had collapsed beneath me unprovoked. I’d ridden ahead and sat by a fountain in the tiny town square by the church. John and Angela arrived.

John, the keeper of the maps, had been cagey about the route this day and I suspected that we were heading for country not tarmac and the dwindling of this road seemed to corroborate the suspicion. ‘Time to come clean,’ I said and he unfolded the map. Sure enough…off road.

To expatiate on my state of mind at this point would be otiose. We set off, I, as usual, being lighter laden, moved ahead. The road became a stony track following the course of one of the tributaries supplying the main current of the valley stream. Above us, to the north, rose the mountain ridge, still some way distant. The track swung away from the water and onto a grassy ascent, hairpins, even. The grass continued, the switchbacks did not and the visible path squeezed tight into the bare mud squiggle of a sheep track. I dismounted, took off my cycling shoes, put on my espadrilles and, hands on the bars, leaning over the frame pushed on…there was no riding the machine.

In rising anger, I pushed the bike up to the ridge, a yoke between two Pics, at 2087m. We’d ascended some 1000 metres from Esterri. From the ridge I looked down into a chasm, the steep sides of a cauldron, a bowl without purchase, so it seemed, Baudelaire’s gouffre éternel and let fly with the fury that tore me, shouting, cursing, damning John for this mad, perilous route, the cancer that was killing my mother, anger directed at everything and everyone my consciousness could make a target.

To one side of the ridge stood a large, dilapidated stone building, a former Customs Post, as big as a warehouse – for impounded contraband, no doubt – and I probably shouted at its dereliction, too.

There was but one imperative: to get away from this bloody place. I set off down, seething and muttering. Where’s the bloody path, the track, the road, the bloody way off this fucking mountain?

A short way down, I met three walkers and asked where the road was. One pointed airily behind them: ‘About three hours that way.’ I didn’t thank him. I blamed him for his three hours and declared to myself that his there hours would not be my three hours. I hoisted the bike onto my right shoulder and set off at as much of a run as the slippery rope-soled alpagartas would allow.

How long was I hobbling? I don’t know, but the chasm had narrowed to form a deep cleft and suddenly I saw the road…on the other side of the ravine. More shouting. I pressed on and, at last, a bridge across to what was a stony track, broad enough for a cart. Some way along, the track fused with a left-hand bend on the descent of a road, a tarmac road, a rideable road. I swapped shoes, mounted the bike and it was like letting a straining dog off the leash: I was away, riding, all the fury in my head, heart and body translated into manic power. Two things I knew: the name of our host for that night, Nick Flanagan in Biert, and the name of a town en route, Seix.

A car ahead of me. I speeded up and, the swish of the downhill carrying us both, rode up alongside the driver of the car, a woman, and tapped lightly on the window. She investigated the source of the noise and, evidently scared witless, looked away, even as she opened the window for me to ask: ‘Is this the way to Seix?’ She nodded, I slowed to let her go ahead and pursued her down the mountain all the way to Seix and on to the next town on this road, this precious road, this highway of paradisal tarmac, my route to lodging.

I rode up the valley of the Arac, a road I came to know as well as I know any, into Biert, asked directions and, at around 6pm pulled up outside the cycling lodge. Nick and others sitting on the terrace. Nick got up and said:

‘You must be Graeme.’

‘I am.’

‘We expected to see you hours ago.’

‘You’re lucky to see me at all.’

I went to bed late, woke up long before dawn and decided I must wash everything, clothes, socks, shoes, saddle bag. This I did and laid out the wet stuff on the terrace, dawn just beginning to come up. Probably around 5 o’clock. And now what? Go for a ride.

And so, for the first time, I rode up the Col de Saraillé, my spirit still jangled, into the trees which hug the approach to the unremarkable summit, on down into Cominac, even as the sun came up, the new light burnishing the octagonal domed copper belfry lid of the church. Way to the north, the line of snowbound peaks along the frontier ridge. And suddenly I felt completely at peace, calm and emptied.

I rode back up to the col and down the alternative route to Massat and so round to the Lodge. I hadn’t been there but a quarter of an hour when the phone rang: it was Lindy to say that my mother had died the night before, 31 July. In that terrible rage on the Port de Salau I suppose I’d begun her last journey with her.

And now I stood where the track becomes the road. And driving back the way I’d ridden…

…this day once more to Seix where we stopped for lunch.

 

11 October

Three years ago, a dog belonging to a couple who live in the village, brought home a stricken wild boar piglet in its soft jaw. They nursed the animal to strength and kept it, as it grew. It follows them on walks, they paint a garish yellow stripe down its chine to alert hunters to the fact that this is a tame sanglier. We go to see Peggy in her small enclosure – large hutch and ground squelched into a quagmire.

She responds to a proffered patting hand – Nick’s – as a wild animal would so we take the tame on trust, not very solid trust. But, there she is and content, it seems, to ramble with her surrogate guardians.

Just round the corner from Nick’s house, a house on whose wall hangs a sign:

On ne diminue pas le bonheur en le partageant.

…like the shamash (‘attendant’) candle of Hannukah, losing neither heat nor light by passing it on to the next candle for illumination over the winter Festival of Lights.

 

12 October

In the garage on the outskirts of town, this:

The recovery (dépannage) vehicle wrapped, trapped, tethered, in a tangle of weeds.

 

12 October

A photocopy of the cadastre for the central area of Massat from the Mairie to determine the configuration of Couleur Café in whose rear courtyard Nick and I had lunch on Tuesday. A two-sided building now closed off on one side by a house of obviously later construction, the fourth by a stone wall through which there must, originally, have been ingress. I wondered if the place had been a coaching inn – two balconies, a number of rooms leading off. The cadastre shows that there was, indeed, an approach on this courtyard entrance. And, in the sun of midday, I find M. Gasparrou, outside the Mairie talking to someone. We then have a conversation.

He tells me that the place was built in the late nineteenth century for a family who set up a grocery store. One member of the family became a doctor and practised at the thermal springs in Aulus-les-Bains, famous for sulphur cures and, as I knew from research for the Tour book, much frequented by officers back from Vietnam suffering from the pox. It was also a fashionable spa as the presence of the now decrepit Grand Hôtel attests. This doctor met Guy de Maupassant there and they became friends, to the extent that de Maupassant presented the family with an original manuscript of some of his work. En passant…de Maupassant is said to have dined every evening that he was in Paris in the restaurant at the base of the Tour Eiffel because, he said, it was the one place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tour Eiffel.

  1. Léon-Pierre Galy-Gasparrou, as I have remarked above, is the latest in his family to be mayor of Massat. I find, too, that his father, Georges, (1896 – 1979), was a doctor of law, magistrate, made officer of the Légion d’Honneur after WWI and joined the Resistance in 1940. He set up a network of passeurs to guide escapees down the Chemin de la Liberté across the frontier and then became military commander of the maquis d’Eze, just outside Nice. He was arrested by the Gestapo in September 1943 and transported to the Saint-Michel prison in Toulouse, from where he escaped in August 1944. After the war, he had a distinguished career in public office.

 

Barbara

German by birth, Barbara arrived in Massat one winter in the 1970s, late teens, heavily pregnant. She rejected the place and circumstances of her life till then and was intent on renouncing all ties to it.

She has hennaed hair, a full and plump-cheeked face, a fresh complexion tanned by the sun and weather in which she has worked, ever since she and her husband, Patrice, with whom she’s had seven children, took over a broken stone house in a hamlet above Massat. They’ve worked the land, grown or foraged for all their food, cooked on open wood fire, used natural water for drinking, cooking and washing, have never had electricity. This was the hippie ideal and they’ve lived it, without compromise. They are what the French call jusqu’au boutistes.

            I’d wanted to meet her, Nick’s friend Philippe at the Cavo de Vi, who sings with her in the village choir, set up a rendezvous and I had some qualms about what I was going to say, what ask, how engage her. I didn’t want it to be an interview, I wanted to take no notes, no formal list of questions. Philippe, whom I know passingly well, reassured me: ‘Don’t worry, she’ll talk.’

And here she comes in a full loose dress, bangles at her wrists, open leather sandals, a stone of some sort suspended from a silver chain at her throat (‘and I’ll put on some silver…’), a beaming smile and a warmth of presence that has the deep stoking of seeing off many icy winters and pinched times in the hard life she has lived. Although, acknowledging the fact of its tough condition, she would not call it so. She has thrived in the extreme of her non-materialist ideals, drawn sustenance, bodily and spiritual, from the immediacy of her contact with and reliance on the bounty of the earth and skies above, the luminous presence of the moon and stars in the big sky above their mountain home.

‘You know,’ she says, ‘my daughters have given birth to their children in a darkened room, even at night, lots of blankets at hand to keep the newborn warm. All my children were born in a room open to the sky and if it was at night, the baby came out of my womb, looked up and saw light, celestial light, and it was a welcome.’

She explains why it was that she and others were welcomed in the area. ‘The hippies came and discovered that there was a long tradition of offering refuge to people on the run from persecution, mostly religious, of course, but political, too. They were known in the local dialect as peixets.’ [The Ker, a towering escarpment opposite Roquefort, the lodge Nick used to run, along the valley towards Biert, was notorious – Cathars, branded as heretics, were tossed from the height, much as criminals from the Tarpeian rock in Rome. The cliff is honeycombed with caves in which they’d hid, as, too, in the prehistoric grottoes of Bedeilhac, on the eastern side of the Col de Port.] ‘So, in a way, we were the same, getting away from a very different sort of persecution, one that we’d identified ourselves.

And, we were lucky. A lot of the older generation here, who lived up in the hillsides round the village, had said goodbye to their children – there was no work here, no money, and they had to go off to the bigger towns to make a living. So it was they who taught us how to grow crops, vegetables, fruit, where to look for berries, how to manage animals, milk cows and goats, all the essentials of the life we’d chosen. It was one older couple who gave us their stone grange – they no longer had any use for it and, at the time, their family had no interest in it. We renovated it, bit by bit, and that became our home, where we still live, even if our kids have all gone, now.’

At the outset, she’d asked whether I preferred French or English. I said it was up to her. She preferred French. She explained how things changed when the road came. Up to the 1930s, when the road along the valley was no more than a cart track, only boys were required to go to school. The girls had to stay at home where they had to work in the house as unpaid maids. At the time, there were no more than 2000 people in the community in town and scattered round about. When the road was metalled in the 1930s, the buses arrived and girls also went to school. Naturally, that gave them a glimpse of a world beyond the Arac valley and further denuding of the community was inevitable. Of the fact that she and Patrice had not sent their own children to school – despite the threats of the education authorities – preferring to give them, as the law allowed, instruction at home, she said nothing to me. But her indifference to common practice and received wisdom was quite apparent.

‘All our water comes off the mountain and if I drink some water in which a goat has pissed or shat, the piss and shit will be diluted and the old people always said that that’s the way we get our minerals. If a stranger drinks it, he’ll get ill, it’s only when you’re habituated.’

I chip in, to a certain initial bafflement, with the story of Mithridates, king of Pontus who, famously, ‘died old’. Knowing that as king he was bound to be the target of assassination attempts, generally by poison, he took a small amount of poison every day to build up his resistance, a dose which came to be known as a mithridate.

They backed their insistence on home education with a certain irrefutable logic: diplomas are all very well but who could say that the practice of medicine, for example, is more important than the skill and expertise required for the successful growing of crops for food? Besides, she has her own apothecary, notably the famous Barbara soothing comfrey pommade, constituted of comfrey, oil and beeswax, which she sells at the market and elsewhere. And old Culpeper, he say that comfrey, in various decoctions and preparations: “…giveth ease to pained joints, and profiteth very much for running and moist ulcers, gangrenes, mortifications, and the like, for which it hath by often experience been found helpful.” Amongst many other things.

 

Later, around 6pm, the sun still full of colour and heat, as it has been throughout my short stay, I take a bottle of champagne down to the stone benches which adjoin the wall either side of the church in the main Place where Nick and I had sat yesterday evening, the stone of the wall and seat warm with the sun, to share glass and conversation with the small company who were here when we came yesterday. When I arrive with the bottle, only Chantal and her sister Isabelle are there, so far. I propose the fizz. Isabelle smiles. ‘A pigeon shat on me this afternoon and I thought, “well, there’s good luck”, and here you are.’

 

13 October

Home. A dream: I am advised to: Do right. I ask: What’s right? And the answer comes: What’s left.

This sticks in my head. I conclude that what’s left must (or simply may) mean: right is what is left when you‘ve done everything else, everything that you thought was right but probably wasn’t. And so what? I hear you say.

 

16 October

Once more, very tired, and I let myself drift for however long it takes to restore me.

 

A Tory grandee, one of those preposterous blimps who live in a dream of empire and ‘All things bright and beautiful’, when the social order was quite rightly and properly regulated – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate – and whose default tone is one of supercilious pomposity which regards condescension as generous concern for the dimwits who don’t cleave to their opinions, as if any other opinion were worth cleaving to – Ironingboard Clunk Schmidt is a prime example – speaks of having dinner with the Prime Minister, Theresa (here, an awed pause which serves as a sort of conversational genuflection) at which she used a four-letter word not often heard nowadays. He didn’t add in polite society. We should take that for granted. He’s polite (sycophantic) and she’s polite (stodgy). And as we, the benighted listeners, gasp and wonder if this woman who has recently confessed that the naughtiest thing she’s ever done, ever done, is to run (in a controlled fashion, one presumes) through a field of ripe wheat, had, finally let rip and said something on the lines of Gosh (read ‘Crikey’), he, the sniffy superhero of political insight declared that the word she’d uttered (ave Theresa, plena prudentia) was ‘duty’.

Wow.

Now, given her lack of direction, her dismal leadership, any absence of inventiveness, wit or imagination and her inability to see through a plate glass window to decipher the signs reading Fuck the fuck off, you’re useless, this comes as a bit of a facer. Duty, the willingness to do what you’re told – as in, to a small child toddling away from the potty ‘have you done your duty?’ – is not what I’d call anything close to a quality of interest in someone who’s supposed to be in charge. Duty is what sent hundreds of thousands of young men, on both sides, over the top on the Western Front, duty is what school monitors perform at break time, duty is what Boy Scouts promise to do every day, a vague enough imperative which would wriggle out of any judicial enquiry as to whether they had or had not done it. Duty is, as the OED puts it, ‘the action and conduct due to a superior’. So who is Theresa May’s superior? God? Conservative HQ? Surely not the British people, whoever they are, in this pre-Brexit purgatory waiting room? Also money payable on import of valuable goods etbloodycetera. Well, I suggest that if it’s duty she’s on about, it’s not inattention to detail, it’s inattention to the fact that she is plainly not up to the job, a routine clerk pitched into the office of chief of staff.

And her utterance of this mystic four-letter word is supposed to encourage us? On what terms?

 

17 October

Charles Portis Masters of Atlantis.

A delicious satire of surpassing invention, dotty literalism, dry comedy. I wonder, even as I think that, what is dry about it? The comedy of Frankie Boyle, it occurs to me, is always moist with steam (indignation) sweat (disbelief) saliva (outrage and delight in pillorying the causes of the outrage). It boils and seethes, blows the lid. Portis has, rather, the understated shifts of a cunning artist of deft insult. The effect of his comedy is like a slap on the pate with a fish slice, a gliding insertion of the narrow blade, a raised eyebrow before the incredulous sigh. One of the characters imagining one of the others, a southern boy, at home. ‘He saw them eating their yams and pralines and playing their fiddles and dancing their jigs and guffawing over coarse jokes and beating one another to death with agricultural implements.’

It’s the bathos of that last image, the offhand slackening  which delivers the blow the full smack of the comic swipe. The piling up of the images topples into the last startling picture with such stunning force as to make one say What? What did he just say?

 

18 October

A general directive issued out of the great mushy pea brain of Central Intelligence NHS, UK, requires that:

  1. All doctors, consultants, nurses and, possibly, incidental ancillary staff, must ask patients to declare their sexual orientation, whether male, female, transgender, binary (both male and female, and what used to be called, in most civilised circles, hermaphrodite), non-binary (neither, ie ex ovo Rees Mogg) in the interests of protecting personal and intrapersonal sensibilities. Thus, a once popular definition of the nature of being, should, in this light, be recast as: Cogito ergo sim aut fortasse non sim. I think therefore I may be, though perhaps I may not be. (There are several Latin verbs which might be taken to mean ‘I kink’ but maybe that’s a gibe too far.)

And:

  1. That, in future, what have, till now, been widely regarded as expectant (ie gravid) mothers (females) are to be described as ‘pregnant people’ to obviate all possibility of causing offence to anyone, anyone at all. This either means that some lunatic working on data in the NHS thinks he knows – it must be a he – something that we don’t, or that the NHS is even more bankrupt of imagination than we ever deemed possible.

 

A trailer for what purports to be a comedy programme on radio 4. Some preamble leading to the statement, delivered with squeaky, high-octane Imgivingthefeedforthepunchline portentousness: ‘…which goes to prove that we can’t eat money.’ Cue: ‘What about those chocolate coins you gave me for Christmas?’ Collective projectile vomit of laughter from the studio audience, presumably (one would hope) held under duress for triggered hilarity at any jab of the Funny! cattle prod on pain of being held behind closed doors to be subjected to a lot more of the same than even the producers of such tosh would dare to broadcast.

 

19 October

News that my sponsored guide dog Freya, who replaced Rio (see 8 March) who, in turn, replaced Lucy, all because they didn’t make it to fully trained, for various reasons, has, in her turn, been replaced by Zia. As I said earlier, it’s not easy to escape the notion that I have put a jinx on these lovely dogs.

 

20 October

This from long past or, as they say in Norfolk, ‘yars agoo’:

Two women friends, one Thursday, Fakenham market, one needs to get there, her car breaks down, she phones her friend to ask for a lift. The friend retorts: ‘Sorry, I’m having a day off.’

 

Rhesus-Mogadon has named his sixth child, a boy child, Sixtus. Trala. He was, we’re told, something of a Latinist at the school. The school. For, as Marina Hyde recently said, for twerps of his stripe, there is only one school and it occupies a timeless place in the aristo-tyranny warp that is our upper class, the inner circle of opisthognathos twats who are brought up to regard it as their right to tell those of us who were not at the school, what to do and think, and how to do and think it, in the manner of a senior blood rapping orders to a fag (human equivalent of a worm, which he’d once been, so this constitutes the latest round in a remorseless  revenge cycle. For the brow and bum-beaten fag will, himself, one day accede to the throne of senior blood and rap out his own orders and so on and so on ad infinitum.) Do they still call them that? Probably. The sleazier slang surely hasn’t infiltrated that far, yet, even if the practice to which it slyly refers has been long entrenched. Allegedly. Perhaps enlightened opinion, the advent of more liberal practices – lawks – have prevailed and the hierarchy has been quashed. Maybe so, but not in public life, it hasn’t.

Now, there may have been Popes called Sixtus – a mischievous thought occurs: does the imitation human being harbour hopes that, one day, one of his offspring might…oooh, crumbs, whisper it not in Gath – but the Latin for sixth is Sextus. Is it, then, that the fastidious, blushing anachronism has tried to distance himself from any implication of his involvement with the congress which led to the emergence of this sixth scion of the branch? Heavens forfend that anything so maculate in his origin should besmirch the lad, especially if the ambition is, you know…

 

21 October

On my way down the hill after the Park-market walk which began in darkness this murky morning of intermittent shower and lurking drizzle, I cross paths with a woman, late thirties by the look, running up Hollybush, wearing a white tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan Life is better when you’re running.

I wondered in what sense ‘better’? Most of the runners of her ilk – plainly not an athlete in training, rather what is sometimes called a ‘fun runner’ – never evince any air of happiness, contentment, joy, no hint of euphoria, yet, in the way of triumph in the grappling with some persistent inner demon, maybe. They generally have a look of varying degrees of misery. And, this ‘when you’re running’…does this apply to the process of running itself, or to the life outside which, in the centrifugal drum of its varying activities that mark a day’s routine, includes putting on the running garb and the logoed vest in preparation for das Ding an sich? We need to be told. David and I passed a man in the Tiergarten whose particular message to the world, more specifically to us (eg) riding along with insolent ease on our high bicycles, was ‘You ain’t run around if you ain’t run aground’ to which the only sensible retort is Blrph.

 

I ponder decorum and the usual translation as right and proper, fitting, whereas its root is décor, comeliness, beauty, elegance, a very different nuance from right and proper. Seemly, becoming and, yes, beautiful, which begs a big question.

 

25 October

Greetings sent to two friends, postcards of Winslow Homer paintings.

  1. A young girl in a pewter grey dress with full skirt, a grey gingham modesty apron, her glossy brown hair caught tight to her scalp by a white ribbon from nape, behind ears to pate, tied with a bow at the to, stands sideways on. Her left arm curls behind the small of her back, the hand laced into the crook of her right elbow. A schoolroom. The blackboard visible behind her shows simple shapes, a Pythagorean sketch pad – right angled and isosceles triangle, a right angle, a bisected right angle, circle, square, parallel lines…Her expression is puzzled, almost sullen.

Caption: ‘I know I’m just a silly little girl but I thought everyone was familiar with the geometric reduction of the “impossibility of infinite regress” argument for the existence of God.’

  1. Another young girl, similar age, late teens, perhaps a little older this one, wears a long white dress with vertical thin candy pink stripes which cross the upper part slantwise. It’s caught at the waist, slightly high, with a tight, black ribbon zone. The pointed tips of the collar of the white blouse slant over the dress at the neck and its cuffs at the wrists where the cloth of the long, close sleeves puckers. An open- weave, black scarf with furled, lacy edges, knotted like a cravat spills across her breast. The bonnet is of goffered white material in four layers of diminishing rounds, the shape of a crustacean shell, a broad peak form over he brow and folding up in a swoop above her nape to sit on the crown, where a tuft of black material fills the topknot. Her expression is severe, even humourless. In her left hand what may be two schoolbooks or else hymnal and Bible. In the background, a crudely painted small house with terracotta walls, brown roof and, moving towards it a small gaggle of other figures, blurred.

Caption: ‘Shall I do you now, sir?’

 

27 October

The somnambulist editor nudges me awake at 4.45 this morning and I switch on the light, reach for the bedside notebook and sit up to take dictation. A complete reshaping and resetting of the MACHINE chapter in No Common Assassin to which I intended to return, knowing that in its existing form it wouldn’t do – more like notes to myself and latent instructions to do better. What has come out is very much better.

To the Barbican for BBC SO concert: Florent Schmitt Second Symphony, Franck Symphonic Variations, piano and orchestra, Ravel piano concerto for the left hand, Sibelius 3.

Schmitt, of whom I have never heard, 1870-1958, a member of Les Apaches (in French ‘hooligans’) and described by his publisher as ‘an irresponsible lunatic’ it appears. The piece is a hodge podge of echoes and allusions, a medley evoking French pastoral, Hollywood film music, musicals, sub-Debussy without any plausible coherence, it rambles and stutters through a sample book of themes. The Franck didn’t engage me. The second half, however…ravishing. Moreover, it emphasised the added appreciation of music that comes from watching a performance rather thanjust,as with the radio or cd, listening to it.

I was lucky to be on the left hand side of the auditorium so that I could watch the pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and see how awkward the piece necessarily made him. (Ravel was one of the Apaches.) He slid from side to side on the stool to position himself better at the keyboard, his right arm dangling, useless to him, except that at one point – having to make an extravagant run, he stood and gripped the end of the piano with his right hand. I know the piece quite well but seeing it played added a new excitement. So, too, with the Sibelius, another piece I know well. But this performance, conducted by a Finn, Sakari Oramo, who, the other week (interval, before Sibelius 5) dismissed any notion that the music evokes landscape. No, he said, the inner emotional world, the tugs and shoves of feeling, doubt and mood, the unexplained impulses…I put words into his mouth, but that was the gist.

I revelled in the shaping, the movement, the clear conversation between the various sections, the syncopations, the extended passages where the strings plucked, a compelling drama in that, the force of blood playing hell with the pulse, making it rocket and dive, lurch and jump. And, my, didn’t he love the cello. I was so very glad to have gone, the journey to London – anywhere, in fact- in an evening having less and less charm for me, now. (Save for supper hereabouts with friends.) But, what a joy and an education this night.

 

Halloween

To Chapel Down vineyard for a guided tour of the winery and vines, my Christmas present from Marie last year. The visit began outside, no grapes – all picked two weeks early, a good crop. Frost in spring might have threatened the entire harvest but the hardy creatures survived and the glorious summer delivered a bumper haul.

It takes a single vine to make one bottle of wine…the guide pointed to a house, Smallhythe Place, a few hundred yards away: that’s where the sea ended some centuries past. (Chapel Down is on the edge of Romney Marsh, around ten miles inland from Rye, itself originally grouped with the Cinque Ports as an Ancient Town, together with Winchelsea.) Their fizz: the sediment is frozen in the neck using a glycol dip – I knew of this process from visiting Mercier in the early ‘90s, but they froze to make an ice plug. How to remove the cage of the cork: six half twists of the wire and it lifts off…every time.

The tasting was friendly and we learnt of the three build up nosings of the bouquet: first by holding the glass at the breast bone and letting the first scents filter up, then to the chin, stronger yet, and, finally, after the swirl, to the nose. I habitually sniff the wine in restaurants, rarely bothering to taste. It ain’t necessary…that’s to come.

It was the most perfect day – began with going to the dentist’s with Marie for her check up, then to the Bradbourne Lakes to liberate a mouse, captured in the boiler cupboard (innocuous plastic tube trap), whence to Curry’s to organise the delivery of a new washing machine, thence to Tunbridge Wells for a flying visit to a sculpture exhibition – someone M knows. She was reluctant to make the slight detour but I persuaded her that a brief attendance, and for a distant pal, wouldn’t take long, and she was glad, after all. From there to Tenterden – a stop in Goudhurst to get me a sandwich – and the final twisty road to the vineyard which we reached in the nick of time. Cool.

 

All Saints

I planted the sixty bulbs – a mix of white, yellow and blue – which came by post the other day: Rockery Ornithogalum, Allium Coroanni, Glory of the Snow, Tazetta Narcissus, Chrysanthus Crocus, and Tulip Tarda, (an interloper. A charming note at the bottom of the box explained that ‘due to shortage in Honky Tonk, we have replaced it for also bee-friendly Tulip Tarda. Sorry for the inconvenience. Ecobulbs.’

 

2 November

5.43am at Bat and Ball, 8am train to Edinburgh, change for Leuchars, lunch at Tailend in Saint Andrews and back to Cairnhill Gardens.

 

3 November

Lucy and I walk the North Beach sands and then to Balgove Larder for lunch. Scrumptious smoked haddock rarebit, with Saint Andrews cheese.

 

4 November

Braemar for a two-hour circuit walk round the hill they call the Cromlins, up a forest track, deeply carpeted with dry pine needles. A red squirrel skitters round the base of one Scots pine, the first of the species I’ve seen in the British Isles – only ever in France, otherwise. And, a little further on, another red squirrel performing agile leap and cling gymnastics on the springy trapezes of the upper branches of two other tall trees.

We pass below a crag known locally as The Lion’s Face, already prevised that distinguishing leonine features is best done from across the valley. This option being closed to us, we stare up at a craggy chunk of cliff and see nothing readily identifiable as any sort of animal in other than advanced state of decay.

The track winds and drops towards the Ballater road, the flow of the Dee beside it lulling us with a soft purling of its waters over a flat bed and dimpling of barely submerged rocks and boulders. Further on, across the road, the ugly blockhouse that is Braemar Castle, built in 1628 and renovated in the mid-nineteenth century – Gothic towers and crenellations, concrete appliqué.

As we drove back on the Leuchars road into Saint Andrews, the full moon in the eastern sky hangs over the sea, its face the colour of peach flesh.

 

5 November

To Gillingshill Wild Life Park, a few miles inland from Saint Monan’s and Pittenweem. A fairly steep climb up to the cairn and trig point on Kellie Law at 184m above sea level, fine view down to the sea and the towns. [Law, from OE hláw, is a hill but defined, I now discover, as ‘esp one more or less round or conical…as is this Kellie of the name.]

Round by Kellie Castle to Arncroach past a large field where llamas graze, to another smaller field where two small pigs, one tan coloured, the other dark grey and silver, waddle across the muddy morass they’ve made, in company with a gaggle of strutting chickens, to enjoy a friendly stroking from Lucy.

7 November

Cycled the long way round the outer fence of the Park and along the A225 into town. A basket of shopping at Waitrose. As I approach the counter to pay, I see a man with but three baking trays and usher him to pay first. He makes no acknowledgement, nor says thanks when the transaction is done, merely turns away and walks off. I remark to the woman at the till: ‘Bit rude, not to say anything.’ She, a rather glum close to sour look on her face, retorts, with a kind of grim satisfaction to the initiate to such cavalier treatment (me): ‘Welcome to my world.’

 

8 November

Rumblings in protest at the continued practice of blacking up to portray Zulu warriors in the Lewes Bonfire Society parade. One of the organisers says that protests have been noted but no action to impose a ban has been taken so, who knows? Back to the altogether repulsive days of the Black and White Minstrel Show: the men slapped with soot Leichner, white worm-coil lips and liquorice gobstopper eyes, tail coats and white gloves wiggling around in ‘Ol’Man Ribber Lil Black Sambo yes massa’ fashion, the women in Polyanna print dresses, fresh-face complexion and Dairy Queen smiles.

 

9 November

To London. I collect my watch from Russell Talerman and walk back to Covent garden to Carluccio’s to meet Richard Lofthouse for lunch ahead of our meeting at the Swiss Tourist Board (a few doors down the street) to talk about mountains and books.

Mention of John Gray, whose Straw Dogs I’ve just read – Richard has a high regard for his work, interviewed him once and wrote an excellent article about the man and his books. R says that Gray is at pains to say that there is no single form of atheism, that it is a multi-faceted stance, from the plain, unconsidered ‘I don’t believe’ through nuances of doubt and equivocation.

Whether it’s apposite or not, I tell the story of Yeats’s encounter with an old peasant somewhere in the wilds of Ireland. Their conversation turned to ‘the little people’ Yeats being much fascinated with the folklore of Erin and the wraiths and fays which swim out of and back into the penumbra of the Celtic Twilight. The old man was adamant that the little people didn’t exist. ‘No no no, ‘tis all stuff and poppycock, those tales, all fancy and folly, the sort of silly childishness that catches some folk by the ear and nose and leads them a merry chase. No, the little people? There’s no such thing.’ Then he added: ‘But they’re there.’

And the story of the young Jew who renounced all the pilpul and nitpicking of Jewish scholarship, telling his rabbi that he’d had enough of the books, the arguments and counter-arguments, that it was all hot air and amounted to nothing, no sense or reason and, having ditched all that he declared himself an atheist. The rabbi shook his head. ‘Nah nah nah. It’s not an atheist you are, you’re an ignoramus.’

 

11 November

Drizzle all the way into town as I walked up to and across the Park. Two green woodpeckers flew by as I neared the lakes below the Bird House. I passed a woman runner on the downhill towards the main drive and exit, said good morning and she gave me a look that suggested she had supposed my intentions in giving such a greeting so early in the day (7.30) were entirely dishonourable if not downright lewd.

 

Having been stuck – inextricably, so it seemed – on the next reshaping of No Common Assassin for some time, to my great despondency, the somnambulist editor, the nocturnal whisperer, turned up again last night and I sat up, once again, to take dictation on a course which has regenerated my energy and thinking. Thank goodness. I sat to the matter later in the day for an hour and a half before coming, tardily, to lunch. A start, at least.

The despondency was exacerbated by the sense that I was close to the encouragement of an agent and did not want to blow it. A spur, a spur…

 

12 November

Marie and Chris Yates to lunch. Foolishly, I set about the job of clearing the leaves from the terrace before checking on the timings of preparation for the aubergine, tomato and cheese dish and left myself tight for cooking. (The sight of compost makings on the pavement wasn’t attractive.) However, there was good conversation before eating, I walked up the garden to cull a sizeable bunch of the Swiss chard which is still in fine nick, and we sat to eat.

Reaching across the table to get a knob of butter, Marie said ‘boarding house lunge’. And I remembered Lucy coming into the breakfast room at the place where we stayed in Stromness, (that year we went to the Magnus Festival), which might qualify as a boarding house – do they still exist? Guest house, probably. Lucy, then not quite four, asked the young American woman who was also staying there: ‘Did you wash the sleep out of your eyes this morning or did you pick it out?’ The young woman replied: ‘I don’t recall.’ This appeared to satisfy Lucy’s curiosity. At any rate, she didn’t pursue the subject.

And I remember my going away on holiday with my parents when I was about the same age, by train, and announcing to the other passengers in the carriage: ‘We’re going on a honeymoon.’ This wouldn’t raise many eyebrows nowadays, I guess, but at that time…

Chris, whose last work here (early spring) was building raised beds to replace the originals which, after eight years were close to collapse – rotted boards, fastenings (nails) sprung – asked, just before he left, if he might see the raised bed. Marie and I each thought of my own raised bed. In this I sleep but no longer grow.

 

13 November

To Lucy:

Hi darling

I’ve been out of sorts for a number of reasons and have found company at once difficult because of feeling rather dull and lacklustre in myself, occasionally tiring because of a certain introspective mood, I think. Add a growing sense of feeling rather isolated – a wholly ungrateful sense, I should say. There’s also the having still to fight for any kind of recognition – lack of agent and all that – which breeds a failure of nerve and confidence. I must put all this aside and concentrate on what needs to be done which is what makes the response of this one particular agent so encouraging. The warring impulses of doubt and bloody-minded tenacity go on and it’s infertile ground on which they wage their combat.

I may be getting somewhere with what my editor friend has described as a very difficult task through patient thought and piecemeal advance of idea. I don’t mind the slowness but the slowness makes me concerned about time, of course. All left so late, so very late.

These are routine fears and anxieties and I’ve encountered them – and seen them off – before, and I’m not at all sure of the wisdom of setting them down here so baldly. But, I honour, respect and love you, Lucy, and you may not be aware – I hope you may be – of how much I have learnt from you over the years. I value your judgement. Know it.

Of course, there is, too, the business of the latest tests on my heart –  I haven’t yet had notice of an appointment to see the Consultant. But, I will keep walking and riding to maintain some level of fitness and, as my doctor said a while back, most people half my age don’t do close to the regime of exercise I regard as entirely routine, and always have done.

So I ask you not to worry, conscious that what I have written here may cause you some alarm. I hope you will see that in being candid, I am opening myself to your support, rather than staying quiet and being all uptight. Grin and bear it is all very well but I grew up with that doctrine and think it stinks.

millions of love

Dad xxxxx

 

Hi Dad

I’m sorry to hear you are feeling isolated and battling with confidence and anxieties about your work. I understand the struggle is always there, but you should value all the things you do, have done and continue to do. You do have recognition in all sorts of arenas, so I don’t think you should be so hard on yourself. If nothing else, it’s not exactly a common thing to be able to build a career as a writer, and certainly not one so multifaceted as the work you do, so you have every right to feel that achievement (agent or no agent, though I can only imagine how difficult it is to navigate that relationship). As you say, concentrating on the doing is always a positive thing, though I understand it is all too easy to get pulled away into thinking about it all and know that feeling. Know you’d your work are valued and appreciated, and not just by me but a great many others.

I’m glad you felt able to share this, and shouldn’t feel worried about causing alarm or stating it baldly – it’s much better to share these things and ask for support in my opinion, and I would always rather know if something is bothering you than not. Staying quiet is certainly not the way forward.

I’m glad you’ve now got a date for the consultant too, that must be a relief.

millions of love xxxxxxxxxxxx

 

What a lovely reply, and what a lovely daughter you have. And I agree with her opinions there.

I hope it helped you.

Chris is a nice man too, thanks for a great day. Must get your aubergine recipe too

Mx

 

Thanks darling. It’s generous of you to speak so and I should be better aware of the many blessings and privileges I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy rather than accede to the glooms. That’s silly. I suppose that, at the moment, this business of my health tends

to exaggerate the sense of running out of time and making me more impatient. As you say, be kinder. I feel your love and that gives me heart.

millions of love

Dad xxxxx

The appointment letter arrived yesterday and it was for Maidstone Hospital which is a bit of a schlepp from here, bike, train, bike, whereas I’ve always seen the consultant at a clinic he holds in Sevenoaks hospital. I phoned the appointments desk and, oh joy, lit on a man who was both smart and very helpful – indeed, having trouble with a new system, couldn’t land a link immediately and phoned me back twice in the course of changing the appointment to Sevenoaks and only three days after the Maidstone date. Hurray.

 

15 November

I sit on the misericord style seats (which do not tip, however) near the end of the platform waiting for the train into London. An elderly gent shuffles up and sits along the row from me. When the train appears, he gets up and makes towards where the front carriages will stop and, as he goes by, lets off a fart, a floater. I think it wasn’t aimed specifically at me, rather it was coincidental, nonetheless a fart.

Who was it who farted in the presence of Elizabeth I and, fearing her extreme displeasure, absented himself from court for a long time until he was advised by friends that it was safe to reappear? When he did venture back into her presence, she greeted him: ‘Welcome, Sir…We have quite forgot the fart.’

In London, on the way to a memorial gathering for John Morrison, who died in early September, I called in at the Rapha Club to collect the Southern Alps volume for delivery to the Swiss Tourism Board. A charming young woman had arranged for the book to be ready to hand and had put a label on the carrier bag in which it came: ‘For Graeme Fife himself.’

Well…

 

18 November

Dawn came up as I walked the rise to a point where I always stop to look back at the North Downs ridge and from which runs a path that affords the best view of Knole House. The sky streaked with a cocktail swirl of seaside villa pink and blue.

I then thought of Pick ‘n’ Mix sweeties (from the garish colour) and from there went to hundreds and thousands which we used to buy from a baker at the top of Tudor Avenue, the road leading down to the primary school. They were served in a cone of paper, twisted into shape by the baker and we ate them from a wet finger dabbed into the gathered speckly dune of coloured sugar granules. I wondered if they are still used today and thought, then, of those iced doughnuts (donuts, rather) which have them sprinkled on the ice cap. Not a seemly state for a doughnut to be in, whereas for a donut…I guess, anything goes, though not in my direction.

The best doughnuts I have ever tasted and probably will ever taste, not that I eat ’em. The closest I get is the very rare encounter with a dish of churros. Yum. The Matthews Bakery, at the corner of Hendon Lane and Victoria Avenue, supplied doughnuts (3 ½ d) chocolate iced slices (2d) and iced Danish (1 ½ d) to the Christ’s College Tuckshop, in the undercroft – green flap window shutter over the serving hatch – where we played football with a tennis ball. The game had the added dimension of negotiating a narrow alley which ran the length of one side of the picth, accessed through a number of arches.

The Matthews doughnut was crisp on the outside, sublimely soft of texture inside and the secret trove of jam – raspberry, I think, though possibly strawberry – a find of succulence and potent flavour. A confection of utter perfection.

 

20 November

Finished reading Kings, one of Christopher Logue’s glorious reworking of The Iliad to which I was first introduced by Pax. A rich, diverse, playful spin of poetic fancy, mingling original image with modern idiom. In this latest volume, a delicious example on page 38:

It was so quiet in Heaven you could hear

The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.

 

And now, Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl which I bought in the rambling treasure house of books, Capitol Books, in Washington last April. To my delight, this on page 20: ‘The Mill House was of a style well known to all Virginians, since it was built on very much the same pattern as Mount Vernon: two storeys, with a steep-pitched roof and dormer windows.’

Later in the book, the scapegrace Martin goes off to curry favour with his dead uncle’s influential friends in DC and stays, first, in Alexandria, where Paige and her family live. Minor nudges of recognition, entirely pleasing.

 

21 November

On this day, in 1998, I came to live in Sevenoaks, in what became Low House. I turned the key in my own front door for the first time in 20 years – almost to the day, when I turned the lock on Middle House in Lower Gresham. I’d ridden all the way from London with a fire grate strapped to the pannier carrier, arrived at around 2pm – the furniture was already installed – and set about making some kind of order out of the jumble of cardboard boxes, table chairs, kitchen ware…the bed I left for the moment, since I’d planned to decorate the bedroom first. The mattress on the sofa bed would do for the interim. The whole business took until 9pm, non-stop, by which time I had managed the place into some kind of order, had somewhere to sleep, somewhere to eat – the dining table set up in the same front room, the galley kitchen in working order and determined not to proceed through the coming months of decorating and renovating the place eating takeaway food but to cook supper every night, imposing some semblance of decent routine.

I needed a drink. Could I remember which box the corkscrew was in? The thought. The first contact I had with my immediate neighbour, therefore, was to knock on their door and ask if I might borrow such an item. They complied, I opened the bottle, returned the corkscrew and, as is the way of things, never saw them again. I guess they moved soon afterwards.

A beginning here.

 

22 November

After a long tussle with the shaping and content of No Common Assassin, I came to a decision, prompted by a remarkable email from Lucy, hereunder, and a suggestion from Bruce, about managing the story in parts. Thus, another beginning. I’ve written to three other people looking at the existing synopsis, thus:

I’ve had a radical rethink in the light of what two people who’ve read the synopsis have said and it accords with what has been nagging me for some time: to form the narrative entirely through Charlotte’s eyes. That is, to tell her story, only her story, and not to try to take on the French Revolution, too. This decision comes as a massive relief and, barmy as it may seem not to have answered my instinct much, much earlier, better late than not at all. When, some years ago, I wrote an early version of this story and had to break off to write a book, I had a picture of Charlotte sitting alone, on a bench, in a room in the convent, her hands folded in her lap waiting for the soft tap on the door which would be me returning, so that we might resume our conversation. That image must be to the fore. And, when I changed the title, having no idea what the new title would be, I thought: ‘She’ll tell me,’ and set off for a walk. And, indeed, some way into the walk, she did tell me. So, you see, you are entirely right to nudge me towards her version, her perception.

Further, I think the shape of the book now might be:

Part One    From the time she leaves the house in Caen to take the coach to the first visit to Marat’s apartment and the door shut in her face

Part Two    The episodic story of her earlier years, as detailed in the existing synopsis, up to the time that she makes the decision to go to Paris to commit the murder

Part Three  From the moment the door is shut in her face to her death.

 

All the material relating to matters she could not have possibly known about, because she wasn’t there, goes out. Not so much murdering my darlings as a veritable massacre of them. All she knows comes through newspapers and report.

This will, I hope, make the emotional force of her growing obsession the more claustrophobic. I’ve already begun the rewriting and will recast the synopsis shortly.

 

Hi Dad,

Sorry for not replying sooner, but thank you for sending this, I enjoyed reading it and it’s interesting to see it laid out as a synopsis. My comments are prefaced with what do I know about fiction, but hopefully this is of some use.

My initial impression is that you have a complicated story and a complicated way of telling it, so it might be better to simplify one aspect. Given the nature of the story it seems like the switching Charlotte timelines is productive to getting a sense of where she is going and where she is coming from. This seems to work really well from the start, but by the time you get to parts 11, 12 and 13 your interlude is not Charlotte related and it seems to me that having a whole section where the main character is completely absent is a bit of an issue (likewise, do you need so much Marat throughout – do we need to have him established as a character in the same kind of way?). So, a related question is, is this a book about Charlotte or the French Revolution? Obviously those are interlinked, but perhaps it makes sense – if you are focusing on her – to strip out the history parts, or at least only include information about the revolution through her. Does that make sense? From this synopsis it seems like you are trying to both give us Charlotte and the revolution, which is a lot to take on, but maybe you don’t need as much of the latter getting in the way of you telling her story.

Another thing I noticed. There is a section where you describe the funeral (46) and describe the rape of a young girl – is this necessary? I understand the need to show the violence of the time and so forth, but using rape as a narrative event (even if it might have been a historical fact) feeds into a way of representing women that perpetuates them as victims and objects. Likewise, the part in 44 where Charlotte is looked at – if she is our heroine, why does she need to be objectified in this way (perhaps there is a way of making this moment her feeling of vulnerability – the synopsis wasn’t clear). The same is true for part 51 – why is this necessary? I didn’t see how this fed into our understanding of Charlotte (again, maybe historical fact, but it inflects the telling to keep it in, and in my view unnecessarily reduces her to a very gendered/sexualised idea of how a woman should be etc).

Hope this is in some way helpful, and that I’ve explained myself clearly.

millions of love,

Lucy xxxxxxxxxx

23 November

A conversation with John Powell – he and I worked together much before he retired from the BBC – and, later, an email from him:

 

My dear Graeme,

As I put the ‘phone down, after our chat this afternoon, I had this very, very strong feeling of ‘déja vu’, if that’s the phrase.

Many, many moons ago, in a land almost beyond time, you and I have been here before.

‘Terrific writing Graeme, highly evocative, really feel I’m there, what wonderful detail—but – where’s the lady’?

Love,

John

 

My dear John

You are absolutely right and you must know that that moment between us years past has been a strong thread of concern all the way through this prolonged period of indecision. And now, there she is, showing me the way, speaking to me, lending me her eyes and ears. Thank you so much for this. Your belief in me from way back has urged me always to greater effort and I won’t give up, even though there are times when I’m utterly baffled.

Love

Graeme

 

 

In fact, the exchange was occasioned by his reaction to the first draft of a drama based on a collection of letters written by people awaiting their journey to the scaffold, to loved ones, family, friends, letters never delivered but impounded by the Public Prosecutor as evidence.

I walked into the office, sat down opposite him. He looked across the desk and said: ‘Great atmosphere, where’s the show?’

Within ten seconds, I knew what was wrong: I had, instinctively, shied away from the nastier elements in the story I was trying to tell, the appalling emotional stress, the vile and intrusive nature of the revolutionary regime during the Terror.

25 November

A regiment of alpacas has been drafted into a farm in Maidenhead, Berkshire, to guard free-range turkeys from foxes. I never had the alpaca pegged as a potential Myrmidon.

 

26 November

Will, Noa and their son to supper, and here a Turban Squash from their smallholding in Sussex, far too striking a pattern, shape and coloration to eat. It rests on the oak slab of what was the seat of the swing in Grandma and Grandad’s back garden at 145 Long Lane, an address famous in the family annals.

I don’t know how it came about, but I told the story, later, of working on the building site in North Finchley the summer after I left school. Another boy from my house had a job there for two weeks – it was his plan to go to Theological College and study for the priesthood and he decided that a fortnight o a building site would give him a sense of what working class people were like (so he told me). I took over from him, not quite the succession of employment envisioned by the magisterial hierarchy at Christ’s College Finchley, I’m sure, but I was happy to get the job and the money.

I was reading St Augustine’s Confessions at the time, ideal for the half hour lunch breaks in the loom of the new walls going up, the smell of brick, cement, and honest sweat pervading. The brickies were sub-contract and much derided by the chippie foreman – his rank denoted by the pencil behind his ear. Lesser chippies were barred from that privilege. One day, he waved a dismissive hand to indicate the high, blank wall which formed one end of the block of flats under construction. ‘Look at the pointing on that,’ he said, standing next to me, having decided that I was a good ally in the matter of disparagement, god knows why. ‘Just look at the joints…it looks like a seagull shat down the wall.’

I supposed I agreed, by way of not ruffling the waters, if that’s the right image. He was, after all, extremely senior in authority, my role in this great enterprise being largely one of clearing up behind the various crews which plied their various trades in the columbarium of hollows in the carcase of the building, destined, when it was done, to be rooms. Brickies, sparks, chippies, plasterers – I watched two of them once, main man slapping on the browning, his second stirring the mix and supplying the boards. They worked in what had become a sort of unillumined cave, on account of the thick swirls of plaster, like shaken talcum powder.

One morning, the site took a delivery of bricks. The Ganger – my immediate superior – was a tall, shuffling man of indeterminate age and understated management skills, who hailed from deep in the heavily accented brogues of rural Ireland. Coupled with a devastating stammer, this made comprehension of his directions – orders, I suppose – nigh impossible on occasion. What came out of his mouth, already incomprehensible, was rendered still more puzzling from the accompanying grasping of his rootless tongue at vowel and consonant in the making of words. I got in the way of wandering off in the direction his arms seemed to signal and finding something to do somewhere along the line. He never complained or pulled me up, and if he did, I wouldn’t have had a clue, anyway.

The brick lorry pulled up, as required by the signals the ganger made, and the driver unloaded the hot bricks, a considerable pile, to one side of the earth and clay road which served as the main thoroughfare of the site. When the bricks were all neatly arranged, the driver got his docket signed, reversed away and the ganger turned to me and gave me my instructions: to shift the entire pile of bricks which had just been stacked on the right hand side of the road across to the left hand side of the road.

The bricks being hot, this task was something of a bind, no such thing as protective gloves in those days, of protective anything. I moved the bricks, my hands suffering mightily, and when that was done, I resumed my trawl of the rooms, broom, pail, spade for the latest scattering of rubble, detritus, whatever needed to be cleared.

At 3.30 every afternoon, and hour and a half before knock-off, Larry, the Jamaican, ambled across the site to the shed which housed the loo. He went in, locked the door and wasn’t seen again for around half an hour. It was siesta time.

The Compressor was the responsibility of another Irishman, Paddy – truly – whose accent, though not as impenetrable as that of the Ganger, nevertheless had to be got used to. His constant mantra was rooted in deep dissatisfaction with almost everything to do with the site, the job, the condition of his existence, and came out as: ‘Argh, Blondie, I’m going to jack it in.’ It would be otiose to attempt any phonetic rendition of what it sounded like. Suffice to say, that I grew to know its inflection and modulation by dint of hearing it repeated so many times.

I don’t think it was he who told me the story about the man who, alone, could get the cement mixer, very prone to break-down, to work again. His method? He whacked it with a lump hammer. Finally exasperated with the management, on the grounds of their disgraceful failure to recognise his particular value to the firm, perhaps, he did jack it in, albeit he was English rather than Irish. The phrase crossed the water.

On the afternoon of his announcement – final pay packet and cards ready for collection that evening – the cement mixer broke down. The boss asked the man to get it going again. He refused. He was in effect no longer an employee, he was in that twilit world between being subject to authority and having no further regard of such. The boss pleaded. The man relented, on condition that his services would have to be paid for. No amount was mentioned, the boss told him to go ahead, the man whacked the mixer, it sprang once more into life. The man asked for £5 – when such a sum was a ore than considerable sum.

‘Five quid? For whacking it with a hammer? You’re having a laugh.’

The man was unmoved. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Not five quid for whacking it. Sixpence for whacking it. £4-19-6d or knowing where to whack it.’

I can’t recall whether it was before or after I got the A Level results that I began supplementary work behind the bar at The Cricketers, not far from the building site, by the bus turn around at Tally Ho Corner. I do, however, remember vividly the moment when I arrived back at the house where I was greeted by my Mother who pointed at a buff envelope on the hall table and said: ‘I think they’ve come.’ She might have been pointing at a mouse which had scared her to frozen immobility.

I walked over to the table, opened the envelope, far calmer than I had any right to be, and read my fate: two Bs and a C, enough to get me into my first choice college at Durham. Since, a year previously, I had about as much chance of getting into my first choice – if there was such a thing – of supermarket for a three-day shelf-stacking course (I hyperbolise), this was joy unconfined.

My first shift at the pub – and, when I was much younger, I was smartly reproved by my father when I pointed to a building past which we drove quite frequently, the Manor House Tavern, perhaps, and identified it as a pub. ‘It’s not a pub,’ he said, ‘it’s a public house.’ How long it took before I married the two descriptions, I don’t know, but at 6.30 on the evening, a Sunday (another blot: the household being strict Presbyterian – joyless, puritanical and, if not teetotal, encumbered withal the ethical trappings of reproof in soot black) – when I announced that I was going out to work, there was a ghostly silence. Where? On the Sabbath? I’d never been allowed to play on the Sabbath so what was this about?

I probably exerted the only leverage I had, namely, having taken on the responsibility of taking the job, I was honour-bound to turn up at the appointed time to do the job. Certainly, my father had no way out of that one, even if he chose to curtail any extension of that responsibility by allowing me to continue with it. Of his reaction, bootless to describe, but, on reflection, given his views on the vulgarity, low-life, possibly sinful, nature of what went on in pubs, he wasn’t best pleased but, having also inculcated in me the notion of work ethic and keeping one’s word – not that he practised that injunction with discernible rigour – he was, to put it so, stuffed, hoist with his own petard, stymied. I went off to work and, for the rest of the summer, pretty well till I went up to Durham, I continued to work evenings at the pub, although I did jack in the building site after a couple of months there. Not, however, my father asked me if there were any lengths of pipe on the site.

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s plain enough. Are there any lengths of pipe on the site?’

‘Probably.’

‘Well, I need one, a length of pipe, ten foot or so, about this size,’ (making a part circle with thumb and forefinger.)

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Oh, for gods’ sake, boy, just get a length of pipe and lay it down by the fence so that we can drive up and get it after hours.’

This request was entirely in line with other forays in the car when he came into the house and said: ‘I’ve seen a heap of sand, come on,’ and we’d be off with a large bucket and a shovel to poach the sand from a heap by a house. A few quick shovels full – ‘I don’t need much, they’ll never notice’ – and we were back in the car and away. Should I have protested? Of course I should, if only because this moral ambiguity – rigid Presbyterian embargoes on many more nebulous aspects of behaviour (I wasn’t allowed to say ‘ever so…all of a sudden…pub…’ which was what tykes said), and a markedly cavalier attitude to nicking stuff that he needed and could whisk away with impunity – was confusing, but since his standard response to any hint of recalcitrance from me was to club me about the head with the flat and back of his nasty bully hands – his version of whacking the mixer to get it going again – this would have been imprudent.

This ethical resilience in him, this solipsistic approach to the question of probity, surfaced on one occasion when I should have objected and objected with force. My then girlfriend, Maz, whom I’d met through my cousin Terry, a known libertine, came to supper one Sunday in May. I was down for the weekend from Durham. Since she’d been a friend of Terry’s, I suspect that my father reckoned she was easy game. She was attractive, sexy and, in the fashion of the day, this day wearing a very short skirt. She got up. Gathered some plates and made for the kitchen. As she walked round the table past my father, he swivelled in his chair, lifted up her skirt and, his face in an idiot grin, said: ‘What colour knickers are you wearing?’

To my lasting shame, I said nothing. She wriggled away from his impropriety and went off to the kitchen. Nothing more was said. I didn’t even look at him. What should I have done? I should have bawled him out, got up from the table, told Maz that we were leaving and left the house with her. We hadn’t slept together and neve did, but staying in her flat wouldn’t have caused any immediate difficulty. As for my father, and my hapless mother, drawn into this embroglio, well, tough. My priority was to the young woman who had just been touched up. Fuck him. But none of that happened. He got away with it.

The evening raid on the building site…We drove up next evening to wiggle the length of piping that I had duly sequestered from under the chain-link perimeter fence. Usual procedure: I jump out of the vehicle, grab the stuff, load it into the car while he sits at the wheel, motor running for a quick getaway.

My last day on the site I spent cleaning the manager’s car. The whole day. It was one clean car when I’d finished with it. I probably took a toothbrush to the inlay details of the hub caps.

I left the site but not the company of Paddy, who frequented the pub together with his wife, Elsa. Paddy, the scrawny Irishman, of hangdog mien, stringy frame, furrowed brow and nicotine-stained fingers, his complexion ravaged by the inhalation of cigarette smoke, was married to a woman of ample proportion, but her large frame an flesh not flabby in any way, compressed (aptly) inside corset and other undergarment, I fancy. She had platinum hair, always immaculately coiffed, full and subtle make-up, an accent that must be called posh, if not actually cut-glass, a glad eye and a turn of conversation which made stark disparity with the subject matter of her husband’s bar-room chitchat.

Their chosen venue was the snug, where she, perched on a bar stool, cigarette holder held at the fashionable angle between index and middle finger, steadied at the tip by the pulp of the thumb, regaled me with tales of her education, seemingly in fellow feeling with the next phase of my own life, on which I was soon to embark. Oh, yes, she’d studied Greek, too. English literature? Certainly. Ah, those were the days. Paddy listened, if indeed that slight incline of the head suggested listening, it may have been abstraction, without remark.

Another snug regular, Alfie, was a man of advanced age, muffler and hat, weeping eyes, a nose the size and pitted texture of a plum that had long passed any fit state for consumption, and a growl in his voice which he didn’t use much, in conversation, I mean. He didn’t join in much, Alfie.

My first brush with him happened thus. He came into the snug by its side door, moved slowly towards the bar with the look of a man who can’t easily judge the distance between door and counter, stared me mostly in the face, although with him it wasn’t easy to determine exactly where he was looking, and said: ‘Give us a sherry.’

I reached for a schooner – I was, by now, adept – poured sherry into the pewter measuring cup and decanted it into the schooner. Alfie looked at it disdainfully and, his finger trembling a touch, pushed the schooner back towards me and said: ‘Don’t be so mean.’ He then glared at me until I had topped up the glass, didn’t say thank you because this liberality was what he expected and had a right to from long frequenting of the place, must have been. On which point, another lesson in the eccentric manners of this pub, long gone, which was run by a man who once quelled an incipient brawl in the front bar, so I was told, by marching in and loosing off a revolved into the ceiling and telling the fist-happy Irish drunkards who were getting ready to pitch in – it had to be the Irish, of course, a misplaced word from a Catholic about a Protestant, or vice versa, in all likelihood – to get the hell out. The place was much frequented by the Irish, labourers, many of them, one I recall with hands so enlarged by manual labour, the skin tough as horn, who was one of the familiar customers who, when much drink had been taken, were prone to singing the songs of the struggles, The Red and the Green came out a lot, hulking Irish labourers, barely articulate in the spoken tongue, a state of affairs no helped by their being, a lot of the time, fairly inebriated, crooning the revolutionary ballads with moist eyes and faraway looks. These men drank what I knew as ‘Irish pints’. Purchasing a pint at the start of their visit, they drank down – straight glass, always, to within and inch or so of the bottom of the glass, then pushed it across and asked for a half. No measuring out in those days. Refill to within an inch or so of the brim.

I digress. An old lady used to come in, hairnet and tightly buttoned up black coat, chiffon scarf tied about her neck. On the first occasion I served her, she slapped some coins on the snug bar, gave me a look with a glint of hidden steel in it and said, in the gruff tones of someone who, having had to deal with a lot of nonsense in her life – mostly from men: ‘Give us a Mackinson.’

She referred to a Mackeson, cream stout. Does it still exist? I believe so. There are, perhaps, bars in pubs behind which shelves have a place for bottles of Mackeson.

I poured the stout, sorted the coins still on the counter and, it being threepence short, perhaps tuppence, I told her. She glared, pushed the coins back at me and took hold of the glass of stout. I went through into the main bar and told the manager. He said: ‘Oh, that’s all right. She’s been coming in her for so long, we charge her the old price.’ Word was, that she first came as a young mother and was wont to park the pram with the baby asleep in it outside the open snug window and nurse her stout as she sat on the cill. Lots of iron in a stout, good for mother’s milk.

The man was in his mid-twenties, an obvious bruiser, the muscled chest bursting at the seams of a shirt at least one size too small, the sleeves rolled up over thick forearms. He had the swagger and belligerent manner of a bruiser and he was already tipsy when he came into the main bar. He demanded a pint, I poured it, he drank it down in a couple of gulps then withdrew to the lavatory where he puked copiously into the urinal.

He came back, ordered another pint, which I poured, and the manager appeared behind me. It must all have happened more slowly than I’m telling it, but no matter.

‘He’s puked in the lav, go and clear it up, will you.’

I found bucket and mop and went into the lav and cleared it up. How? No idea.

I went back into the bar. The bruiser lurched towards me and slammed his glass on the counter. ‘Give us another,’ he said, with a slur worthy of the Irish ganger.

‘I’m not giving you any more,’ I said, with an aplomb quite at odds with most of my negotiations of difficult circumstance. ‘You’ve been sick in the bog and I’ve just had to clear it up.’

‘Give us another pint,’ he said.

‘No,’ I said, which provoked a furious expostulation and triggered an attempt to clamber over the bar in order, I assume, to scrogulate me. The attempt failed. His steel-capped boots slid out from under him, he went down like a sack of wet manure and, struggle and thrash as he might, he couldn’t get back on his feet. The manager and someone else hauled him to his feet, half walked, half dragged him to the door and he was gone.

Early one Sunday evening, not much beyond opening, a young woman came into the front bar, parked herself on a stool, gave me the full benefit of a smouldering come-on and asked for a gin and orange. While I got the drink ready, she was scanning the male incumbents of the room. I’d hardly delivered her order when one of those men came over, pulled up another stool, engaged her in conversation and paid for the gin and orange. The colloquy didn’t last more than a few minutes, by which time, she’d finished the drink and they’d dismounted from the stools and were heading for the door. Another man came over to order a drink for himself and muttered: ‘Well, I’ve never seen it go that cheap.’

The two Salvation Army women who came in one evening to pass out copies of The War Cry were full of smiles and good spirit. One of the regulars who had clearly asked if he could buy them a drink, came over and asked for two orange juices and two neat vodkas. I plonked them down. He looked conspiratorially over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t observed, poured the two vodkas into the two orange juices and went to the Sally Army women to pass them over. More smiles.

The tramp was Welsh. He worked the route between the White Friars house on Totteridge Lane and another religious community in Highgate, a few days in each before the return journey to the other place.

He was, I suppose, betwixt and between those times he came into the front bar, sat at a table in the corner and kept up a constant monologue as if talking to the assembled company, a lilting voice from the Valleys, his eyes full of merriment, a raffish red scarf knotted like a cowboy neckerchief. The content of what he said, I cannot remember at all, but on one occasion he walked across to the bar, beckoned to me and, when I came to listen to what he had to say, he lowered his voice, gave me a deep and penetrating look, as if to impart a secret of some mystery or magnitude, and told me: ‘Don’t waste your life behind a bar, be a poet.’ At this his eyes rolled and he cocked his head in a gesture reminiscent of Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

Well, it may be said that, whether he had the sight or not, I did sort of follow his admonition.

I worked for the last time in The Cricketers on Christmas Eve after my first term at Durham. We were serving non-stop all evening. The place was rammed. Two guys were installed at the bar, drinking pints, when one of them reared up and puked all over the counter, then slumped head down into the mess. His mate peered drunkenly at him, striving, no doubt, to work out what the fuck had just happened and, with a bemused look on his face, carried on, somewhat morosely, drinking, alone.

While his pal was still unconscious, a man came up to the bar and asked for a double brandy. I passed it over. He drank it in one gulp and asked for another. I filled the glass twice at the optic, handed it over and he drank it down, a single draught, paid and walked out.

Some time afterwards, the puker awoke, stood back a little from the bar at which his pal reached over, brushed him down and handed him another pint.

I think that’s what finished me although the general clamminess and masculine shove and shout of the experience capped it.

28 November

Last lily of the bunch which I bought two weeks since in the Ethiopian flask.

29 November

Barbican: the incomparable Lisa Batiasvilli, whom I first saw playing the Sibelius concerto at a Proms rehearsal two years past, plays a work dedicated to her, Violin Concerto no. 2 by Anders Hillborg. It’s a dazzling work, a musical collage, skipping from influence to influence, classical, jazz, musical, French impressionistic, its own Scandinavian roots…or so it seemed to me. Her playing as exuberant, brave and unbridled as I first witnessed, a player of such wholehearted immersion in the spirit of the music that she stimulates a sense of great wonder at its power to move, to delight, to enchant, to startle with a playful leap of spirits.

And then Sibelius 4th Symphony. The climactic third movement was part of the programme of music played at Sibelius’s funeral in 1957, a turmoil of triumph and surrender to the forces which beset us.

What a blessing to be in the hall when it’s played. More and more, as I have the happy chance to hear the BBC SO play under Sakari Oramo – what better interpreter of Sibelius could there be? – I listen to recorded music less and less. It seems to lack an essential dimension, the vitality of newness.

 

2 December

Lucy’s birthday, she’s 37. I declared a moratorium, no work.

Richard Divers phoned. My Bicycle Music programme (which I made years ago), had just been repeated on R4 Extra.

 

3 December

A text message from Luke: a clip from the programme had been included in Pick of the Week. Hoo hoo.

 

5 December

Vibrant Christmas gift suggestion…an advertisement in a flyer pushed through the door – picture of a rather glum bearded cove holding a large print of a motorbike, behind him, two more such prints, different machines. The sales tag: “Motorcycle Drawings for the man who has everything.” Contact details appended.

 

Saint Nicholas

At the top of the long woodland path and on to the start of the first grassy downhill in Knole, I pass a woman holding a small boy by the hand as they walk along. The little boy is carrying a tall stick, quite twice his height, placing it on the ground as he walks. As I go by, I say: ‘He looks like a trainee bishop.’ She laughs, he gazes up at me, puzzled.

Down the slope, up the other side, my lungs more fully expanded than on the first hill which is always a brute. I fear it, especially in slightly damp weather when the ground is muddy, the back wheels inclined to skid, and, this day, when I haven’t ridden it for a while. I told myself that my legs were strong enough, it was only my lungs that would stop me from making the steep distance in one.

Ha ha ha.

Nearing the top, the sudden fierce kick of gradient on very uneven ground, my legs began to falter, flooded with lactic acid, and my lungs were so constricted I had a job to gasp at any air. I thought I was done, that I’d have to stop, within yards of the top, but, somehow, stayed with it, in an extreme of distress. Made it and all but fell off the bike. It took some while to recover, but, triumph. Fact is, after lying in bed all night, getting up and straight into cycling gear and, within half an hour, off on the bike, my lungs are still congested from inaction. It’s a hard way to open them up but open them up the effort does.

Dropping back down from the second steep climb – and it’s probably harder than the first, albeit on smoother terrain – I rode at speed along the broad ride and, lo, a green woodpecker, spirit of the place, flew not quite across me but from directly ahead and off to the cover of trees to my left. Lovely sight.

 

That evening, to London for the BBC SO concert marking the hundredth anniversary of Finnish Independence, an all-Sibelius programme, conducted by their principal conductor Sakari Oramo, a Finn.

On the way from Cannon Street station, I stopped to look into St Stephen Walbrook, the doors being open and lights on. The gracious, ribbed copper dome, green, now, was illuminated, so fine it looked that I was drawn to investigate and my eyes widened at the glorious space of the interior. A choir was rehearsing, for the carol concert next week, for sure. I stood in the inner doorway. A man came over and said I was welcome to sit in one of the chairs, to be more comfortable. I declined politely – I had not much time – but was so grateful for the minutes I spent there. The acoustic is superb and the choir was good. They minted the airy space of the church anew. I was thrilled.

Oramo prefaced the concert with an address from the rostrum and it was quite plain that he was very moved. Perhaps his eyes strayed over the line of small Finnish flags being held by compatriots in the audience. A propitious moment, unsentimental, heartfelt, that emotion at remembered freedom lost and retrieved by a nation so lacerated by the imperial ambitions of the bully boys of Europe, the trampling armies, the tyrannies of land garb. I think of the courage of the Finns who came out of the snowbound forests to fight the Russians through the winter of 1939-40 in the so-called White War. Their ultimate defeat had a small measure of reclamation this night. Indeed, at the interval, I walked along the row of seats past two elderly ladies one of whom was saying: ‘The only good Russian is a dead Russian.’

Concert began with the unpromisingly titled Music for the Press Celebrations (1899), part of a series of various events to raise money for pension funds for newspaper employees turfed out of work during the Russian purges. Finland had been a Grand Duchy (read province) of Russia since 1809, a new hardline governor had imposed a programme of Russification, including suppression of the Finnish-language press. The seemingly innocent event for which Sibelius wrote this piece drew together some of the finest talents of the Finish stage and music and Sibelius, himself, had already established his fervent nationalism with, for example, the Karelia Suite.

The final movement of six introduces the first shaping of what became Finlandia. Even as the rapid staccato figure of the timpani and brass announce the great theme swelling out of the urgency of a people drawn together in solidarity for their nation, so long suppressed – ‘Finland Awakes’ – I could hear the tune soaring out of the agitation and, then, it came and the hymn filled the air. What a moment it must have been that first time. Say what you like about the way music can stir the emotions, sometimes with meretricious intent, this early Finlandia was a glorious fuck you to the Russians.

 

7 December

A letter:

Dear Professor Beard,

I greatly admire your championing of the Classics. ( I was lucky, indeed, to teach at Reading, thanks to Tessa Rajak, for a while. I told the students: ‘Let’s read lots of Greek and Latin,’ and so we did.)

I also greatly admire your oaken resistance to the disgusting intrusion of foul-mouthed, obnoxious trolls, and the incessant arrogance and crassitude of bloody men. I’ve bought your Women and Power… for my beloved daughter Lucy, who lectures on Film at the University of Saint Andrews, and would be so very grateful if you’d sign the enclosed card to her so that I may put it in the book. I enclose a stamped, address envelope, of course.

I’ve just written to Boris Johnson – much enjoyed your account of how you laid bare his clay feet in last week’s Guardian. The message reads:

 

QVOVSQUE

With very best wishes for a peaceable and contented Saturnalia,

 

Note. In 63 BC, Cicero, as Consul, delivered the first of four orations attacking Lucius Sergius Catalina, a member of one of the oldest patrician families in Rome and suspected of heading a conspiracy tooverthrow the state apparatus of government. Catalina was present in the Senate House and, famously, Cicero began by pointing to him and opening his condemnation with: Quousque tandem abutere,Catalina, patientia nostra?  Just how much longer, Catalina, are you going to go on abusing our patience? [That tandem, ‘finally, at length, at last’, emphasises the exasperation. I might translate it ‘enough’.] The single word quousque was written on placards held up by Poles protesting about government corruption not long ago. (I think it was that. In any event, it doesn’t matter, only that the single word sums up the frustration, anger, disgust, summed up by Cicero and referred to by people who know some history of dissent. Cool.)

 

8 December

In The Waves, reference to a heavier vehicle colliding with a mule cart.

 

9 December

The moon, half waned, is bright as magnesium in a clear sky, a band of royal blue along the horizon as I set out at 6.30 to walk up the dawn. A chattering flocks of starlings flies over, wheeling in what might be the updraft from an air hose, as I walk along the first of the dells.

A review of a film about Charles Dickens refers to a ‘turnpike where the Plymouth mail ran over the donkey’. I wonder if these two citings of a dead mule amount to a sublunary nudge in the direction of my own brief story in No Common Assassin, which is based on the true story of an old lady who lived in Corpusty whose parents were both killed when the Norwich mail ran into and over their parents who were aboard a small cart pulled by a donkey, going to market. She, orphaned, went into a workhouse and, later, was in service at one of the big houses of which Norfolk boasts a fair number.

 

10 December

A chat with Lucy. Scott, after fifteen years working for Waterstones, has severed all connection. He’d stayed on part-time, having already taken up his part-time job at the University library, to help out and train new people. As a reward for his long service, he was given £200 to spend on books and, in fact, spent £400. Lucy reports: ‘We had a touch conversation about books.’

 

11 December

This morning I finished The Waves. So puzzled was I by it to begin with, I nearly gave up on it. The language is ravishing, the disconnects of the stream of consciousness often baffling, but, gradually, the pulse of the writing, the allure of the poetry, the astonishing variety of the invention seduced me and I was enthralled. The salient of narrative do not matter. The important thing is to allow the mind and imagination its immersion in the voluptuous descriptions, references, collisions of logic and reality. It seems to me that behind the book is a mind teetering on the extreme verge of disintegration. Every fractional detail that is seen, heard, thought, imagined, is tipped into the bowl of consciousness and described as it rolls there as if that act of realisation could arrest the onward thrust, the incessant drive on on on of a reality which pushed insolently towards losing everything, all sight sound and perception.

And, after I wrote that, I read [p 248]:

‘I begin now to forget; I begin to doubt the fixity of tables, the reality of here and now, to tap my knuckles smartly on the edges of apparently solid objects and say: “Are you hard?” I have seen so many different thing, have made so many different sentences…’

There is, too, a startling flash of absurdity, from time to time [217]:

‘He haunted mean streets and towns where women lay drunk, naked, on counterpanes on Christmas day.’

And [219]:

‘One can learn Spanish, one thinks, by tying a string to the right toe and waking early.’

Of the word ‘scrollop’ which she uses of a baptismal font in a church…no trace, although I take it to be a scrunched-up fusion of scroll and scallop, whatever that may look like. A scrollop, apparently.

 

 

14 December

Alastair and Zoe, two doors along, are having major works done, a loft conversion, and much of the existing timber – rafters and purlins – are being cut out and discarded, tossed down into their front garden from the scaffolding for loading into the skip parked on the sward between them and the pavement. Having asked permission to plunder, I spend a good while hauling out the wood from the tangled heap and dumping it in an orderly pile in my own front garden, by the log shed, and the shorter baulks next to the side door. A goodly cull.

I’d already taken a fair quantity as the work began, two days ago and, with the help of Nick, sawn it through until the chainsaw packed up – irreparable, I fancy. (I cleaned it thoroughly, replaced the fuse…silent.) These bits filled the bin I made in the outhouse

 

15 December

The roof splines for the tiles now fill the skip and I retrieve them, sizeable fasces to load onto the bench behind the house, where, at some point, I will have to break them up for storage in the shed. This will follow when the stored smaller wood already in the shed is used up.

A profitable hour or so of stumbling along with the big bundles and then filling a basked with the remainder of the thin strips, first breaking them to manageable size of the edge of the skip itself.

I was tired on both days, but no more than to be expected from shifting what probably amounted, all told, to the entire contents of a skip in volume.

 

16 December 4.24am

I’ve been awake for an hour, reading Le Crime du Comte Neville by Amélie Nothomb, a favourite author. The story is recorded in my book on the Southern Alps, how I wrote to ask her permission to quote from her novel Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, and she wrote back, by return: ‘C’est un honneur…’ Quelle joie.

Some while ago, I noted in the synopsis of No Common Assassin that after Charlotte strikes the fatal blow with the knife, she feels wet between her legs, something she’s never experienced before. Now I read, of the father pondering the wish of his youngest daughter that he fulfil a prophecy by shooting her:

‘Neville subodora qu’il y avait une pulsion proche du désir sexuel dans le besoin d’être assassinée.’

 

Up at 5.55am having listened to a woman on radio telling of a promise she made her mother just before she died. Her mother said: ‘I want you to lie on my gravestone.’

My immediate thought – and I hadn’t head the beginning of the narrative – was that perhaps the old lady belonged to some kind of cult, Eschatology or the like, where entry into the after life carried certain preliminary requirements, including a symbolic incubation, a dramatic enactment of the passage from bodily to spiritual existence, in the horizontal position, or just keeping the cold stone warm for a while. Turns out that it was her age she wanted her daughter to misrepresent, as if it made any difference. Does the Recording Angel have that much time to check and wouldn’t there be more pressing errors to pursue?

The daughter (who sounded to be in her late 30s) recounted this, plainly in the grip of uncontainable laughter, laced with incipient tears, though not palpably of grief, it seemed, and was asked: ‘And did you?’

(Barely able to get the words out) ‘Yes, I did.’

‘How many years?’

‘Oh, I couldn’t tell you, it would be to betray the promise.’ More hysteria.

 

When I set out, just after 6.30, I could not see the moon and did not see her until I reached the top of Blackhall Lane and the junction with the track leading to the steps over the wall into Knole, and there she was, low in the eastern sky, a margin of dawn’s light along the larger canopy of the blue night sky. Almost waned to nothing, a thin nail paring, the opaque full circle of her lost being cradled in her lap, and from the lower arc of her, three feather-like flicks of the same light, that might have been a bird’s tail, and her outline like a curved egret shape in a manuscript, or else those three lines like a visual representation of reverb, vibrations from the shivering silver.

 

18 December

A day of extreme breathlessness, in the parlance dyspnoea, and mounting anxiety. I was in a dreadful state, the most violent episode of this wretched atrial fibrillation I’ve ever experienced. Due to meet Marie and Jo at a restaurant in Tunbridge Wells in the evening, I set out for the station well ahead of the time I’d usually need.

By the time I got to the corner of Wickenden Road and Saint John’s Hill, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go on and would have to call a cab. Imprudently, I did not call a cab and pushed on, the pressure on my lungs squeezing them tight, my entire upper body leaden with effort, my legs moving on automatic, a sort of parody of willpower.

The last hill up to Mount Harry Road nearly beat me. I plodded on and made it to the ticket office, barely functioning. The physical effects are to feel the entire system overloaded with inner pressure of a worrying force, not so different from that sensation I had of being electrocuted once – I picked up a heater at the house in Totteridge and, inadvertently, clapped hold of part of the cable which had been botch repaired. The heater was still plugged in. The current pumping through me clenched my hands for what can only have been a few seconds before throwing me off, but the sense of being flooded with an alien force field was akin to what I feel when I lose breath. Blood being squeezed through ungiving vessels. Oxygen blocked. Pulse and airwaves stopped. Another stage of collapse on from the exhaustion induced by an excessively hard, tight rowing race when, after the finish, you sit in the boat near convulsed with effort and no movement possible, as if moving could help to escape the total debility until it subsides and recovery sets in. And that recovery is perhaps like the multiplying squads of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s legion carrying ever more buckets of oxygen and blood to the wells of heart and lungs.

The train was twenty minutes late. I sat on a bench on the platform in a cold wind and by the time the carriage door open to allow me to board, I had only part recovered.

The steps up from the platform at Tunbridge Wells followed by that vicious sharp climb up to the Trinity cross roads was all but beyond me. I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other and knew, even then, that this meant hospital. What was I to do? Wait until the morning to go to the doctors? They’d tell me I needed to go to the hospital. First, the evening.

Marie, arriving on the train behind mine, came alongside me. Was shocked, suggested we blow out the rendezvous. I said that it wasn’t far to go, once I was there…I hadn’t seen Jo in so long – in fact, the last time was the three of us on her birthday, 4 July. And, it was a lovely evening of intense warmth and affection.

11pm

The taxi brought Marie and me to The Crescent, she asked if I’d like her to come in, I said I would, we discussed the options and agreed that I should call the ambulance. The man who fielded the call went through a list of questions, said that they were very pressed and there would almost certainly be a delay of around 2 hours.

3.15am

The phone rings. It’s the ambulance service: apologies, they have no idea when the paramedics will arrive. I insist that Marie go home to get some sleep. Her patience and care was angelic. The battle for breath was aggravated by a sickening fear. Her very presence as we sat, now talking, now in silence, had the effect of soothing my nerves to a great degree.

After she’d gone, I went up to the spare room and lay down, but smitten with panic at not being able to breathe, sat up again and propped myself up against extra pillows. I did, eventually feel calmed sufficiently to lie down and, though I didn’t sleep, I was at rest.

5.30am

I heard the ambulance arrive, sat up to see it parked across the street and got up to go down to open the front door to a young woman and an older man.

More questions, from the man, as the young woman prepared the ECG. Final question: ‘What do you want to do?’ My personal preference didn’t really come into it but it must be a standard procedure.

Pembury Hospital

As the paramedics leave on the next call, I thank them for their care of me. They’re probably exhausted but show not a hint of it. And the people who now attend me, also under extreme pressure – from me and a host of others, from the mismanagement of the so-called managers, from the unattainable government targets, from the sense that the NHS is facing more cuts and a further dwindling of resources – the nurses, the junior doctors, the ancillary staff, are all and each unfailingly considerate, kind and easy-going. In the circumstances, their magnanimity is truly astonishing.

The first doctor reports on the result of the X-ray and tells me that I seem to have a heart enlarged by an intake of fluid and therefore administers a diuretic. How long will the effects last? I ask. About 8 hours, which makes the prospect of a bus journey home unappealing.

The result of the blood test comes through just before 10am. My, how easily the time passed, much as did my urine on successive visits to the loo. An occasional dip into Howard’s End, a pause to observe the to and fro of staff, a woman protesting that her child is very sick and scared and no, she is not being aggressive, she’s the child’s mother and very concerned about what is and is not happening. The nurse who is the subject of this outburst tells her to calm down and then walks off. Frayed nerves on either side. The mother consoles her daughter, the nurse returns, crisis of nerves over.

The second doctor who takes me into a consulting room to talk through the results, says that the perceived enlarging of the heart may be due simply to the angle of the X-ray – other images contradict the finding. So, prescribing another drug, he releases me and I go, once more, to the loo, realise that I still have the entry tube for the blood test stuck in my right forearm and go back into the area I’ve just left as the doctor comes back out, prompted by the same thought. He removes the tubing and I leave, seeing the mother of the sick daughter in a side room.  A brief exchange with her – the child is seven, very sick, can’t breathe, scared. I sympathise and say that I hope they’ll be looked after. She smiles. Yes, they’re looking after us so well, the girl is reassured. She smiles again, weary, knowing, too, that she’s in good hands. The NHS being great in small things.

I walk round to the hospital pharmacy where I’m told the wait will be half an hour, by which time, I had very little concern about anything much at all, only that I felt a lot better, largely, I think, because I did not feel so anxious as I had done. The kindness doled out free of charge and without stint by these people is of incalculable worth.

Almost nonchalantly, I board a bus heading for ‘Sainsbury’s Tunbridge Wells’ happy to have the chance to look in a few shops for the present I have yet to buy Marie. This should be no more than a short hop, I think.

Ha ha.

A tour of the web of minor roads, back ways, crescents and closes latticing the hinterland of the big industrial estate between High Brooms and town took over 45 minutes. However, I’d peed myself out, felt relaxed and incurious, went direct from the bus stop to a place for breakfast, strolled at stately pace down to the Pantiles and found the present – some antique Chinese pottery of comely shape and design, albeit more Ping than Ming – and eventually was home by 3pm.

 

Winter Solstice

As I sat by the stove waiting for Marie to arrive and share a drink to welcome back the light, I idly counted the number of candles lit round the room: there were, by happenstance only, 21. Hurray.

23 December

Cycled up to town at a little after 7, had to stop a couple of times to get my breath back, but cleared the first bit of shopping – Waitrose and market – and home by 8.30. Later, I took the bus back, for some other things and lunch. I’m standing by the shelves of pot pourri and scented candles, deliberating.  A woman comes up alongside and asks me whether they do ‘frosted mistletoe’. I say I don’t know, but there’s a pot pourri which contains it. I hand her the packet. She says: ‘Is there any mistletoe in there?’ Seems not, I say. This is getting us – her – nowhere, so she says: ‘I’m going to go for rum punch.’ Better in a glass than a candle, I say, still, hope you enjoy it. Have a good time. ‘You, too,’ she says. I plop the frosted mistletoe in my basket and we go our separate ways, neither of us knowing what frosted mistletoe smells like, except that I will find out. (I have to report that the musky, sweet pungent smell of the white-tipped pine cones may well smell of a designated fragrance known as frosted mistletoe but I wouldn’t immediately associate it thus.)

She was definitely hitting on you, Graeme, my dear friend Steph says, when I phone her and Richard later. Definitely. She laughs. She may have been, though I doubt it, I say, because her son – ten years old, I’d guess – breezed up to tell her that he couldn’t find what she’d sent him to find so she went back with him to find, or not find, it, whatever it was.

 

Hadley Freeman in today’s Guardian… I write:

‘Your column is always entertaining and this morning, on solitary Christmas Day, oh yes. I’m spending the day on my own and looking forward to it: roast, claret, music, book and screen. Good company the days either side.

As a kid I enjoyed riotous family bashes, the solemnity of meals apart. Hectic games overrode all that. But, autres temps autres moeurs

In 1987, after my wife and I had separated, I was living on the fifth floor of a tower in a field – in Norfolk – not far from where she and our daughter, then 7, lived. They were joining the residents of the tower for dinner, I was cooking. I was left alone to peel, chop, prepare and cook – including the pud I’d made. It was dandy: me alone in the kitchen, a supply of lager, The Great Escape on tv and the pleasure of feeling the whole meal coming together even as I laid the table and then…the company arrived. From solitude to total conviviality. Cool.’

 

In 1985, we celebrated the Solstice – always a precious day to me, not only for the light but for that day in 1980 when Lucy came home from hospital, after nearly three weeks in the incubator and then gradual acclimatisation to the world outside the glass box. A bunch of friends, an array of food and drink made by me – including stand up pies, German Neujahrspunsch (sugar dissolved in rum, added white and red wine…sensational), Whim-wham…recipes gleaned from Shona Crawford Poole’s book of recipes from various countries. The bonfire – which I’d primed with what turned out to be a needlessly potent accelerant because the wood wasn’t fully dried out after rain – went up like an oversize Roman Candle in a great explosion of flame. People who saw it in the village thought a house must have gone up.

Before the party, Lucy, Jane and I stood outside the house where I had set light to a turf of peat, brought from Hoy that summer – we’d been to the Magnus Festival – and drank a toast in malt whisky to Robert Graves, who’d just died.

Next morning, a Sunday, a post van drew up outside the house and the postman delivered a letter addressed to me. It was from an editor at Penguin: would I consider having my stories about composers, broadcast on Radio 3, published by Penguin?

I thought then: from now on, we make our own time. I phoned the editor first thing that Monday morning, we talked and, in the course of our conversation, he told me the story about Schumann.

(The following week, we had lunch in a small restaurant on the King’s Road, he suggested that the collection of stories needed to include a longer narrative, which later I wrote as A Passable Tune on the Flageolet – too long for broadcast. About Berlioz who, in Russia, after a concert of his music, was called on by his host at the party afterwards to play for the guests. He indicates the grand piano. Berlioz demurs, saying that he does not, cannot, play the piano. ‘But I could give you a passable tune on the flageolet.’)

Caught between disbelief and excitement, I woke up in pitch darkness that night, with the Schumann story buzzing in my head. I got up, fumbled for and gathered my clothes, went downstairs and switched on the light. It was 3.15. I made a hot drink and went out to the caravan where I worked – it also served as a spare room for guests. Was the ink that morning frozen, as so often it was? I don’t remember. Swaddled in the bulky jersey dressing gown Jane had made for me, the heater on, I set to and wrote the story. It already had its title: Church Angels.

Set in the asylum near the Rhine where Schumann was confined, it describes Clara coming to visit him, finding him in a rare taking of joy. He’s writing music again, composing, wonderful music, his gift has returned. It’s the angels, the angels have dictated it to him. He shows her a sheaf of manuscripts. She reads and her heart breaks. It’s music he’s already composed, music from the past, every note the same. Exhausted, he says he needs to sleep and she leaves the room, goes out into the grounds of the infirmary and sits on a bench.

The director finds her there, weeping, utterly distraught. He sits with her. Tears are not untoward in this sad place of broken spirits. Eventually she tells him the reason for her tears. He ponders this and then says: ‘Come, let me show you something.’

They walk along the path to the chapel and go in. A Baroque interior, carvings, anaglyphs, frescoes. To the forefront of the ornamentation above the high altar, clusters of angels, some playing musical instruments, some singing, a celestial chorus and musical ensemble. The director and Clara stand awhile in silence and then he says: ‘Perhaps he was right, but church angels, do you see?’

By the time the sun showed in the sky, I was finished, the text written and revised, hatched and scored, written over, an inky jungle ready to be tidied and cleared in plain type. I put the pen down, screwed the cap back onto the bottle of ink and went into the house for breakfast. After which, Lucy and I went out and drove along the lanes to a smallholding where we bought a Christmas tree, small enough for the little house on the corner.

Note

Church Angels was broadcast. The editor left Penguin. None of the stories was published.

 

24 December

Howard Jacobson begins his piece this Sunday with reference to the fact that he cannot tell the difference between fauteuil and feuilleton, which he pronounces ‘foe-toy’ and ‘foy-yer-ton’. Having said this at the start, he goes on to mispronounce the words several times thereafter.

 

Dear Howard Jacobson,

I enjoy your Point of View talks immensely – this morning’s, no exception. Yes, Joseph Roth, and I guess you know of Karl Kraus, too. But, oh…the excruciating aural torture of the mispronunciation. I exaggerate not. Perhaps the famous BBC ‘pronounciation unit’ (thus affectionately known) might have helped.

It’s pretty straightforward, really: feuilleton – fur-ee-aton, fauteuil – foe-ter-ee. In French, eu = er. That’s without the inner hint at a springboard y (as in year). I guess it doesn’t help that German pronounces eu as oy.

It’s a vexed subject, of course, though (for example) how the Americans get lon-jer-ray out of lingerie is utterly baffling.

Anyway, with thanks and very best wishes…

 

He responds:

Thanks for yours.  But as the piece began with a joke about how I couldn’t pronounce the words, there’d have been no point in my learning how to pronounce the words.

Best

HJ

To which:

Ah, but a jocund flaunting of ignorance? Very English. You have much better jokes. I’ve heard and read and laughed at them.

Best wishes

GF

 

Which prompts:

You’ve let pedantry decline into piety.  And piety has made you deaf.  Nothing could be further from a flaunting of (very English) ignorance.  The joke – and it is not for me to say if it is a good one – is at the expense of a linguistic incompetence I am ashamed of.  Made the more ridiculous given that the thing I admire I am unable to pronounce. Does a man who can’t say feuilletonist have any business being one?

 

I write:

Well, my snotty message didn’t merit a response so I thank you for bothering. Actually not deaf – truly the mangling of a French pronunciation jangles horribly in my ears, just as a split infinitive, adverb working like a zimmer frame to steady the poor old gimpy verb, rings like very ill tuning. This is in part because I speak French and confess that an American referring to pane and frowmidge (bread and cheese) is so grotesque as to be lamely funny.

As to piety…hm, I fear you’re right. I’m with Kraus on the need to fight for every comma and that has the whiff of linguistic puritanical. So be it. But I recall a nice piece by Tom Stoppard years past ‘in praise of pedantry’. The only Latin verb which might be (but isn’t) linked with the word means ‘ to train young vines’ and I’m all for vintage…

As to your hesitation about being a feuilletonist if you can’t pronounce the word, to hell with that. For my money and opinion you are and honourably so. Besides, I’ve told you how to say the bloody word so hoo ha.

With best wishes

 

I append, in private: despite the conciliatory tone of this last message, I stand by the silliness of someone actually trumpeting a failure to pronounce a word and being ashamed of it. The man is surely not so tin-eared that he could not make a stab at something closer to the French?

 

That afternoon, a waffle party at Marie’s. Feeling none too sharp and very tired, I leave early, with apology.

 

Christmas Day

I’ve been looking forward to my lone vigil with inordinate pleasure, a guarantee of work suspended – not that I’ve done any this past week – which is, in the circumstances, absurd of course. Since I am the one who declares work to be the order of the day, declaring it not to be the order of the day has little force of either surprise or blessing. Yet it does. So: moratorium.

I wake early and read – Howard’s End, which I read years ago and the copy of which, among with so many other volumes garnered over many years, I either sold or gave away in the course of a succession of moves. What can I have made of this novel when I read it as a teenager? I hesitate even to match the crassitude of my emotional understanding and intellectual grasp of those days to the demands of such a work.

Forster’s satire can be a mite heavy-handed, even if the tone is studiedly self-deprecating, as if the writer is pillorying hi own attitude and opinion as of a piece with that of a class to which he may or may not belong. His sympathies? Plainly not with the snob but I find the manner marginally uncomfortable.

‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.’ [p46]

 

Are his sympathies engaged and does it matter? The important thing is to explore the clash of them, the poetry and the prose to quote the central motif. Poor Len. Where does he stand? Crushed by a bookcase as he drowned in the inaccessible waves of culture. And Helen urging him not to give up on the beautiful things, the literature, the art, as if his entire existence weren’t in thrall to the harsh exigencies of circumstance and the relentless need to scrape a living.

The liaison between Wilcox and Janet strikes me as rather a plant.

And the sororal project of bringing Len Bast to his yearned for improvement, his exposure to the beauties of art and literature, when the poor man needs, above all, a job with which to support his and his wife’s very existence: a sideways commentary on the intrusions of colonial rule and empire, bringing culture – and the Bible –  to the natives? (A South African leader remarked: ‘They handed us the Bible, told us to kneel and close our eyes in prayer. When we got up and opened our eyes, we still had the Bible and they had the land.’) Bast’s death contrived and what of his relict? This turns him into a cipher, doesn’t it? As for the umbrella…well, hats, waistcoats and brollies, the irreducible marks of respectability, the accoutrements of polite society, species of hat marking, firmly, rank.

 

I get up late, have breakfast, (scrambled eggs and smoked salmon), eschew a walk – it’s miserable weather  – and go up to the library to read. There is half the novel to finish and, in the warmth and silence of the room, I read through to its conclusion, having enjoyed it but not at all sure whether I will turn to Passage to India – another book I’ve read and lost – for a while. The era is too remote, the ethos recognisable but unattractive to me now.

At 4 o’clock, crackers, blue cheese and a couple of glasses of Chapel Down’s dessert wine.

I light the stove and begin to read This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, a Junior Doctor who writes with the verve of an astute observer, the irreverent hilarity of a wild comedian, the humanity of a dedicated physician, the intensity of a storyteller whose story just has to be told because it touches on a much wider audience than those who want to hear it, rather on those who really ought to hear it.

It’s about the near intolerable stress of the job – it can’t be intolerable because these people actually do put up with it, but that’s out of pedantry [vide supra] not insouciance – the weird comedy that arises, the underlying pathos of almost everything that happens.

Entry for Thursday 16 June 2005

I told a patient that his MRI wouldn’t be until next week and he threatened to break both my legs. My first thought was, ‘Well, it’ll be a couple of weeks off work’. I was this close to offering to find him a baseball bat.

Thursday 20 August 2009

[A 20-year-old woman student presents with an unwanted pregnancy following condom failure.] Adam discusses alternative methods of contraception with her, and identifies ‘an error in her technique. I’m as big a fan of recycling as the next man, but if you turn a used condom inside out and put it back on for round two, it’s probably not going to be that effective.’

 

He concludes the book with an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, who has conducted a heartless campaign of intransigent lack of consideration against exasperated Junior Doctors for years, now. The final sentence reads:

‘The way you treat junior doctors demonstrably doesn’t work. I strongly suggest you seek a second opinion.’

 

It’s in no small measure that, after reading this book, I have vowed always to thank anyone who works in the NHS for their dedication, their kindness and their care. I’m inclined to do that as a matter of course and simple courtesy but now I regard it as a sacred duty.

 

Supper – roast poussin, potatoes and parsnips, sprouts and stuffing, a bottle of Burgundy, in fact, not claret. And I ponder this pleasure in being on my own, something imbued in childhood when I played on my own – peopling the terrain in which I found myself, the bosky regions of Avenue House, the depths of my bed under the covers (a submarine), the empty street which became a canyon in a desert I’d seen in a film at Saturday Morning Pictures. (The nervous phone call to my father from Grandma and Grandad’s where I’d stayed overnight to ask whether I might go, to the Bohemia, Finchley Church End. Request not always granted, and refused with a barked: ‘No, come home straight away, now.’)

It was, perhaps, not healthy, although it was the proving ground of an imagination on which I’ve drawn too little, I think. It set up all manner of defence mechanisms, a sort of calculated shyness which I have been able, it seems, to suspend at will, on occasion, the reverse of that shrinking from company. I can engage but do not always do so and, often, the failure to engage is and feels like rejection of intrusion from others. The casual, and generally meaningless, enquiry after my health from a total stranger to whom I am about to talk on the phone is not only irritating, it’s false, disagreeable and otiose. The unfairness of this comes home to me poignantly in America where, in the company of my good friend David, I hear him ask a shop assistant ‘And how are you today?’, an entirely amiable offer to exchange courtesies. It has no significance beyond that, a cheery hi, how you doing?

When Marie’s son Kris, then 25, was setting off on a business trip, on his own, to a hotel near Treviso – he was going to be there a week or so – he expressed his dismay at the prospect of having to eat in a restaurant on his own. He’d never done such a thing and dreaded it. I tried to allay his apprehension. It’s no big deal. You should try it. (I think of Nubar Gulbenkian, the Armenian plutocrat who, famously, had a chauffeur-driven gold-plated Rolls Royce, ‘because,’ he explained, ‘it can turn on a sixpence…whatever that is,’ a nice joke which I think of as being wholly Jewish: knowing, sly, half-volley. Gulbenkian once said that ‘the ideal numbers for a dinner party are two: me and a damned good waiter.’ Whether I told Kris that story or not I don’t recall, but he tried the solo resto experience and confessed himself at ease afterwards and happy to do the same again.

This lone business, nevertheless, does bother me and it becomes more entrenched, even reclusive. It lies at the heart of my inability to form a long-term, sexual relationship with a woman, the lingering dread of intimacy, the having to give myself away, I guess, in its extreme form, as I see it, anyway. The refusal of control, being told what to do, monitored, managed, compromised. A sophisticated version of petulance, in fact.

 

Boxing Day

Jolly gathering at Marie’s, friends and family. How I am blessed in such company. I give myself there but know, too, that I can take myself away. Am I putting it too harshly? Perhaps. But only because it’s a trait in me that I neither like nor want but find myself stuck with. Just, it is so.

 

27 December

‘Literally’ has become a vocalised exclamation mark. ‘Their house was literally across the street…’ They lived that close to us. Imagine! ‘The town was literally dying…’ Oh dear, how sad! ‘I literally didn’t know what to do.’ I was fucked!

 

A Woman in Berlin, published anonymously, the diary kept by a young woman journalist living in Berlin about the period April-June 1945 when the Soviet army swept into the capital: hunger, rape, cold, moral dilemma, sickness, the oppressions of being under siege, having to placate the soldiery, the fabric of anything identifiable as society destroyed in life lived in near ruins.

The translation is shoddy. On the subject of this universal joint of cliché, ‘literally’, it appears on one occasion twice in one sentence which goes beyond careless. The editor writes, in an Afterword: ‘The earliest entries were literally notes from the underground…’

Bloody hell.

The translation, at one point, refers to a woman singing, that it has ‘perfect pitch’ where, surely, he means that I was ‘pitch perfect’. It would be impossible to tell whether a singer has perfect pitch merely by hearing the voice. And, throughout, he speaks of a rank in the Russian army as ‘sub-lieutenant’ a term in English used only for a junior officer in the British Navy. No excuse. He means, I assume, ‘junior’ – English ‘second’ – lieutenant.

One of the most piquant statements the women makes – and this, in the light of the book’s angry rejection in German shortly after the war, when it seemed to be rooted in an out and out reproach of the men of Germany, that they allowed these barbarities she describes to be inflicted on the women without intervening, the implication being that women had neither right nor place to speak of their own reality. At the end of the book, (p 307) she writes of those terrible months of gnawing hunger, physical violation, desolate feelings, reduction and humiliation:

‘Sometimes I wonder why I’m not suffering more because of the rift with Gerd, [her fiancé, returned from the Front who is alienated from and furious with her because of what she suffered] who used to mean everything to me. Maybe hunger always dulls emotions. I have so much to do. I have to find a flint lighter for the stove; the matches are all gone. I have to mop up the rain puddles in the apartment. The roof is leaking again; they merely patched it up with a few old boards. I have to run around and look for some greens along the street kerbs, and queue for groats. I don’t have feeding time for my soul.’ [My italics.]

 

As I switch off the light in the scriptorium this night, I glance at the catalogue from an exhibition in the Musée de la Révolution in Vizille to which I could not go but requested, and got, the book: Corday contre Marat, a collection of images, paintings, drawings, cartoons, documents, photographs of locales. The face of Marat on the cover (below a winsome depiction of Charlotte in a lace mob cap) stares out at me and I am filled with a sickly dread: I have to go back to that. This is what I am doing here, filling these entries in this intermittent diary, staving off the moment, keeping in my hand, at its crudest, flexing an inert muscle, pretending to work. And I do it in the insidious knowledge that the suspended sentence awaits me, that I am on borrowed time, that there is more pressing work to do, hints and ideas about it coming unbidden, all the time, at moments inopportune, because I have no notebook to hand, unwanted, because I know what the insinuating voice is about, it is about reminding me not so much that I am mortal but that I am shirking.

Some hours later, at 6.10am, when I wake and start the day, the dread has gone and I have an entirely altered perspective: these lines are helping, they are part of the essential preparation.

 

28-30 December

Lucy and Scott here. Joy.

 

30 December

Some jabber of later about how it has long been perceived that women cannot be funny, as in comedians. The absurdity of this is so obvious that it hardly merits a rebuttal. Indeed, to call it nonsense dignifies it as an opinion instead of a sample of idiot male chauvinist projectile vomit. Thus Christopher Hitchens:

‘Humour is part of the armour-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.’

Why Women Aren’t Funny

To which: ah, poor men, bless their sorry egos, their vulnerability to life’s thorns and them falling on them and bleeding, and: ‘what bollocks’.

The rest of this moronic so-called analysis of the female ineptitude in the joke department merely compounds the shite in which the whole is dipped.

In today’s Guardian, a number of writers with their take on various impending events of 2018. One, spoof musings from Meghan Markle, engaged to marry Price Harry in May.

 

Dear Diary

Moving into Harry’s cottage [viz Kensington Palace] next week. Can’t wait. It’s too cute. Need to get a juicer asap.

I love it here. Everyone is so friendly! People back home kept on telling me that the royals are racist but I ask Har and he said Philip adores his trips to the colonies.

 

By…? Morwenna Ferrier.

2018

6 January

Because, for the moment, I can’t think of walking the habitual Park-market route, my boots and walking poles lie idle, I set off on the bike to ride up through Godden Green to the first gate on Julian’s Way, into the Park, up the long metalled path to the top and back down the parallel path, past the house and the final climb up to the main gates.

Years ago, I contacted the Astronomer Royal to ask why the mornings seemed to grow darker after the Solstice. There’d been some discussion about this at the Pond, uninformed opinion always ready to wax vocal. He fielded my call with patience and told me that because of the earth’s elliptical orbit, the daily increments of light show at the end of the day but the dawn shifts later and later, for about nine days. I reported to the coterie of 7 o’clock, ie first influx, swimmers. One, a very sniffy individual, worked for the local council, said: ‘Thanks for trying, Graeme, but it doesn’t really hold water, does it?’

I forbore from telling him that he was a pompous prick and that I was not his personal assistant.

This morning, the day really did take a long, long time to show itself. Even up to the Solstice, I’ve walked into a pearly light a little after 7. Not today. The sky was heavily shrouded, the faint blur of the half moon intermittently visible as a smudge in the south-eastern quarter, but, even as I rode up to the main road, the murkiness held.

To my silent delight, I saw not one person in the Park.

 

A brief scoot round Waitrose and out to the market. No fruit and veg., Billy still driving in. Richard and James leaning up against Danny’s fish van, chatting, as he laid out the catch for sale on its bed of crushed ice.

‘Come on,’ I say, ‘let a real customer through. Where’s the stuff?’

James, grumpy: ‘I don’t know, he’s probably having breakfast somewhere. Like you.’ This to Danny.

‘Where did you have breakfast?’ I say.

Danny, big grin: ‘Café at the bus station.’

James: ‘Guzzling like a good’un.’

I ask what time it opens. Six thirty.

 

I get my fish, move across to Jane’s flower stall, cop a bunch of lilies and am ready to leave when Billy drives up with the van. I deliberate whether perhaps to wait for the unloading. Richard doesn’t say don’t but it’s clear that it wouldn’t be a good idea and I’ve no wish to put them under extra pressure of rooting stuff out for me. I secure the lilies in my pannier and head home, feet numb with cold.

 

Text to Richard with a list of stuff I ned so that I can go up by bus, make a quick pass and get the same bus home. He offers to drop the order off. I accept – I do feel very tired.

 

Phone the bookshop to order King, Queen, Knave Vladimir Nabokov. The young woman who takes the order asks: ‘How do you spell that?’

 

A report in the paper: an elderly woman in Essex who phoned the ambulance recently because she had severe pains in her chest, was kept waiting for 3 hours 45 minutes. By the time the crew got to the house, the house was silent, they had to break in and found the woman lying on the floor, dead. I was not close to being in the same straits, however…

 

Radio programme presented by statistician who pooh poohs luck as a construct, even though we refer to it habitually. One of the interviewees gave a persuasive definition: ‘Luck is chance taken personally.’

The other night, there was a programme about magic and some discussion of how magic tricks work. A member of the audience was invited to think of a number – to see if it matched a number written on a piece of paper before the show. I instantly thought of 37, then fussed and changed that to 73. The number given was 74…twice 37. Another example: a man was walking along the street in Dover, past a telephone box. The phone started to ring. On an impulse he answered it. The voice of a work colleague greeted him. Explanation? As far as it went: the colleague, knowing that the man lived in Folkestone, dialled the Folkestone code then the work number. By curious happenstance, therefore…One time when I was staying with Ted and Miranda in Barnes, we were going out with Sylvia Syms. She was waiting outside, Ted and Miranda had gone out to join her, I was following when the phone rang in the hall. Miranda asked me to answer it. I picked up the receiver, said hello and a woman’s voice said: ‘Graeme (or possibly Graham,) how are you? Are you still into stuff?’

I replied that I think she’d got the wrong Graeme (or possibly Graham) and put the phone down. However…and missed the chance, which I wouldn’t ever get again, of finding out who she was, who Graeme (or Graham) was and what and how much the stuff was.

 

8 January

I report to Steph that I’ve been under the weather and very tired. She writes back: Ugh – it’s the weak sunlight and lack of vitamin D that makes recovery so difficult this time of year. Oily fish! Oily fish!

I reply: You’re right. I just ate a smoked mackerel and it’s smoked haddock tonight. The tins of sardines dwindle.

She writes: Whenever I eat sardines, I rather like them. But it always takes a bit of canned goods flirting and foreplay to get there!

I reply: You give new subtext to the idea of toying with a sardine…

I once watched – in stupefaction (I was around 8) – my father sitting on the beach near Studland, filleting sardines (out of a tin) before venturing to eat the buggers. If I hadn’t known already – that he was a seriously unhinged and dangerous – that would have confirmed it. But what was I to do? The sardine can tin key was, well, under lock and key, so to speak.

Perhaps I should invest in a sun lamp. But then I’d turn salmon pink or Titian copper.

 

 

Father-like he tends and spares us

Well our feeble frame he knows,

In his arms he gently bears us,

Rescues us from all our foes.

Whitby – ball

 

11 January

In early November, I wrote to the Historical Society in Braemar to ask what Cromlins meant, after our walk there. [5 November]

Today comes an email:

You were asking about the source of the name for the Cromlins back in November. It’s taken some time but one of our local historians has been doing some research and he seems to think that the name should be Na Crom-raon meaning ‘crooked fields or meadows’.  I hope that’s of interest to you, it’s news to us.

Best wishes for 2018

Doug Anderson

Chair-Braemar Local History Group

 

Radio news

A butcher got locked in the refrigerator at his shop in Totnes, Devon – a gust of draught blew the door shut when he was in there at the close of business. The alarm button was frozen solid. Joints of beef and lamb were too unwieldy to use as bludgeons to hit the button to free it. He first tried kicking it, which suggests that it was at a height when he might have peed on the thing and, surely, loosened it. However, he spotted a black pudding…the journalist reported:

‘A foot long, 3 inches in diameter and frozen solid, the butcher wielded the black pudding…’

(It worked and he escaped. The temperature in the freezer was 20 below and he was 30 minutes from being turned into an organic ice lolly.)

 

The big tarpaulin with which I covered the heap of timber from the felled silver birch beyond the back fence back in December, has been stolen. This may well be ahead of the thief arriving to half-inch the logs, so I set about bringing in the bulk of what I could carry to space and stack on the terrace at the back of the house. Hard work, had to take it very slowly to begin with, until my lungs opened up and I was moving more easily. Even then, occasionally the effort winded me. The new approach, therefore, akin to the riding of mountains: taken them at your own pace. I start at creeping speed and allow myself to become inured, as far as possible, to the strain and pay no heed to how long it takes. This job took an hour and a half:

17 January

Advice received from my house insurance company, by email:

‘Cold weather and storms are predicted to be coming our way with snow fall of up to 20cm expected in some places. Therefore, it’s a good idea to follow our tips below to help prevent damage to your home from the heavy snow and bad weather.

Put your garden furniture safely away in a garage or shed, or bring it inside the house. Remember your gnomes and plant pots too as these could be easily blown away or damaged.’

Ah, the gnomes…bless.

 

20 January

Nick, in Massat, takes receipt of a bundle of letters before setting off with a friend to the market in Saint-Girons. When he returns home, he finds, among the mail, a letter to him from me, dated 4 viii 2017. It’s been kept in Le Maxil to which much of his mail had been directed until the spring of last year and only just surfaced.

This triggers memories of my doing the Christmas post out of the Totteridge and Whetstone sorting office when I was at Durham: two years on letters, two years on parcels.

A gang of us casuals, male and female, reported for work at 7am to sort through our round. The young women were always away by 7.30 because the regular posties pitched in to help them, the lure of helping an attractive young woman far more of a draw than a male loafer. One of the regulars intermittently sang out ‘Little sir Echo…’ for reasons obscure to me then and now.

Once my round was ready, I set off at a run – as, indeed, I had run up the hill to the office, across the junction and on the road towards Oakleigh Park station. I delivered to the road where we lived, Longland Drive, the roads parallel, Ventnor Drive and Lynton Mead, Southway and Laurel Way. I went hard at it, garden to garden, hurdling fences and walls. Came to grief once: leading foot on a wall, swung up, didn’t quite make it, the weight of the bag, still pretty full, dragging at me and I went back down. But, that was the only time and, usually, I had cleared the sack by around 9.30 and went home for a late breakfast. Second delivery at 2pm, finished in the gathering gloom of late afternoon.

The third year, I got a place on a van with a man whose name I must have known but now no longer do. He had a gentle manner, knowing look, craggy features, a sly smile. He sucked aniseed balls, which, expressed in a licorice-aromatic hogo, gave him a pleasing aura of old-fashioned sweet shop, those enticing emporia wherein the man, or woman, behind the counter reached up for a large, glass jar of boiled sweets, toffees – Hussicks were grandad’s favourites: ‘go and get me a quarter of Hussicks…’ the shop on the corner, not twenty yards from their front gate – and the hollow sound of the bakelite lid turning with a pleasing clunk and squeaks on the glass spirals of the screw top, the sweets spilling a-clatter into the metal scoop on the scales, then tipped into a paper bag and the twist of the two edges to make cat’s ears at the corners.

I read that early in WWII, engineers constructed a magnetic mine suitable for underwater sabotage, activated when a cocked spring hit the detonator. Resourceful experiment found that placing an aniseed ball between spring and detonator worked perfectly: the aniseed ball took some 35 minutes to dissolve in water allowing the saboteur time to escape.

And the pleasing jingle of the names of the contents of those tall glass jars, the boiled sweets, pear drops, barley sugar, Liquorice Allsorts, jelly babies (which prompted a nickname for Lucy when she was a titch: Billy Belly), humbugs, butterscotch, toffees, gobstoppers, hundreds and thousands, before one got to the trays and packets of Victory Vs, sherbet dips and…chocolate.

My parcels man wore a grey gaberdine raincoat buttoned to the neck, the top buttonhole closed over a supplementary button below the turned up collar. A patent leather peaked postman’s cap, somewhat crumpled with use. He kept a pair of spectacles – one arm missing – in the top pocket of his jacket under the raincoat. These glims he retrieved by inserting his right hand into the bosom of the coat, much like Napoleon’s famous gesture, and then holding them, still folded up to his eyes.

He didn’t talk a lot. His habitual means of telling me which parcel to take, as the van made its slow progress along a road, was a nod, a gesture, handing me the parcel itself – he didn’t leave the van. Somehow communicate to the driver how far we needed to drive to the next drop, creeping along at walking pace, gliding to a halt, me dropping off the back gate of the open-backed lorry, scooting up a garden path, running back to hop aboard, standing at the side, ready for the next parcel,. It occurs to me that it was my running which made him pick me: I was fast and efficient so we got the round done in super quick time. Not that he ever gave the impression of being hurried. He had the quiet patience of a man who has suppressed his sense of urgency and emanated, instead, a latent command of economy of effort.

I watched him one time scrutinising a square box wrapped in brown paper, labelled FRAGILE. He held the objet in two hands and peered at it most carefully, turning it, as if it were a piece of Meissen, as indeed, its contents might well have been. When his scrutiny was done, he tossed it into the corner of the van. I discerned no rattle or jingle from the contents which must have been well secured.

As we drove away from the gates of the Discalced Carmelite Convent on Totteridge Green – and to this address he did go, careful, perhaps, not to perturb the enclosed sisters by the arrival of a face they did not recognise, mine. Coming back to the van and climbing on board, he said, more in pity than reproach: ‘The living dead in there.’

In one corner of the van, a small heap of parcels gained, bit by bit, with the occasional addition of a further item, until there were some ten or so. I asked why we hadn’t delivered them. He sniffed. ‘Too far, right out of the way, we only go there once, deliver the lot in one go.’

We went only once, too, to Pomander Gate in Pine Grove – powder blue paintwork –  home of Cliff Richard and his companion, one Bill Latham, who’d been one of the leaders at the Crusader Bible Class which I attended on Sunday afternoons, the meetings held in a classroom at my school, Christs College Finchley. And once only we delivered a brace of pheasant, unwrapped, tied at the ankles, cock and hen, with a label attached.

The following year, on the first morning of reporting for duty at the start of the tendays or so we spent working on the post, the intake, old lags and newies, walked into a large room where the posties stood in a circle. My parcels man caught my eye and winked. I walked boldly across and joined him, my apprentice term served, welcomed back into the full mystery.

 

21 January

Marie, Arianna and Paul to lunch, they announcing the happy news that she is pregnant. And she speaks of the form that her firm has asked her to fill in, an application for maternity leave, which refers to ‘confinement’. And how odd that is.

A letter:

Dear Sirs,

Following the onset of various symptoms – bouts of nausea leading to vomiting, a loss of menstrual flow, a tendency to wee a lot, sore breasts, and a curious hankering to eat coal, (and I know that, as men, you may find these details unnecessarily graphic) – I went to see my GP who diagnosed me with pregnancy, a condition with a limited term but specific consequences.

She (my doctor) told me that this condition, which (like intuition and hair fixation) affects only women will lead, inevitably, to a confinement. The exact nature of that confinement is, at this early stage, not clear: it may involve restraints, time in a Young Offenders centre, a padded cell, perhaps a more liberal regime in an Open Prison with access to a garden and gym with a pool…the precise manner of confinement is, it seems, means tested.

The doctor also said that the condition will end in a period of forced labour, though how long that will be varies from victim to victim, after which a life sentence of physical and mental dependency is imposed. Without appeal.

This news, as you may well imagine, occasioned me some concern (notably the weird craving for charcoal). Similar instances of this condition may well have escaped your notice from an unwillingness in sufferers to speak about them as frankly as, I hope and trust, I have done here. However, in the light of finding myself burdened with this incapacity – something akin to general vertigo – whose symptoms are beginning to be aggravated by a worrying gain in weight, all this due to circumstances which were, at the time of their occurrence, completely out of my control, I respectfully request an extended period of sick leave, to be deferred for four months, as from today’s date.

 

For lunch, I cooked baked cod with a leek and tomato bake, followed by Lemon Tasmanian Pudding, a confection of singular note, the lightest of sponge capping pure fresh lemon compote. I had the recipe from Marrilyn Eden in Norfolk, years past, and cannot remember cooking it since. Today was the moment. It passed muster.

I spoke, then, of the day during the summer holidays when the first Middle House emptied and I was on my own after the influx of visitors, notably Laurence, of course, and her sisters, perhaps, a friend or two, the inevitable hangdog Mike. Seb and Marrilyn and the kids, too, went off to Sussex, so I was on my own. There was a purgative routine.

I stripped the bed and washed the sheets and pillow cases – in those days, in the bath – put them through the mangle then hung them on the line. I cleaned the house from top to bottom, without any passion, this was a cleaning not a clearing out, a way of resuming what was, perforce, the matutinal regime of the house, the austerity of cycling to school, teaching, staying at school to mark books – a rule: never to bring marking home – and riding down to see S and M later in the evening.

I remade the empty bed. Were the washing to dry by the end of the day, I ironed it and then prepared supper, always with Lemon Tasmanian and why it was so called no one knew or even bothered to enquire. Now I pursue enquiry and find a recipe – pretty much the same, though without cooking in a bain marie – as Tasmanian Lemon Pudding. Still no explanation of the connection with that island.

On one occasion – perhaps the sense of abandonment was sharper than usual – I ate the entire pudding myself. A shameless gluttony which I wrote off, in the report book of indulgence, casual and premeditated, as a merited treat. I had played host to a steady influx of house guests, now I played host to myself as sole occupant.

 

23 January

‘the main thing is to write / for the joy of it…And don’t be so earnest, / let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’ (Section XII Station Island Seamus Heaney, where James Joyce, as Virgil, gives directions to the poet.)

 

26 January

Having for so long thought that the use of the word ‘careen’ for precipitate movement, uncontrolled impetus, as with a runaway vehicle, had been an error – based on a typo, when ‘career’ was the intended word, I find in Melville, (p.386), the original secondary use of the word which, in the first instance, means to clean, caulk or repair the hull (carina) of a vessel.

‘As an overladen Indiaman bearing down the Hindoostan coast with a deck load of horses, careens, buries, rolls, and wallows on her way; so did this old whale heave his aged bulk…’

First citing of the transitive sense in OED is from 1833: ‘Do you mean to careen the ship that you have all run to the starboard side?’ although the intransitive, of a ship inclining to one side or leaning over when sailing on the wind, is dated 1763.

So there. That’ll teach me.

I finished Moby Dick last Sunday and found it, by turns, full of the most glorious, energetic, colourful, evocative language, a poetic richness which echoes Walt Whitman, and, on the other hand, a baffling succession of discursus, treatises on the whale, per se, the whale in history, art and literature, whaling and various aspects of the industry, disquisitions on the factory  process and worth of material taken from the whale…From the arresting first line, Call me Ishmael, the promise of the friendship between the neophyte and the experienced harpooneer, Queequeg, promises to be the backbone of the book yet the pair of them fade out of the central narrative some halfway through and, at the end, no mention. Even the unnamed survivor…surely Ishmael? Leaving him anonymous, universalises the story, doesn’t it? And Melville expresses his purpose in chapter 134, Second Day of the Chase:

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all;

though it was put together of all contrasting things – oak and maple, and

pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp – yet all these ran into each other in

the one concrete hill, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by

the long central keel; even so all the individualities of the crew, this man’s

valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltlessness, all varieties were welded into

oneness…

The descriptions of the chase and kill of whales on the way to the showdown in the Pacific are thrilling, but there comes, then, the stuffing of discourse as the narrative is suspended. The effect was to feel, when I finished, ‘what a short book it is’, which, at 624 pages is absurd.

I felt a mixture of elation at the sheer ecstatic power of so much of the writing and puzzlement at the digressions, interesting as they are in another context. But in a novel? However, he makes his own defence of the leviathan of a book about the Leviathan: ‘No great end enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.’ ch.104)

29 January

In South Africa, under Apartheid, black medical students were not allowed to observe the dissection of white corpses, as part of their training, because it would be made clear to them that there was no bodily difference between the black race and the white.

 

1 February

Plaque on a seat planted by the Vine cricket ground dedicated to: ‘Not a bad dad…the Greatest Dad.’

 

4 February

Third week of the nasal blockade by the combined forces of Qu’Attarrh and R’heum, which, so far, have proved resistant to the assault of Vick rub, reams of paper handkerchief, Tea Tree vaporiser and a decongestant spray of complex recipe. Pooh.

 

6 February

Newspaper reports of unrest among fans at lawn bowls competitions, eruption of violence round the greens.

7 February

Snow in enough thickness to cling on for the start of the day. I rode up to Blackhall Lane thinking that I might be able, for the first time this year, to navigate the track off the road along the curtain of the wall to the gate and thus into Knole Park and across country. It was quite obvious even before I reached the Lane that I hadn’t the wind to negotiate that – riding across country is harder anyway and snow would make it harder. So, I continued to the swing gate on Julians Way and up the main path. Gathered at the entry to the woodland ride, a pack of deer, munching at whatever vegetation poked above the slather of icy mousse spooned over by the unseen caterer, who looked up, withdrew and allowed me to ride in. I didn’t ride far. The ground was too broken for any smooth passage and I renounced. As it was, the final drop down past the house to the bottom gate and cattle grid, then up the tedious slope to the gates and the road was enough to finish me off. I called in at Waitrose, in part to warm my hands, offering that up as an excuse for buying a bread roll (oooooh, the indulgence), then on to fruit and veg and home.

A shower, breakfast, a brief spell of reading and I fell asleep on the couch, drenched in sunshine, for one and a half hours, good lord. The combination of being cold to the bone and physical effort had cleared me out, I guess. As a friend said, for the season of hibernation, such a sleep is entirely to be commended. Not his actual words but a deferential scraping of rhetoric does no harm, perhaps, in the interests of puncturing solemnity.

 

8 February

A review (?) quoted on the back cover of Gringos Charles Portis reads: ‘Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.’

This is about as fatuous as any commentary on any book I’ve ever seen.

 

12 February

Lunch with Simon Mottram of Rapha who tells me that publication of the four mountains books has been discontinued. All that work (Pete and mine) and their investment ditched. He explains: they must reach out to a new readership which doesn’t have the concentration necessary for ‘long form’. I ask what ‘long form’ is. Anything more than 500 words. Picture books, therefore, or text that can be reduced to a caption.

13 February

A review of Moby Dick for the Writers Review website:

 

At this teeming novel’s heart lie both the essential impulse that sustains human endeavour – above all love, and in this case, the sodality of men in extremis – and the tragedies which compromise the search for answer, survival, triumph, endeavour. Ahab’s monomanic obsession with the whale, symbolised by the artificial leg carved from its bone, a doom-laden clumping along the hollow deck keeping the men below awake, epitomises the folly of human struggle when it’s driven by a narrowness of ego, bereft of fellow-feeling. Ahab has married late in life, he has a little boy whom his mother will carry ‘to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail’. When the mate Stubb pleads with him to abandon his insane pursuit of the creature, Ahab declares, like the enraged prophet before the priests of Baal: ‘Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.’ The ‘divinity which shapes our ends,’ no less. He even baptises his harpoon ‘in the name of the Devil’, fully aware that, in Melville’s words, ‘the infernal nature has a valor often denied to innocence.’ For the challenge of courage underpins the epic chase of the White Whale, incarnation of Nature’s elemental powers: we either ride out life’s climactic storms, by fortitude, or succumb by moral failure, knowing fear and overcoming it. ‘I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale,’ declares Starbuck, ship’s mate.

The innocence reflects that of the America in which Melville was formed, in its infancy as an independent unity of states – just as the ship comprises many parts, its crew a unity of disparate individuals. Like young Ishmael, face to face with a new world of dangers, callow America needed to wise up, toughen up, embrace the pioneer spirit, as on land, so on the sea.

Bulkington, ‘six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer dam,’ strides briefly into the narrative, a man who, ‘by deep, earnest thinking,’ goes to sea, rejecting the pull of the land, precisely because ‘in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God’. The highest knowledge is, surely, self-knowledge.

Two things bind the crew of the Pequod, (named for an Algonquian tribe): the thrill – and danger – of the chase, and the intimacy of friendship. The bond between the novice whaler, Ishmael, and Queequeg, master harpooneer, is a friendship which Melville characterises as closer than marriage perhaps because, (though he does not say so), it eschews sex. It is of the higher union, the spiritual. Not the love that dare not speak its name, rather the greater love, expressed in laying down one’s life, thus Queequeg, leaping into a turbulent sea to save a crew member who’d fallen overboard.

Early in the book, Melville warns the reader against becoming snared in the digressions about whales – their place and representation in culture, history, art – and about whaling per se. Eschew them, if you will, these treatises on an animal which inhabits the profundity of the ocean yet must rise to the surface, periodically, to fill its lung with air. A creature of two worlds: the mortal and the mysterious. Does chasing and killing it, draining its flesh for oil to fill the lamps which light the world, spooning out the ambergris to supply perfume to scent the rooms lit by those lamps, condemn or ennoble the men who go out in the oared boats, facing the possibility of catastrophe when the Leviathan is speared and held tight on the rope till it tires and dies? That is the nub of Melville’s tragic crux, the clash at the heart of his poetic drama, wherein ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense’.

Poetic? Why, yes. I think of Whitman’s poetry, in its search for a diverse new language to fund the examination of this burgeoning America. Melville’s sonorous writing shows many influences – Bible, homily, Shakespeare – maybe not to every taste, memorable, nevertheless.

Melville unfurls a compelling story pitched on ‘the great shroud of the sea [which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. It is part of Melville’s own meditation on America in the heave and swell of its gestation: what is this vast land? What tribulation and beauty does it contain? Who people it? How is it theirs? How do they live? In what and of what is their being?

 

Saint Valentine

Message from Lucy – they’ve booked tickets to see Cosi fan Tutte at the New York Met when they go in March. Very exciting. They’re going for a week after the five days in Toronto when Lucy gives a paper at an international academic conference in the city – Scott will have time to explore. I have no help to offer there. It was so long since I was in Canada and my memories of Toronto are limited to one evening when I heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry perform in a club – Brownie lurching in with a heavy limp (polio as a child) holding a towel onto which Blind Sonny held to be guided to the chair. And they played the blues, the blues I’d heard only on records.

Barbie [see above somewhere] and I went another day with two outpatients from a mental health centre in which she worked as a volunteer – this must have been through her father who was a doctor – to the Expo park. One of the two young men was a schizophrenic. At one point, he turned to me, looked very hard at me, said ‘I hear them, you know,’ and punched me, very hard, in the chest. He turned away and started talking to some interlocutor, unheard and unseen.

My first foray involved following up an advertisement for a fork-lift driver at a warehouse on the outskirts of the city centre. The trial was brief and conclusive. The foreman looked sceptically at me, asked me if I’d eve driven a fork-lift truck before. I confessed I hadn’t but would give it a go. Showing that liberal spirit which honours pluck before ability, he acceded to this. I climbed up into the cab, investigated the controls without any sense at all what the controls did, specifically, other than general trigger of motion, and climbed back down. Did I even stab at a button? My chutzpah went only so far.

Thus, my trial as a potential fork-lift truck operative was brief, embarrassing and not even very funny, though I do remember vividly the expression of mild contempt on the foreman’s face as I regained the warehouse concrete floor after the pathetic attempt to do anything meaningful with the machine. I’d managed, only, to climb up into the cab and then back down out of the cab, but, since I was well-accustomed to performing step-ups as part of a fitness regime, even if not specifically directed as preparation for boarding a fork-lift truck, that part of the manoeuvre was simple and in my competence. There followed the successful application to work at a golf course local to Stouffville, where I was staying. Since this entailed not much more than walking about the extensive grounds, greens, fairways and sand traps trailing a rake (for tidying the sand in the traps) and, every morning, a lengthy bamboo pole, with which to sweep the dew off the greens which I than cut with a motorised mower, I was, let’s say, pretty well au fait in advance.

In fact, I’m underplaying the expertise I acquired in handling the mower. Beginners were advised to cut a swathe round the perimeter of the green before mowing across it, in carefully aligned strips. Lower the blades too abruptly, and they cut into the turf and left a yellowing scar. I began as all beginners begin and was cautious. Within a very short time, I could power the mower towards a green, drop the nose of the machine gently onto its surface and begin the striping, not even stopping in my progress to lift the flag out of the hole, but latching onto it as I passed and, when I next passed, lowering it in a smooth movement, without interrupting the cut. Art Uens, the foreman, was a very slipshod cutter of greens: untidy, inaccurate and prone to lapse.

 

17 February

Paddy Graham, brother of Duncan and Alexandra, arrives at stove-lighting time, whereupon I apply the match, the flames leap and we pull up chairs to sit with a glass of rosé for conversation. Supper, more wine, more talk: more spirit pumping into the fabric of Middle House.

 

18 February

Sunday breaks in full bright sunshine, a glorious day, the air warm – signal airing the house with open windows. Breakfast, after which Paddy goes off for a walk and I get stuck into preparations for lunch – two friends coming down from London. They’re vegan so I tailor the fare: roasted courgettes with garlic, aubergine slices on a bed of onions and topping of chopped tomatoes, an orange cake – thin slices of the fruit on the top, a mixture of flour, baking powder, orange juice, crushed cardamom, soya milk and olive oil. But where are the oranges I bought at market yesterday? Bought but left behind. I phone Paddy, he’s near a shop, returns ten minutes later, no oranges: he had left his wallet in the house. He sets off again. I continue preparations. Note: in advance of lunch preparations, never think you have plenty of time. There is never plenty of time. As soon as you think there is plenty of time, no need to begin, no rush, get stuck in: it’s time.

Paddy returns, I carry on – washing up as I go, laying the table, ordering the food, into the oven even as he works out a shooting script for the video we are going to make of the Application for Maternity Leave letter.

A brief interruption: out into the front garden to saw birch logs from the big tree felled last year. The sun is near hot, the light sparkling, the wood cuts clean and there is more filling of the log shed.

1.40pm. As predicted, Hannah and Carl arrive from London. Hannah performed Duncan’s play Cut in Edinburgh, 2016-17, Carl is a stand-up comedian. Delightful people.

Lunch.

It began with the doorbell…

We’d come back into the house. ‘Would you care for a glass of wine?’ says Paddy. ‘I thought you were never going to ask,’ says I. Then the door bell rings. Who the fuck can that be at this hour of the day? Wandering play hopeful of bumming a meal and a glass?

So it proved.

And after lunch – full vegan feast – the crew swung into action. Hannah needs to look pregnant. ‘A bike helmet does it,’ she says. I supply the crash lid. Upstairs into the library, electronic equipment switched on, Paddy on lens, Carl on script cue, me pretending to be useful – once the helmet came out, what was I even doing there? Hanger on, supernumerary? That covers it. On the other hand, they needed a bit of charcoal later and I came up with that: a fragment lodged in the pile of wood ash applied to the base of one of the roses in the garden.

So, now we have a video shot in and outside Middle House – library, top landing, kitchen, main room, garden, greenhouse, front door entrance…

A long time since I’ve been around actors and it was such pleasure – the spark and absorption in the job, the gale of laughter when there’s a gaffe, the waiting around for the camera to receive its instructions…

Oh, I made some coffee later.  Props man to the rescue, hoo hoo.

 

19 February

A glossy drama about Troy. Paris, visiting Sparta, asks Menelaus, Helen at his side:

‘How did you two get together?’

Perhaps a script editor removed the final ‘then’, deeming it too…estuary.

 

 

24 February

Around 6.40am, a blaze of fiery light in the eastern sky, as might be the tail of a comet, its edges frayed, like a fringe, hanging vertically in the paling royal blue of the dawn. It was the shape of a fox’s brush, not moving, but pulsing as of a shimmer.

 

26 February

Lunch with Paddy Graham in London as the powder snow begins to swirl. We talk about an idea he span out of the video. I’ve been pondering this and, by the time I got home, I began to feel I had a handle on how it could be developed and, perhaps rashly, promised an outline by the time we next meet, the day before he flies back to Australia next week.

 

27 February

A sizeable dump of snow on Kent, chaos on the roads, cars slipping and sliding, being abandoned, traffic jams glued up like sinus congestion. I wonder if we should formulate contingency plans for tomorrow’s early departure for Gatwick – Kate and Max at the start of their travels in the Far East. Trains a mess. Hotel at the airport has a room, not too expensive. I speak to a local taxi firm to ask what the M25 and M23 are like. They’re clear – enough traffic going back and forth to squash the snow to wet. Weather forecast shows a slackening of snowfall overnight, an inevitable drop in temperatures, which poses the threat of ice, but, by and large, I think we’ll be all right.

Kate succumbs to a fever – overwork and general stress, for sure: she’s been trying to get so much done ahead of their leaving.

10pm. Max phones: she’s very much worse, they’ve phoned 111 and been advised to go to A and E. The likelihood is that she won’t be able to fly but he may go on alone. He says he can take the train in the morning. I tell him that we’ll drive and agree on 6am.

 

28 February

Up at 5 o’clock, usual routine: clean out and relay the stove as the kettle boils. Then up to shave and wash. Out of the house to walk down by 5.40. There’s Max, just parked, come to fetch me. They were in A and E for four hours, a doctor has advised Kate not to fly for at least five days. We go back to the house, gather up his gear, set off for the airport. He’ll phone insurance company and speak to the airline. Turns out they can get some money back on her cancelled flight, if that’s what they fix on.

Over coffee, we discuss the options, he asks my opinion – probably a good idea to head on alone for various reasons, He then phones Kate and asks how she feels about that. They agree and we part company at the car, he to Thailand via Singapore.

As well that the virus – which has smitten her – got Kate before she set off, tough as the decision they’ve had to make is.

Home again, I work on the Zeus chapter of the Greek Gods confection, then begin sketching out the preliminaries for the video spin off, and, after lunch, continue and type up. The best day’s work in a long time – I felt most agreeably charged up, the dialogue crackled.

 

1 March

More banging on about Theresa May’s ‘vision’ for Brexit. What vision can there be for lazy eyes peering through short-sight lenses?

And news of the issue of the new 10p piece ‘in ten different designs, to cover the A to Z of British culture’…which means that even our alphabet has been drastically reduced.

 

2 March

To Thames and Hudson to meet Lucas Dietrich to discuss the possibility of republishing the four mountains books so coolly discontinued by Rapha.

The walk to the station, on pavements thick in trampled snow, was the best I’ve had in a while – no distress and very little discomfort, at a good speed. It meant I caught an earlier train than I’d been aiming for and as well I did: it arrived at the same time as predicted for the next service.

And the meeting…as I wrote to Marie afterwards:

A most uplifting meeting. Richard and I met for coffee beforehand to prepare and I expected a tentative approach from our Man. Not a bit. He was like a cat who’d waited a long time for the mouse to pop out of the hole so he could pounce. He was friendly, enthusiastic, down to earth, most complimentary – I felt that my work had high praise, that I’d written a classic text – and he was as baffled as are we about the discontinuation of the books. But that they can be reborn…? Cool. And under the aegis of a professional publisher. He didn’t use the word but it’s plain that he regards the Rapha approach – as I’ve described it – as amateurish. So the prospect, if they do take it on, is for worldwide distribution with their highly regarded backing and marketing power in shops and on line. As I told Pete when I called to apprise him of what had passed: disappointing as the Rapha opt out was, they may actually have done us a big favour. I have not felt quite so openly and frankly valued in a long long time.

 

3 March

I pulled on my boots for the first time in eleven weeks, judging that the roads wouldn’t favour the bike and the paths in Knole certainly wouldn’t. I set off with my poles and headed for the Hole in the Wall door into the Park.

A full vista of white, a hanging veil of frosted air dulling the shadow stains of leafless trees, here I pass a gash in the snow underfoot, its edges splashed vivid red, the blood of some animal done to death there, I suppose. The air is still, a silence and stillness all round, woodpecker…crow…unidentified birdcall…I walk in the muffled trudge of my boots, an occasional rasp as I brush an iced clump of the snow, along the winding path, no longer traceable, up the slope, curved as the inside of a shallow bowl, to the top of the path where it has curled round the blunt spur to the right as I go. The gradient doesn’t trouble me, to my surprise and delight. At the top, I turn right and make for the further end of the spur which will give me a descent into the valley, again. Winter has us overlaid in its white caul.

When I eventually get home – no fruit and veg, fish or flower stalls, an absence of which I’d been apprised from conversations with them last night – laden with shopping, it’s 9.20, which means that I’ve been on my feet, and moving, for nearly three and a half hours, and the walking itself as comfortable as it’s been for ages.

An email to Lucas at Thames and Hudson with word counts for the mountains books. I add this extract from the Foreword to the Northern Alps:

‘Of course, too, there is much else missing herein. And, forsooth, where to stop? It’s no easy decision. With reluctance, I’ve omitted a wonderful, and extremely tough, climb above Montreux, by the eastern shore of Lac Léman. It’s just too isolated, too far out on a limb into Switzerland, and the Swiss alps, surely, merit a study of their own without piratical poaching on their ground in this book. True, there is some Swiss terrain here, and fine it is, because a number of passes lead over into Switzerland from France and, since it didn’t make sense to stop at a border on a high col, it seemed nonsensical to exclude some of the cols immediately to hand on the way back, via a further excursion into Italy.’

No so much a plea, or even a prophecy, as a question mark in the form of a hot air balloon straining at its tethers for lift-off.

 

5 March

Although all the snow has gone, there was one small remnant left: a diminishing boulder at the entrance to the path in front of the house where the three titches live, three doors along…the last of their snowman.

 

11 March

The National Trust publicity for Mothers’ Day, promoting their tea rooms in Cornwall, showed a picture of a scone, slathered with cream and a good dollop of jam on top of the cream. This, to the Cornish aficionados, was anathema, a travesty, an enormity of disgusting proportion: jam on top of the cream is what they serve up in Devon. It’s reported that the hapless photographer who produced the image had been given a severe reprimand and marched across the Tamar to apologise. To whom, one wonders.

Steve Bannan, dismissed from the White House staff some while past, has declared that being a racist is praiseworthy and to be called racist should be worn as a badge of honour.

A performance by Vilde Frang of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on R3 this evening. She played the opening two movements with a rare tenderness and intimacy, especially the slow movement, an interpretation I had never heard. The final movement lacked none of the force and swagger of more exposed accounts, either. A rendition, overall, of great sensitivity and fresh insight. I thought, then, of my own feelings about Beethoven’s music, once central to my appreciation in general. Indeed, a recording of the Pastoral Symphony was the first classical record I bought, followed by Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s recordings of all nine symphonies, the Missa Solemnis and various sonatas.

Before each of my nine Finals papers, I went to my room and listened to one of the symphonies – in numerical order – to prepare myself. I have no way of knowing whether this worked or had any beneficial effect, but I did enjoy the process and remember, particularly, stepping out of my room and heading off for the Greek translation paper, about which I had been nervous – precisely because I was expected to do well in it (I did) – after the fifth Symphony, with firmness of purpose and great clarity of focus.

It was a very hamfisted performance of the Ninth, in which I sang, in Norwich, which turned me against Beethoven for a long while – not his fault, but the fault of a conductor whose beat in the choral movement rendered the Ode to Joy as a Nazi marching song. It was horrible, fierce two-four, no flex, no line, relentless, aggressive stamp of the boot crushing the music into a tasteless paste.

Curiously, it was a performance of that same symphony, conducted by Solti, which rehabilitated the music for me – an account of such beautiful shaping and subtlety that I heard the music anew and Beethoven was restored to me, albeit I do not, by and large, listen to it unless it’s offered on radio.

I’ll speak more of music subsequently, when there is no news as shattering as the great cream tea controversy…

 

12 March

News that the government is considering appraisal of the standing of universities based on an assessment of the money earned by graduates within a fixed period after their graduation. Than which not many ideas could be more preposterous or vile…cheap and base.

 

Ides of March

News came late last night that the piece I wrote and recorded for From Our Own Correspondent scheduled to be broadcast this morning, had been pulled, at the last minute. The second time this has happened. Very fed up but I decided not to respond. There does not seem anything sensible or useful to say.

Dorothy Parker: ‘If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to.’

I opened all the windows yesterday, a fine spring day, to air the house while a full line of washing dried on the line. This bee, a male Bombus hypnorum, or Tree Bumblebee, flew into the house and took up residence in the pile of laundry in the big plastic tub to ferry the washing in and out. He crawled out on the ironing board at lunchtime and here he is, under the board, outside the house, where I took his picture before he flew off. Hurray.

 

17 March

The snow came as barely defined floaters around 7.30 and grew steadily more pressing. From shopping and market, heavily laden – back pack, two bulging hand sacks, walking poles now out of commission – I walked into it down the hill, fingers locked round the bag handles, getting colder, snow insistent. Delivered supplies to Marie who has been smitten with a shocking fever since Thursday and then trudged home. In all, three and a half hours on my feet, very grateful to be shorn of my load and ready for breakfast. After breakfast, a session with the chainsaw on some of the silver birch logs stacked outside on the terrace, snow falls still and now building up a thin layer on ground, grass, branch and roof.

The Now Show concludes with a question put to listeners: What do you do and where to get away from the world? One reply: ‘Sevenoaks. Naked. Headfirst tobogganing.’ Well, I haven’t seen that, yet. Who can tell…?

 

Vernal Equinox

The last surviving Northern White Rhinoceros has died. Aged and a long time ailing, he had to be put down in the conservation area in Kenya where he lived – the protected sub-species had been poached all but out of existence in the wild some while ago. There’s some hope that the two remaining females can produce offspring by IVF via sperm from White Rhinos.

 

22 March

Announcement from the Home Office: De La Rue the firm based in Gateshead famous (aren’t they?) for manufacture of playing cards and makers of the British passport with the burgundy cover, along with the passports of some thirty other countries, has lost out on a contract to produce the new, retro passports with blue covers – days of old, when knights were bold and passport covers were black…- after Brexit to a French firm.

Sums it up.

Some goon from a government ministry pushed out into the glare of the affront occasioned by this monstrous gaffe, babbled of procurement regulations, big savings and objective assessment. Hoo ha.

 

The piece I wrote for FOOC about the visit to Mt Vernon is, at last, broadcast. The producer writes: ‘It really is a lovely piece. I look forward to working with you again soon. Best Joe.’

And from Linda Newbery: Listened! V good sense of place, planting, productivity. And implied contrast with the current White House resident. Have Tweeted the link, too. Lovely to hear! Lx

Given that we so often we inhabit the silence, such messages are cheering and warming.

 

24 March

Marie and I watch the Boat Race. She asks me which university I support. I tell her Oxford. She supports Cambridge, because they always seemed to be the underdogs. And because you like the light blue better? It looks more green, though, doesn’t it? she says. And why do you support Oxford. Because the first time I saw the race it was on a tiny black and white screen, the image rather milky in tone. I was about four or five – this was at Grandma and Grandad’s. Oxford lost and I decided, then, that they needed my support and I have been unwavering ever since. She laughed.

 

27 March

A waiter at a restaurant in Montreal responded to colleagues who said he was rude – in behaviour, manner and dealings with them and customers – that it wasn’t his fault that they interpreted his comportment as rudeness: it came from his being French and was an inescapable facet of the culture in which he’d grown up. Patriotism as an excuse.

 

29 March

A ten year-old girl seen with a book, swiping the page to turn over to the next page.

 

Good Friday

Pubs in the Republic of Ireland will be open for the first time since the ukase (Catholic church) was enforced in 1927.

Lucy and I were there one year, in Dublin, and took the bus out to the Wicklow Mountains this day, for a jaunt. As we came back into the city, it was apparent that the pubs were shut. No activity at their doors or any life visible through the windows. No queues outside restaurants. Notices warning that the restaurants were fully booked.

In a bookshop in Trinity Square, I asked the man on the till about this and he apologised, yes, was abject in his desolation at the truth of it, said sorry, as if the fault were his, that this ban had been because of some dereliction on his part, culpa me, maxime me, for it was that his thoughtless aberrance had plunged all Ireland into an interdiction on the sale of beer, wine and any other intoxicating liquor usually on immediate offer at all times of the day or night, all year round, without let or stay or any reasonable objection. Yes, he confessed, there was no booze to be had, not for love, money or (he implied) partnership with any illicit organisation, though this I could hardly credit. Except, alas, that it was true and the evidence bountifully on show.

We returned to our bed and breakfast somewhere outside the city and bought fish and chips.

I pondered the angular oddity of this ordinance. When the Irish are known for their willingness to get blotto at any excuse, or, indeed, entirely without excuse, this sudden paralysing access of pious abstinence seemed beyond hypocritical, it seemed downright perverse, as if the sobriety of a single day could pay indulgence for the inebriation of the other 364 which computed the calendar.

So, now, they’ve capitulated and I hear that, of course, there were always loopholes: passengers on trains, boats, ferries (not buses) were exempt – that’s to say, the bars serving those passengers were free of the ban and, accordingly blithe and merry in their purveying of the hooch to all and sundry, and a fart for the Bishop of Cork, but that restaurants, also, poured wine from teapots. A wee drappy instead of a wee top up in the china. This curious blip in the blanket crushing of any attempt to slip the tipple past the eager lips was exploited by fly fellows and their doxies going to sports events – hurly for hooch – theatres – play, what play? – or piling into railway station bars, pretending to be no more than biding their time, about to board the trains, so that the bars were slammed, jammed and crammed with the carousing folk.

It’s reported that the town of Newmarket, in the (above-mentioned) county of Cork, remains dry throughout this holy festival, the local landlords having agreed, en masse, to impose the old ban on the flimsy excuse that it gives them a much-needed day off. The creatures.

 

Donna Tartt has described her method of work as being akin to painting a mural with an eyelash. There are times, right now, when my method of work – so to dignify it with a structure it probably doesn’t merit – is more like picking out a pointilliste painting with the tip of a tacking needle. Moreover, the distraction of it is so invasive that I can barely concentrate on any other business than having a meal and talking with someone.

 

31 March

Dear Zeb Soanes

I enjoy your reading of the news – such clear tones and articulation – that it’s mildly off-putting to hear enclave as onclave. It should be en- as in entertainment. On- is French

Yours sincerely

Dear Mr Fife

Thank you for your email and appreciation. I have consulted our pronunciation department where several tomes were consulted and there’s no mispronunciation. It’s purely a matter of choice. Enclave, as with envelope, can be pronounced either way and my preference is ‘on’ for both words. Where do you stand on ‘scone’? It was one of the questions I asked of the head of pronunciation in my first week at the BBC, many years ago.

Best wishes

Zeb

 

Dear Zeb

Handsome of you to take the trouble. Well, yes, I know it’s vexed and probably a touch prissy to make the distinction between the French original and the English borrowing.

However, that doughty authority, my bible, the Oxford English Dictionary is firm: en-clayve…onclarv and there are analogies with entourage, which maintains the French pronunciation, and encourage which Englishes it.

As for scone…I stick to sconn and had an interesting exchange on the distinction between sconn and biscuit with some American friends, one time. I’d switch to scoan, however,

when the fluffy texture had been lost in the item and rendered hard enough to warrant comparison with the Stone of…ha ha.

Best wishes for a happy Easter.

Graeme

Further to my message: the havering over scone or scoan doesn’t really signify because the etymology of the word is complicated and not, finally, resolved – Scots, Dutch, English…- whereas enclave is identifiably French out of Latin and should, therefore, be less problematic.

Best wishes

 

Easter Day…April Fool

I see a young girl, about five, playing with a smaller boy on the patch of grass beyond the front wall. He runs off. She’s got a stick and with it starts to whack energetically at the hornbeam in my hedge. I see this from the landing window as I go downstairs. I open the window and call out: ‘Excuse me…?’ She looks round, bewildered. I repeat. She eventually sees me through the lattice of leafless twigs and branches.

‘I’d rather you didn’t hit my plants,’ I say.

‘I wasn’t,’ she says, holding the stick down by her side. ‘I was pretending.’ She sidles off.

 

Easter Monday

I met a Frenchman, in Norfolk, years ago, who said that he could never take seriously a religion whose believers knew which day their incarnated godhead died but were vague about the precise day of his death, in that it varied from year to year. Explanations were on offer but he inclined to the opinion that it was, principally, out of caprice.

 

5 April

From a documentary made in the 1950s: ‘This is Soho, catering to all tastes, low included. Even the cats are furtive.’

 

8 April

Friends to lunch and, as we sit at the table by the glazed doors in the main room here, we see a field mouse skipping round the base of the half barrel in which the Ebbyngii grows. And then another field mouse appears on the rim of the barrel, and a third, pepping out from underneath the barrel. Tiny creatures with large button eyes, ball-shaped body and quivering whiskers. From where had they come? And what would they find here? Perhaps they are spirits of that scene n the novel where Charlotte an Eléonore are described playing in the fields during harvest, chasing the field mice as they flee from the stooks of wheat. And if they are, may they bless the work. I completed a major overhaul of the latest recension last Wednesday and was completely pooped. This version is the ninth of what began as a major shift from the first version and is so different and, I hope, so much improved, that even to think of how it began embarrasses me.

On Thursday, I turned my attention to the garden and, as if blessing the decision, a sullen morning turned into the most glorious balmy spring day – warmth in a bright sun and a rare boost to the spirits. It even continued into Friday and the weekend, when it petered out. The dozy, very unbusy old sun needing to rest after such a blast of action, it seems, so that we are in sullen mode once more.

 

9 April

Thanks to Andriy, principal viola of the ROH orchestra, I have a ticket for the general rehearsal of Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. Glorious playing, sublime singing but the acting… dire. Amateur histrionics, overlarge gesture, mannered and gauche. Quite distracting. However, the score is a marvel – so rich and varied. An emotional force in one particular passage of the final scene which was almost unendurable.

Began at 11, finished at 2.30. I went to lunch at a restaurant in Cranbourn Street, by Leicester Sq. tube station and observed, on the corner opposite, a young man in a long, black trench coat – a fashion accessory; there were no trenches anywhere to be seen – his hair streak dyed the colour of wood ash and soot, scrunched at the back of his head into a knotted pigtail the size of a…pig’s tail. He stuffs his dog, no larger than a coypu, floral collar, ratty face, into a cylindrical holdall. This he slings over his should before striding into Prêt à Manger.

 

Friday 13 April

A radio reporter talks of someone at a race meeting clad in a sweed jacket.

 

Bike to Kemsing, train to Barming, up the hill to the hospital for pre-cardioversion tests. Whether I passed or not has yet to be revealed. Back via the Minor Injury Unit in the local hospital – such a Krankenhaus tart I have become – for attention to what must be a thorn or a briar spike in my thumb, driven in yesterday morning as I pruned and cleared here. The nurse cuts into the pulp with a scalpel, squeezes, cuts again, squeezes again but can see no foreign body. Pooh. Dressing and duty.

As I unlock my bike, a man walks up to address the festoon of chains securing his own bike, a dilapidated affair, to the adjacent stand.

‘I don’t like this life, it’s a beautiful life but I don’t like it, even coming to work and look at all these cars, it’s a junk yard, why do they need cars, travel so fast? It’s all stupid and every day I think the same, I don’t know and they say, well, look at the weather and maybe next week it’s going to be sunny…’

At which point, I say ‘amen’, refrain from wishing him a pleasant day and leave him to his Jobian gloom, certain sure that nothing I say would make any difference.

 

A letter to Kate and Max, now in Thailand:

Dear Kate and Max

From a rather sullen overcast greyish Kent, greetings. I’ve just looked through the latest photographs you sent – colour, ice-cream-cake temples, icing sugar goddesses, fan-ventilated buses, monkey gods, water and verdure tumbling in obvious rivalry, lots of beer, hoo hoo, and temptatious bowls of food though what Cat in a Pot is, lord knows, and by the disdainful look on the featured mog, the cat neither knows nor is interested in finding out. ‘Too small a pot for me, matey, I’m out of here.’

I’d hope to write long since but was deeply immersed in a major overhaul of the novel, in line with what  good friend of mine suggested – he’s an excellent editor and has helped the long drawn out gestation of what has proved to be a very difficult job, but, spurred by his comments – which involved a number of radical rethinks – I got stuck in and I do believe the whole thing is in the best shape it could be and, being happy about it not having much play in this business (the overarching feeling is one of incipient nausea), I’m as close I can get – possibly for the moment…he’s even now reading the latest recension – to any sort of sense that it’s verging on okay.

Just home from the hospital – bike to Kemsing, train to Barming, up the hill to the Krankenhaus (a very expressive word, that, for sick: krank)  – for various tests ahead of the cardioversion procedure, now booked for 9 May. I also went to the Minor Injury Unit – such a hospital tart I’ve become – because I drove a thorn or briar into my thumb yesterday morning, clearing stuff in the garden, pre-season tidying. The nurse could find nothing in there, maybe it’s just a very tender wound, dressings and duty, but we chatted about jasmine and other things, which made the visit altogether agreeable, the work of the scalpel on the pulp of my thumb notwithstanding.

Marie has been through a hard time: first the wretched fever after Japan, and missing Switzerland – all that classy chocolate – and, the other day, an attack of Meniers,

luckily subsided, now. Gin did a certain amount of comforting in the fever period but wasn’t much present during the ear imbalance, cruel creature. Nursing his own woes, presumably. Touch egocentric, I call that.

The work on the novel was all-consuming and when I finished, I was pretty wiped out. Following day, I went out for the start of the garden preparations and, lo, the sun came out, bright and warm: two glorious days of real spring. Then? Collapse of solar party. The effort of shining and warming simply too much for the old fool, retired to his bed, in a grump, to recharge the batteries, a slow process, self-evidently, because he hasn’t been seen since. Word is for a replay next week but, even those of us with marked apnoea, ain’t holding breath. In some cases, the holding of breath is routine, not an option. Hoo hoo.

In the way of things, I’ve been revisiting the text, despite a general moratorium on head work in favour of pursuing sharp foreign objects to lodge in my flesh, and fidgeting. Only word for it. However, the urge to fidget wanes and I may be halfway settled on the prospect of a new work shortly.

I must say, the wonder of your photos and the brisk narrative of the blog rather put me off my own launch, delayed as it continues to be. A matter of concentrating on other things. There was a more casual time when I could field more than one project at once, much in the style of a smart juggler. Now, that doesn’t work and it’s all to the good that it doesn’t: focus, that’s the word, focus.

So, as you continue the adventure, we think of you and the encounter with the animals, from the dusty grey of the elephants to the garish rainbow coats of the lizards. What diversity you are facing, day by day – such a plethora of new sounds, scents, tastes and hues. Wonderful.

love

Graeme

 

14 April

I clamber up and over the steps in the wall into Knole and see, newly planted, a sign from the Knole Park Golf Club. They used to be couched in brusque terms: STOP…no softening of message. This one…

I write to the Secretary:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Please use the permissive path…

I’m delighted that your largely otiose signs now use ‘please’ but whoever advised you on the wording of them needs to look in a dictionary. Permissive means lax, unruly, licentious, out of control, slack…Perhaps the right word would be permitted.

However, that begs the question: what position are you in, the Golf Club, I mean, to arrogate the right to allow any user of the Park, per se, to put their feet in any one place? I don’t need your permission to walk the grounds, nor do you have any jurisdiction over any square inch of those grounds. You are there by sufferance of lease or rent, aren’t you? Trampling over your greens would be antisocial but not illegal.

Meanwhile, I wait to see whether any flagrant flouter of social convention takes you at your mischosen word and uses the indicated path permissively. Imagine.

 

The reply comes:

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email.

We were advised to use that term by the public rights of way office. They informed us that it was the correct term to use as the path we are hoping to guide visitors too is not a public right of way but a route the Estate are happy to allow the public to use. Had we not used that term, the Estate would have been open to a claim that the path could be deemed a public right of way.

The rationale was that the public right of way happens to cross the golf course and is therefore dangerous. We have found from bitter experience that members of the public seem to lose the ability to read when they enter the park and simply wander out on to the golf course at various points without checking if it is safe to do so. They do not stick to the designated paths or public rights of way as any considerate person would. The intention of the sign is simply to provide a safer route for the public to follow. This is advice we have received from a Health and Safety review carried out by experts we were advised to use by Knole Estate. So in short the Golf Club has followed guidance from the Public Rights of Way Office and our Landlords, we have not unilaterally decided to try and enforce routes upon the public…[and continues]

 

Dear Neil

Well, there’s a thing. You misspell my name and don’t take in that the word, whoever advised it, doesn’t mean what you want it to mean.

Living in the post-truth world as we do, alas, still, can’t you take it on board that PERMISSIVE means having a riotous good time balls to the rules anything goes shove off regulations get it on good time for all rock on nah nah nah?

Amazing. Please, look in a dictionary. I don’t write about misuse of a word because I have nothing better to do. Meaning matters. And permissive does not mean PERMITTED.

I quite understand that walkers in the Park may not fully appreciate the danger of golf balls whanging about but that, it seems to me, is your problem, not ours. Caution, therefore. We’re in the majority, plus the deer. You wait your time. Be mannerly.

I was once challenged by golfers on a tee protesting that they were about to hit the ball when one of your signs explicitly says that walkers have the right of way on the designated paths, and so it should be. I was walking on one such. You’re a minority. And if that offends your members’ sense of entitlement, well, tough.

 

The response cites Thomson Reuter’s Practical Law with regard to ‘A permissive path agreement for use when a landowner wishes to permit informal use of a path across its land.’

 

Dear Neil

Of course I understand your concerns about public safety and there are idiots who will wander across a fairway blithe as an urban fox. I don’t defend them. It would be hard, indeed, to go walking Knole and be unaware of golfers – though my choice is to go right early in the morning when there are very few people around – so that the watchword should be live and let live. Sure thing.

As to the meaning of the word permissive, a solicitor’s misuse doesn’t change its meaning. Nor is legalese any reliable indicator of correct usage. It’s a masonic code in many instances. We can, I hope, be rather more precisian than Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Permissive means lax. A permissive society (for instance) is, in Cole Porter’s words, a society in which ‘anything goes’. The very phrase ‘a permissive path’ is a linguistic chimera, a thwart monster of language, a nonsense, whatever some undictionaried legal clerk says.

Best wishes

 

15 April

Arianna, (Italian) and Paul (German) come to lunch. I speak of the permissive brouhaha and our discussion moves onto exactitude in words, and, in particular, the nuances of language spoken by two people of different native tongue. Arianna and Paul communicate in English and, when he proposed, in English, she said: ‘Yes, of course,’ but of that moment, she said, she felt nothing, no emotional heat. She asked him, therefore, to ask her in Italian and, when she replied, in Italian, she felt the surge of feeling that she knew to be there but not triggered by using the interim language, so to put it. For good measure, she then asked him to propos in German…more to complete the set – she has a sparky sense of humour – than for any refinement of the emotional response.

 

16 April

To Great Comp, a restful woodland garden with paths and walks strewn with wood chips, lots of magnolia, the salvias for which it’s best known, still to come. I buy two plants to bring home and they are now in my soil.

 

19 April

Barbecue at Marie’s. It’ll just be us and Gin.

‘Does Gin come with tonic?’ I ask.

‘You’ll have to ask him.’

‘He’ll deny it.’

‘Come round 5 o’clock.’

I arrive.

‘Very American, this early,’ I say.

‘Yes, but later and the sun will go.’

And the sun is high, still, or feels high from the pump of its jules and the blue flush it’s put in the sky.

Later, as we wait for the charcoal to get settled into work, she goes back up to the house and I remain, sitting at the table at the foot of the garden. A Queen bumble bee roves nearby, in search of a home. Gin, the brother of Ger, arrives and, elderly as he is and going deaf, skips up the steps I made with the lightness of a ballet dancer, nimble, still. A swallow takes flight from one of the trees in the next door garden and darts away and out of sight even as a pale lime green parrot swoops in from the same direction to land on one of the top boughs of a candle tree halfway up the garden. It sits there as Marie emerges from the house but, despite my waving, she doesn’t look up and the parrot is gone before she has time to see it.

The westering sun is in full blaze behind the stand of poplars across the railway lines beyond the garden and we see two light aircraft, almost wing tip to wing tip, flying across from the east, the red one sporting RAF roundels on its wing tips. I think, as ever, of what these skies must have been like in September 1940.

It’s very still and quiet as I write from the scriptorium, a page of work at my elbow, something I’m mulling over and haven’t added to today – I didn’t come in from the flowerbeds where the flash of trowel, spade and wicked Japanese weed spifflicator given to me by Lucy and Scott made the tangled and matted clumps of vegetable rebellion yield without much resistance until nearly midday. But, loosening up the thought channels is no bad thing.

 

21 April

The green woodpecker flies across my path as I descend the first slope in Knole Park, the avian spirit of the place. And the best view of the house, unobscured by trees, the full stretch of the southern aspect.

Waddling towards the pond below the Bird House, Greylag goose and gander with a brood of seven goslings, bobbing along, scared and uncertain wee creatures, towards the water, where a pair of Canada Geese circle indolently.

I walk without discomfort, after the settling in along Seal Hollow and the first stretch of Blackhall. The steep hill which was always my first test on the MTB, which I’ve neither walked nor ridden since well before Christmas, gave me no concern, this first time of my return to it. I cruised up it without a thought of how nasty the gradient is and on no tax of my heart or lungs. Hurray.

Later: lunch at the table under the magnolia tree, the petals of the full blossom plopping down intermittently with a soft thump. A queen bee moseying in and out of the gaps in the woodpile, looking for a home, I guess.

 

22 April

Dear Hadley

A very moving and, from what you say about prevailing ignorance on these things, troubling piece on Saturday. I attended a goy school in North London where 60% of the boys were Jewish. Lord Sacks was in the year after mine. It meant that I took Jewish as everyday, learnt a fair bit of Yiddish – their jokey slang – and envied my Jewish pals their pizzazz, intelligence, droll humour and confidence. Where I was a mess, they seemed to be so complete. Almost certainly not the case but, hey, teenage perceptions…

I count myself lucky to have enjoyed their company although we never socialised.

That story of the camp prisoners putting God on trial for their suffering. They find God guilty and, in the terrible silence which ensues, a voice finally: So what do we do now? Another voice: I think we should pray.

Humanity of that depth..?

Wow.

Best wishes

Graeme

PS

I took my then 28 year old daughter to Krakow before she got married. She was adamant: no Auschwitz. I could not argue.

[She, a Jew, had just visited Auschwitz with her father, a number of family members having died there. She said that it was the most intense bonding experience she could ever have conceived of.]

She wrote back, appreciatively. I respond:

A schoolmaster once told me that he reproved a boy for making incessant cruel jibes at another boy, a Jew. He even apologised to the lad to which the Jewish boy said something like: ‘Thanks, sir, but it’s been going on for centuries, feh, a few more days and weeks don’t figure.’

 

23 April

A queen bee makes its way into the house and I find her buzzing at the window at the bottom of the stairs. Failing to go for my phone camera to take her portrait, I open the window, proffer a corner of my handkerchief – she latches on – and send her gently her into the open air.

Later, I tell Marie and note that the bumble ought to come from the Latin – bombus a booming, buzzing, humming, also the name for a bee itself, and bombilare to buzz, thus a bombilation of bees – but does not. OED points to boom: ‘of imitative origin; whether original in English, impossible to determine’ and compares Dutch bommen and German bummen, of similar meaning.

I’d assumed the bombilare but apparently this was an erroneous mediaeval reading of bombitare, which is the classical Latin.

 

24 April

David in Berlin writes:

Hyperbaton: the adjective order that every English speaker knows but none of us can articulate…

I reply:

Ha ha. Now, pin back your ears, adjust your syntactical safety belt and harken to this:

the august OED says that the word hyperbaton, as a substantive, is first used by Quintilian

and Pliny (both 1 AD),although Plato and Aristotle use the adjective uperbatos-e-on. But, a swift consultation of the peerless Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon, indicates that it was a certain Philodemos, writer on rhetoric in the First Century BC, who first used the noun. Ain’t that something to buckle up for?

 

[Source of cutting unknown]

 

25 April

At work in the garden early on, levelling the earth in the raised beds -I chewed up the green manure with the rotovator yesterday – and the resident robin lands on the boards across from me, hops in a sidling motion along closer, then pounces on a tiny worm, thin as a shoe lace, holds it in his beak, eyeing me, his chest puffed out, pleased with himself, showing off, even, his cleverness. I think of the little boy in Mali who squared up to me as the van we were travelling in, bikes loaded on the roof, waited at the side of a river for the crude ferry to take us across. He stood there, arms akimbo, legs spread, eight years of swagger in him, and said: ‘Donnez-moi un VTT.’ None of the small trade ‘donnez-moi un Bic’ for him. Besides, having taken out 50 biros, I’d long since exhausted that bounty, as it was so considered out there.

 

27 April

Heavy shower…sunshine…heavy shower…sunshine…Marie and I walk the Bradbourne Conservation lakes, take refuge in one of the hides during a particularly insistent downpour, then press on. Two heron’s nests atop trees in a clump of vegetation on an eyot in one of the smaller lakes. One bird in precarious residence on an upturned straw hat of loose-woven twigs. I never saw such a nest and wonder if it has a special name, as in eagle’s eyrie. Apparently not. Shame.

Another name for the bird, shiterow, is cited in the Scottish Acts of James VI, shite meaning to void excrement, though why the heron, or harnser as they’re known in Norfolk, should be singled out for a general avian tendency to reckless defecation, I cannot tell.

I once saw a wretched heron, so ungainly when landbound, majestic in casual flight, being mobbed by a murder of crows at the Highgate Pond. He (or she, don’t know) struggled to get clear of the reeds but had no speed in take off and was quickly battered down. Time and again, the strained lurch into the air, the clumsy tumble back. Finally, he did manage to break through the attack and was gone, soaring aloft, and the crows gave up on their bloody business.

 

29 April

It emerges that a letter issued by Trump’s doctor reporting excellent health, a marvel of bodily condition, mental faculty, astonishing fettle for a man of his dubious age, a year or so ago had been dictated by Trump.

 

The film Force Majeure, loaned to me by David: A most unusual film, blimey. Emotional autopsy, pathologist’s scalpel, scoop and medical saw in full action.

 

30 April

A fundamentalist Christian preacher interviewed about biblical authority, the singularity of Christianity which denies, by proof inherent in God’s utterance, the validity of all other religions and faiths – all ­– gives, as an example of how behaviour and morality must be governed by divine diktat, the analogy of a washing machine. ‘Why, wouldn’t you say that the manufacturers of that washing machine know best how it works, and only they know, because they made it? If they say in the manual that it works on 220 volts, then you’d best be sure to link it up to a 220 volt power supply because if you don’t, that machine is going to malfunction, and if it malfunctions because of something you did, in failing to follow strict provisions of instruction, why, then, that’s on you, wouldn’t you say? Well, now, it’s the exact same scenario with our Lord who made us. He was our manufacturer and only he knows how we are meant to work, that governs our behaviour and makes it right and just in accordance with His original plan for us, the precise plan that went into our construction, as precise as any blueprint for the construction of a machine, and it’s by abiding to His instructions that we work and by not abiding to them that we stray into sin.’

 

May Day

Is there a suitable incantation to May that would ensure her sweetness of temper? I wish I knew one. So many years past this, my favourite month, has disappointed with vile weather. C’mon, May, show us what you can do.

 

2 May

To town to meet Cathryn. She’s off to the Philippines with her new man – who is going to move in with her after they return. We go to the exhibition of Tacita Dean’s Portraits, which is as emperor’s new clothes as is possible. The fuss that is made of that woman…I recall the fatuous radio programme she made with a third rate prodoocer (his pronunciation) some years ago, a stringing together of vapid pronouncements on scientific phenomena – one animadversion on the properties of sound and distance made the physicist with whom I was sharing a bed at the time hoot with laughter – ‘kid’s stuff ignorance’ – and the watching-paint-dry ‘film’ of a camera planted in the revolving restaurant atop the Fernsehnturm in Alexanderplatz…and so it goes on.

Lunch, by contrast, was full of sound emotional and intellectual interplay.

 

3 May

To Saint Andrews.

In the evening, Lucy, rather shyly, spoke of an award ceremony she’d been to a week past. Special recognition. Here’s what the report says on the Department website:

Dr Lucy Donaldson has won a prestigious Teaching Excellence Award, one of only four awarded to staff across the University. The award, which is peer-nominated and peer-judged, is a fantastic and well-deserved recognition for Lucy’s work within the Department of Film Studies. The accommodation praised Lucy’s “inspiring” teaching and her work in “shaping all aspects of the student experience.”

Lucy was also nominated for the “Academic Mentorship Award” – an award nominated by students

Her colleague, Tom, had put her forward and warned her that she’d be asked to make a speech. She wasn’t – to her great relief – but, instead, said she had to watch a video of a senior member of the department heaping p[raise on her. Hurray. Chapeau.

 

4 May

The Killing of the Sacred Deer. The metaphor: surgeon causes the death of a patient through inattention and mishandling – he’s had a number of drinks before undertaking the operation. The bizarre friendship he strikes up with the dead man’s son, Martin, whose influence slowly reveals itself to be malign and vengeful, the surgeon’s son and older daughter (who falls in love with Martin: at one point she offers him her body, he spurns it) stricken with debilitating mysterious illness which renders them incapacitated under Martin’s curse.

The friendship may stand for the need to confess guilt, the whispering of a secret into reeds at the waterside to disperse the ill omen. The guilt itself exposed to the full force of nemesis – Martin and the curse – once the guilt has seemingly been disburdened. The anguish attending the physical decline of the two children represents the torment of guilting the surgeon. His killing of his son expiates the malady, if not his guilt and remorse. The sacred deer the scapegoat, as it were, for Iphigenia spared the sacrificial knife in Euripides’ play.

The opening sequence of the film: a beating heart laid bare, the flaps of covering flesh pinned back to reveal the organ pumping steadily, a prefiguring image for the entire film.

 

5 May

To Ballater to see Fiona and Nigel, via the westerly approach over Glenshee – which was swathed in mist, scabs of old snow left unthawed on parts of the surrounding hillside – and down into the sunlit valley.

En route, we stopped at a garden centre in Blairgowrie where I bought a viburnum for the reopening of the hotel and another for Lucy and Scott. We listened to one sequence of songs which showcased so many of the voices of the soundtrack of my teenage years:

SamCookeEverleyBrothersConnieFrancisRosemaryClooneyBuddyHollyChuckBerryBoDiddleyFatsDominoDionEddieCochraneElvisSolomonBurkeKennyRopgersLonnieDoneganRoyOrbisonDustySpringfield

The hotel, which has been undergoing major reconstruction, remodelling and refurbishment since the disaster of the firs in 2015, is still not ready to open, but Nigel showed us round the place. It’ll be very classy when it’s finished – ah, when…and how they’ve preserved their equanimity through all vicissitudes and against so many obstacles, largely the fault of an idiot incompetent disorganised project manager, pooh, is a mystery. As Fiona said: ‘Of course, people will say that’s it’s not at all like a Highlands hotel any more…not draughty, pokey, a bit damp, frayed carpets,’ and laughed, as she always will in that exuberance of her bright spirit.

Lunch in the tiny flat in Oak Lodge where they’re living and a ramble along the waters of the Dee.

We came home by the westerly route, through the woodlands of Marywell and Finzean, up the winding road across the heath and moorland – Bridge of Dye, Cairn Mounth, below Goyle Hill – and down to the A94 and home.

 

6 May

Warm as a summer’s day. We walked into town and had lunch at The Adamson. Lucy and Scott to work in the garden afterwards, I to read at the table in the apex of their triangular back plot.

7 May

Botanic Garden.

8 May

The train arrives in Kirkcaldy and a man who’s been droing on in a soft Scots accent non-stop from Leuchars looks out of the window and says: ‘Dandelions are oot.’Perhaps this prompted a digression some minutes later about wetting the bed, the first time he did so, in the same, colourless flat tone, sans punctuation…pis-en-lit

As the train came into Grantham, we came to a halt and sat, motionless a long while. An announcement: ‘We apologise for the delay. This is due to a train that’s running on time ahead of us.’

 

9 May

 

Cardioversion, Maidstone hospital.

Marie calls for me to drive me there for 8 o’clock.

I’m wheeled into the lab along the corridors from the ward at about 10 o’clock, after various sessions of note-taking by specialist nurse and a rather gloomy individual who announces that he’s the anaesthetist. Perhaps he’s permanently sedated from the leakage of his essential substances.

The nurse in charge calls me ‘young man’, that weird familiarity which, I imagine, people who use it suppose to be jocular, complimentary – ‘my word, you’re still alive…amazing’ – and, subliminally, grateful not to be at such an advanced age themselves, yet.

In the lab, the anaesthetic nurse, standing behind me, launches into her distraction routine. She asked me where I’d like to be, (rather than here, she didn’t say) and I said that I was going to France this Saturday to see my friend who’s been unwell over the past two years, but much recovered now. This triggered prattle about where in France, had I been to the perfume area – I said ‘Grasse’ she ignored me – and then of chateaux, and what if I were a billionaire, like Bill Gates, to which I said that I didn’t want to be a billionaire, but she was saying that were I a billionaire I could even buy France, and I said that didn’t take into account the French, and, since the anaesthetist had already connected the canula to the inflow of the soporific, he chimed in and asked me to keep my eyes open (without explaining that this was so he could see whether I was responding to the dope he was squeezing into my vein, me proving rather resistant to it,) and this prompted the nurse to chuckle and assure me that ‘we always get you in the end’ albeit that didn’t happen for another fewwwwwww scnds…

 

When I recounted this to Stewart, he wrote: ‘…reminded me of lethal injection.’

 

10 May

Nick, on the phone, tells me that Thursday is a bank holiday in France – Ascension Day – one of many scattered through the year like grains of wheat on hard ground, a curious leftover of pious observance in as formally secular country. He suggested that, given the day off work, they should all be required to go to church, that might cut down the proliferation of God-sponsored slack time. I suggested that they might also declare strike days secular festivals.

Very tired and flat but I essayed a walk. Got about 50 yards up the alley, had to stop because the effort suddenly overwhelmed me and I thought it utterly daft to push on. Reflected a while then turned back.

 

11 May

A temporary filling in a canine tooth (put there over a year ago) came away and I rang the dentists, got an appointment, lucky. Didn’t dare ride so gave myself plenty of time to walk – up the hill, inevitably – and had no difficulty, albeit moving very slowly on the gradient.

New filling in place, I continued into town to collect an order from the bookshop and then home again, in warm sun.

Marie to supper.

 

12 May

Uncomfortable congestion round my midriff and abdomen when I woke.

Cycled up into town, most stately of movement, to gather a few bits of shopping and the weekly Guardian.

Walked to the station for the 10h29 to London and on to Stansted. Arrived feeling absolutely dreadful, my entire system jangled. Sick, exhausted, disconcerted. Marie, in a message, was I sure about going? I wasn’t sure about anything, right now, I said, thinking that if I slept on the plane it might restore me.

I didn’t sleep on the plane – which was much delayed – so I was over an hour later setting off from the airport to Massat. Arrived 9h45, Nick gave me supper, I went off to bed.

Slept for an hour, till midnight, and woke up. A party in the bar close by: not the music per se which drills through but the insistent beat, the stuttering pneumatic drill, of the foul drum machine.

There followed one of the grimmest white nights I’ve ever endured. It was as if some malign overseer of my misery were chanting, in a raucous low whisper, matching the rasp of my lungs: ‘Lente lente currite noctis equi.’

I fought for breath – not a description I have ever thought apt for what I have often experienced, but, on this occasion, the ferocity of the attack warranted it. I came as close as I’ve come to despair. The thought of work that remained to be done froze my will – what had that to do with me, any more? I tried, several times, to tempt sleep by reading myself into a near doze, switching off the light and propping myself up on pillows and cushions. No use. The panic surged and I gasped for breath.

It was that mortality had its bony hand on my throat and lungs, squeezing hard.

Around 4 am, I decided that I should try to get a ticket to go home later on what was now Sunday. Ryanair website on my phone, details filled in…how many times until, after repeated alerts that I had made an error (no specifics), the rejection: that I’d had my allotted number of attempts to fill in the request and, dread word, ‘retry’. In vain.

This occupied over an hour but was, it turned out, most salutary, because it lifted me out of the insidious self-absorption that fighting against apnoea instils. It did, indeed, take me out of myself, an unlikely ecstasy but welcome.

Curiously, I evinced no frustration at the failure to succeed in wrestling a flight out of the recalcitrant website – I was beyond such petty reaction, having worse afflictions to preoccupy me. I once again tried for sleep and, although I didn’t get any sleep, I have managed to get the upper hand o the panic. Each time I felt it racing back to mock my pitiful efforts to evade it and to dance on my failure with heavy tread, I cautioned myself: ‘Steady…steady…’ and sucked as deeply as I could on breath, no more sipping and gulping at it like a beached fish. ‘Steady…steady…’

 

13 May

‘You need to download the Ryanair app…our website doesn’t always respond to mobile phones.’ Thus the advice in what’s absurdly called ‘a live chat’ which consists of a traffic in emails.

I get a ticket for Monday. Nick suggests applying to get a wheelchair – says he’s never seen me like this. I’ve never felt me like this: utterly depleted of vigour, a husk.

The live chat which ensues in the matter of applying for a wheelchair entails a to and fro of q (them) and a (me) one of which is that, to include information on my boarding card, I need to shut down the app and then upload it again. I have no clue how to do this and say so. Various instructions, more or less impenetrable, delivered, I’m told ‘go to gate close’. Where and what is that? On the card time the ‘gate closes’, below which is a line on which I should click. (A literalist, these days, is often wrong-footed. Gate close is not gate closes, alas.

There is no line under gate closes, only a vertical line next to it. Neither this nor the blank space responds to a click. I send a message suggesting that we might avoid all this complexity if my interlocutor were to contact the people at Carcassonne and acquaint them with my name and flight reference and the request for wheelchair.

Blimey. It works. Old-fashioned communication skills: pick up a phone and talk to a human being.

 

15 May

Needs must:

Attention: Tom or whoever is able:

  1. to answer an email
  2. to respond to request
  3. to supply me with information required.

[Preferably all three together]

 

Take note:

I have been waiting for over two months for final figures on royalties for the sale of the Mountains Books series, four volumes and got nowhere. This failure to respond to perfectly legitimate request is shabby, inconsiderate, incompetent and downright rude.

Please supply me with the figures immediately so that I may invoice you.

A start would be to respond to this message with ‘received an understood’.

Graeme Fife

 

[No response, therefore…]

 

Simon

I know you’ve got better things to do, but I put it to you that the impossibility, the absolute impossibility, of making contact by phone with anyone at Head Office is a disgrace. Forget email: they don’t reply.

I’ve just waited over 5 minutes on the 485-5000 number for a reply, forced to listen to a snatch of music from Madame Butterfly, an aria whose English translation is generally offered as ‘One fine day I’ll find you’. Ha ha ha.

I’m not laughing.

I have been trying in vain, in vain, to secure final numbers for payment of royalty on the books for over two months: no response.

This ain’t good enough, Simon, and it pains me to think that for all the loyalty to Rapha I’ve shown since long before it opened for business and all the work I’ve done for Rapha, this is the shabby treatment I get.

Yours

Graeme

Simon contacted their finance people, apologise, told me he was in North Arkansas – had I ever been? – and within minutes, an email from the finance head arrived, thereafter, an email with sales figures came almost at once.

 

A fierce buzzing resonates in my left ear. I investigate the source: a vicious-looking specimen of Hymonoptera (?) has flown into the scriptorium. Certainly not a wasp of any make I’ve ever encountered: exaggerated size of forward and rear segment, burnt orange colour, a flare of thin filaments attached, twice the size of a wasp. Hornet? Phone not to hand, so no picture. I opened a skylight and gave it the way out. Looked on the web: a very foreign species of hornet, possibly.

 

16 May

Steph counsels me to look after myself. I assure her that I aim so to do.

S

And no shenanigans? I warned about shenanigans before. But am aware that you are an artist.

G

I have, for the moment at least, developed an aloof disregard for shenanigans of any sort, an altogether Olympian disdain for such low, sublunary antics. You know I have it in me. It emanates from the ascetic streak.

S

Oh, you’re a regular Benedictine monk, you are.

G

At once sybaritic and austere. It’s a pitch poise that very few non-believers achieve, lacking the supportive rationale of pious devotion to an imaginary friend-foe. I do it by pure instinct, touch and a formidable grasp of syntax…pun intended.

 

17 May

Dr O’Neill told me that I’m back in af – as I suspected – but then gave me much more sobering news: that she is leaving the Practice. Such a sadness. She’s been so attentive, assiduous in all respects, on the case and proactive.

Whilst I’m disappointed that the cardioversion – which had worked – had not lasted, it does mean that I must simply get on with things, as before, without any sense of anxiety about what I should and should not, sensibly, do.

 

18 May

On Tuesday, I woke around 6.20, on Wednesday, 6 o’clock, Thursday 5.33, this morning 5am.

Read for a while – James Baldwin Another Country  of which more soon, then, having talked with Nick about the intrusive presence of an unkempt and overgrown laurel next door which looms, in shading enmity, over my blackcurrants and lilac below, I got up, went out with ladder, saw and secateurs – the tools attached to lengths of garden wire to secure them to the fence, should I let them fall, and pitched in to cut the damned vegetable back. The neighbour does nothing in her garden, she’ll almost certainly not even notice that anything’s been done. All the discarded branches and offshoots, I stuffed down towards the base of the fence on her side and thus opened up a much better passage for the sunlight onto my plants.

I feel reinvigorated and the more so because I felt cleared of the anxieties of these past few days, good lord, nearly a week. A lingering apprehension hung in me that I was due to set off on another trip imminently – I’m not – and that, too, has passed. Garden, sun, warmth and home worked their soothing welcome.

And, after breakfast, I planted all my seed potatoes in one raised bed. The revitalisation matches that of this clematis, by the shed.

 

19 May

Royal wedding. Both bride and groom required to swear a vow to stick by the other through various degrees of discomfort including ‘for richer, for poorer’. For poorer…? By what measure? A single zero wiped off the joint bank account…?

 

21 May

Another Country…Baldwin’s analysis of the emotional landscape is quite remarkable. A rare sustaining of the insights of the inner eye, the charting of emotional temperature, the swirl of dispute and contrary feeling, the relentless continuum of those feelings, subject to doubt and confrontation, the impossibility of consonance.

And:

‘For he was one of those poets who escaped the terrors of writing by writing all the time.’ p 299

‘Don’t laugh,’ said Ingram, ‘he, too, can become President. At least he can read and write.’

169

Ah, those were the days.

But:

‘Strangers’ faces hold no secrets because the imagination does not invest them with any.’ 172

Really…?

78

‘He was tired of he troubles of real people. He wanted to get back to the people he was inventing, whose troubles he could bear.’

The light peppering with French, phrases and sentences, is an irritant, unnecessary. I recall that time in Paris with Lisa-Jane when an American friend of her arrived and insisted on speaking (clumsy) French with us: three anglophones together. Absurd.

 

As I opened the car door before leaving Massat a week ago, a woman in dungarees and a head scarf emerged from a house two doors along from Nick’s.

  • C’est vot’ voiture?
  • (Bien courrouseuse) Vous l’avez très mal garée. Pas du tout convenable pas du tout.
  • Désolé.
  • Mais non, c’est pas acceptable, pas acceptable.
  • (En haussant les épaules sous un pluie emmerdante) Désolé.

(Elle regagne sa maison, la porte ferme. Nick explose en furie. Je reflechis…peut-être, alternativement:)

  • Ô madame, que j’suis bête, que j’suis con de l’avoir garée la bagnolle maudite dans une ligne des plusieures bagnolle du même grandeur, juste en face, forcément à côté du chemin, là où tout le monde laisse leurs autos, selon usage communale. Ô madame, que j’vous ai dérangée, culpa me, jamais en vie ferais-je une telle énormité jamais jamais encore. Merci de m’avoir reprouvé. Vous êtes véritablement l’ami de l’ange de vengeance. Supplices de l’innocence perdue.
  • (And Nick) I usually reply in English. That shuts them up.

 

At the airport, an Englishman giving needless grief to a young woman behind the information desk – his question (one among many) about the late arrival of a flight from Manchester, to which she replied that she had been told it was delayed but that was all. ‘That’s not much of an answer,’ he says, rough, aggressive tone, at which I suggest he should back off. He rounds on me and gives me a face full. At which – foolishly – I tell him to piss off. He tells me to piss off and then: ‘It’s none of your business.’ To which, as he walked off, I might have said: ‘Being aggressively rude to someone who’s doing their best to help certainly is my business,’ but was too tired, had lost my balance.

At London Bridge station, as I walked rather slowly and leaden-footed towards the platform, two men walked straight across me, with the result that my right foot clipped the heel of one of them. He kept walking. I muttered ‘prat’ at which he turned, glowered and swore at me. I said: ‘Were you born obnoxious or did you have to work at it?’ to which he gave the puzzling reply: ‘It comes naturally. You shouldn’t be so rude.’

 

BBC SO playing Gerontius, concert recorded last week, broadcast this evening. A piece I love – we sang it at Aldeburgh one Festival.

I first heard it performed at the Albert Hall, conducted by Adrian Boult – all other details lost. I was in my final year at school, therefore 17 and can remember nothing about it. I might not even have been there listening. The shame of that. So, too, with Fauré Requiem, at Durham and a recital by Jacqueline du Pré, also at Durham.

Who on earth was I, cloth ears, numb heart, dolt?

When, years later, I came to both pieces to sing them, what joy and amazement, which casts the earlier neutrality into even sharper disgrace.

 

22 May

Out early to clear the ground by the blackcurrants of feral bluebells and make a space for another Rozanne geranium.

Resumed work: went through the text of the novel and checked the match of the synopsis, making adjustments (a few) wherever necessary. It felt good to have been drawn back into it, even though the frustration of waiting for David to keep the appointment to discuss changes grows. I respect his acumen, if not (ever) his time-keeping, alas.

Later: mowed the grass with the new electric mower – not so much the physical effort of the push machine which I’d used up till now, but the inefficiency of it, hacking at recalcitrant grass of various provenance.

Planted the Warsawska clematis delivered yesterday, replacement for the previous incumbent of the space which never did anything, poor thing.

And then I sat to read in the immediate vicinity of the sweetly scented azalea.

…and in full view of the garden’s royal blue and lavender purple:

26 May

Irish referendum on overturning the punitive abortion laws a resounding victory for the Yes vote. The Irish prime minister hails its historic significance by saying that now ‘we can trust and respect women to make their own choices’ which is strange, in the context, as if by voting overwhelmingly yes¸ women had demonstrated their reliability, at last. No longer the fragile, vacillating, indecisive creatures who’d needed the support of men and male institutions to protect and guide them in their frailties, but, at last, mature enough to stick it to the Catholic church, for example. Well done, girls. We trust yer.

 

29 May

Dear Kate and Max

As I write, it is to the accompaniment of the spit-spat-sputter of raindrops on the window above my work table – good for the garden if not for the summery mood we’d slipped into over this past week. Observe the chair, in this pic, close by the sweet-scented azalea where I’d been sitting to read, drinking in the fragrance, part infused by the swim of that other perfume from the wisteria – the other pic – whose lavender festoons hang over the royal blue of the irises. Alas, both iris and azalea have had their term and the petals fall.

On Sunday, in full sun, the famous Bat and Ball roof bar was in full service – Marie and I sitting there for a barbecue lunch – skewers on bbq – and chilled rose wine, a lovely long interlude of dolce far niente. Bees visited the raspberry canes but, even as we looked over at them, Marie suddenly gasped: ‘The cherries…they’ve all gone. No, one left, two…three, but the rest? Gone gone.’ The net wasn’t impervious – not secured to the ground, but surely birds wouldn’t risk going in under it? Apparently they would and had. Pooh. The whole little tree stripped.

She also regaled me with the story of Gin’s gymnastic leaps, high somersaults, an ecstatic frisk. This before I arrived so, of course, she could have been making it all up. Touch of the sun? Fanciful construction? Gin with tonic? Ha ha. Sounded to me like a sort of memory dance for Ger, some agitation of his spirit which flung his body into a lively exaltation, as if to say ‘Still here, Ger, brother, still kicking it, still at the leaps and gambols. They say it’s only a deer or a gazelle can pronk, but a cat can pronk, too, watch me go. Corporal high fives, hey ho, live that thing, skip and trip it, happy thoughts of your shade, dear old Ger, never forgot, and them as do get a lapse of memory, here’m I to remind ’em: wheee.’

He flaked out in the heat, later, of course – recumbent under the shade of a chair up there on the roof. Which recalls the story of – well, here’s a digression, but you’ve come to expect that: I do not run on rails but on jinks of byway – the twelve dwarfs hired to publicise something or other, doesn’t matter, but they were instructed to parade on top of a flat roof, presumably above the offices of whatever outfit it was they were bringing notice to.

This in Manhattan.

Well, now, whether by mischief or misplaced generosity, someone sent up a few bottles of whisky. Party time. And, by the time the party time whisky bottles were drained (or was it whiskey? You know the distinction, I hope, if not the taste) the dwarfs were legless, although in truth, being dwarfs, they had not much leg among them to fill foo. (Which is Glaswegian for drunk, did you know? Foo? As in ‘ah’m foo the noo, assolutely foo…’) Result: they had to be lowered to the ground in a basket, those sozzled dwarfs, rollicking drunk, packed into the wicker like new-borns, wriggling and kicking, snoring and wheezing, however the inebriation had taken them. Twelve pickled dwarfs. The thought.

Thank you for your card – what a lovely surprise, hurray. Train ride sounds a gas. £3-50, eight hours, wow. Memorable? I sometimes drift back to the great train journey I made. Grateful, though, to be stationary for the moment.

Marie showed me the latest budget of photographs – good lord, what a slide show there’ll be when you get back. And what stories to tell. No monkeys in this recent catalogue. On one occasion, in a hotel restaurant in the south of France, Pete, the shutterbug and I were talking to the waitress of what we were doing there, Pete describing landscape, buildings, mountains, the subject of his work and she, eyes wide open said: ‘No animals?’

Now I must resume work. A bird just whistled and I take these natural signals very seriously…if that wasn’t a call to knuckle down again, I don’t know what is.

Thinking of you, of course.

much love

Graeme x

 

30 May

And, here in the Park, as I rode this morning, a very bewildered creature which, I find from my bird book, is an Egyptian Goose. I phoned the RSPB to ask about it – so far from home – but the expert told me that they are hardy creatures, this one probably escaped from captivity. An exotic visitor. The picture is poor but the markings were distinct and the immediate reaction of the expert assured me I was not mistaken.

2 June

I have the Park to myself. Walking along by the southern wall of the house, the long avenue of trees, various, I see a bird of vivid lime green, long slender tail, flit from the foliage of one to the neighbour. It looks too big to be a parakeet, too small for a parrot and the tail is wrong for a psittax, surely. Perhaps a parakeet after all. I catch another glimpse but cannot see where it’s hiding in the upper branches.

 

3 June

A grand circular walk in warm sunshine, parts in the cooler woodland, with Marie from Penshurst station, two hours. Followed by crab salad on my terrace and the first of my lettuce. Fine interlude.

 

5 June

Dream:

I am talking to the men on the fruit and veg stall and, with no recollection of how the switch was made – perhaps a jump cut in the dream movie – I’m cordoning off a dance floor in a large hall with a surrounding palisade made of light, wooden uprights, the shape of medical spatulas, some of them wrapped round with foliage. There’s an audience watching. No sound.

I leave the stage for a while and return, adjusting my belt buckle as I walk into the middle of the stage, and say: ‘I’m just fastening my trousers. Nothing sinister. It’s one of the things that comes round, now and then.’

A great gale of laughter from the audience.

 

9 June

We visit the sumptuous garden of Long Barn in the village of Weald, where Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson began their adventures in gardening. I lament my shameful ignorance of plant names but walking the terraces, some of stone, others grassy, by flowerbeds, vegetable patch, shrub and tree, the fall of the garden looking out onto the fields and wooded screens of the Weald of Kent, I rejoice, as ever, in having found my home in this beautiful county.

 

14 June

As the World Cup gets under way in Russia, news of a man who has draped a huge St George’s flag across the entire frontage of his house blotting out windows, door and roof. In Lincolnshire. Very flat, Lincolnshire. The flag was manufactured in China.

 

An email from Thames and Hudson:

Dear Graeme,

I have the figures and what is to my eyes and hands an agreeable format for the book. I will be discussing the numbers with the finance committee next Tuesday, after which I intend to come back to you with concrete next steps.

Thanks again for your patience.

Best wishes,

Lucas

 

I reply:

Dear Lucas

On this day of sun after rain, the two essentials for all the vegetables and fruit I have out in the garden – this morning, the first bowl of my strawberries – that is great news.

Thanks for your tenacity.

Best wishes

Graeme

I had a feeling I would hear from you today. It’s that residual trace of the Scots in me, I guess, being what they call fey. A diminished version of witches’ glamour…which is grammar.

 

And from Scott:

Great news! Hope those concrete steps work out well…

Scott

xx

To which:

When so much of the time the response is a sort of concrete shoes, concrete steps are so much more inviting. Gx

 

15 June

Birthday of Lesley, now in Glasgow. She and David (of Berlin) having to sort out works in their flat.

A card showing a b&w photo by James Ravilious: Glyndebourne, a couple in their sixties (?), he in black tie, she in evening gown, sitting at a picnic table in a field, cows mooching past in the near background. He musing, she peering at what must be a full orchestral score. Clear sunlight. I add the caption. Him saying to her: ‘What’s the time? We don’t want to miss the Arctic Monkeys.’

Lesley, writing back to say thanks – for card and present of a book – says: ‘I didn’t know you were a fan of the Arctic Monkeys. I am. We must listen to…’ and named an album, ‘together.’

I respond: ‘Ah, I must confess that I wouldn’t know an Artic Monkey from a Kentish Town pixie…I used the name for effect, only.’

 

18 June

On this day, in 1940, General de Gaulle broadcast from London his appeal to the French people not to give in but to mount resistance to the invading Germans. I submitted the manuscript of No Common Assassin to the agent who not only replied to my first email – an astonishing rarity in itself – but, in two subsequent messages, encouraged me to do more work on what I had sent in as well as pointing out one essential discrepancy between the text as written and the pitch for it.

 

19 June

The first of the blackcurrants in my breakfast bowl of fruit. Yum.

 

20 June

A day out with Marie beginning with a visit to Camber Sands – to which I’d never been. We sat in a dune shelter looking out to sea for a while, talking, then walked along the open flat beach, part of a very long coastal sandy strip at the edge of marshland, once held by the sea, stretching inland for more than two miles in places to the line of what was the Saxon Shore.

I got my first dip in the sea this year – not close to a swim, having walked across a stretch of pan flat sand, here and there worked into rumples by wind and wave, into a shallow churning on rush of water on the flow of the tide, brisk pace, whipped into spindrift peaks by a strong wind. Off to my left, kite-surfers skimming the surface at hectic speed. Marie walked over to gaze at them having admonished me before my walk to the tide race – ‘Don’t drown’ – caught by the float and twist, the leap and skid of their movement under the buffets of the stiff breeze. Lovely to see, like a wheeling of birds in a spiraling flock.

Away to the left, the bulk of the Dungeness power station just discernible in the haze. Along the line of the dunes to our right, a cluster of beach houses, some grand in proportion, one, a b&b it turned out, looking more like a marine research centre than a dwelling, and a couple of eateries, one offering Bratwurst and Kraut (coleslaw) amongst the usual beach grub.

The quality of the light struck us: a heightened sheen, sun in a near cloudless big sky, the reflection off the silicon underfoot – ah, the pleasure of sand between the toes – and the mirror, even ruffled, of the sea.

In Rye, we walked up to the church on the hill near which is the Ypres Castle pub, but couldn’t locate it – my memory of where it is was hazy – and, as the church bell tolled 3 o’clock, we did find it but…too late, not even a sandwich to be had. Instead, to Simon Pieman where we sat in a window seat by a side street, glass doors open, for fish pie and chicken pie, Marie faced with a sizeable crust of puff pastry which, with commendable cool, she flipped away from the contents of the pie and, despite shaky confidence in appetite, finally disposed of.

A stroll round town, rootle in a couple of junk shops – no purchases – a health store – bamboo toothbrushes – before tea in a tiny sun-dappled courtyard at the Cobbles tea room, hidden in a corner off one of the cobbled ways which lead off the main through way of the upper town.

The shop by the car park, advertising itself as selling ‘antiques and high class junk’ was closed by the time we retrieved the car.

And we drove home, untroubled by any traffic affluence, in the rich colour of the late sun, an hour to home, too late for the Flimwell smokery we’d thought of visiting on our way back. A day of utter calm, indifference to clock, relaxed and content in the best company. Joy.

Summer Solstice

Hi Dad,

I heard back about my promotion today, and I got it! I haven’t spread the word any further, but I wanted you to know. I feel like that is a very significant achievement of my research leave, and extremely happy to have that under my belt. It comes into effect on the 1st August, so I will be a Senior Lecturer from then.

Hope you’re having a good week and enjoy the long lights of the solstice this evening.

 

Hey, that’s most wonderful wonderful news. Hurray hurray hurray. And do you know what? I told Marie a short while ago that I was pretty certain they would make you a senior lecturer soon.

I’m overjoyed, simply brilliant news to hear this Summer Solstice. Could not be better. Very well done, you, in such a short time. They obviously think very highly of you and deservedly so.

Celebrations in train. Bloody hell, I can hardly contain myself.

millions of love

Dad xxxxx

And I’m, honoured that you should tell me.

Well, of course I would tell you – important that you know these things.  Mum knows now as well, and I’ll start telling others – the department hasn’t been told yet, so I’m going slow. Finding it difficult to get much in the way of work done now. Xxxxxx

23 June

In the Park:

Not much of a picture. The scent emanating from those lime blossoms, however…

I stopped to talk to a man drilling a new hole in one of the greens, told him I’d worked on a golf course in Canada, that the boss was a hopeless green-mower, but that we used hand-pushed power cutters. They don’t have enough staff on the Knole course so have to use sit-upon machines.

In the course of our conversation he looked across at something that had caught his eye and said: ‘There, the bane of our life…golfers.’

 

28 June

A van is emblazoned: Access Solutions Scaffolders…

Disappointing. Why not ‘Cat Burglars’?

 

29 June

In the Guardian, a journalist writes of someone that ‘he did turn out separately to be…’ which is, so far, the worst to bruise my eyeball, a nadir of split infinitives, a horror.

 

Pete to lunch to talk about the mountains books. We discuss what I may have to field when I talk, later in the afternoon, with Lucas at Thames and Hudson. The conversation is brisk, we dispense with queries with our practised ease – complicity.

After the conversation, Lucas being a warm, forthright, plain-speaking man with whom I feel perfectly at one, my task is to conflate two volumes, aziz, of Southern and High Alps into one volume. Not a job I relish, as I told him, but, it being necessary, I will do it.

My report:

In brief: the picture section is not the focus of their greatest concern, rather the word count of the two French Alps books. Their concern is not being able to sell two volumes at c 90,000 words apiece to foreign buyers and Lucas put it to me that this would require combining both volumes in one. Was this something I could try? I told him I don;t try, I do and, after some discussion, I said that whilst I did not relish the job of making one volume out of two, I could see the reasoning and, if this is what it would take to push the project on, then I would do the job. Their timeline focuses on the Frankfurt book fair in October.

I did question the use of ‘relevance’ a propos of the photography and he is not of that persuasion – the money men – and not a term he would use.

Upshot is that I have said I will look into what might be done to condense the two books and have some rough outline ready when he comes back from holiday (in Iceland) around mid-July, so that we can press on from there.

Now that this is agreed, he said that he can move the whole enterprise on and discuss terms with us. It’s not an outcome I’d wish for but I do see the logic in it – from their perspective – and it seems futile, and silly, to argue for maintaining the four books aziz at the expense of jeopardising them altogether.

2 July

As I sat on the bench under the kitchen window, on the terrace, reading, this petal from the jasmine in the two planters by the back door floated down into the crook of my thumb. The scent begins to swell, too.

 

12 July

Lunch with Dave and Carol at their house in Well Hill. Bob and Linda picked me up and we all first walked the garden they’ve made up there – an absolute glory – then sat at a table outside, under a capacious umbrella, to eat, drink and talk. I started work early, finishing the last of the work on the new French Alps volume, the two original books squeezed into one. I’ve not only done that but revised the entire text twice, meticulously, so that the writing is improved, errors expunged, the whole thing more polished.

After lunch, Carol cut these flowers for me to bring home and I put them n the pot, just as she’d handed them to me, unarranged, a glorious effusion of colour and the joy of growing things.

 

13 July

Eager to get the work finished, I began at 7.30 – table of Contents, a necessary chore, and a letter to Lucas at Thames & Hudson. Finished, the whole thing by 1 o’clock.

I felt terrible, worn out and jittery.

 

Bastille Day

Lunch with Jo in her house in Sparrows Green, Wadhurst, belated birthday for her – Independence Day – and I hadn’t seen her since 18 December, when Marie and I met her for supper and I was I such a parlous state of breathlessness.

She drove me back to Tunbridge Wells for the bus, down a long, steep hill – good lord, a brute to climb – on a road canopied over with trees, through Turner’s Green, Bells Yew Green, the beauties of this lovely county all round. How I rejoice to live here.

Still feeling pretty tired out but a lovely interlude helped restore me a little.

I reflected later: in 1958 I began the study of Latin, in 1968, I left Durham and began teaching at Rossall Junior School. In 1978, I left teaching and met Jane. In 1980, perhaps withinkling of this need for 8 as important in my life, Lucy decided to be born prematurely. In 1988, having broken up with Jane and moved, via Norwich and Aldringham (Suffolk), to London, I met Lindy. In 1998, I had to leave the flat, put all my furniture and possessions in storage and lived in France for two and a half months, cycled to Timbuktu, cycled from Lourdes to Lisbon with the Blazing Saddles, and, that November, moved into Low House in Sevenoaks. In September, 2008, Lucy and Scott were married and that December, I moved to Middle House. This December, therefore, marks ten years in Middle House and twenty years in Sevenoaks. And it occurs to me that my birth month, August, is number 8.

 

16 July

Marie’s birthday begins, although she will still be asleep in Seattle. I begin what must be a rather muted celebration by sending in the new book, with this accompanying letter:

Dear Lucas

Here are the two files which deliver the new volume French Alps:

th1 – Northern (NA) and Southern Alps (SA) combined – and

th2 – Contents table.

I preserved one section from SA, now called Barcelonnette, because it attaches naturally to the main area covered by the NA volume. A further elision: several of the Italian crossings in that section which put the interest largely on the Italian side. Given the need to be firm, if not severe, excluding Italy seemed to me to be logical. I have, therefore, included only one approach to the frontier on the French side, the Col d’Agnel, for reasons which are, I think, apparent in the description of that climb.

I’ve included a note about the other crossings.

The total word count for the new text is 89,293 which corresponds near enough to the word counts of the existing NA and SA volumes.

In producing the new text, I have revised, repaired, cut or augmented the original scrupulously, to make what I believe to be a much better book. I then went through the complete text again in final revision. I’ve adjusted formatting insofar as I am technically adept enough to do so but can only apologise for lapses in presentation if not overall taste.

I’ve also effectively copy-read the text. There may be errors inhering, still. Fresher eyes will be more alert to them.

I enjoyed the work although it has been very tiring, not least because, in going through the text, line by line, I felt the weight of all the labour that went into producing the original, all that vocabulary, syntax and grammar ganging up on me. Ha.

I do hope, therefore, that what I’ve done will fit the bill.

I hope, too, that Iceland gave you a wonderful holiday and that you’re refreshed and in good spirits, not too downcast at the return to the desk. I’m very conscious of the fact, possibly the grim fact, that I have, here, plonked a very large paperweight onto it.

Best wishes

Graeme

One thing: I’m conscious of referring to places and things en route which may no longer be there – a café, for example. Perhaps there should be a disclaimer thereto.

 

17 July

An article by a literary cove at the Guardian, about a new collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, in which he says: ‘Manuscripts in this section include the poem “Trout”, which was literally written on the back of an envelope.’

‘Literally written’…wow. What, word by word, letter by letter, the strictures of syntax and grammar hovering over the scribble to ensure that the literal be observed? Like, on an envelope, like, when the letter’s been, like, taken out and the top is torn off, like, leaving a blank piece of paper, like double thickness? Like, awesome. Amazing. Evoking Schubert and scraps of paper, no doubt, though ‘literally’ wouldn’t apply to musical notation, would it, could it? I don’t think so. Not when literally meant literally. Now, however…who knows? World’s oyster, literally, pearls after – or is it before? – swine. Literally flummoxed.

 

Another split infinitive horror: ‘she began to quietly cry’. Seems to me that the perpetrators of these lash-ups have no ear, apart from anything. The spl-inf has now become de rigueur, as if no infinitive can mean anything cogent without the inner brace of an adverb, like a hip replacement, a strengthening plate for a fracture. The force of the verb is, thereby, so diminished. She began to cry…quietly, raucously, inappropriately…blah blah…but after the crying so we have the weeping to the fore, the more important of what’s going on, here: the tears. Then qualify them. To quietly is so very ugly to look at, clunky to hear, inept verbally, downright bloody redundant.

 

 
18 July

Jane had asked me to help a friend with interpretation of a Latin line, in connection with William Byrd.

inclita facundo concordat gratia vultu

 

Hm, pithy, and a metrical oddity – just misses hexameter because the fac is short which spoils the scansion. Maybe it should be accepted as hexameter, nicer were it to be so, an aristocratic drawl on the faac…? However, inclitus (or inclutus, Greek in origin), means renowned, famous, facundus is eloquent or fluent, vultus a face or expression. So, maybe:

An expressive face speaks [chimes?] much-praised grace, or Handsome is as handsome sings.

Does history relate whether Wm Byrd was good-looking?

 

The much-praised grace

Of his harmonies

Accords with the charm in his

Expressive face.

 

19 July

In an exchange of emails with the author of the article about Byrd and this enigmatic line, I wrote about that occasion in Blythburgh…

I sang the 40 part motet in Blythburgh church one Saturday afternoon in 1987 – a scratch choir of people who sang with the Aldeburgh Singers for an annual concert at the Festival. We met at 2 o’clock, rehearsed for two hours – using old scores, the old notation with which we weren’t familiar, all pretty nervy work. Then at 4pm, we had tea and sandwiches in the village hall where the kids had been looked after Jane and my daughter, Lucy, among them, before going back to the church, a lovely bright sunny afternoon in late May, the air quite still, flowers in the gardens lining the road, full of colour and new life, wisteria dripping down one house front, to sing.

We gathered round the font in a large circle and…the music soared.

When we’d finished, the echo still hanging in the roof space where the famous wooden angels stared down at us, there was a bated hush.

And a voice: ‘What do we do, now?’

I said: ‘Why don’t we sing it again?’

We sang it again. We’d lost the edge-of-the-seat sharpness, but singing took away the tension, the taut frustration of not knowing what to do with yourself which comes after a deep immersion in music ( a very dear friend of mine plays cello in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and often can’t sleep for a long time after a concert).

There are dints and scores in the pavement of the church and some of the angels are broken – damage left by Roundhead iconoclasts. I wrote a story, Spem in Alium, for R3 based on that.

 

The night before, Lucy and I arrived at the house on Aldringham Common where my mother and father lived. I’d left SO after nearly a year, having finally had enough of her jealousy, anger, snide insinuation, insecurity and bullish diktat. My father had been utterly smitten by her – on one occasion, he took her off for a drive to talk through her relationship with me, not to measure how worthy of me she was but how I measured up to her obvious superior moral stature. That Saturday morning, he went off to Norwich to console her – she had, of course, phoned to tell him I had left and had clearly gone slightly crazy.

He stayed overnight and returned on Sunday, as if what he’d done was altogether to be expected, father of callous son, scooting off to comfort the distressed former lover in the full pomp of her lachrymose histrionics. (She got married a month later to a man whom she’d constantly denigrated and rubbished as a loser, a man with whom she couldn’t believe she’d had anything to do, ever.)

I wrote an article about the ad hoc performance for the Eastern Daily Press on Sunday afternoon and was told, by the then literary editor, that it was the best thing I’d ever done for the paper. At the time, the only money I was earning came from reviewing books for him, up to five a week, plus concert and play reviews. He eventually called me in to sack me because, filling in for him at the last minute to review what turned out to be a dire performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (not a very good play, I think), at the Theatre Royal Norwich, I slammed it, the lead actor complained and the lit. ed., I guess, got it in the neck. We had tea and he told me he could no longer cope with ‘an erratic genius’, ha ha. Although that meant I was going to be out of money – this on the eve of my going to live in London – it struck me only as comic. I think I didn’t say that, his having lost a review I’d phoned in of a concert at the Snape Maltings which featured a world premier of a piece (Tango…? I forget), by Hans Werner Henze, I really couldn’t take his expostulations seriously.

Years later, my father, challenged on his actions, said that he’d acted as he had ‘because she was in distress’. ‘I was in distress, too,’ I said, ‘only her distress was rather more attractive.’

 

20 July

We hanker after rain, rain in any quantity, as we have hankered these past, arid weeks, wondering if every cloud gathered over England has been pumped dry, and, this grey day, we hanker beneath a constipated sky that seems – or is that merely fanciful, wishful, hopeful, hopeless? – to strain for release.

 

Bruce, in Wales, writes to say that, were there to be another referendum, he would vote out, this time, having voted remain at the urging of his daughter. I respond:

 

For you to vote out because that’s what the pusillanimous small Englanders did first time is a perversity worthy of Seb. What? To align yourself with that imitation human being Moggadon, the sycophant toady Govepuppet, the puerile narcissist Bonjo, the felon Fox, the…fuck, it’s a coven of complete shits.

I’m glad you voted to remain at Portia’s request – the vote should have been for that generation, not ours. So it should continue to be. Lucy and Scott were spitting and I was spitting with them. The lies pedalled by Farage et al, the scaremongering about immigrants, the small island psychosis*…too many facets of that campaign were deplorable.

Fucking Cameron buckling in the first place. Migod.

A local landlord who is mad about Spitfires said ‘we [not him, in fact] fought a war to get out of Europe’. I had no wish to engage in any dispute with him but might have told him that I’d heard a man interviewed on radio the day before – he’d landed on D-Day and said ‘having a united Europe was exactly what we were fighting for’.

There’s so much badly wrong with the EU but being outside it, in the mitts of those shit and incompetent shits is a ghastly prospect.

Ghastly.

Fucking Tories.

As for Labour and their so-called leader…what hope?

 

Of them all, I’d say: ‘I wouldn’t trust you further than I could spit treacle, I wouldn’t trust you to piss into a urinal.’

*And an email from Richard Divers:

I was at a ‘business meeting’ in the east midlands a few days go. Men and women in their mid-thirties to forties. Fairly successful. All for Brexit. When I asked them why, in essence their reply was ‘the wogs begin at Calais’.

 

 

21 July

A woman on radio describing herself as ‘a writer, poet, playwright, wife, mother, creative artist’. A certain hyperbole applies here, I’d say.

More particularly, I find the ‘creative artist’ schtick somewhat sickly. As opposed to what? Piss artist? And what, in sum, argues against plain ‘writer’? Pretty heavy and comprehensive responsibility in that. No fuss, no frills.

 

22 July

Rode the Condor road bike across to see Mike and Tracie, a bit apprehensive about the hill up to the Grey Ladies Oasts outside Crouch, but it was fine, save that my chain was jumping – misalignment – on the lowest gears which added some extra stress of effort, but nothing to deter me. Mike realigned the chain with delicate touch and acute ear to the jiggle of the cable:cog linkage. Brilliant. Although I was very tired by the time I got back, I’m mightily glad to have done the ride. On Plaxtol Hill, a young guy went past me without sign or greeting. I called out after him: ‘Why don’t you just say hello?’

‘Because I don’t have to.’

Expostulation ensued.

 

I discover that the three seat of the British Coxless IV which took gold in the London Olympics, 2012, suffered – and still suffers – from atrial fibrillation. He’s still competing at the top level. Wow.

 

26 July

Marie and I sit out on the flat roof of her studio at the bottom of her garden to a celebratory gin and tonic before supper: Thames and Hudson are going to proceed with the first of the newly shaped book on the French Alps.

Rain is predicted for tomorrow and on into the weekend, some of it heavy. I say that I hope, therefore, to walk through a thunderstorm on the early walk on Saturday.

 

27 July

Lucas Dietrich at Thames and Hudson writes with formal confirmation of the deal – contracts being prepared. This after nearly five months of deliberation and analysis on their part – costs, potential market, feasibility…He writes:

Dear Graeme,

I have begun drafting a letter of agreement, which will go to our legal department for checking. I’m hoping to get it out to you next week, but it may be the week after.

We are also lining up an editor to work closely with you on the texts; I’m developing a brief based on our recent conversations. At the same time, we’re working on the typography, which we’ll share as soon as we have it in the next week or so.

So it’s all happening now. It’s often like this at T&H: after months of deliberation, once we decide, we move decisively forward. I’ll thus thank you, for what I hope will be the last time, for your patience in getting us to the real start of this exciting project.

Best wishes,

Lucas

 

Shortly after this message comes through, I go out to water the plants in the greenhouse, the sky darkening and the rumble of thunder in the offing. Some spits of rain but the thunder circles, as if round a hallowed patch of ground onto which it may not stray. Although a short blast of rain did come some time later – even as I set out to ride up into and beyond town for supper with Nick and Vanessa – I thought of that scene in Jean de Florette where the hunchback glowers at the thunderstorm passing him by, his plants withering on desiccated stems, and screams in frustrated rage at the clouds and the malevolent god riding them: ‘Tu crois que c’est facile?’

 

28 July

I set out as usual at a little after 6.30, the atmosphere close, muggy, duvet warm but, even as I approached Blackhall Lane, the temperature dropped under a stream of colder air, the sky darkened and thunder drum rolls announced the imminent split of the freighted clouds…or not. The prediction of rain has been wrong before and had more of caprice than fixity in it. However, the clouds did burst and, within minutes, not only was I saturated head to toe, socks, boots and all, but there was a thick torrent of water coursing down the gutter. Rain lashing with primal force. Blessed wetness pounding at the arid earth – there’d be no absorbing the flood for a long time. The soil had become impermeable, stone-like and would stay so until by slow degrees the rain could seep into cracks and fissures and squeeze it once more into spongey consistency.

Near the rise across from the Bird House, I passed a large flock of Common Gulls standing on the grass, like commuters, fed up about yet another train cancellation.

In plodding along, soaked, I probably caught a chill for, although the rain did not persist for more than about twenty minutes, the warmth of the sun did not reclaim its dominion for a while thereafter. In any event. By the evening, I was feeling rather wobbly and somewhat dislodged by knowing that I was going to have to get up at 5am for a car to take me to the Sky studio in Isleworth. Perhaps, too, it was the relief of the news from T&H. Although I’d never really doubted that something would come out of their discussions, the emotional surge that came with the formal confirmation was overwhelming, a massive release of undetected tension.

I had the Park to myself, always a silly pleasure and satisfaction.

Marie and I went to Bob and Linda’s for supper and I felt progressively more out of sorts, alas. She had a heavy day in prospect so we left early.

She told me, earlier, how terrified she is of lightning. (I’d seen none and, in the great wash of the sudden deluge, rejoiced.) When she was living in Norway, she was alone in the house one night when an electric storm broke and she watched, paralysed with fear, as lightning flashed and spurted out of the sockets – placed at waist height in Norway – with the result that her instant reaction to the whip-crack of lightning, ever since, is a spasm of debilitating terror. Moreover, her next-door neighbour in Norway was killed outright by a lightning strike.

I was once struck by lightning – not a full leven, rather an overspill of electric charge, it must have been. Out riding in Norfolk one summer, after a month of riding in the Pyrenees, showing visitors round and then continuing research for the book, altitude training, indeed – an electric storm broke over me. I kept going, water sluicing under the wheels and felt a sudden hefty slap on top of my scalp. I rode on. What else to do? Shelter under a tree? Bad idea. (Though I had to do just that during a mighty storm in the Teutoburger Wald on my ride across Germany – in 2009, I think. I had no choice, then.)

If the insulation of the rubber in the tyres was functioning, it must surely have been nullified, at least in part, by the layer of water underneath. I passed without any further strike and my head was wonderfully clear for ages after.

A couple whom I knew in Norfolk were negotiating a business deal with a Norwegian company and entertained two of their managers at their house for the weekend. The two men were crushingly dull and Rosie and Charlie wre almost catatonically bored, desperately trying to maintain what passed for bonhomie with the personality-free partners.

On Sunday evening, the last of the long sufferance of their lardy company, one of the men picked up an electric plug attached to an appliance – farmhouse kitchen, Rosie preparing supper, Charlie attending to aperitifs – and held it up in front of his face, his face bright with excitement. And, says he: ‘Aaaah, you hef sthree pinz…’ comedic pause. ‘In Norvay, we hef too.’ I’m sure he added exclamation marks. I will not. But at this, his companion burst into a cascade of giggles and he himself chortled and shook like an overloaded tumble dryer, as if he’d just delivered the joke of the week. Charlie and Rosie glazed over, rictus of grin, how can this be happening to us, who are these people?

 

29 July

I didn’t get much sleep and what I did get was barely restorative. However, the car ride was swift, just over an hour, the two presenters were excellent so the interview went very well, more a three-way conversation than a q and a, and I was home by just after 8.30.

A couple of catnaps during the day helped to restore me a bit.

 

30 July

Eventually got up, having gone back to sleep a couple of times, at 8.30, much revived.

A message from Andrew Maxwell-Hyslop who edited the mts bks, in reply to my message about T&H and in further thanks for everything he did to make the texts as good as they could be:

Cher ami,

Thank you most sincerely for your kind words. It was a privilege to be selected as your editor, and I would not have missed it for the world. The texts on all the parts were interesting and intriguing to work on (which is always a help and does not always come to pass!), yet also technically complicated. I recall that my first style guide was the longest one I ever composed! Happy days indeed!

Yes, I can certainly understand that preparing the texts for T and H would be quite an operation. I know you will have done a damn good job.

Well done, Graeme, for pulling this one off. May it lead to new opportunities for you!

Cheers and best as always,

Andrew

 

1 August

Baudelaire, Spleen, Tennyson Lotos Eaters and Enoch Arden, Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea.

Lucy takes up her post as Senior Lecturer.

 

Birthday

Richard arrives at Bat and Ball where I meet him. Lunch on the terrace here. A spread of salads: segments of pink grapefruit with slices of avocado, scatter of coriander, oil, sprinkle of seaweed condiment…sliced tomatoes, oil and balsamic, snippets of chive…boiled new potatoes, chunks of hard-boiled egg, capers, chopped gherkins, dill, flat leaf parsley, chives, dressing…fresh cucumber from the raised bed and lettuce. (Tomatoes and potatoes not yet ready.) To follow: gruyere, chocolate mousse.

Good long conversation.

 

4 August

An email from Kate and Max:

We’ve heard it was a special day for you and would like to wish you all our love and best wishes from the other side of the world! Wish we were there to celebrate with you! Another year another 365 days of wisdom, knowledge and life experiences.

Thanks so much for all the wonderful correspondence, we’ve devoured your emails as they’re like little personal stories just to us 🙂 and we never feel as if we can be quite so eloquent and interesting in return… my style of correspondence normally goes something like ‘did this today, was pretty fun’… the end.

However if you want to know what we did today, we met up with Sue, Molly and her boyfriend and are in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam wandering around islands and trying to avoid package tours at all costs (which include crocodile farms, holding pythons and horse and cart rides…). Instead we floated through palm fronds on kayaks and visited coconut candy factories. Tomorrow, or rather in a few hours, we get up before sunrise to visit the floating market which is apparently a spectacle. I’m sure you’d be in heaven, we’ll send you a pic. Currently we are in a bamboo hut floating over some stagnant water with giant snails wandering around our bathroom floor, so I’d say this place is roughly 50% romantic.

 

I reply:

The emails jink from one address to another, like kids playing hide and seek and popping out from behind trees to call out ‘peep-bo’ then dodging out of sight again before (they think) anyone can fix which tree they’re hiding behind, but WE KNOW, because we’ve been watching out of the corner of our eye and the tell-tale ankle and shoe is still quite visible, sticking out behind the trunk…ha ha ha, they didn’t think of that. Caught you. You’re IT.

What a thing it always was to be IT.

You must never disparage the content and cast of your messages: they are full of delight and energy, they skip and paint in swift strokes the picture of where you are and what you’re doing. What can I offer to match coconut candy factories, a floating market and giant snails? The genius loci, Green woodpecker of Knole…a gang of common gull standing around like expectant (resigned, more like) commuters on a station platform

at going home time…a speckled emerald and gold Brachytron pratense dragonfly who came to investigate me yesterday evening as I sat on the terrace, reading…? Nah, not close.(Here’s a link to the beautiful creature. I chased round with my phone to try for a picture but impossible – too quick. I did get one rather blurry image as she/he rested

on the curtain in the downstairs room before making for the windows where I managed to give egress.

On Saturday, Marie and I arrived at the Vine to find (ha ha, I knew, of course) Alison and Michael sitting at a table outside, well primed to chirrup ‘surprise…’ as we strolled towards the entrance. An excellent meal, lively confab, good rose from Provence, pale as translucent coral.

 

5 August

Paul and Moya take me out to lunch in the Bucks Head garden. The slacking goes on.

 

6 August

Work in the garden – pruning and tidying, cleaning the gutter, downpipe and valve supplying the water butt by the honeysuckle. After breakfast, long-planned shoring up of the small bed with rhubarb and mint at the top of the garden. Shifting soil, driving in holding posts, hard labour in the swelling heat. Ride up to town ad back for various errands. Back for lunch, after which…feeling rather whoozy. The electric punkah wallah in the scriptorium doing its best to quell the suffocation in the air as I begin a section for the porphyria memoir with sketches of various Norfoklk oddballs.

 

American filmscript quotes Isaiah ch 49 v 25 and changes ‘I will contend with him who contends with you’ to ‘I will contend with he…’

 

7 August

I sit on the terrace at glass of wine time with Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, described by one blurbist as ‘the great novel of American domestic life’, not a puff, one might say, calculated to prick a lot of interest. The formica chronicles, the backyard drama, the diner duellos…a pity because it’s an intriguing mosaic of stories, time-jumping and deftly aligned, even if I feel the need for a family tree – a twice-grafted family tree – to remind me of who’s who. But that’s my fault. The interweave of stories tracing the lives of the siblings and step siblings eschews full explanation in development and scatters clues, only, until the unravelling in further episodes, making the handling of time jostle both intriguing and seductive.

Here she speaks of the eponymous novel, written by one of the characters: ‘It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.’ [p.178]

A single drop of rain. The sky is murky but not gravid. Another drop and then more, but sporadic. I retreat inside and sit by the open French window. No more drops outside, I go back. Gradually the idea of rain sinks into the sluggish cloud, the idea takes hold and the solution to this needless indecision – to let go or not to let go – comes with happy force and the rain comes down, more and more rain. Joyous flood.

 

8 August

Park-market ride in a cool breezed, the atmosphere fresh from last night’s rinsing. A good hard ride. Breakfast. Out into the garden to clear the strawberry patch. The plants are nine years old, this year’s harvest thin, time for replacement. The professionals say three years, we dilettanti can get away with more but decision made, I jab and jab with the excellent spifflicating Japanese broad-leaf knife (billed as a trowel) which Lucy and Scott gave me, the perfect tool for the job.

Nick arrives, we sit for coffee in the shade of the magnolia, then he pitches into the pruning – vines, wisteria, apple trees, with my periodic intervention, athis request, to discuss loppings.

By 2 o’clock, the patch was clear, debris from pruning either stuffed into the compost bin or squirrelled into the undergrowth of the spinney behind the house, for beetles and their ilk. I was pooped and didn’t recover till later thatafternoon, having fought off the debilitating tiredness by scanning the T&H contract, then settling into the canvas chair in the scriptorium and willing myself to relax.

Fatigue passed.

 

9 August

It rains once more. Glory be.

 

10 August

More rain gathers and stutters.

Anthony Burgess, in an essay about Eric Partridge – which I hadn’t read for a while – and lexicography, writes of ‘the letter B, always the biggest section of an English dictionary’, which is right peculiar. B shares a volume with A in the OED, C occupies single volume of the thirteen and S requires two.

 

23 August

A particularly hard walk last Saturday and a number of expeditions on foot, sessions in the garden, ride on the long route to town made me feel so tired I wondered if there were something wrong with me. A debilitating fatigue, most unpleasant. I decided that if it hadn’t cleared by the weekend, I should go to see the doctor. I realise, now, thatit was a premonition.

This afternoon, I received an email from Ella Khan who had pushed me to make radical changes to No Common Assassin this past year and who, I felt almost sure, would take on the latest version I’d sent – vetted by two readers. However, she turned it down. The style, she said…

I was distraught. It was verily the worst I had ever felt at a rejection. If, having expressed continuing interest in the novel, she was saying she couldn’t sell it, what hope was there for it?

 

24 August

I woke at around 5am and composed an email in my head – of protest, pain, disappointment, no, worse than being disappointed I was disconcerted. I simply didn’t know what to do now. I felt stupid, useless, incompetent, simply bad at what I was supposed to be good at. I’d tried so hard to deliver a text which earned her generous interest. It was an email I would not write and certainkly not send, but the process was a necessary purgation.

It took some time to get back to sleep but, setting out to catch up with Marie on the way to the station – a Proms rehearsal – at 9.30, I felt completely restored, the dreadful lassitude of the past few days completely gone. I was walking with vigour and knew that the reason for this was the administration of a violent kick, a right slapping.

The rehearsal – Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21, Bruckner 5 – was, as ever, intriguing. I love watching, and listening, to the process of shaping the music and had come to see if I could recover a liking for Bruckner. I did like his sonorous rather stodgy inconsequential, introspective music once but had lost any pleasure in his company long since. After the rehearsal, I was standing with Marie outside the Stage Door when Michael, from the cello section, emerged, smiled and said: ‘Are you a Bruckner head?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Hope to rehabilitate him but couldn’t.’

 

Home again, I wrote to Ella, in the hope of another chance, knowing that I was asking a lot. She was, as ever, kind, but adamant.

 

25 August

Dear Ella

As miserable as I felt after I received your first email, it proved to be just the kick I needed.

After all my blather about style, I went back to the text on Saturday, the opening few pages,

and felt sick. The writing in those first pages was awful: turgid, stilted, a muddle. Whilst it was not nice to be so confronted by my incompetence, it did, at least, serve to stir me into action and for that I thank you.

You were far too kind, too gracious, to spell out just why you rejected the style. Perhaps we are best required to deliver the sternest reproofs to our own self in person.

I ask you, then, as a last favour, if you will at least look at what I’ve done in the first pages to make them readable, instead of clotted. I did not stick at the opening section but have pressed on and, whilst a lot of what’s there seems to be lucid enough, I still find very murky passages which take a lot of staring through and repair. I will persist.

Belief is not much to hold onto against the practical duty of writing to make clear sense, but it is a sort of final encouragement.

I attach the opening section which you can ditch if this is all too wildly out of order.

 

Although I cursed myself for having messed up what had offered as a great chance to sell the bloody thing, the ruthlessness of tackling the corrupt text anew, administering a powerful emetic to the prose, overrode any despondency and it was a perverse joy to see the tosh I’d written transformed. Too late, but a vast improvement. I think, ansd certainly trust, that I will never write such turgid stuff again.

 

 

30 August

The effort of this revision induced a very different sort of fatigue – I became incapable, pretty well, of thinking about anything else with any degree of focus or even interest.

I wrote:

‘Dear Ella,

You’ve been generous and forbearing well beyond anything I deserved and, for the patience and rigour of your responses, I will always be grateful…’

Nevertheless…where now?

 

 

31 August

BBC SO a fine perforamce of The Rite of Spring at tonight’s Prom. Shamelessly, because of reference to the first performance of the piece, I insert, here, a deleted passage from what eventually metamorphosed into Memory’s Ransom:

 

20 July 1914. British Embassy in Paris

His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador, Sir Fuller Grace, greeted the Ambassador of the German Reich, Graf von Niemand, in his private office overlooking the garden of the British Embassy. It was an English cottage garden, shaped for a certain sense of organized disorder, in conscious reaction, even defiance, to the tradition of French ornamental. Hollyhocks.

The room was understated elegant. Spread across the top of a Louis XV buffet under the window cill, like a tablecloth, a waxed paper map of Europe, held in place at one side by a small silver salver supporting a bulbous decanter (sherry) and two glasses, positioned strategically in the Atlantic, over the British naval base on Madeira, at the other side by a vase of mixed flowers placed over Moscow and obscuring that part of the Russian landmass contiguous with old Europe. A troubled borderland these nervous days.

The Ambassadors were well acquainted, habitués, both, of the busy, often exhausting, always crowded, diplomatic social circuit. Ascot. Longchamps. Chantilly. Nice. Baden-Baden. Vichy…In Paris itself, cocktail parties, soirées, the theatre, opera. Not the ballet, however. The Rite of Spring? Riot of Spring, rather, a case in point, very much in point, and of recent alarming memory. Paris audiences were, alas, as Sir Fuller Grace ruefully knew to his cost, notoriously far more interested in making a rowdy, clamorous spectacle of themselves in front of the stage than devoting any significant attention to the spectacle on the stage.

His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador spoke both for the king, also emperor of India, and for his dominions, the United Kingdom its Empire and colonies. The German Ambassador spoke for the Kaiser and his colonial possessions, only lately acquired, the cast-offs and backwaters that the rest of the European overseas adventurers had left or overlooked, for whatever reasons, largely commercial.

Sir Fuller Grace, a saturnine individual of wiry frame, with drooping brow and pale opal eyes, had the look of a spaniel who’s missed his breakfast. He extended his hand to von Niemand, a bowl-chested, bullish Prussian with pomaded salt and pepper hair, full beard and monocle.

They conducted their conversation in English, the eminence grise of Great Britain taking seniority in nationhood over Germany, a mere stripling by comparison.

‘Graf, my dear.’

A click of the polished heels and the slightest of bows. ‘Sir Grace.’

‘A long time. Easter?’

‘Just before. Palm Sunday. Palm Court.’

‘Ah, yes. Pleasure.’ He mused briefly, then, as if nudged gently in reminder, said: ‘Seat?’

They each sank into one of a pair of large, buttoned leather armchairs of the sort favoured by gentlemens’ clubs. They soughed with slight whisper of expelled air, an audible squeak of high quality hide.

‘Your good lady wife, the Griffin?’

‘Gräfin.’

‘Of course, of course. Well, is she?’

‘Well. Well. Lady Gracie?’ Touché.

‘Grace.’

‘Absolutely. Well ?’

‘Well, very well. Tip top, in fact, tip top.’ He smiled. An avuncular smile. It was always such a pleasure to know that the womenfolk were in good fettle, happy, and all that, dear wifey in particular. He smiled on, an inner congratulation, too, signalling a contentment to be shared generously. ‘Yes,’ he continued ‘Lady Grace is very well indeed. A handsome little flutter on the Derby winner the other day – top tip, ha ha ha – pleased her no end. I should say.’

‘Felicitations.’

‘Indeed. After that hoo-ha last year. Batty woman flinging herself under the king’s horse. Bit of a facer. I should say. Quite spoiled the day.’ He paused. ‘Ah, shall we…?’

‘I rather think we should.’

‘Some…?’ He half rose from the seat and made a tentative gesture towards the decanter.

‘Perhaps afterwards.’

‘So then…’ He subsided once more into a deep clutch of armchair, fluttered both hands as if attempting to levitate and said:

‘Yes, yes…your feeling?’ His face assumed the look of a father who is mildly disappointed with his son’s lack of enthusiasm for croquet. ‘This local difficulty…’

‘Yes.’ Not the moment to be giving anything away.

‘Yours and ours. Regrettable.’

Now, he felt, now he could unburden. ‘Our feeling exactly. Regrettable.’

‘We’re agreed on that, then. Regrettable.’ He tip-tapped the arms of the leather upholstery. ‘The question is…the question is:  whither hence?

‘Where to now?’

‘Precisely.’ He had the look of a man who has just finessed his croquet ball out of his adversary’s way.

‘Your people…?’ asked the German ambassador.

‘Comme ci, comme ça.’ Sir Fuller sketched a rocking motion with his left hand, the crested family signet ring on the little finger, catching a sparkle of sunlight, glinted like a heliograph. ‘Yours?’

‘Noch nicht.’

‘Noch nicht?’

‘Noch nicht.’

‘I see, I see.’ He didn’t. His grasp of German was frail. He steepled the fingers of both hands. ‘Apparently,’ he said, his eyes wandering to the sunbeams streaming through the casement window, ‘apparently, the twenty-eighth of June, when it happened, was, is, something of a red letter day. To the Serbs, I mean. It seems they take it very seriously.’

‘It appears so.’

‘Not a good day for an Archduke of an imperial house not much liked in Serbia to pitch up in Serbia for a royal visit, full dress uniform, what?’

‘Indeed.’

‘Yes. One of our Johnnies at the Foreign Office in London, bit of an expert on the subject, read history at Oxford, something of the sort, came up with the story. On best authority. Serbian national day, it seems. Yes.’ There was an awkward pause, the German ambassador clearly being either unconcerned to follow up the statement or entirely ignorant of what it hinted at.

‘Yes,’ the English ambassador repeated. ‘Some battle or other, rather a long time ago, middle ages sort of time. The Serbs got themselves defeated. On what locals call the Field of the Black Crows, apparently. Couldn’t tell you why. Odd to commemorate a defeat, though. Wouldn’t you say? I believe there are French chaps who can’t understand why we British named a railway station after a defeat. Ha ha ha.’

He chortled, rather pleased with the quip. The German Ambassador didn’t laugh.

‘Odd thing is…very odd…the date isn’t right,’ he continued. ‘Should actually be the fifteenth not the twenty-eighth. Something to do with a shift in the calendar, dates and all that. It won’t do, will it? I mean, if we don’t know which day of the month we’re talking about, all sorts of things can happen. Wouldn’t you agree?’

The German ambassador grunted. The English ambassador’s smile faded. He resumed.

‘Were I to say, then,’ he said, after a meaningful pause, ‘were I to say, by way of essay, testing the waters, dipping a toe, were I to say “an accommodation”…?’

‘An accommodation.’ The Graf thought for a while. ‘What, hmm, did you, do you, have in mind?’

‘Oh, nothing indeterminable. I’m sure we can…shall we say “explore the leeway”…any leeway? Hmm? Would you say?’

‘I might. We might.’

‘Good, good. The Kaiser?’

‘Not for a week or two. Possibly one. More likely two.’

‘Away, is he? Or…?’

He let that pass. ‘The King?’

‘Oh no. On the other hand, the Prime Minister…’

‘Yes…?’

‘The thirteenth. At the latest.’

‘I see. That’s something.’

Sir Fuller Grace clasped both hands together. ‘So it’s us, then.’

‘It would seem so,’ said Graf von Niemand, glancing surreptitiously round the room, buying a little time. Then: ‘Shall I…?’

‘Please.’

Graf von Niemand cleared his throat, a deep and voluminous throat, and began. ‘France?’

‘With Russia.’

‘Of course. The Tsar?’
‘Not for a week or two. Playing tennis, it seems.’ He deliberated. He’d never been any good at tennis. Something to do with eye-ball coordination, he’d been told. Some coves had it instinctively. Bridge was more his métier. He skidded back to the conversation. ‘Austria?’
‘Austria-Hungary.’

‘Of course. Austria-Hungary.’ There was the rub. ‘What of Austria-Hungary? Hmm?’

‘Nervous. Very nervous. The matter of the…’

‘The Serbs?’
‘The Serbs. Natürlich, the Serbs.’

‘The Serbs, quite. Quite. Damnable business. Damnable tricky business. For want of a nail…’

‘I beg your pardon?’
‘For want of a nail…’

‘For want of a nail?’
‘…the kingdom was lost.’

‘You’ve lost me.’

‘The nail in the horseshoe, d’you see?’

The German ambassador hedged. ‘I’m not sure that I do.’ Was this some form of code? Was he missing something vital? A discreet reference to something that had gone before? Part of the plan? Ah, the intractable problem of language. A very thicket of incomprehension, misadventure and betrayal. How could they rely? They were here to be relied upon but, who could ever be sure of communication?

‘The nail in the horseshoe, you see,’ glossed the British ambassador, as if that must explain everything.

Plainly his Prussian interlocutor did not see.

The British ambassador glossed further, with the enthusiasm of a boy in the top class knowing that he’s got the answer to a question that has stumped his fellow schoolmates:

‘…the horseshoe missing a nail comes loose, horse casts the shoe, goes lame, critical moment in the battle, one shoe off, the horse stumbles, rider off horse – in this case the king – falls with the horse, crashes to the ground, head strikes a large boulder, dead as stone, crown rolls off the shattered helm into the bracken, the battle is lost and, finis coronat opus, never truer, end crowns the work, so, too, the kingdom, lost.’

It was a code, thought the Graf, it must be. He could not fathom it and said, in his native tongue: ‘Ach so,’ hoping that the subject would go away.

Sir Fuller Grace leaned back in his chair and contemplated the plaster rose round the  chandelier fitting on the ceiling. ‘The law of unintended consequences,’ he said, with that airy certitude of the university lecturer to a seminar student,’ unforeseen outcome of seemingly disconnected events…for want of a nail…and the rest follows, lamentable, q.e.d., the trivial mishap triggers the grand calamity. To put it another way, it’s the pebble in the pond…ripples, ever widening ripples spreading from the centre.’

‘Ripples? What is this “ripples”?’

‘Waves. Wavelets, rather.’

‘Ach so…Ripples?’

‘Sarajevo. Bullet. Aftermath. Consequences…You see?’

‘Sarajevo?’ And then his puzzlement at all this talk of nails and horses’ hooves cleared. It was like a heavily brocaded curtain drawn across a bedroom window to reveal the light of the morning. He sucked his teeth. ‘Ah, sonst schlecht. Sarajevo.’

‘Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head.’

‘More nails?’
‘Not exactly. However…Shall we leapfrog to the detail?’

‘Leapfrog?’

‘Skip, if you prefer, skip to the detail?’
‘Yes, let’s, detail.

‘From our standpoint, strictly from our standpoint, our perspective, to make the distinction: Serb nationalist shoots Imperial Archduke of Austria-Hungary…we’re agreed so far?’

‘We are.’

‘Excellent. Serb nationalist shoots Imperial Archduke, whose Empire, naturally, necessarily, takes a rather dim view. Revenge? Altogether likely. However, let’s leave the ethics and the legality to one side for the moment, shall we? We don’t want to muddy the water.’

‘As you wish.’

‘That’s the ever-present danger when it comes to detail, the risk of getting bogged down. But I digress. To resume: Russia takes side of Serbia, on account of Serbs being fellow Slavs – cleaving to natural affinities, ethnic roots, comes with mother’s milk. Inevitable that Russia should jump to the defence of brother Slavs. Not much to be done there. And then France…yes, I’m dreadfully afraid so, France, to the west of Austro-Hungarian Empire,’ he smiled unctuously, ‘respects established alliance with Russia to support Russia to east of Empire. Entirely to be expected. And you see where this is leading us, don’t you? A sandwich.

‘Meanwhile Italy, to south of Empire, also linked in the same alliance…well, I need hardly say, it gets even more tangled still. Moreover, the sovereign power invested in His Britannic Majesty, Emperor of India, whom God preserve, to the north of Empire, securely girded all round by sea, moreover, at the centre of a rather more widely flung Empire of its own, His Britannic Majesty,’ he repeated, with a faint touch of do let us pay reverent due to the august personage about whom we are talking, ‘abides by a firm, an unshakeable commitment to peace by whatever means possible, including aggression. Which brings us to you, to Germany.’

‘And…?’ The Prussian detected a slight, but could not quite put his finger on it.

‘The seemingly trivial but extremely vexatious issue of Alsace-Lorraine…?’

‘Elsass,’ said the Prussian, with bruised dignity. ‘Elsass, now. Ours.’

‘There, you see, the problem in a nutshell, the impasse. Even the nomenclature. On the one hand, Alsace-Lorraine, on the other hand, Elsass. If I may briefly don my historian’s hat: French territory lost to, subsumed by, Germany, well,’ catching the hurt look in the Prussian’s face, ‘Prussia, in the last local difficulty. And, with my diplomatic hat on again, French territory lost but claimed, in perpetuity, by France. Still. You see our predicament? From where we stand. That claim, you see, still outstanding. Unresolved. A tricky one.’

Graf von Niemand starchily assumed the full weight of the German Reich behind him on legitimate cause and clarity. He said: ‘Perhaps, then…consider this, if you will: the Canadians, Indians, Australians and certain peoples in your possessions in Africa, might make a similar claim. Against you. Do you not think? Alle menschen werden Brüder but a man must choose his friends.’

‘And yours?’
‘Ours?’
‘Empire?’ He winked. ‘You see? Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The conundrum is not cut and dried, far from cut and dried. In our case, we might say, and forcibly, in our case, it’s arguable. Pax Britannica, don’t forget. A question of balance. Quid pro quo. Fair exchange no robbery. Incidental and not inconsiderable benefits. Trade, the Bible, cricket, the civil service…you take my point?’

The Graf ‘s features creased in a flinty scowl.

Sensing a moral victory, the British Ambassador went on: ‘And we mustn’t forget Italy, must we?’

‘Italy? Are you saying that Italy is part of your…?’

‘No no no. One step ahead of you there. Italy, eyes on the Tirol, currently part of Austria but could be, could easily be…you see where I’m going, here?’

‘Not entirely.’

‘That is, currently part of Italy, but…there are the mountains.’

‘The mountains? What have the mountains to…?’

‘Never overlook the mountains. Don’t you find? Always the problem with mountains, is it not? So very hard to define. Crags, ravines, crests, ridges, saddles, passes, spurs and whatnot, most of the time knee-deep in snow, a lot of them. Where do they start? Where do they finish? Where to draw the line? Frontiers, boundaries, what’s ours, what’s theirs. A political knotty irregular verb if ever I saw one.’

‘We don’t do mountains.’

‘Hardly a matter of preference, though, is it? Others do.’

The German Ambassador snorted. Where was all this leading? He felt himself sucked into an ever darker labyrinth of thorny confusions. ‘What, then, d’you propose?
‘Propose?’ The British ambassador uttered the word as if the thought had not occurred to him. A long time since he’d done that.

‘You’d expect me to ask.’

‘Ah…’ Now the thought had occurred to him, all of a sudden, with obvious inevitability. He steepled the fingers of both hands and nodded, comfortable in his steady grasp of the situation. ‘Of course, of course. What do we propose? Yes yes yes. I wouldn’t expect otherwise.’

‘Well, then?’ The German ambassador felt impatience picking at him like a dry cough, a barely disguised faint irritation. There was, was there not, or ought to be, a distinction to be drawn between discretion and evasion?

‘How, if…? A moratorium?’ The British Ambassador’s tone was bleak, unhopeful, calculating.
‘A moratorium?’
‘For the time being. Until we’re…that is, better placed. Why not? Just for the moment.’

The response was stiff, unyielding, gnomic. It was time for assertiveness, politesse aside. ‘When the brakes are released, the locomotive will roll down the hill,’ said the Graf.

‘Always supposing the locomotive is on a hill. The law of momentum? Yes. I wouldn’t disagree there. However…’ The British Ambassador pondered the image, tussled with it, latched on and placed the image. ‘Ah, I see, I see, I see, you mean the brakes which arrest forward motion…or backward.’

‘The brakes…’

‘…are released?’

‘Are released, off. Even as we speak. Rolling stock rolling. Ask the Generals.’

‘The Generals.’ Oh, good heavens, the Generals, he thought. The old antagonism between the military wallahs and the politicals. Precisely the reason why the diplomats were there, to make sense of it all, to stand aloof from the squabbles and arsy-versy arguments, without partiality or prejudice one way or the other. Favour to neither side, honest brokerage. Reconciling the irreconcilable. It required a good deal of tact, of subtlety, of tact, even charm, but that’s what they were there for, wasn’t it?

‘Don’t you,’ he said, ‘don’t you have some kind of mandate, some control, some influence, at least, over the Generals?’

‘Do you?’

‘Between ourselves?’
‘Naturally.’

‘Do you know, I’m not altogether sure. But I can ask. I’ll ask. On the other hand, the Generals aren’t here at present. We are.’

‘So we are.’

There was a long hiatus. They seemed to have come to a point of no return, no advance and no anything much at all worth pursuing. Finally, the British ambassador, knowing a dead stop when he saw one, intervened.

‘Good lord,’ he said, as if the chandelier had started loose of its fixing and crashed to the floor, narrowly missing them both. ‘Is that the time?’ He paused, a long pause into which the troubled history of the past fifty years flooded and settled. ‘Your answer, then?’
‘To what? What is the question?’ said the Prussian.

‘That’s it,’ said the Englishman emphatically, slapping both knees with his hands. ‘Rem, if I may say so, acu tetigisti…nail on the head again.’ The Graf let that go. ‘ There’s the rub. Confidentially,’ Sir Fuller Grace leaned forward and spoke, hugger-mugger, ‘confidentially, no one on our side appears to know. For the moment. Yours?’
‘I’d have to enquire.’

‘There we are, then, moratorium de facto. We should reconvene…having put it to our people, having asked, having…’ He shook his head side to side, a favourite mannerism expressive of just how very difficult it was, how exceedingly difficult, to deal with the obtuse military with their fixed ideas about cherished plans in pigeonholes and even more obtuse politicals on the other. Positively impenetrable.

‘We should,’ said the German Ambassador, ‘reconvene,’ with that professional complicity which was, after all, their stock in trade, and nodded gravely.

His ambassadorial colleague nodded, too. ‘Utmost dispatch, necessarily, we don’t want to cast that horseshoe, do we? A stitch in time…’

‘A stitch…?’

‘Just an expression. Well…we’ll be in touch, shall we?’

‘Agreed.’

Graf von Niemand rose to leave even as Sir Fuller Grace, having half risen, sank back again. ‘Oh, now,’ he said. There’s something which occurred to me.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes. By the by. Your Kaiser, now, is the grandson of our late queen, Victoria.’

‘Of course. And…?’

‘As is our King. His cousin. Who is, moreover, the colonel of your Prussian First Dragoons.’

‘And…?’

‘As your Kaiser is the colonel of our British First Dragoons. It has a pleasing symmetry to it, a certain ring, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Members of the same family.’

‘Members of the same family. Indeed. As were Cain and Abel.’

‘Not always a happy consanguinity, family. Well…’ He stood, his opposite number stood, they shook hands.

‘Auf wiedersehn.’

‘Toodle pip.’

 

1 September

A glorious walk this morning, the dry plop of acorns and conkers to the ground now and then. I met the woman whom I first saw standing by one of the ponds in the Park, holding herself very still. Very briefly, I wondered if she was contemplating sliding under the water but realised that she was, of course, meditating. I’ve seen her a number of times since, either at the Pond, looking out across to the higher ground across the dell to where the house sits, or on her way there.

I said good morning and then told her of that time when I first saw her.

‘Oh, no, it’s far too shallow. I meditate.’

‘Yes, I realised,’ and forbore to say that it doesn’t take much water to drown, bid her goodbye and walked on, thinking of that terrible moment when I was working on the house in Corpusty and Brian Bunting, a builder who lived in Little London, came walking along the Street and asked if I he could talk. He’d taken his two sons – around 4 or 5, I think, to the beach at Hunstanton, along with the younger son of a couple who lived at the end of the Street. The little lad had gone face down in a shallow pool, unnoticed by Brian, who must have been distracted even briefly, and drowned. He was on his way to tell the mother.

I heard her a couple of evenings later, squatting on the small patch of green, opposite the pub, site of the Guy Fawkes bonfire, howling with grief.

 

A musical afternoon at Bob and Linda’s. Ian, their son, his daughter and youngest son, played – violin and guitar – sang songs. Members of two families who’d been B and L’s neighbours in Colchester when the kids were growing up, played violin pieces. The last gathering had been 15 years ago – I remembered the event vividly (I sang impromptu, Silent Worship  and…?) and, this time, had wanted to give them Deh vieni alla finestraThe Lost Chord and My Brother Sylvest, but gave up on that – my voice is uncertain, no breath control, the damned af and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get myself in shape so would stick with Sylvest. I gave a preamble, a bit to warm the audience up and quite forgot the last bit of my prepared patter: ‘I did go to a singing teacher to ask her to listen to my voice and she said that I could do a lot

of damage, if I sang.

‘My vocal chords, you mean?’

‘No, I mean the audience.’

Marie played a Bach cello suite – the first time I’ve heard her play solo: wonderful. After she’d tuned, someone asked about the Proms and she said the orchestra had played last night –  Ravel, Stravinsky. Then someone else jokily said: ‘Why not something from that?’ At which, her face suffused with the joyous humour of the joke on the joke, hit the violent four beat monotone chords of the chunk-chunk orchestral intervention blotting out the lyrical bassoon and winds opening of the Rite of Spring. The look on her face…it was pure comedy, pure glee, pure brilliance of wit.

After tea on the terrace, I gave them Sylvest to general delight, I’m pleased to say and I did sing it with a certain bravura. Hoo hoo.

 

3 September

In an essay about matching prose style to historical context, Anthony Burgess reflects on his anachronistic use of the word ‘assassination’ with reference to the murder of Caligula. Then he says that ‘there is a Latin verb assassinare…’ but proceeds to trace the origin of the word to its true source, the Arab word haschassin, adopted by French and Italian in the form from which the English comes, direct. For the followers of the Turkish Old Man of the Mountains…the story is well-known. Out of their bonces on the dope, dispatched to zotz Christians and Jews, infidel.

Where he got the idea that there’s such a Latin verb is a puzzle. Mediaeval Latin has assassinium but that, too, is borrowed from the Arabic.

 

4 September

This in an email from an agent:

Thank you for contacting us. I’m afraid that this is not the sort of thing we are looking for at the moment. Please accept our apologies for this delayed response.

I sent in the submission on 22 July 2017.

I write back:

To what does ‘at the moment’ refer’? Now or thirteen months ago when I sent this submission? There are cacti which grow faster.

 

5 September

As I was dead-heading the rose which now climbs up the non-fruiting cherry with rare force, I watched a bee luxuriating in the anthers of a rose near its end. Waddling side to side, working his feet, nuzzling and enjoying the best the dying rose could do. It was a glorious sight and I was transfixed. He flew off, briefly visited a couple of other roses, not nearly so alluring, came back and treated himself to another session. I thought, of course, of running in to get the phone so I could take a picture of him, but I’d have missed too much and might well have been too late, anyway.

 

8 September

Rehearsal of the Last Night of the Proms, I’m put in charge of the daughter and her cousin of an orchestral colleague of Marie’s – they’re both around 14/15. Cheerful girls, loving the experience of the music and the Hall and picking out their mother/aunt on stage. In one passage of the music, I pointed out the celeste – playing in the Berlioz Lélio, I think, and one of the big screens showed the instrument – and explained what it was and why it’s so called. One of the girls looked at me and said: ‘How do you know all these things?’

When I took them to meet their mother/aunt at the end of the rehearsal, she thanked me, I said they hadn’t given me any trouble and, turning to the two of them said: ‘Did you give me any trouble?’

At the start of the rehearsal, a strange sight: in a row across the aisle from where we sat, a Sikh man (burgundy red turban) with his young son and daughter, I guess, each waving union jack flags as if they were trying to shake off spiders and he, organizing them into a picture framne for the camera, took pics of them. It seemed incongruous – the celebration of the colonial power. I didn’t get it. Or perhaps it was just child crazy waving of a flag I have no feelings about.

 

On the tube back to Charing Cross after the rehearsal, I watch, very perturbed, a little girl, no older than four, mimicking pole-dancing – movements, facial expressions – on one of the uprights in the carriage.

From the station in Sevenoaks, up the hill to town and lunch at Côte. I arrive just after a young guy who was also on the train – he’s greeted by a small group celebrating a birthday. One of the young women asks the new arrival how he got there. He walked. ‘Up the hill?’ she says, in astonishment. ‘Wow. How far is it? Amazing.’

I recall a doctor telling me, in my early twenties, that he needed to get my heart rate up for some test or other and asking me for 10 step ups. I looked at him in amazement. ‘Ten? That wouldn’t touch me. I’ll give you a hundred.’ However, the point is that he reckoned that a young man was no more than ten step ups away from the onset of physical stress.

 

13 September

Distribution to various neighbours of market stall brown paper bags cramful of grapes red and white from the vine.

 

14 September

A long session of work in the garden, first thing – putting in onion sets – hopelful replacements for the earlier sets which failed completely. Tidying away the remains of beans and radishes to the outside compost bin, gathering up the last of the glut of cucumbers for further distribution, weeding the cleared strawberry patch – new plants will arrive in October – mowing the straggly grass in the front garden and clearing up there. I was pretty well popped by the finish and picked the first of the ripe sweet corn cobs for lunch – delicious.

 

15 September

On my way back from the Park-market walk, I meet a woman of slight acquaintance, ex headmistress, who says: ‘Lovely day.’

‘Yes, it is, lovely.’

‘Make the most of it,’ she said, and walked on in the opposite direction to me, me thinking ‘bloody nerve, telling me to make the most of it, as if I wouldn’t make the most of it on my own natural impulse’.

19 September

Collect the Ducker shoes from the repair shop in town. Re-soled and re-heeled, sturdy underfoot once more. I think of the two snobs in the cobbler’s workshop in Hendon Lane, one of them a hunchback, spitting out brads and tapping them into a sole held firm in the cobbler’s last. A strange, slow-moving film unfolding behind a plate glass window, murky at its edges and corners.

And a phone call from the Oxford Pen Repair shop to say that the Parker fountain pen which I bought in my first term at Durham, 1964, is repaired and ready for dispatch. The shop in Worcester to which I had sent pens before is gone. I phoned the number I had, no recognised, looked up the website, still operative, same number. I called the Worcester Tourist Office, the woman who answered checked the number…same one. A while later she phoned back: she’d walked round to the address to find that the pen shop is no more, the premises occupied by a café.

 

Autumn Equinox

Lunch with Pete and Lucas, from Thames and Hudson. The copy editor who has charge of the French Alps volume returned the first pages to show me what he was up to and I was taken aback: the whole section on the Resistance cut, also that on roads. I wrote to ask what was going on. He replied that he’d been told to get rid of 10,000 words to make the volume more saleable to foreign buyers. This according to the brief he’d been give, a brief I had not seen. I felt as low as I have ever felt – this wasn’t pruning it was evisceration. I wrote to Lucas to say that you can’t go anywhere in Savoy without seeing reference to the Resistance – plaques, memorials, commemorative installations – and, indeed, I had stated this in the Introduction.

I felt that if this is what they planned to do, I might just tell them to get on with it, I wanted nothing to do with such butchery. I wrote, however, in conciliatory terms, pleading the case for the inclusion of both Resistance and Roads.

The editor had written:

‘what I’m suggesting is that we make substantial cuts to the introduction and foreword, including shifting the herbs section to form a kind of appendix or afterword, and (I’m sorry) removing almost entirely the sections on roads and the Resistance, which are both of a more generic nature and do not, I think, earn their place here.’

 

If he’d stood in the Vercors cemetery to the dead of the Resistance in those months of 1944 – the youngest 17, Jews among them – I hope he would revise his opinion that notes on the resistance ‘do not earn their place here’.

 

There is a visceral element in the book and I don’t need to dilate on the impulses behind it. Whilst I accept that there need to be nips and tucks to avoid demotic and idiom, there is a core to the book, a wish to record what we saw, heard, discovered as we drove those roads. Sometimes the obvious, very often the overlooked. I make no claim beyond hoping that we have translated our late coming to an essential local knowledge, by virtue of paying close

attention as we went, and to a desire to translate that local knowledge for the use and – I hope – new interest of those who follow.

This book is not some jolly jaunt itinerary. It listens, looks, observes, pays attention, trying, always, to dig below the surface, noting everything it passes – natural and constructed, damaged, ruined, preserved as memorial (one village demolished and burned by the Nazis, the dialpidations left as a memorial) – in the places on the roads it travels.

The editor also asks ‘why am I being given this information here?’

The whole book is designed to deliver information.

On one occasion in the Pyrenees, we faced a col closed sign at the foot of a big mountain – this, in October. Those signs are not always valid – left in place after the temporary now has gone, for example. We were ready go go to see for ourselves. I asked a local if the pass was open. He looked me square in the eye and said: ‘N’y allez pas.’ Don’t go up there.

In that spirit of firm conviction laced with a restless desire to explore were these books – this book – written and assembled.

Local knowledge…can’t beat it, and this book represents an accumulation of a late-acquired local knowledge.

Lucas wrote back to say that he was in accord, that he had spoken up for the book as it is, the foreign department had acceded. And, this day, he confirmed that there is no need for cuts.

 

22 September

Danny’s fish stall, a man ahead of me rounds off a big order with a few scallops and a dozen clams. The total comes to £28-70. He adds: ‘Could you throw in a couple of shucked oysters and make it £30?’ Danny says: ‘Nice idea,’ shucks two craggy-shelled Orford oysters, hands them over, one at a time, the man swallows them. I say: ‘You’ll need to put a bottle of Chablis on ice from now on.’

 

25 September

On the radio, the baritone aria Mache, dich, mein Herze, rein from Bach’s Matthew Passion. I shadow the margins of the music which is a muistake because the emotion it invokes overtakes me and my eyes fill with tears and remain filled with welling tears for some time.

 

27 September

Three undergraduates interviewed on radioat the end of a series of takes on university life today. They were asked what being at university meant to them. One, a young man, first year, said that it afforded him the opportunity for personal development. The second, another male first year said that it was important for acquiring people skills. The third, a young woman returning for her second year dilated on the huge number of contacts she’d made through networking, over a hundred contacts. Facebook ‘friends’.

Not one said anything at all about the subjects they were studying, none made any reference to the idea of a university being a place of learning.

 

29 September

To Massat. I arrive as the daylight peters out. Nick greets me and serves a most delicious dish of chicken pieces in a sauce of delectable confection. Ingredients:

2 of demerara sugar, 3 of balsamic vinegar, 2 of tomato purée, 2 of soy sauce, 2 of white/red wine, 4 of orange juice, 2 of water into which goes cornflour for thickening. The base of the sauce: soft-fried onion and pepper. Condiments: ground ginger, cumin, fennel and Chinese five spice.

30 September

At the Sunday market in the village, a fine spread of vegetables, silver jewellery, honeys, sausages and saucisson, flowers, fruit and a stall offering ‘coupe cheveux selon vos moyens’. Nick suggests that this is a lure to make uncertain punters pay over the odds.

Lunch on the sun-washed terrace outside the newly opened Auberge de la Gypaète Barbue in Biert.

Paella made by Nick’s son Dominique and some pals on the terrace of Le Maxil, (now closed), outside the breakfast room. Sumptuous quantity of fish and chicken, the rice added rather too early so that it overcooks but a most genial evening, the youth playing Tarot in the lead up to eating time – after the sun had gone. No mobile phones in view.

 

1-4 October

Idleness.  Lunch in Seix, next three days on Le Maxil’s terrace – bread left over from breakfast, home-made coarse paté from the butcher, tomatoes, three-cabbage slaw and local carabas cheese, also from the butcher.

 

3 October

Staring at me on the shelf of the central island in the newspaper shop, a new novel by Amélie Nothomb, Les prénoms épicènes, the cover showing a portrait of her, the familiar wide-eyed, offstage gaze, the extravagant hat, the Zen-like calm of her expression, the alabaster pallor of herface, dark lipstick, study in Geisha. I buy the book, of course.

To the bookshop just up the narrow Rue de Montagne leading towards Rue du Port (where Nick lives) the main road leading south out of the village. Les Trois Chaises – which, in all the times I’ve been here I have never seen open – is named for something Thoreau says in Walden (which I read in my final term at Durham): One chair for solitude, two chairs for friendship, three chairs for company.

In the evening, I drive round to the chateau to find M. Gasparrou, the mayor, sitting out in front of the house, his walking stick and a pair of binoculars on the table beside him. He’s looking out over the broad expanse of grass below the house, separating it from the road.

Nick had told him I was coming to the village, he expected me, and we enjoyed another cordial hour of conversation. A man of gentle manner, fund of local knowledge and history, keen interest in the ways of the village, happy, always to greet my company, as I his.

 

5 October

To the airport where I finish – by speed reading – Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I’d enjoyed her Commonwealth but found this novel increasingly tedious. An absurd setting – hostages holed up with their captors for weeks on end, a very thin plot line, relationships developing in a writerly, forced fashion.

I’ve had poor return on reading lately: gave up on Lord Jim after struggling for a long time in its long, long length and stolid narrative, neither caring for or about the characters. I’ve never read any Henry James – apart from the utterly gripping Turn of the Screw – and tried Portrait of a Lady. The story plodded on and then, in my failing hold on it, faltered and squelched in drifts of detasil about which I cared nothing, until I decided that the effort to pursue it to its end was not worth my growing dissatisfaction. I ditched it. Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands came laden with praise. I found it thin, unbelievable, contrived and discardable, though I did finish it, wondering whether there could be any justification for the raving about its wonderful power of suspense. I found none of that. Drawn by similar praise for A.L. Kennedy, I tried Serious Sweet. Blimey. Two strands of narrative about two unattractive individuals, larded with interspersed, italicised passages of such tedious digression, I gave up about 150 pages into the novel’s hefty 500 page total.

 

6 October

I woke at a little after 3, got very little sleep thereafter, but began to read the Nothomb. And with what joy, relief and delight, I read. Her wit, intelligence, sparse style, the craft, the drive of the story, the mischief…phew.

Got up at the usual time, 5.55, for the Park-market walk.Home again, felt pretty shaky and did nothing much for the rest of the day but read and watch some tv drama.

Supper with Marie at Brisket and Barrel on St John’s Hill.

 

8 October

An inspiriting response from David to whom I sent this take on Horace:

 

VAMP

Horatii Carmen I v

quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa…

 

I can picture the scene: low lights, the velvet drapes, the rose-scented candles,

The cashmere throw, your fox-red hair pleated in glossy coils,

Your make-up artfully understated, virginal. Virginal?

And who’s the latest cocksure dope, suffused in deodorant?

How he’s going to spit and rant –  ‘led me on, the bitch, with her sexy pouts,

Her whoozy sighs, her meaningful glances, her…[choking] all promise all…[choking]‘ –

His suckered expectation: ‘she’s gagging for it’, lashed into a black rage: ‘fucking prick-tease’.

But, for the moment, basking in the hot gold sheen of your come-on, he thinks he’s in,

Light breeze on a flat calm sea, false hopes, reckons you’re a pushover.

‘All that crap they gave me – like, quote, “she’s a nightmare”, unquote,

The look she’s giving me right now? No way, man.’

Naïve or what?

Oh, the numberless poor sods at whom you’ve smiled, to whom you’ve tipped your chin.

(Facing imminent extinction, you pray like hell. ‘O God, if you just

Save me now, I swear my devotion, et nunc et semper.’)

My balls still ache, I still haven’t washed the shirt with the smell of your perfume on it,

I’ve still got the bruise from the bite on my shoulder, but I got away.

 

D: Ha ha, very cool, I like it.

 

10 October

As I ride the path towards the first of the Park gates on St Julian’s Way, a flight of four, lime-green parakeets zips up and banks into the top bonnet of a tree ahead of me, immediately followed by a drift of small yellow leaves, swirling in a light breeze, fluttering to the ground off to the left.

Next, on the woodland track which runs parallel to the two main paths up to the high point and the furthest gate on St Julian’s Way, I hear the hoarse bark of a stag, like a slowed down, staccato roar, the urgent rutting call. I stop and look up into the spinney, a number of stags, the source of the call clearly visible, throat wide and tilted up, a number of does among the sparse trees.

When I said goodbye to M. Gasparrou last week, he told me that this was the season for the bramement des cerfs and were I to go up to the Col de Péguère between 11 and 11.30pm, I’d be bound to hear the eerie, raucous troating of the stags in rut. Since I wouldn’t drive up the Col de Péguère in broad daylight – it’s horrible, 3.5km of around 20% (I’ve ridden it three times), narrow and tortuous – and certainly wouldn’t want to descend it again in any circumstances, (I once did, on a bike, my entire body nettled with fear, my mind locked), especially not at night, this wasn’t something for me. It was, therefore, with a rare frisson that I heard the bramement des cerfs in Knole.

 

First, an email:

Dear Graeme [bloody cheek]

My name is Guy Davies, I’m a journalist at ABC News. I am writing an article on the theft of Geraint Thomas’ Tour de France trophy. I was wondering whether you might be able to provide some comment, as an expert on the competition.

What is the significance of the coupe omnisports? Any insight into the history of the trophy would be great

Have trophy thefts happened before? Is the trophy itself valuable?

And from your knowledge, how much dedication is required to win the Tour de France? Is it an all-round year training schedule? Trying to touch on the work ethic, and how frustrating this might be.

Anything else Tour de France related would be great! It’s to give the story some colour, and I will of course drop in the name of any cycling related publication in the piece as you see fit.

Thanks very much for your time.

Best wishes,

 

Dear Guy Davies

Two things above all come out of this email. If you really don’t know how much dedication and training is required to win the Tour de France, why are you being asked to write the article? Read my book. It would be a start.

As to the significance of the trophy, prize for taking the Golden Fleece, as it’s known, the greatest bike race in the calendar, go figure, use your imagination.

What you’re asking here is for me to give you all the requisite material with which to put the article together and, since I don’t know, for instance, if the trophy has ever been stolen before, this would require research for which I am not paid, nor have time for.
I wish you well and luck in your endeavours.

Yours sincerely,

13 October

The woman who meditates by the sunken pond on a height looking towads the house marched up behind me and, as she came alongside, I said: ‘Majestic, isn’t it?’ ‘Incredible,’ she said.

As I approached the foot of the narrow pathway leading to the main drive the last hill out of the Park, I saw a jay flash across to one of the big oaks at the side and then a green woodpecker, quivering like a shot arrow and out of sight.

 

Artemis and Actaeon

Prince Actaeon, Beach god, hunter. None to match him for touch and skill, before or since, shaped in his craft at the hands of a horse-man: uncommon strength and speed, most uncommon, a sharpness of eye that anticipated fine-ground lenses of bino and telescope by millenia, a spear cast swift as a chameleon’s tongue and a ruthless streak gleaned from leopards.

He pulls on his skin-clinging kangaroo leather air hose, snaps the buckle on the snakeskin zone round the soft linen of his working tunic, takes a quick look in the glowing cheek of the bronze mirror – kohl paste mascara and white-lead talcum too overstated? No – and steps out into the palace yard.

Ho.

The hunting party is already gathered, champing to go: nineteen of them – men, no women. Him making twenty in total. He likes round numbers, Actaeon. An attendant train of pack animals and muleteers – servants don’t count. And the pack, the hounds, the coursing dogs, yelping and yapping, the soundtrack of the kill, desperate for the off.

Ho.

Good morning, gentlemen. Good morning, sir, and a general jocund enquiry – Who’s fired up today? as the surreptitious booster tabs go round a few of them, furtive hand to furtive hand, except that everybody knows.

Away…ho.

They lope out into the forest, down the main track under the pelt of foliage, hornbeam, ash, beech, chestnut, shading them from the sun – great Apollo, Wunderkind, beaten gold incarnate, light and heat. The dry thump of over forty feet and mule hooves on the thick carpet of strewn leaf litter.

Ho.

A startle of movement ahead. Snap of twigs, a flurry of branches.

The game breaks, hearts race, lungs pump. The pace screams out full and the party flies in pursuit, agog, fanning out, like swirling brush stroke of starlings, running the quarry down, the panicked beast. Flash of steel, the nets float and descend like weighted thistledown, and the stabbing blade goes home into the breast.

The hunt moves on, the groans of the dying hart toppled on the outspread towel of its own bright blood dwindle: in life, a majesty of grace, in death, a meat safe of entrails for sacrifice and gods’ dainties, as the butcher’s knives get to work, slices, tranches, lights and colpons.

Later…a generous tally of corpses later, and it’s midday. Midday hot, midday dazzling, midday throbbing.

Ho.

As Apollo, in his skinsuit of solar lamé surfed the jetstream of the meridian, pumping out a furnace intensity of heat, Actaeon flicked a mosquito to its death out of the stifling air with finger and thumb and tuned into the silence of complaint. Looked round. The men, their time-for-a-break-boss lopsided smiles. The ostentatious stretching of legs and arms. The hounds panting, their bead-shiny eyes darting zigzag like butterflies, in dumb inquiry: Stay? Go? Wait?

Actaeon nods, waves the men into the shade of a cedar grove. They slump with relief, their arms and legs tenderised with fatigue, their throats parched, their senses clotted as the spears and nets are clotted, but with gore. They’ve had enough. Mortals. Short lease. Need their rest. Not so the mules, bow-backed under the weight of carcases. They survive on stubbornness and what no other quadruped will find edible. The dogs quiz their handlers: us, too? They flop, chests heaving, tongues out.

Actaeon, however, still wired, can neither rest nor relax, the chase has him, it’s like a malady of lust, a priapic urgency, an insatiable must have and must have now.  He walks away, fatigue driving not felling him. He moves on the impetus of those other extremes of strength and desire that are inhuman, above mortal, the god-like excess. Nothing to be done about that, other than comply. When the demon whispers Go, you don’t answer, there’s neither time nor need, you go, because the demon says Go to a very select few and they answer only to the privilege of being doomed, at birth, to that compliance.

The forest track he walks, Actaeon, fragrant with resin, twists and winds into a glade from whose half shade he glimpses the shimmer of water some way ahead, a liquid limpidity, as if the moon had wept the silver of her last quarter in copious tears to make a pool here. And, though he cannot see them yet, even with his lynx eyes, through the zebra shift of light and shade they make in approaching from the opposite direction, to the pool comes a company of nymphs and the goddess they are company to, great Artemis herself, lucid, fresh, free-flowing spirit of a mountain spring, recognisable by the tattoo of a quail on her upper left arm (a bird known for her lasciviousness, the quail, though she, Artemis, being decidedly not so noted, it acts as a talisman, noli me, therefore). Artemis. Huntress. Divine huntress.

The childhood conversation she had with her father, almighty Zeus, Cloud-gatherer, Eye of the Storm, blah blah, serial rapist – her mother, for example…no wonder the hard glint of mistrust in the blue eye of this daughter of his: the conversation is recorded. Of which, an extract:

‘Father, I wish to have the following gifts…’ She was three years old. ‘First: a bow as powerful as the one my brother Apollo uses and a quiver of the same lethal arrows.’

Zeus, eyes not wholly on this particular ball: ‘You shall have them. He won’t like it, Apollo.’ (Gender equality was a new concept and had a long long way to go in this intransigently Olympian world, but later generations of women may have Artemis to thank for broaching it. Not the men, obviously.)

‘Second: a hunting tunic with a red hem, knee-length.’

‘That’s it?’

‘That’s it.’

‘Ask Athene. Isn’t she your aunt? Sort of. Or half sister? I get confused. Half sister. Whatever. Anyway, ask Athene, mention me, she’ll look after you, she does the dress-making.’ He sketched a vague, airy gesture as if to say no problem, and looked up at the cloudless sky. Nothing to gather there, not today, no cirrus hair tufts, no bright nimbus, no pluming cumuli. ‘Yes,’ he added, ‘invented it, in fact, dress-making. Clever little trollop. Can’t think where that came from.’ The complacent smirk.

‘Third…’

‘Third? I thought you said that was it?’

She ignored him. ‘Third: an entourage of nymphs, complaisant to my every command.’

Entourage? He thought. Complaisant? She was talking like his wife. He regarded her, this midget deputation of rights. ‘Nymphs? Ask your mother,’ not that he could reliably remember who she was, which of several, many.

              ‘Fourth…’

This was getting out of hand. ‘Fourth…?’

The infant did not blink. ‘Fourth: perpetual virginity.’

‘Perpet…? What the fuck are you talking about? pardon my Spartan. Virginity? That’s rather up to you, isn’t it?’

 

Artemis, many summers and moons later, moves towards the pool with soundless tread, the supple grace of a panther, a cheetah, both of which she can handsomely outrun, and stands at the water’s edge, hips cocked, feet slightly splayed, the small of her back, ensellure, slightly arched in what the Irish know as a Grecian bend. She hands her bow and quiver to the bow and quiver nymph and slowly raises both arms to the horizontal. They might be the wings of a hawk riding a thermal in pre-stoop hover.

The nymphs move in, allotted tasks to perform: two kneeling to undo and slip off the gleaming sandals, one to loosen the silken girdle about her waist, tug it free like a trailing ribbon and wind it tight as a bobbin, another behind to hoist the tunic, unpeeling it from her lissom body, the red hem rising like a warning line up, up, up and over her head, the braided chevelure of burnished copper, until she stands naked, ready for a dip.

Actaeon’s gulp, as he peered round a willow and saw her, though muffled, was audible even at a distance, but then, she is a goddess and they are nymphs. Sounds carry at variable frequencies into the pricked ears of the immortals.

Calamity. No mortal is permitted to witness that divine nakedness. That nakedness, her nakedness, Artemis in the buff, is, needless to say, awesome and such awe carries with it a dire penalty. In a trice, the nymphs close in on and round her, like a flutter of birds, doves round a stage conjuror, and yes, she is covered now, but it’s too late. Too. Late. For him, that is, for Actaeon. For in that brief gap between the moment before he gulped at what he’d seen and the gulp itself, he had seen her and she knew that he had seen her, without a stitch.

She stands a moment, clad in a living bath robe of nymphs, then pushes them gently away, naked once more and, with a menacing finality, steps into the pool, in a feline, gliding motion. The water, dappled with flashes of sunlight like flourishes of ritual gold cymbals, receives her. Ankle deep she moves, knee deep, thigh deep, the ripples widen about her. The force field of her glance, focussed on Actaeon, shrinking behind the terrified willow, like an arrow aimed at a hart at bay, flows out of her and fixes him to the ungiving ground. If only that ground, that yielding earth, could but swallow him. He suppresses a sob. Cold sweat clamps his flesh from top to toe, as he watches her forbidden nakedness, her fearsome beauty, slink into, then across the pool. Water swirls between her legs.

She is waist deep, now, deeper, the water lapping at her breasts like the lips and tongue of an eager lover, her only ever eager lover. Transfixed, Actaeon gazes at her, lust racks him, the sight of her alone lays an icy hand on his chest drawing the breath out of him. His senses flood. His heart palpitates, drills in his chest like a woodpecker’s beak, his stomach gripes with dread and raw need.

She comes on. Stepping out of the water not three spear lengths from him, she coos to him – ‘Come, come,’ – and when he shows himself, beckons to him.

The first woman seen before first sex, the draining onslaught of love, the appalling beauty of an electric storm, the climactic fury of the sea’s rage, the deafening roar of the winds in hurricane force, the horror of a volcano erupting…that gets somewhere close.

‘Tell them,’ she whispers, and her words are not so much heard as dreamed, imagined, in reverb, because he is already losing his own sense of self in an encroaching trance, of coma, perhaps, or…death?

‘Tell them what you saw.’ The faint susurrus of laughter puffs away from her lips. ‘Off you go. Tell them.’

She cocks her hips and folds her arms as it happens.

She watched the transformation, piecemeal: the swelling at his temples as the burgeoning antlers burst through the flesh and kept growing, to a full twelve points above the matted crust of his skull. She saw the eyes throbbing as the flesh of his body thickened into hide coated with stag hair. She saw both arms lengthen into legs to match the two legs that always were legs, hands and feet made hooves, the man-animal goggling at her in the panic of a trapped beast with no escape, the hunter of prey turned into the prey, the fear, the slurry of shit running down the back legs, the gush of piss as his bowels churn and spill.

She smiled. ‘Go,’ she whispered, and, as she clicked her tongue, he swivelled, nose quivering, ears catching at a distant sound, in the forest, some way off. A chorus of howling, the baying pack of hounds, growing louder, closer, louder, closer.

The stag, still Actaeon, turned and ran, darted into the brakes, blundering through the undergrowth into a clearing where he stood, lungs heaving, mouth slathered with foam, trembling at the siren wail of the horns, the yelping of the dogs. And this he knew, his horrified mind and memory still Actaeon’s: it was his own hounds, greedy for flesh, thirsty for blood, drawn by his scent, their slaughtered stag. Just another kill. Doing what they do: chase, run down, bring down and rip to bits.

 

Red sky at night…red sky in the morning…

It strikes me that maybe Homer is having a wry joke with his use of the standard line which recurs – the chance for the oral poet to pause briefly ahead of the next invention of the story:

Ημος δ’ ηριγενεια φανη ροδοδακτυλος Ηως

When rosy-fingered Dawn, child of the morning, appeared…

Day after day of bad weather, added blight to the travails of Odysseus and his men just trying to get home.

And yet, today, here in Kent, the highest October temperature recorded in a long, long while…as floods pour into homes in South Wales, one hapless reporter saying that water ‘had decimated a house’.

 

Eos

Eos, aka Dawn, lives on the holy island of Delos, domain of Apollo, aka the Sun. (The blonde one, a byword for vanity, has godly care of, amongst other things, the celestial golden orb, light music and mice.) It wouldn’t have been her choice of residence but choice was not hers to exercise.

‘You’re the child of the morning,’ he told her, in that uptight tone noticeably chilly for a god associated primarily with heat, ‘and me being the morning, here you stay. You work for me, remember.’

This was a more than somewhat tendentious claim. She was, in fact, a junior Titan, having dropped between the loins of Theia via, in the first instance, the loins of Hyperion, but she didn’t argue. Night would be her time for whoopee.

The first major celebrity to enjoy the nocturnal play of her rosy fingers over his torso etcetera on the goose-down mattress in her bedroom with its black walls, mural of the zodiac across the ceiling and a discreet light from bottled fireflies, was Orion. Skill with bow and javelin? Peerless. Wild game often gave up without flight. It would have been futile. Better to go quietly. Orion never tired.

He tired that night, though. Emerged from the bower with his cheekbones tugging at his eyelids, leaving Eos to pull on her work clothes – the saffron tunic – and hoping to slink away unnoticed.

However, Apollo, who was, at the time, fiddling with the tack on his chariot, spotted him and guessed.

The sun rose late that day.

Apollo sought the floozy out, ranted and railed, cursed and lambasted, spewing out a Greek fire of anger at her filthy, filthy, disreputable conduct, her wanton impiety behind his – his – divine back, in his – his ­– sacred sanctum. That’s what he called it, ‘my sacred sanctum’. He wouldn’t have known what tautology was if you explained it to him in detail, twice.

Eos blushed, which Apollo took for shame and embarrassment and, every time, thereafter, when he caught her rosy-fingered, red-handed, flush-faced from the exertions of her hanky panky, though never actually at it – needed his beauty sleep, the full eight hours – she blushed obligingly again. It was a ploy. In public, that is in sunlight, in the full glare of Apollo’s blazing cyclops eye, she played the fallen virgin, contrite, penitent. (If Aphrodite could renew her virginity by no more than a dip in the briny, why couldn’t she?) In the bedroom, however…To anything between feigned demure and boudoir gymnast she was a stranger.

She takes her lovers into the perfumed dark of her chamber with the promise of a nocturnal radiance beyond their imagining. ‘Is it not I,’ she says, letting her saffron tunic drop past her knees to the floor, ‘who turn night into day before Apollo has even scraped the sleep gunk out of his peepers? Come, honey, it may look dark in here but it’ll be the brightest bright you ever lit on. An apotheosis of light.’

You might say she had the last laugh. Her cheeks still redden to order, Orion copped his reward of a constellation, but sunny jimgod Apollo, poor sap, having latterly been side-lined as a space rocket, target the moon – the moon – and more recently compelled to pay court to photovoltaic inverters, can no longer lay authoritative claim to any celestial function at all.

 

 

14 October

The Park-market walk with Marie. It’s still warm, I need no jacket or sweater, she sloughs off the waterproof she’s wearing. We talk of stags and deer, how little in evidence they are in comparison to the season just passed – ‘end of sandwich time,’ I say, ‘back to native diet.’

The dry plop of husked chestnuts hitting the ground.

Near the newly-rebuilt wall opposite the Birdhouse, I spot an open parasol mushroom and cull it, stalk and all, the easier to carry.

Walking along the narrow pavement we come to Otto’s coffee and cake café, specialist teas and smoothie of the week, homemade temptation on plates atop the counter.

We sit down at a table upstairs and I put the fungus, could be a darning mushroom, on the table. At the table to my right, a young couple with their little boy – 3…4…years old. He looks at the mushroom. ‘Parasol,’ I say, ‘very tasty,’ and he licks his lips, tongue quivering, the very miming action of tasty. At which the man of a couple to the table to my left asks if I’m going to eat it then and there and his wife presses the question: ‘How do you know it’s safe?’ to which Marie says: ‘I’ll let you know,’ and chuckles.

‘They’re good to dry, too,’ I say, ‘though if you leave them overnight, it sometimes happens that they fill with a seething of tiny maggots.’

‘And that one…?’ says the man.

‘I shall cook it tonight.’

I order a smoothie (blackberry, honey, banana and oatmeal), Marie asks for some kind of tea with turmeric. Turmeric, it seems, is the new fad – sovereign against almost everything except, one assumes, populist politicians.

The drinks come. Mine, purply pink, in a largeish glass jar which might once have contained pickles or preserve. With a plastic straw.

As we go down, later, to to pay, I say to one of the waiters: ‘I’m surprised at the plastic straw.’

‘They’re biodegradable,’ he says and I turn to the young guy at the cash register: ‘I was going to complain about the plastic straw,’ and laugh.

‘Yes, we get that all the time, Sevenoaks people.’

‘Snotty?’

‘Yup, in your four-wheel drives.’

‘I don’t have a car.’

‘Plenty others out there.’

‘Where do you get your biodegradable plastic straws?’ I say. ‘From a biodegradable plastic straw store?’

‘On line.’

These exchanges accompanied by an agreeable, constant popple of mutual laughter. What we might happily call gay badinage, yes. And the pleasure in his triumph at announcing ‘biodegradable’ put me in mind of the young Frenchman who importuned one of the most famous Parisian horizontales of the day – nineteenth century – again and again, only to be refused, again and again. ‘I’m too expensive, you can’t afford me.’

Finally, she relented, expecting the price to be high enough to close the matter for good and told him: ‘10,000 Francs. Set light to them and I will be yours for as long as they burn.’

He came up with the money. She was a businesswoman, true to her word. They both got ready, he set fire to the pile of bank notes and, in the words of the original chronicler, set to with the ardour of a man who knows that time is money. And, when the last leaf of paper burned to a sooty tissue, he pulled away, smiled at her and told her, with complete satisfaction, that every single note had been forged.

 

 

16 October

Virginia Woolf The Years snares me but doesn’t enthrall. I have very little interest in her cast and the lethargy of their life and purpose strikes me as a rather ponderous satire, if that’s what’s intended, on the stultified society from which they originate and which clings to them when so much is changing round them. Her writing soars in some passages, that genius she has for evocation of mood, of impression, of imagistic detail in description. But there are odd solecisms. Things don’t sway up and down (didn’t track the page). She uses jealous for envious (p183 and 331) and ‘No,’ she smiled…’That’s what I said,’ she laughed… ‘Well, well, well,’ he chuckled… (295, 313, 328, 385). Her reference to ‘nigger’ (316) probably follows contemporary usage: the word is recorded in OED where it’s described as ‘Colloq. and usu contemptuous’. The passage about the Jew in the bath (312ff) – there are other references – is more troubling.

I recall phrases ‘black as your hat…as the Ace of Spades…’ in free use when I was growing up.

 

17 October

In the listless drift of memory which marks the pattern of these stalled days – partly because I am waiting for the next tranche of edits in the book on the French Alps, partly because I wait for response from a long list of agents to whom I have submitted work, partly from a sense of frustration and indecision, a narky whisper that there’s no point – I had a recollection of what was the first of my freewheeling travels, in Greece that summer of 1965.

Since the notes I took were rudimentary, I record, here, only the bare bones of the excursus.

The other students with whom I was travelling drove off in the minibus to the ferry in Piraeus after we arrived in Athens, leaving me to proceed on my own into the Peloponnese. I remember the sudden pang of loneliness as they pulled away in Syntagma Square, but that feeling was quickly superseded by excitement. I was going to explore the ancient sites.

A bus to Dafni that first evening where I stepped into the church of the monastery and looked at the mosaics. I left the church and decided to hitch-hike. Did I know that this road had once been part of the Sacred Way between Athens and the shrine of Demeter at Eleusis and that the monastery of Dafni had been built on a sanctuary to Apollo desecrated by the Goths? I think not. A flat-backed lorry drew up. A man, sitting on a chair in the back leaned down and asked where I was going. ‘Delphi,’ I said.

‘Don’t go to Delphi, come with us,’ he said and put out his arm to help me clamber  into the back of the lorry where several women sat on the flat bed. Tasos Stathis, his wife and others, were heading from Eleusis, where they lived, to a shrine to Santa Soutiya on this her birthday, 6 August.

A small chapel situated in open ground dotted with trees from many of which hung lanterns. We make obeisance in the chapel, that’s to say we walk in, linger and walk out. Drifts of others passing to and fro. Tasos points to a low white wall outside the chapel and tells me that a number of Greeks were lined up against it during the German occupation and shot.

Picnic on the grass, much jollity and chatter. Chary of offending hospitality, I chew my way through an entire fish, bones and all, only to see Tasos cheerily spitting out the bones onto the ground. He passes me a plastic flagon of retsina – my first taste. I take a mouthful. My eyes bulge, I nearly gag on the resinous hit of the wine. After I’ve swallowed, Tasos flourishes the flagon again: ‘You like?’ I nodded. Acquired taste…I acquired it.

That night, I slept at Tasos and Maria’s house in Eleusis. Next morning – bidden to come back at the end of my travels – I set off into Eleusis and roamed my first ancient site. Sacred rubble, for the most part. It impresses by its existence and the story attached.

Hitched on to Delphi, many of the buildings still standing, the towering cliffs, the Phaidrades, burnished in the sun. I rolled out my sleeping bag and slept on the rocky hillside.

On to Epidaurus. Having sat awhile in the theatre, quiet and stillness, the long view of the girdling hills, I sought out somewhere for lunch and could find only a rather smart hotel. I asked a couple with two young children if they knew of anywhere else I could get something to eat. ‘Why not here?’ said the man. ‘Oh, it’s too expensive,’ I said and turned to go.

‘We find you sympathetic,’ he said. ‘Eat with us, be our guest.’

Perhaps he meant pathetic but I was invited and, they already having eaten, they sat with me as I ate. They were Belgian.

That evening, I arrived in Mycenae, parked my bag at the one café on the cul de sac road leading up to the palace, walked up and strolled round the ruins. No fence. Lion Gate, the broken walls of stubby bricks, beehive tomb, the late sun casting a full amber glow over the stones and landscape of rock and sparse trees, stretching away towards the far-off sea.

Back to the café where I spent the evening in hppy conversation with two other students, women from Oxford. Dinner outside on the terrace. We slept on the flat roof of the building.

In Nauplion next night, I was approached by a man who offered me a bed in his flat. I suspected that his intentions were darker than mere hospitality and declined. He followed me out onto the projecting stone jetty by the harbour. I shook him off, at last, and slept on the pavement outside a small taverna, part in, part out of a sentry box. Next morning, I asked the taverna owner if I might use the bathroom for a wash. He handed me a bucket of water. Breakfast of flat bread, jam and sweet, grainy Greek/Turkish coffee.

Back to Eleusis where Tasos and I ate supper outside in the yard, served by Maria who did not join us.

Next day, into Athens to get the early boat to Crete, and the palace at Knossos. It was a broiling hot day. I took the overnight boat back to Athens, the hush of the water past the bows of the vessel. I slept and did not sleep on the deck.

In Athens, I went into a grand hotel in Syntagma Square, in the hope of finding a loo and found a bathroom, a bath full of cold water. I took a bath then went back to the port to catch the boat to Hydra to join the others.

One morning, a local Greek, who’d dodged German gunboats plying the waters from island to island in small fishing vessels such as the boat in which we sat, during the occupation, living on wild forage, berries and whatever else they could find, took us up the coast to a beach, for lazing and picnic. He sat at the tiller, silent and contained, a weather beaten face, hawk nose, faraway eyes, long stare, impassive.

As we unloaded baskets and gear from the boat onto the beach, a schooner pulled into the bay and dropped anchor. Like a tiny shoal of pilot fish we swam out to it. A very suntanned man of around 50, I guess, white shorts, open white shirt, silver hair, leaned over the taffrail. Some joshing. He invited us to come back for preprandial drinks. We swam back to the beach.

Around noon, a man hailed us from ther yacht, we swam out and climbed p the ladder onto the deck. Our host greeted us, a steward arrived with a tray of glasses and bottles and then, host’s companion, a willowy blond, early 20s, bedroom eyes and a crystal smile, floaty chiffon short-hemmed dress.

He was Swiss, they were cruising the islands, they and a crew of seven.

We drank, chatted, laughed, the improbably diversion of this long slow day of theirs, another of many long, slow days, I imagine.

And then comes the steward, black trousers, high-collar, white uniform jacket, to announce that the cheese soufflé was just about à point: our cue to leave. We shook hands, said thank you and, one by one, plopped or dived from the deck back into the water.

On the way back from Greece, I once again parted company with them to hitch to Kaiserslautern where my then girlfriend was to spend her year abroad – she was studying German. I spent two days with her, taken in by neighbours of the people with whom she lodged – the first time I slept under a duvet, shaking hands with everyone at the breakfast table, ordering what I thought would be Heiss Schokolade in a café and getting ice cream – and then began my journey to Calais.

The first night of the long trip, I was dropped by my lift near a Polizei station, which was surrounded by a thick metal fence. An intercom at the gate. A voice responds in German. I fumble for words. The man switches to English. I said I was looking for somewhere to stay – it was, dark, quite late. The disembodied voice told me, brusquely, there was nowhere but to try the American army base, perhaps. Just down the road.

I walk towards the huge, brightly lit compound.

The front room of the Guard House, an elevated desk at which sat the duty sergeant. A gaggle of soldiers standing by the desk – like a section out of Bilko: the Polack, the nervous Jew, the tall, fair-haired Scandahoovian from the mid-West, the fast-talking, low-slung guy from Brooklyn…

The duty Sergeant turned to me – behind him, a board down the left hand edge of

which ran a list of the units in the area, including Chaplains. A grid filled he rest of the board, below a list of crimes of varying degrees of seriousness marked across the top, from petty theft to murder, through rape, GBH…lots of crosses in the boxes.

Upshot: the Sergeant took pity, led me to a store room, pulled a pair of dark green blankets down from a shelf, handed them to me – ‘They’re clean,’ – and showed me to a vehicle which was to be my dormitory for the night. Wash house adjacent for the morning ablution.

Following night, a lift dropped me, at night, on a slip road off a busy motorway, miles from any town. I rolled out the sleeping bag by the side of the road. Up next morning, I started to hitch. A Mini Traveler pulled up.

‘Are you going to Calais?’ I asked the young guy driving.

He smiled. ‘I’ll take you home, if you like.’

All the way to the coast where, at the Ferry port…I met up with the others. Bingo.

 

20 October

A misty, moisty morning when I set out, in the dark, for the walk. The sun had begun its light-shedding by the time I got to the first high point, up the slope from the steps in the wall. A long view north to the Downs ridge and a puffy sea of cotton white vapour in the hollow below Kingsdown.

No raucous, throat-singing from the stags but a deep-throat, froggy croaking gargle from them in all directions. I see them, lone males, stock still, caught in the first rays of the sun, or else rounding up a gaggle of does and scooting across my line of march.

I followed a track I hadn’t trodden before, from the top of what proved to be one of the steepest hills in the Park, directly north of the Birdhouse. It skirts a magnificent double avenue of mature, straight-grown beeches, except that one of the trees is bent at an angle of 45⸰. As I passed, I said to myself: ‘And what happened to you?’

 

Looked into the Journal for 1965 to confirm details of the trip round the Peloponnese and found this entry, 4 July 1966:

‘The relationships between parent and child is one of the oddest. In a particular case, it may involve the greatest love which is never openly expressed, only hinted at with embarrassment.’

And where did that come from? In the days when [horror] I used exclamation marks.

In the evening, I drive Marie (who is labouring under a heavy cold) and Kate to East Dulwich where K and Max have moved into their first home together, a very well-appointed flat.

It was in Dulwich that I ate my first real curry in an Indian restaurant, with my friend Chris who was at Alleyne’s School. We’d met on a cadet course. Hitherto, my only experience of curry was what my Mother served up. She was always looking for new recipes but had a strange idea of what constituted curry. Meat stew thickened with a can of mulligatawny soup, accompanied by pudding rice, served up with a row of side dishes containing raisins, whiskery shreds of dessicated coconut, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, rounds of banana, mango chutney, so that effectively we had a fruit salad which would have gone down well in Kerula, plus a lumpy casserole of indeterminate origin. And mildly piquant flavor. The curious confection originated in eastern India, not that we were aware of that at the time. As far as we know it was a trick dreamed up by Heinz as well as the lending itself to the expression ‘in the mulligatawny’ meaning in a bit of bother.

Most of the curries I ate subsequently, were so hot that only a dampener of naan or even bread (as Seb put it, ‘something farinaceous’) could quell the fiery assault on mouth and palate. It was at a place in Norwich where I encountered a curry which didn’t offload the heat of a blow torch – a delectable mingling of spicy flavours, a wonder, a revelation. It was the bloody Raj who insisted on hot curry, to induce sweat to drive out fever, hence, too, the invention of gin and tonic, which latter contained quinine.

Eating at a curry house near Piccadilly with a friend one time, we havered over papadums. The waiter stood by, patiently, biro and order pad held across his chest, as we deliberated with what clearly seemed to him absurd hesitancy. Finally he said: ‘Well, a papadum is a very flimsy item.’

We ordered papadums.

 

21 October

News that Bristol Council has outlawed foraging for wild blackberries in the city parks and whichever dumb authority exercises jurisdiction over the New Forest has banned the culling of mushrooms there.

But, as Marie writes: Well I understand the foraging ban. In places like Richmond Park and New Forest where ‘trendy’ foraging by groups is all the rage, animals have actually lost 90% of their food sources. Somehow we need to share evenly. Mx

I see that – the fruit for the birdies, but not the fungus, surely?

 

 

22 October

Email from The Wine Society: ‘The Christmas Shop is open NOW.’ What a relief. As the first day of November stalked towards us, I was beginning to fret. Other outlets have been at it since August. What happened to the WS that they got so slooooooooooow?

In a weekly column about books in the Saturday Guardian, a gay, black poet says of a novel by a gay, black writer: ‘A Visitation of Spirits is the best novel ever written. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact’, which is as vacuous a statement as I’ve read in a while. And, of gay, black writers, he dismisses James Baldwin (eg)…?

This prompted a response from David in Berlin:

‘Ha ha. Conversely one might be able to say, with the same confidence, that ANY novel by Jeffrey Archer is the worst novel ever written…’

GF       Dan Brown?

DS       Ha. I was going to include him, too. I once read the opening paragraph of The Da Vinci Code in a bookshop out of sheer curiosity, felt myself go dizzy, nearly passed out and had to adjust my footing and hold onto the bookcase to steady myself such was its mind-melting shitness…

GF       And remember that Judy Murray chose it as her Desert Island book. As Lesley put it imagine wanting that as a defece against the mind-crushing tedium of solitary confinement on a patch of sand.

 

In the same issue, an excellent piece by Colm Tóibín (whose fiction passes me by) about literary association of places in Dublin. Except that he refers to ‘one of the best jokes in the book [Ulysses] when he considers the use of wine in the mass: “Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley’s Dublin hop bitters of Cantrell and Cochrane’s ginger ale (aromatic).”’

Joke…? Is he having a laugh or am I missing something?

 

23 October

With Laura and her little Isabel to Bach to Baby – a musical confection for tots and mothers and a scattering of grandparents. I sat in amazement in a room bristling with wonder, curiosity, fervent energy. A flautist and guitarist played various pieces – the deal being that the kids can romp, react, squeal as they will – but when the flautist introduced Debussy’s Syrinx (‘the god Pan fell in love with…’) I knew, of course, that only such an anodyne version was apt in the econtext. However:

 

Pan and Syrinx

The first she knew of it, Syrinx, sveldt nymph, a perfume of fresh zephyr in her corn gold hair, the first she knew of the assault was the warning of it, the smashing of the undergrowth behind her, the drumming of the cloven hooves on the forest path. Startled, she turned, and, even before he appeared, the rank odour of billy goat billowed ahead of him. And then, there he stood, horned Pan, leering, his cock stiff as a rod. She fled, barefoot through the trees, darting and shimmering, silky as a gazelle, faster than she’d ever run, but she could never be fast enough, strong enough, to outlast him. The hammer thump of the hooves and the frantic thump of her heart, his urgent whinnies, her gasps squeezing the last pockets of breath out of her lungs. Make for the river, pray – who to? Aphrodite? Probably in bed with someone. No, father. Help me, father. Help. Meeee…which came like a murmurous keening of wind on that windless day.

She felt the sulphurous billy-breath on her neck, gagged on the stench of the shaggy pelt, quailed at the hoarse grunt of his panting, Pan, rape-man, goat-man. Didn’t see him, didn’t need to, stink and lust-growl did it, nailed it, all he gave away and too quick for escape, mostly, far too quick. Seen? Observed? Not his style. Catch them stealthy and smell-me, hunter-style. Creep up, rush and pounce. No time to…no time to run, but she ran, See-rin-kss, despite the surge of frenzy, the measel-rash in her chest and throat, the wild fear that he stirs, Pan, hot, sharp-nailed fingers of panic dabbling in her entrails.

Her feet slipped under her. She stumbled, all but fell into the marshy squelch of the riverbank, and then it happened, the metamorphosis, she disappeared, snatched out of his clutches even as he lunged for her. Vanished in a clump of reeds where the waters lapped at the bank, rippled and swam through the willowy stalks, making free with them, the roving liquid fingers of the river.

He knew. He knew, all right. He’d seen the like before. She’d been changed, altered, disembodied, trans-mogri-fi-cation. River god father saved his darling. Human form into reed.

Pan howled, howled with frustration, his member rigid, still, and raw for the slick juice of her cooch which he could still smell, its dew laced with her panic fear of him. Pan…snatched one reed, then another – this one? – and another – this? This? Wyargh. Which one is she? Screamed. And, sly remedy licking at his chops, he bound six of them together, licked the open ends to moisten them and blew, as if they were her mouth, quim, anus, ears and navel, pursed his lips on them, one by one, to suck, tongue to enter. Blew and heaved and climaxed, spilling himself into the river. And the sound echoed, a ripple of melody like the moan of a breeze which he heard as moans of ecstasy, her clangour on the end of his dong.

 

26 October

A recording the other day of a Jew’s harp accompanying some knockabout music. That sound is what theWorzel Gummidge adenoidal, rheumy drone which folk singers take for the authentic tone of the purist, but which is thoroughly unmusical and a soggy earful bore, evokes.

 

Philip Green, the nasty plutocrat who has just paid out sums of £700,000 to women not to disclose anything about his behaviour with them – he’s been roundly accused of bullying and sexual harassment – is quoted as saying: ‘I am not a racist. I’ve had a black chauffeur for 12 years.’

 

A production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Almeida, except that it wasn’t Ibsen, it wasn’t close to Ibsen, but a perversion of the text by the director, a much-feted experimentalist/modernist/innovative/wherevfuckdideecumfrm? man of thee-8-tah, one Robert Icke.

The original is rendered into agitprop Ibsen, eviscerated and brutalized and – the bloody nerve – presented as ‘a true version’ of the original, Ibsen lost in political cant – Ibsen had declared, firmly, that there was no strain of politics in his play – stripped of all subtlety and nuance, of irony and any hint of comedy, the tragicomic aspect of human foible and failure. Listening to the adulterated script was like being beaten over the head with ideological apophthegm. No, not like being clobbered, actually being clobbered. A protracted – and damnably uninteresting and unengaging – sermon, a lecture on ethical dilemaa, a microphone used by actors periodically to signal ‘no, what I’ve just said isn’t true’. Therefore, it was subtext dragged up into the shouted text, shorn of all its capacity to undermine and undercut, to ruffle the surface. It was, overall, pretentious, sententious, dreadful.

I went with a friend of Marie’s over from Oslo and very nearly faked sickness so that I could leave at the interval. At one point in the second half, I felt my tolerance squeezed into angst to the extent of being ready to whisper: ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ and leaving. The tightness of the seating would have meant major disruption to people sitting along my escape route so, with increasing misery and exasperation, I sat it out.

 

All Saints

Provisions in the budget announced yesterday:

For the repair of potholes £420 million.

For subvention of schools £400 million.

[The cost of high-end car tyres must have gone up.]

 

2 November

JITTERBUG PERFUME

Tom Robbins

   An appreciation

‘Quantum physics suggests a universal balance between immutable laws and random playfulness.’ TR

Right.

Some critics don’t take Tom Robbins seriously despite the persuasive force of his intellectual quick-stepping, his discursus on mysteries of the spirit, his challenge to lazy thought, because he is playful and comic. Robbins finds this puzzling. ‘Comic writing is not only more profound than tragedy, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to write’. Thus an exchange in Jitterbug Perfume:

‘The universe does not have laws.’

‘It has habits.’

‘And habits can be broken.’

Jitterbug Perfume skips between mediaeval Bohemia, Paris, New Orleans and Seattle. Its cast: a one thousand year-old janitor, a genius Seattle waitress, the proprietress of a New Orleans perfumerie, two old-school French parfumiers, a whacko doctor, founder of the Last Laugh Foundation for the exploration of immortality and brain science. And Pan, for his ‘pranksterish overturning of decorum…his leer and laughter when we took our blaze of mammal intellect too seriously’. When Christ was born, they say, the cry went up: ‘Great Pan is dead’, and no wonder that the humourless authoritarians of the church, horse-whipping childish mockery and a propensity to fun with the cured leather of doctrine, identified sulphur-eyed Satan as a revenant of the cloven-footed, horned, shaggy, sulphurous stinky god of panic, a male divinity associated with female values. And there’s the rub. Wild Pan, the embodiment of Nature’s green fuse, represents the dichotomy in our human nature, between the unruly impulses of our desires – for example, susceptibility to the seduction of perfume – and the timid reserve enjoined by the strictures of pious comportment and polite conformity. Wild shagginess against refinement. Into that dichotomy, as a nymph in this novel says, religion drove a wedge, and ‘Christ, who slept with no female…who played no music instrument, recited no poetry, and never kicked up his heels by moonlight, this Christ was the perfect wedge. Christianity is merely a system for turning priestesses into handmaidens, queens into concubines and goddesses into muses’.

Is that playful or serious? Comic or tragic?

In the comedy of Jitterbug Perfume, as in all Robbins’s work, there is a fervent drive to reappraise what we may, laughingly, call received wisdom. The thousand year-old janitor (you’ll have to read the novel) concludes that whatever else his unprecedented life had been it had been fun, ‘he’d grown convinced that play – more than piety, more than charity or vigilance – was what allowed human beings to transcend evil.’

Not jokes. Jokes are sterile.

Robbins is clear on that, and however you characterise the humour – ‘They fell asleep smiling. It is to erase the fixed smiles of sleeping couples that Satan trained roosters to crow at five in the morning’… ‘She needed help but God was in a meeting whenever she rang’… ‘the sky over Seattle resembled cottage cheese that had been dragged nine miles behind a cement truck’ – it subverts, teases, prises and jostles sclerosed prejudice out of its hermetically sealed plastic wrappings.

Robbins unashamedly takes an intellectual blowtorch to the convention forbidding author’s point of view. He intervenes, he broadcasts paradox and animadversion with fiery delight and carefree disdain for accepted practice. He writes with the exuberance and mischief of a Lord of Misrule riding a Harley Davidson through the small towns of the Bible Belt and calling the god-fearing citizens out to a carnival jitterbug with a rowdy band and a celestial firework display, votaries of the great god Pan on bar duty.

            But where, (I hear you say) does the perfume come in?

‘Perfume, fundamentally, is the sexual attractant of flowers, or, in the case of civet and musk, of animals.’ The argument proceeds: perfume as the smell of creation, signal of Earth’s regenerative powers. No wonder the church equated perfume with sin, stench with holiness. Even Satan, downwind, recoiled from the odour of sanctity. For the perfume that masks body reek is an implicit invitation to sexual licence.

Robbins begins – and ends – Jitterbug Perfume with that most intense of vegetables, the beet. Its pollen is the base note for a scent which permeates the entire novel, a joyous fantasia on immortality and the logical impasse of death: a verifiable fact with elusive meaning or else meaning applicable to any thought process that seems if not reasonable, at least excusable.

‘The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold onto your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means:

Indigo.

Indigoing.

Indigone.’

 

PS It’s also a cracking story.

 

6 November

From a number of photographs Lucy found on a visit to Jane’s last year.

When she was four (I think) she and I drove up to Scotland from Norfolk on a camping expedition near Holy Loch. Overnight at Stirling, guests of Crawford Logan and his wife – Crawford, the Ambridge doctor, at the time, had played Gareth in my Arthur the King cycle of plays for R4. From there to Glasgow to stay in the apartment loaned by a friend. I went out one evening to buy some wine, walked into an off licence to see the counter, divided from the entrance floor by a thick metal grille, ceiling to floor, a single, small guichet, behind which stood two stony-faced young women. ‘Are you expecting trouble?’ I said. They didn’t answer. Quite obviously they weren’t just expecting trouble they were relying on it.

Next morning, in the apartment, the friend’s working assistant arrived, a bright young woman of relaxed demeanour. She watched as I prepared a pot of coffee in a cafetière. Then, when I drove the plunger down and the entire contents of the pot splurted out onto the floor, she said, in a Morningside drawl: ‘Oh, that’s substantial’, and made no move to help the clear up operation. It seemed to me, at the time, comportment of exceptional style.

On the long drive home, which we did in a day – the incomparable Nicol Williamson reading The Hobbit, our preferred listening – I put on a cassette which had turned up in the car, no idea from where: Madonna. Like a Virgin issued from the speakers. A voice from the child’s seat in the back of the car piped up: ‘What’s a virgin?’

Here we go, I thought. ‘It’s someone who hasn’t had sexual intercourse,’ I said, expecting a follow-up question to expatiate. None came.

Childhood…when Grandma died, around that time (we were in Mallorca), I had the strong feeling that that was when my own childhood ended.

 

An email to David in Cambridge, Mass.

Hello David,

On this day of days…a lot of coverage here, as you might imagine, and sheer amazement at the latest expectoration of lies and scaremongering from the orange-faced moron.

The Guardian reports that ‘in many states, incl. North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republicans have imposed restrictions on early voting and voter id all designed to prevent black Americans from voting. In Georgia officials tried to close seven out of nine voting places in a predominantly black area on the pretext that disable access was inadequate’.

Is this true?

Things are pretty awful here, too – a Labour MP is quoted as saying that ‘Jews are a cancer on us all’.

o tempora o mores…

And his reply:

All true, I’m afraid.  Waiting for the results this evening with much trepidation.

 

And how, when it’s possible – and not uncommon – for a president to be elected on a lesser share of the popular vote, because of the absurd system of electoral colleges, even to think of America as a democracy? When Clinton can win three million more votes overall than Trump and not be elected, when, because of the cranky electoral college system,Wyoming, empty, rural, population 580,000 has the same number of senators as California, population 39 million and, in these mid-term elections, Democrats won, overall, 11 million more votes than the GOP and did not take control of the Senate…the Constitution framed for the original thirteen states is, simply, outmoded and unworkable in the modern era. Reflecting just how antiquated it is, this perhaps explains why a president like Goerge W Bush placed such heavy reliance on the burblings of the man he referred to as Eye-zay-er.

 

8 November

A woman of 50, who already had three grown-up children and eight grandchildren, was refused IVF treatment in the UK. She went to Cyprus for the treatment and has just produced quadruplets. One of the children is now in an intensive care unit, at the quoted cost to the NHS of £1500 a day. A report on the news offers a debate as to whether this is acceptable, reasonable, justifiable, that UK tax payers should fund this. Hm. It’s not a moral issue, nor yet an ethical issue: it’s a practical issue. If she chooses to have more children, having had three, then she should be required to pay for whatever other progeny she chooses to have. Aged 50? Please.

 

10 November

Dominic Raab, the man in charge (oh, you have to laugh: in charge…) of the Brexit negotiations has just said: ‘I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and if you look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.’ Subtext: Migod…the UK is an island? Swipe me.

 

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, reveals that his absolute go-to for therapeutic counter to the stress of his job, the thing that helps him to switch off, is a far too large Lego collection. Hours of fun sticking plastic bricks together and then – joy – pulling them all apart. Beats reading.

 

The newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, confessed, to an interviewer, after taking up her post, that she ‘didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland…things like when elections are fought, for example, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.’

Welcome to the Orange and Green Ceilidh, folks, take your partners and away we go, prime your Semtex, dosey doh.

 

12 November

An excellent documentary about the armistice negotiations leading up to 11 November 1918. A French historian speaks of Foch’s proposed attack on a beaten German army with the hundreds of thousands of troops and 600 tanks he could deploy. He says: ‘For Foch, it will be a cup of tea.’ This puzzled me. Then I realised: what he meant was ‘a piece of cake’.

A dreadful statistic: on that last day, before 11 am, 2,738 soldiers were killed.

One quarrel with the presentation of the documentary: it seems that nowadays the makers of these informative programmes for television feel compelled to stage silent tableaux o actors dressed as the main players in the narrative as on-screen image to support the voice over. It’s absurd. As if we need to see a thesp togged up as Foch [eg] to register the fact that Foch – of whom there are plenty of b&w still photographs available and, probably, not a little original film footage – is an integral part of the story unfolding. Mary Beard has resolutely refused to have anything to do with this am-dram nonsense in any programme with which she is involved, albeit her objection to goons swathed in togas is for an even more preposterous bit of toshery than goons in modern dress uniform.

16 November

A couple in Mansfield, which voted to leave, explain that their reason for voting leave was that ‘we are getting old and the £350 million per week for the NHS was important for us. Itr turned out to be a lie, so now we would vote remain’.

Selfish reason for leaving, idiot realization for staying, and the damned politicians talk of honouring the will of the British people. What is that, exactly?

 

17 November

Grumbly cloud cover the colour of puddle, no moon visible, a damp cold that got to my fingers inside the gloves in no time, glad of my hat, a gift from an old friend, Russian ear-flap item but fake wool and soft flannel. No one else abroad in the Park so I walk up the day in a contented silence and solitude, thus up the long drag of the last climb to the high road and town. Laden, as ever, I tramp back down the hill to home, have breakfast – with plenary gratitude, expressed in grunts and exhalations of sigh and cheery mockery of my mild expostulation: on my feet since 6 and it’s now way past 9.30…phwaaargh.

After breakfast, having finished the pot of coffee and begun reading through the Guardian, outside to work: sawing up the baulks of fir tree which I hauled down – at neighbour’s offer (felled in their front garden) – last year, the limbs of Goat willow from Nick’s which we brought back the other evening, other bits and pieces. Bagged up the logs and brought inside. Humped down two of the smaller sections of the big birch felled at the back in the spinney, ready for cutting. Got a space ready for Philip who has promised delivery of a load of logs this morning, came inside to do the washing up, hoping that he’d arrive – it’s now past midday. He doesn’t: time for a shower.

Out of the shower, I hear the noise of Philip’s truck, the tilting back letting slip the logs into the front garden. Down in my dressing gown to greet him and hand over the cheque.

Down, again, I sit to read for a bit. The doorbell chimes. Window cleaner: I’d quite forgot. And, looking at the heap of new logs decide…hm, get ’em stacked, now. I pitch in and it’s done, all the wood stored, five hours after I began. And not one suggestion of fatigue, all through. Hurray. The four-day detox, no wine, has worked.

I decided to have my main meal, with wine, and sit down around 4 o’clock, with deep pleasure and satisfaction.

 

21 November

It’s 20 years to the day since I took up residence in Low House and began life in Sevenoaks. With permission, I’d already moved all the furniture and boxes from storage in London into the place and, for seven hours after I arrived, round 2 o’clock, by bike, I was clearing space, piling boxes out of the way, insofar as I could, setting up somewhere to sleep, table and chair for dining, making the place shipshape. By 9 pm I was ready for a drink. Could I find the corkscrew? The days long before labelling of boxes – most of which were gathered in from supermarkets.

I went next door and knocked. A man answered. I asked if I might borrow a corkscrew. He obliged. I uncorked a bottle, took the corkscrew back and never saw the man – or anyone else in the place, again. They must have moved, if not done a moonlight flit.

By train to Marden, bus on to Goudhurst to meet a financial advisor who outlines options for the management of Low House and other (few) assets. The decision whether to sell looms. My immediate thought is of how grim it will be for the two tenants to be told they’ll have to move.

 

Thanksgiving

I’m deputed by Marie to make a fruit salad for the feast this night. Raspberries (red), lychees (white) and blueberries (blue) steeped in Muscatel with star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon bark. Very tasty. She roasted a delicious shoulder of lamb and made a pumpkin pie. Yum.

The moon full and radiant.

 

23 November

Marie returns the bowl in which I set up the fruit salad and we sit by the stove for a couple of hours to talk. I put to her the matter of selling the flat and wonder what reasons (ie excuses) I might give for doing so. She, very wisely, tells me that no reason is necessary: if it’s my decision to sell, that’s it.

I reflect afterwards how often I confuse loyalties, forgetting that I also have a loyalty to myself. She’s absolutely right to point me to the simplicity of statement: the flat is to be sold needs no gloss. I’ve yet to decide but this seems to be the best move.

Steph has been having and continues to have a spirit-flaying time with a bunch of difficult and hapless individuals at work, above all with a senior administrative officer who is incompetent, finagling, scrimshanker. I send her a card which shows Emily Pankhurst on a dais – in Trafalgar Square? – addressing a vast crowd of men – suits and hats as was, once, de rigueur. She is togged out in the familiar horn of plenty hat, full skirt and wasp-waist bodice jacket with extravagant jabot, gloves and, over one arm, I think, a brolly. I may have misremembered. One feels that her entire posture and demenaour suggests megaphone though she has no megaphone. I add the caption: ‘How many idiot men can a woman deal with at any one time?’

 

24 November

A murky morning. The moon, two days off full, blanketed over with suety cloud. I’m walking hard with no distress, no congestion or shortness of breath. Hurray.

Letter from the financial advisor spelling out the options arrives. I read through and the decision is made: to sell the flat. I’ve already sent Lucy and Scott a letter telling them that we need to talk through a number of things relating to my will and so on.

28 November

The 05h37 train from Sevenoaks, 7 o’clock from Kings Cross and Leuchars by 12.24. Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. The amazing feat of retrieval done by generations of Assyriologists deciphering the clay tablets. There’s a compelling simplicity about the story, a raw emotional beat, an opulence of detal and the repetitions are incantatory. This translation, about which I cannot pronounce, save that it seems to follow the stark poetry of the original, is badly marred by a great proliferation of exclamation marks. None is needed and this man has thrown them at the text like spatters from an overloaded paintbrush.

The transformation of the wild man Enkidu who lives among gazelles into a more human figure by the mediation of a woman who seduces him, brings an intimate detail to the epic story which imbues the character of the whole poem, the humanity and urgency of relationships described in reduced language.

While the two of them were making love,

He forgot the wild where he was born.

For seven days and seven nights

Enkidu was erect and coupled with Shamhat.

She asks him about his life with beasts and promises to bring him to the city

where men are engaged in labours of skill,

you, too, like a man, will find a place for yourself.

 

On the matter of loyalty to self…this is surely what underpinned my decision that Sunday morning in Tenerife when I put the ultimatum to my father. I’d gone out, unannounced – he’d been sulking for some time, as he frequently did, after delivering a tongue-lashing, most memorably when he rang to say, amongst other things, that I’d left a plate on the draining board, this further affront to the rearranging of the knives and forks in the drainer, thus taking no cognizance of his ‘cutlery condition’… – to find him in a pretty poor state of health. Sleeping almost all day, very thin, not eating, in his 89th year. (A while before, he’d told me with the grim satisfaction of a man whose satisfaction centres exclusively in putting one over on someone, that when he reached a hundred, he was going to break a mirror because that way ‘I’ll have seven years of bad luck’. Visited on whom? I might have said.)

The doctor who came at my request to examine him on Satyurday afternoon was shocked at his physical state, prescribed liquid food – which I went out to get, then to administer – advised against care homes, which in Tenerife are awful and was generally rather pessimistic about the immediate prospects.

I contacted the head of a nursing organisation and arranged for her to come the following Tuesday.

On Sunday morning, having made my decision to confront my father, I went out for a walk, came back, sat on the side of the bed and, feeling utterly calm, deliberate and steady, said: ‘Right, I want two things: I want control of your bank account so that I can take charge of proper nursing for you, and I want all your money. I’m your only son, Mother left everything to you and I want you to leave everything to me.’

I’d read his will. He’d made fleeting reference to it on two occasions: first that it was ‘rather complicated’, second that I was the main beneficiary. This was not true. He’d intended to gift some £15,000 each to ten of my cousins, the same to Lucy. I said nothing about my having seen these preposterous and blatant attempts to curry favour with ‘good old uncle John’ and suggested that he might, in considering his legacy, make an exception for Lucy, his one granddaughter. He said, withthat curl of his lip which I associated with contempt and fear: ‘’No. Why should I? There’s no affection there.’ I didn’t say: ‘And whose fault is that?’

He took in what I said and mumbled yes, noddng his head, the expression on his face one of a bewildered child.

That afternoon, I spoke to a QC friend of mine to make sure of the wording for a new and very uncomplicated will, borrowed a typewriter, organized two witnesses for the following afternoon and, once again, went back into the bedroom to read more from George MacDonald Fraser’s wonderful McAuslan stories. The readings interspersed with my cleaning him, putting new incontinence pads on. I went out to get fish and chips – what proved to be his last meal – walked him into the shower cubicle (me fully dressed) to give him a shower, at his request) and, as I prepared my own supper, heard him calling out to me. I went into the bedroom.

‘Our arrangement…’

‘Yes?’

‘I want power of veto.’

‘Of course.’ From beyond the grave?

On Monday evening, the witnesses arrived, he signed the new will, they countersigned.

Next morning, the nurse arrived, as agreed, at 10 o’clock and, minutes after she entered the apartment, my father went into a rigid catatonic spasm, his entire body frozen in shock, eyes staring, mouth agape, no sound issuing from him. Thank goodness the nurse was there: she took charge, an ambulance arrived and took him to the nearby Green Hospital – named for the colour of its signboard, I fancy – and I followed.

There ensued a period of the most intense stress I have ever experienced. On Thursday morning, I woke to the noise of a thumping on the glazed doors leading out onto the patio. It was a small bird flying into the glass pane. I got up, went down to the beach, as I ever did, for a swim, walked back into the apartment and the phone rang: my father had died a short while before. Turns out he used to sit on the patio watching one of the birds feeding. His spirit come back to announce his demise?

Later that day, I phoned Lucy, who detested him. ‘Hello darling, I feel I should tell you that your grandfather died this morning.’ [pause] ‘I got all the money.’

‘Well done,’ she said.

I see now that my going into that room to say what I said was a subconscious but very determined act of loyalty to myself. And I know it’s true, what I’ve said, that I killed him with kindness, made him realise what he had thrown away, discarded, neglected for so many many years: kindness and friendship. When I told one of my cousins this, he actually believed that I had murdered the man…one very obvious reason why I have so little time for most of my cousins. They don’t do doubt, irony or empathy.

The day after he died, I went to his bank, withdrew a large amount of cash and flew home. On another visit a short while later, to take care of what needed to be taken care of, I discovered that the young woman who had, supposedly, looked after him for a long time, and to whom I’d given a large sum of money in thanks, had over a year, mulcted his account of around 125,000 euros.

I flew home next day, he was cremated in the afternoon. I saw no reason to postpone my return. He meant nothing to me by then. On the later visit, I took the urn containing his ashes to the house of a friend of both my parents – one of the Sunday gang, drinks and lunch – and put half the remains next to the jacaranda tree the man had planted in memory of my Ma. Some while after that, I cycled from Ipswich to Leiston and buried the remains of the remains next to my Ma’s gravestone, marked with her name and ‘beloved wife’.

There was very little response to his death from the family, but one cousin wrote (in an email) ‘he was a character’ which is, it seems to me, the sort of thing you say about someone you can’t really make out and don’t want to, an opinion based largely in ignorance of how seemingly outward going he could appear in company which didn’t scrutinize the behviour that closely, and what a complete bastard he could be in the close confines of family, to whit, him, my mother and me.

Mother once said to me that she felt he might have found it easier if they’d had a girl. I said: ‘That’s been part of the trouble, in a way, you did.’

 

29 November

Drenching rain as I set off for Dundee. A man boards the bus and says to me: ‘Ach, a dreich day.’

The bus driver puts me off at a stop way past the new V&A building which hunkers down by the waterside on the north-west end of the Tay bridge. Its form in the shape of a hull formed of what look like narrow planksin toothcomb. In fact, shale-like concrete strata.

I walk in the slosh of the rain, umbrella exploding in the force of the wind, shoes holding out against the wash of puddles, trousers bearing the creep of the damp, back to the stop opposite the building and am inside the warm and dry to see the exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed and Style. Much style there is – depicting these magnificent vessels as the Ritz on water, interior décor and furnishings, elaborate design of wall hangings, murals, luxurious detail of stained glass and wood, and the ribes, owns and dresses of the women descending the grand staircase into the salle de danse, garments that probably cost the passage for the people in steerage class, bottom deck, who barely are given mention. One photograph, taken from above, into the crowded well of their so-called accommodation.

The exhibits which offer some insight into the wonders of the engineering which delivered the power for the shops are breathtaking: the model of an engine, a seeming miracle of complexity. How on earth did anyone devise the shape, size, function, linkage of all those individual parts, the constituents of the machine? Concept, structure, manufacture, precision…a baffling ingenuity.

Next door to the museum, Scott’s Discovery, built in a Dundee shipyard for the 1901 Polar Expedition. More exercise of bafflement: the smallness of a vessel designed to accommodate 64 men for months on end, the strengthened hull to resist the opressure of pack ice through the winter, the high, extended poop to evade the glacial onslaught, the massive tarrif of stores (Shackleton, a sub-lieutnant on the voyage, in charge of disposing the stores, constantly shifting to new position, not to upset the trim of the ship), which included a massive uantity of ‘preserved sprouts’. Against scurvy, I guess. As to the hellish conditions those men endured and survived in what Apsley Cherry-Garrard later called ‘the worst place on earth’, the mind buckles, the spirit quails, the body recoils even to think of them.

The bus home takes me through Pickletillum (-em on the map) which I’ve remarked onour way through on many occasions but here note it for its oddity to my ears. I discover:

‘This is a variant of Sc pichtel, cognate with English dialect pightel ‘small parcel of land’. Cowell’s (English) Law Dictionary (1708) gives it as picle alias pightell* and pictellum, ‘a small parcel of land inclosed with a hedge, which the common people of England do in some places call a pingle’, quoted by Alexander, who states that Picktillum is a relatively frequent farm name in north-eastern Scotland (1952, 100–1). The ending in –um (sometimes weakened later to –em) derives from a Latinised form of this word.

The OS Name Book (34, 32) gives the local place-name lore which can still sometimes be heard: “This place had been at one time inhabited by Nailors, and in serving the customers, if any of the latter were dissatisfied with the quantity [of nails] given them, the master would tell some of his men to ‘gie another pickle tillem’ [i.e. ‘pickle till them’, ‘a small amount to them’], which has given rise to the present name”.

There was also a Pickletillum in Pathhead KDT, and a folk-etymology involving nailors and quantities of nails exists for this place, too (see PNF 1 s.n.). Given that nail-making was the staple trade of Pathhead, it is more likely that the nailor story originated there rather than in Pickletillem.’

* pightle also occurs in Norfolk where I heard it translated (perhaps erroneously) as a ‘pig field’, although the area of land to which it referred – in Salthouse – was, indeed, a small parcel. In Suffolk, pingle means ‘to eat a little, without appetite’ as in ‘I bee’nt no stummach for my Wittels. I jest pingle’.

The pub here, a coaching inn built in 1732, having stood empty and dilapidated for years, was destroyed earlier this year and there are plans to destroy more of the village’s dwellings to make way for ‘holiday chalets, a shop and extensions to the Drumoig Golf Hotel, plus improvements at the former Scottish National Golf Centre and the associated driving range’.

 

30 November

Birthday lunch with Lucy at a Japanese restaurant in Saint Andrews, the sun in pomp. Later, we set out for Ballater and arrive at the Darroch Learg hotel, open again after over three years of protracted renovation and rebuilding (the first which raged through the upper storey early in 2015), greeted by Fiona and Nigel. Thus begins our luxurious stay in the quasi-home of dear friends of long date. I’ve known Fiona for ever and she and Nigel have known Lucy since she was a titch – we stayed with them on a couple of occasions when we went skiing at the Lecht.

 

1 December

Lucy finds us a long walk on the Glenlivet estate about 50 minutes drive away. First into Ballater tobuy provisions for birthday supper on the morrow. A pheasant and some beef at the butcher above whose door hang two coats of arms: Queen and Prince of Wales, so it’s the royal flesh we’re purchasing today.

Scott expresses approval of the beef and tells the butcher, a genial cove with a military moustache and a beaming smile, that his wife is a vegetarian but will eat a pheasant. As for him, beef is the order of the day when it comes to a treat.

‘Look after number one,’ says the butcher.

I chime in: ‘And number two.’

The butcher turns to me, registering, I guess, that Scott and I are linked by more than our presence together in the shop: ‘Good of you to place yourself second.’

We take the meat back to the hotel, store it in the kitchen fridge, and set off.

The road winds through woodland in the lower stretches of the route before pushing out into the more open moorland, acres and acres of furze and grassland munched to the root by sheep, dun brown, bare earth, faded green, blotches of sandy ginger under a blaze of sun. The road narrows and tilts up, wiggling up the gradients like elves flicking through reedy waters. Dizzy drops on tarmac ski runs into the pit of a hollow, then up again, downward pull vying with wind and a dislodged perspective for the driver, caught between the straitened path of the road and the wider unseen limits of the heath to either side.

We cross the brow at the Lecht itself, a practice slope low down coated with artificial snow, and Lucy pulls off the road. She’s rattled by the vertigo of this drive, needs to recover, a few minutes and she’ll probably be all right again. Encouragement and comfort from both Scott and me. She shakes her head, caught between the sense of giving in and a mounting dread of continuing which she feels she ought to suppress.

I say: ‘You don’t need this, darling. Not worth it. There’s no point in pushing on for the sake of it. Leave it out.’

We turn back and face the repetition of what she’s turned aside from – the helter skelter – but at least, now, she knows we’re not forging on further out into unknown stresses. She finds us another walk, shorter in length, up past Strathdon church, near the village of Lost, having passed, twice, now, the forbidding edifice that is Corgarff Castle: ugly block house girded in with high curtain wall, ammunition dump, gaol, stronghold…a relic of the clan warfare and the intervention of Georgian redcoats bringing order and stability, civilisation a bonus, to the scallywags in plaid.

A long, long gradual upwards haul hit me badly and I never really recovered in the two and a buit hours of our walk, mostly through tranquil woodland – not very well managed, alas, if managed at all: a clutter of undergrowth, fallen timber, choked trees. Scarce any sign of logging.

I kept at it but this was one of those treks which was unremitting hard work and I nearly sighed with frustration when I saw what promised to be the last of the climbs, shallow in gradient as it was. However, it did not cling so fast to my boots, I busied through and there, as we broke from the trees, lay the open fields of the valley below us and the blessed downhill path. The waters of the stream are not named in the road atlas I have here but seem to stem either from the river Avon which feed a network round Tomintoul, or else flow off the porous mass of Mona Gowan and Morven above Strathdon.

Lunch at the restored Old Station – which burnt down shortly after the inferno at the hotel – now entirely lacking in atmosphere or style, a functional cafe reminiscent of the old railway buffet, painted in custard cream and anjelica green, very different from the panelled grace of the interior when Nigel ran it. The fatigue of the walk hits me, Lucy tells me to go to the table, she’ll handle everything. I obey, gratefully. (Back at the hotel, I try to read for a while, give up, lie down on the bed for an hour, probably, don’t sleep, but the repose is enough to get me back to form.

That evening, we spent in the company of Fiona and Nigel’s eldest daughter (of three) whom she and I had not seen in nigh 25 years – she’s now 30 and getting married on 28 December to Simon, with her, when we meet. Nigel at table with us, Fiona on duty as main waitress.

 

2 December, Lucy’s birthday

Breakfast in the sunlit conservatory apse of the dining room, a walk along the river Dee, the waters in spate, unfriendly to the dippers who patrol here. A couple of horses in a paddock by the broken path of the tributary along which we turn getting shirty, a kick and a bite, and a grumpy stand-off.

Home to Saint Andrews. One restaurant has painted on its wall: Ye may gang faur and fare waur…you may travel further and do worse, ie take it when it’s offered.

 

3 December

I give up on Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. The stories are all of the same ilk and the narrative becomes tedious repetition of the same odd tale in slightly different guise. Alas, I had hoped it would be more intriguing.

 

6 December

I now give up on Frankenstein, about halfway through. It’s so antiquated an idea that suspension of disbelief, that old lure to immersion in fiction, has very little purchase. The fact that the monster disappears for several years makes an odd and unsatisfying jar in the story. I grew tired of the rather blowsy chronicle of Frankenstein’s monologue, too. It’s never a happy thing to close a book on the decision not to reopen it, but pointless to struggle on without pleasure or diversion.

Robert Webb’s How Not to be a Boy is amusing, touching and intelligent, the premise – against macho conditioning and expectation – important, but the narrative does rather dwindle into a chronicle of luvviedom at the end, as if the problem of finishing couldn’t be better resolved.

 

10 December

A recollection triggered by what I don’t know. After a gig in Norwich, one of the audience in the milling crowd (I exaggerate…the crowd was see-through) stole our lead guitarist’s amplifier. The cry went up. The roadie just ahead of me, the two of us rushed down the stairs into the pedestrian precinct outside the club, saw the thief and, that instant, our bassist emerging from another door of the building. We yelled, Chris let the guy go past and yelled back: ‘What?’

We were hard on the crim, he had dropped the amplifier, James, the roadie, caught him, brought him down, I was there on his heels, reached down for the blackguard’s jacket collar and hauled him to his feet, then slammed him into the wall and put my fist in front of his face. Even as I said: ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I could imagine my plasterer mate, Mick, ex-Para, saying to me: ‘No, no, Graeme, don’t talk to him. Whack him and then talk to him.’

We let him go.

 

 

18 December

News that a large detachment of troops has been put on the alert to stand by, in case our Fred Karno government can’t secure a deal with the EU. Ah, bless, they still entertain a notion that a deal is possible? Anyway, it’s good to know that in what appears to be the dead certainty of our lurching out of the EU without agreement like an expelled pupil from school, that we are safe and that the squaddies will be driving the streets in camouflage vans doling out boxes of provisions – tins of baked beans, washing powder, rusks…

 

19 December

Sajid Javid, Home Secretary, managed to get through an entire interview without reminding us that his father was a bus driver. He got close, dangerous ground, but swerved away at the last moment. However, he did confirm that in the prevailing jargon of dimwitresponse to direct question, the word ‘clear’ is newly defined as ‘haventgotafuckingclue’ and that repeated iteration of the word simply reinforces its new alignment with cluelessness.

Queen of ‘let me be clear’ is, of course, Priti Patel, described last Saturday in the Guardian as ‘the idiot’s idiot’.

 

Winter Solstice

I think of Rob Corbett, who died in 2009, and how much I owe him. Above all, trust.

A friend had asked me to repair her governess’s cart – a horseshoe shaped box for two, seats to either side, a small door in the curved back, above the single step for boarding. The post opposite the hinged fixtures had broken and the laminated side of the cart, still attached, had sprung away.

I made a new post, fitted it and came the time to locate it in its seating. Rob advised a Spanish windlass – a rope looped round the structure a couple of times and fastened, a baton slid between the strands. Twist the baton round and round, the rope tourniquet tightens, the structure resumes shape.

Rob observing, I began to twist the baton. The tighter the rope got, the closer the juncture of the post to seating became, the more disturbing the noises made by the tormented wood. The effort to turn the windlass got harder, the squeals, shrieks, screeches of the cart’s sides got scarier. I had the feeling that the whole thing was going to explode. The post was a millimetre from home and I said to Rob: ‘We could probably tap it in.’ He nodded and said: ‘Give it another turn.’

With some trepidation, I leaned into the stress of turning the baton and trying not to pay heed to the torture I was administering. The post moved but a bare sliver and sank into the seating sweetly. Glue and fixing, release the rope, job done.

I said to Rob: ‘Did you know?’

‘No,’ he said.

Seems to me that that manner of confidence, to trust to instinct, maybe, not to ignore uncertainty but not to let it interfere, is as precious a moral strength as any more blatant self-assurance.

The moon, this longest night, in magnesium pomp.

 

22 December

Tenth anniversary of moving into Middle House. Friends to lunch.

 

23 December

Tenth anniversary of the first full day’s occupation of the house. I’m happier and feel more at home here than I have felt anywhere else I’ve lived. House, area, countryside, town and, above all, the company of a few special friends make this a radiant hub of welcome.

A small gathering for drinks and snacks.

I stopped on the drive north, once, to look at the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey – I must have been going to Newcastle to collect Lucy for a half-term stay in Whitby, which we did a few times. The place was deserted, save for me, until a man and a woman and their little daughter (I presume) joined me in the rather melancholy open carcase of the great abbey church – a huge, angular, stone rib cage thrusting up into the sky. The little girl scampered about the place, suffused with glee, until she came to the low plinth on which had stood the altar. She hopped onto it, turned, and, in a voice tingling with delight, announced: ‘And this is where they served the ice cream.’

Which, in a way, it was.

 

24 December

For whatever reason, comes to mind one of the most cogent lessons I ever had.

In my second year at Christ’s College Finchley, I played Viola in the school play, Twelfth Night. Even today, I still have lines of my part threading in my memory like echoes from a spooling, part-damaged, magnetic tape. (In the first year, I’d joined the Stage Crew which entailed making the scenery and stage managing during the performance. We were given time off lessons to prepare the scenery – hanging regency stripe, red on ivory, wallpaper on the floppy canvas of the old flats, larking about…why we were given such sanction for bunking off, I don’t know. Was artificial drama away from the classroom more valid than the melodrama so often acted out inside it? The days of heavy magisterial sarcasm and labored humour which passed for wit, and occasional outbursts of spectacular rage and tongue-lashings.)

When the play was on, we either perched on ladders looking down onto the stage and, I guess, resisting the temptation to drop things into the thespian arena, or prowled the corridor behind the flats, peering through the cracks, turning the handles on the doors leading into the stage area, suppressing fits of giggles.

Viola was the first real acting role I’d had. Long Fo at Tudor Primary, playing opposite Wing Lee and asking her if she’d help me fly my kite made as much demand on any skill I had as popping up as one of the Wise Men – I was gold, which made me Melchior. Putatively.

After the production, I received a letter from Lewis Casson, the actor, though how he came to be in the audience I do not know. Am Dram…? Hardly his field. Anyway, in the letter he said that one of the pitfalls of performing on stage was the receipt of correspondence from total strangers. He proceeded to praise my performance, in particular my stillness, my capacity to remain quiet – no upstaging, showboating, mugging or diversionary business, none of which terms of opprobrium were familiar to me at the time. I was a locked box. Language, the constituent words of communication, were ciphers which registered only in the dispassionate way that they register in a dictionary. As to their weight, import, heat, chill or force of definition, in the millrace of attaching description to emotion or thought, I had no clue. ‘For all I know,’ he wrote, ‘this may be thanks to your director but, if so, he was lucky with his material.’

To what degree this ambiguity – boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy and finally unmasked as a boy – warped my callow sense of my own sexuality I cannot tell.

The letter, one of many letters which I cherished, was, with them, destroyed by my father in a fit, I suppose, of envy and exasperation. He had no compunction about opening my mail, but then, no one ever wrote to him. Did he ask himself why? I think not. The collection of those private messages included a large bundle of letters and sonnets written to me by my English teacher, Brian Tyson, who arrived at the school in my third year. Having been impatient to rage with me during the lassitude and indolence of my first year in the VIth form, he and I formed a very close friendship in the second year VIth. The sonnets were love poems. There was no sexual advance. The rfeceipt of the poems gave me an interesting insight into the lopsided exchange that is the inspiration to writing of love poems and the impulsion to hand them on to the object of love, whether she (or he) wants them, certainly not necessarily to be burdened with the responsibility of inspiring them, on which the poet, without permission, insists.

My success as Viola led to my being cast as Joan in Shaw’s play. Rehearsal schedules were posted. I cut an early rehearsal. My reason for so doing was the sense that they couldn’t do without me, accordingly I could pick and choose when I turned up or didn’t. This brazen arrogance was fully in line with my tendency to show off. Curious that I neve felt the urge to show off on stage – it was a place of necessary restraint, something I knew by instinct, I imagine, and if not a sacred grove, a temenos, at least an area demanding respect. Off stage, however…

The day after my dereliction, I was standing in the classroom with the other boys, waiting for the arrival of our French master, when Jack Carey, head of English, director of the play, stormed into the room, his shoulders hunched, head lowered, eyes glowering behind the dark-framed spectacles. He saw me, bulldozed through the knots of boys right up to me and said: ‘You little blue-eyed bastard, never do that to me again,’ wheeled round and left the room.

I did what any callow starlet would do, I guess: I burst into tears and rushed out.

I never missed another rehearsal, Jack never made reference to my damnable behaviour, we proceeded with rehearsals as if nothing had happened. For that magnanimity alone I honour his memory. For the delivery of so salutary, so complete, so necessary a lesson, however, what depth of gratitude could I plumb? He planted in me a sense of dutiful commitment to any enterprise on which I am embarked that has no bend in it.

My acting career at CCF comprised a role in which I, a boy, played a girl playing a boy, then reverting to girl, and I, a boy, played a girl who dresses and behaves as a boy and remains a boy, so to speak, and, finally, my part as the fop Cléanthe in Molière’s L’Avare. I attended rehearsals in the run-up to O Level exams and sat in the stalls revising one of the books of Gallic Wars, slipping from Caesar’s Latin to Miles Malleson’s Englishing of the French with insolent ease. Was my mind on either? Yes, I should say on both, hopping this way and that, you know. The seduction of the smell of Leichner, the burn of the fresnels and spots, the small world and imagined reality of the boards – prone to kicking up dust through imperfect seams, on that Main Hall stage – on one hand and the draw of divisa in tres partes on the other. But it was that production which severed the ties and my mind turned to other inveiglings. Lord knows what further inhibition those dubious impersonations laid over my already troubled, nay, tormented, sexuality. It most assuredly put me off amateur dramatics for life. There was, though, the Week of Plays in Deia. For another time.

On up-staging…Benny Young, who directed the first show I took to Edinburgh, Gesualdo, told the story of a ghastly old rep company actor, self-elected grandaddy of the cast, an inveterate show-stealer, who was part of a large company in some play or other. The director was blocking a big scene and, instinctively, ignored this old ham. When everyone was in position, the tableau complete, the finale primed, the director’s gaze, as if drawn by guilt, swivelled round and lit on the one actor on stage whom he had neglected. The trouper smiled and, in his thick Scottish accent, said: ‘Dinna worry aboot me, laddie…I’ll be at the back, picking flooers.’

This same man arrived at the theatre one morning and was told that the young SM had locked herself in a dressing room, in floods of tears, broken by the news that her boyfriend had just dumped her. Taking on himself the role of sympathetic ear, understanding spirit, gentle comforter, wise counsellor, the man went to the room and knocked on the door, announced himself. A sound of hiccupping sobs from within. He spoke amiable words and, eventually the distraught young woman opened the door. He entered the room, she shut the door and leaned against it.

‘I’m main sorry to hear yer bad news, lassie. A dreich day.’ [Pregnant pause.] ‘Wad yer like a wee fuck?’

Which bids me include, here, the story of a young, unmarried, Catholic woman who went to her parish priest and confessed to a spree of wild sex, abandoned lechery. The priest deliberated for a while and then told her to go away and eat a raw lemon. She was startled. ‘Will that cleanse my soul?’ she said. ‘No, but it’ll wipe that smile off your face.’

 

Christmas Day

Breakfast and opening presents from Lucy and Scott, (including a mini-stocking parcel with a number of goodies to grace the table), Marie, (including an exquisite onyx dish), Jane, (a wee slip pottery candle-snuffer in the shape of a nesting bird).

Preparations for lunch – roast chicken and trimmings, an individual tomato and cheese flan (Kate, Marie’s daughter, is vegetarian), for pudding, zabaglione.

Marie, Kate and her friend Jodie arrive, we drink the bottle of Chapel Down Nectar which I’ve saved for just such a special occasion, and then sit to the full spread of table – linen which I bought in Ronda on the trip with Lucy in 2000.

 

New Year’s Eve…Old Year’s Night

Splitting the baulks of the silver birch, felled in autumn 2017, which I had sawn into more manageable roundels yesterday morning. A good haul for the stove, although they don’t last long and act, rather, as a supplement to the harder, denser timber in the log shed.

 

2019

2 January

Thanks to the amazing kindness of two of my neighbours, the entire harvest of wood, from the silver birch felled in autumn 2017 – rotten at its base – and the length of the trunk of another close by which had fallen of its own accord and lain, untouched, for longer, got cleared. Jack plying his professional weight chainsaw, Stuart feeding in, me heaving the baulks into place for them to reduce to manageable logs size…I had been splitting the cylinders which I’d sawn out for an hour before Stuart came out with his chainsaw. We got down half the remaining stump of the felled tree – which the tree men had left six feet proud of its base, an eyesore – and then got stuck into the large trunk that had been lying so long. I expected it to be rotted. Not at all. Hardened and in clean state.

And here comes Jack with a tool that slices where the other saw chewed and, in two hours, the whole area was cleared and rendered into a single pile.

But, before it was, I had suggested that they’d done so much for me already (Jack: ‘We want to keep the old man warm over the winter…hahaha’) that we could leave it there and why didn’t we go up to the Buck’s Head so I could buy them a pint and a sandwich, to which they said: ‘Nah nah, but a cup of tea would be great,’ which I supplied, even as they pressed on and, within two hours of their intervention, the whole job was done.

 

3 January

Stuart and I carried, barrowed and stacked the entire pile in my log shed out front, in bags and then in loose stack on the terrace at the back.

Result of all this heavy labour, I went four nights barely sleeping, so tired to the very core, that and a detox.

 

Twelfth Night

Another night with scarce any sleep, the interim taken up with spells of reading in the hope of inducing slumber, to no avail. Towards reveille, I must have slept because I dreamed but it was such shallow dreaming that, when I did wake from it, my waking flow of higgledy piggledy thought took over seamlessly from the drift of dream story.

The Park-market walk was hard. I got the shopping done and took the bus home.

Supper with Marie at hers – I offered to cook but she said: ‘No, I’ll cook because I haven’t been hauling logs’ – for which I supplied a bottle of Château Lalande d’Auvion, a big red to celebrate the end of the Christmas season and the eve of the vacation of Low House which, on Monday, goes onto the market under its original name, the nondescript 1 Lovinya Court.

The walk to hers was hard, the walk back, up the hill, excruciating. But I slept. And dreamed. A dream which involved rowing a skiff, the lovely, relaxing rhythm of oar blade, the swich of water as it pulls through the stream, the thrum of the gates, the slap of water against the hull’s woodwork a perfect metaphor for rest. And what bliss to sleep and wake and sleep again. I seemed almost to be aware that I was asleep even as I slept. It was the force of the dream.

 

PS I took Stuart (and Jack) four cans of good lager to say thanks. Stuart said: ‘You didn’t have to do that,’ to which I said: ‘Nor did you have to do that for me.’

 

Epiphany

A day late, I strip the room of cards and the bay tree of decorations, the lintels of lights.

 

7 January

Opening of an email to Lisa Jane in Haverford PA:

Yesterday was a mess and today ought to have been loaded with more banality than anyone who can read without the assistance of a ruler ought to have to deal with, but there’s a sudden absence of idiocies to deal with with the result that I can write. How dumb is all that? Perfect alignment with the chaos, incompetence, finagling and social friction and division that’s turned this country into a panier de crabes. As the man said ‘Ichabod, ichabod, the glory is departed’ like, ‘hey, guys, we no longer rule the world, whaddya know? Still, all we have to do is invest in some new pots of pink paint and we can colour in the global projection just as it used to be and, bingo, back to the imperial past, us little islanders rejoicing in our 1. sovereignty 2. autonomy 3. separation from those ghastly Europeans – garlic, frogs’ legs and sausage, macaroni and dumplings with unspeakable fillings, thus reasserting our liberalising, far-reaching fish’n’chip culture plus cricket on the silly, pitiable, benighted, jibber-jabber, illiterate wogs and, my, how very grateful they will be to have a dose of our rulebritannia-bread’n’dripping- NICENESS. With weaponry.

Shit.

That apart, everything is hunky dory and the sunsets, at least, are still pink.

 

12 January

As I walk up Blackhall Lane in the near dark before dawn, two women runners go by, one with a headlamp shining on the road ahead, casting a very limited pool of light which could only but deepen the darkness beyond its fringes. I wonder why she doesn’t eschew the lamp, accustom her eyes to the gloom and get a much better perspective as a result.

In the Park, as I approach the path leading right to the Bird House, I see another individual with a glaring white beam of light fore and, aft, a vivid red beacon. Silly, though he – I pass him – does peel off the path to dowse his signal lamps.

Ah, but it’s so much more pleasant, in my view, more fruitful, to absorb the darkness and accommodate rather than to create an alien pool of ight, as if to scare off the demons of the night.

 

16 January

Nick in Massat asks me to get him a small shoe horn. He has one of those extended boot-lifts, as long as a baseball bat and almost certainly not allowed on board an airoplane.

I get him a small item, send him a picture and say that on the back it’s stamped: Property of HMP Walton. (He’s from Liverpool.) I add: ‘Probably used for forced feeding.’

He bought it, hoo hoo.

17 January

What a banger of an opening sentence. Apsly Cherry Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World.

 

18 January

Reading Ovid Metamorphoses X, story of Pygmalion, Propoetides and the marble statue of Aphrodite (not named here as Galatea) towards another myth story. It began, the idea, with tracing the veins in the marble, as I imagined, notwithstanding Ovid’s marble is pure white. There’ll still be perceptible veins.

 

To town to collect two records for Scott’s birthday present.

Walking back from town, I got to the tricky crossroads – blind bend to the right – between Kennedy Gardens and Quakers Hall Lane. An elderly woman with a three=-wheeler walker standing, very uncertainly, off the kerb at the far, left corner. Even as I moved across to give her a hand, a young schoolboy stepped off the pavement and moved towards her. The two of us helped her across the road – very very slowly, she was so shorn of confidence, weak, troubled at the joints, her feet barely even shuffling – letting a couple of vehicles through as we did so. At one point, as we paused to allow her to rest, she said: ‘They say such bad things about the young kids today…’ then glanced sideways at me, to which I said: ‘Less of that,’ and smiled. She grinned. When we’d got her over to the relative safety of Hartslands Road, I asked the lad for his name and year at the school, Trinity – I recognised the blazer.

I walked down the hill, into the alleyway and round to the school, not far from here, got through the security gate – a couple of boys were just leaving – and thence into Reception, where I told the woman at the desk I wanted to report one of their pupils…and told her of the boy’s selfless act, unprompted by me, describing him as having a fleece of dark hair on his poll ( I didn’t say that at the time), his face quite round, full lips, quiet demeanour. I cannot, now, remember his name. Year 10.  Earlier, I’d cursed the 308 bus for leaving before scheduled time – I saw it flash past – which meant another walk, but how glad I am I did that walk.

In fact, I saw the bus go past the bookshop window, as I sat for a cup of tea and (oh, dear) Bakewell sponge before going out to get the ride. A conversation there with Olivia about Irishness – she’d spent a year in Dublin on a Masters degree.

 

19 January

Scott’s birthday.

I wake in the early dark, a short while after 4am and continue reading Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe. It’s superb, a potent antidote to some real middling stuff I’ve read of late. The rip of language, the intense drama of it, the skip of the dialogue, the scene painting, swift flicks of vignette and detail, outstanding. However, a glaring case of telling not showing towards the conclusion – Liam Ward’s reasonfor stealing the gold, duping Beth and planning to murder her is reported – he’s caught up with the Fenians, has stolen some of their money and has links with ‘the most hated man in Ireland’. Very well, but it should have been there, the scene, the lurking danger, so that the threat of killing him in revenge for his dereliction – Ward: give back what you’ve stolen or be got yourself. Be certain of this before May ends – sinister enough, would have more sting in it if we knew whence it came having seen the source.

However, in coincidental reference to what Olivia and I had touched on, the tussle between logic and fancy in the Irish mindset, here, the exchange between Liam and Blinky, the man with whom he prepares the grave for Beth, to be murdered after she turns up with Winters’ gold. Referring to Blinky’s layabout brother, Ward says:

‘He’s wit enough and fit enough to mind himself.’

‘Like too many in this country, all wit and no sense.’

[p.204]

Put me in mind of the encounter WB Yeats had with an old countryman in Sligo, I think. They fell to talking about the little people and the old man as scathing:

‘Ah, ‘tis all fancy and nonsensical, silly stuff and make-believery, you’d never wish to credit such tomfoolery, no, ‘tis an affront to common sense, sure.’ He paused, looked both ways to make sure no one was listening and, his eyes bulging in alarm, he leaned in and said, hugger mugger: ‘But they’re there…’as who could doubt the fancy of it against the fact?

I had the Park to myself, in the light growing from silver thin to pale pewter. A sneaky sort of pleasure, but, joy. By the time I came to the downhill away, there was a sudden influx of the others…smart tracksuits, leggings, arm-wraps, gloves and silky hats, jogging and loping, ah.

 

Record Review on Handel’s Ariodante. Bliss. I forgot to record that a few weeks ago, I was listening to the morning programme, Essential Classics, and Albert Ammons joined the line-up with his Honky Tonk Train Blues/Rag/Boogie…I don’t recall, except that it’s such a joyous, vigorous, boisterous romp, to be followed by the wonderful Scherza infida Aria sung by Philippe Jaroussky, counter-tenor, the timbre and fulness of his voice as close to contralto as I have ever heard in a male singer.

 

The vitriole of Ward’s denigration of the British presence in Ireland – and the novel is set in the aftermath of the Phoenix Park Murders – had shivery effect on me, having just written a short review of JG Farrell’s maginificent Troubles in tandem with Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, about the delusion of past glory:

 

At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the rulebritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory.

 

‘On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort.’ [He’s a cynical businessman.] ‘All around the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance…No one knows where they come from, or where they’re bound. They are the feathered brothers of Death, his heralds, his companions and his camp followers.’

Joseph Roth’s novel chronicles the slow decline of a great empire through the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, taking its title from the march composed by Johann Strauss Junior in 1848 to celebrate the Austrian army’s recent Pyrrhic victory over their insurgent Italian subjects in Piedmont which marked the beginning of the end of Austrian supremacy in the Italian peninsula. Roth described the march, which became an unofficial national anthem and a favourite of the army, known for their impractical white uniforms and Ruritanian incompetence, as ‘the Marseillaise of conservatism’. Here he explores the delusions and misprisions which underpin the clinging of a people to the mendacious fantasies of their questionable past glories.

The book opens on the battlefield at Solferino as a silvery noonday sun breaks through the grey-blue haze separating the opposed armies. The first Trotta, an infantry lieutenant from an obscure village in Serbia, heroically saves the life of the Emperor by stopping a sniper’s bullet with his own shoulder. He’s awarded the army’s highest military honour and ennobled to Baron, a title which makes him feel decidedly uncomfortable. He dissuades his son, who is more drawn to the social distinction the inherited title will confer, from joining the military, seeking to alert him to the vanity of mere rank. However, the second baron encourages his own son to join the cavalry and indulge in the snobbish high status with which that will invest him.

Defeat in WW1 reduces the great sprawl of royal and imperial Austro-Hungary to a by-water, a tawdry parish, the once brilliant capital Vienna a truncated relic of its grandiose past, poverty for most, a slump into Weltschmerz and apathy for the glitterati. Whereas in Berlin they say ‘situation serious but not desperate’ the insouciant Viennese say ‘desperate but not serious’.

Roth delivers a work of intense narrative power, a brilliant evocation of that era of transition between the lost, imagined glory, and the deflated pomp, a penetrating insight into the human condition, the ant negotiating a mogul field of molehills.

 

JG Farrell’s Troubles, set in Ireland, begins where Roth’s novel ends, in the fraught atmosphere of 1919, when the infamous Black and Tans joined the fight against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence. Asked about his choice of historical context, Farrell said: ‘the reason why I preferred to use the past is that, as a rule, people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision’. Current trumpery purveyed in the ‘take back control’ clamour would suggest otherwise.

Major Archer, returned from the war, arrives at the Majestic Hotel on the coast of Wexford, in south-eastern Ireland, as a guest, hopeful of confirming engagement to a woman he met on leave. Her father, the elderly owner, Edward Spencer, is the last scion of an old Anglo-Irish landowning family, Unionist in politics and, like the building he occupies, ‘beginning to go to pieces’. For the hotel itself is dilapidated, an anachronism, a toppling bastion of colonial power. The Protestant Spencers are, necessarily, at odds with the Catholics of the village in which the hotel is situated, but, more significantly, represent a doomed outpost of British rule in an Ireland of increasingly strident calls for liberation. Locals throwing stones to smash the windows. The threat of impending violence swirls – the gathering menace of Sinn Féin  – and, in the dying pages of this fine elegiac novel, the imperious edifice of the Majestic Hotel succumbs to fire: ‘…the ceiling of the writing room descended with an appalling crash, ridden to the floor by the grand piano from the sitting room above. For hours afterwards a white fog of plaster hung in the corridors through which the inhabitants of the Majestic flitted like ghosts, gasping feebly’. It’s as though the besotted dream of the heyday is rent in cackling mockery of the benighted souls who’ve clung to its thin pretence for so long, refusing to see through its tatters.

 

20 January

In a review of a book outlining the matter of Brexit and its tottering into impasse, Kevin O’Rourke includes the text of a memorandum issued to the then PM David Cameron on the different ways in which WW! Centenaries were commemorated in Britain and France. Cameron was instructed that ‘we must ensure that our commemoration does not give any support to the myth that European integration was the result of the two World Wars’.

The flagrant misrepresentation explicit in this view is wholly at one with the egregious mendacity of the Brexit campaigners. By contrast, O’Rourke records how the French PM, Edouard Philippe, speaking in 2017 at the armistice site in Compiègne, evoked the notion of ‘a Europe that reminds us of the eternal values that unite us and the disasters we mourn’.

The landlord of the Bucks Head on Godden Green, a big Spitfire buff, harangued Duncan and me on one occasion during the referendum campaign, to the effect that the Battle of Britain – and the courage of those who fought it can never be diminished or impugned – was exactly what underpinned the argument for get out of Europe. I decided not to counter with the fact that I’d heard a veteran of D Day speaking on the radio a few days before saying that what they did in June 1944 was precisely to act in defence of Europe against tyranny and that the leave campaign was in direct conflict with those sentiments.

 

Excellent dramatization of Les Misérables on tv at the moment, except that the actor playing Javert does a lot of high-pitched shouting which passes, these days, for anger, whereas the Javert of the book is far colder, far more inward with his insensate hatred of Valjean. I hear him in clipped, terse tones, a suppressed rage, a snake-like intensity of malice.

 

21-22 January

Working with the incomparable Chris Yates down at the flat to clear up the mess the tenants left, including two very bad patches of damage from damp which must have first appeared years ago, and removal of over 60 screws and rawlpugs from walls all round, followed by making good of broken plaster. In 2008, Chris used to call for me at the flat every morning at 8 o’clock and drive us up the road to the house, here, for the work that lasted three and a half months.

As ever, Chris does impeccable work, the place is transformed, I stain the front door and surround and do general cleaning of floors – paint drips and smears – as well as slapping in and smoothing off Polyfilla. All very tedious but necessary.

 

23 January

To BH to record this for FOOC:

 

The great cliff walls of the Dolomite peaks tower over the road as I drive through, their silvered rock glowing in the ochre burn of the late afternoon sun.

The young padrone in Caprile, in the heart of the Dolomites, tells me the albergo is closed but makes a phone call and directs me to a hotel in Alleghe, a small town four kilometres along the valley, next to the eponymous lake. I announce myself. ‘Your friend just phoned.’ The padrone smiles. ‘That’s my son,’ he says.

Next morning, waiting to pay the bill, I examine photographs on the lobby wall of a strapping young man in ice-hockey gear, emblazoned with the Olympic rings and Italia. Surely this is . . .? ‘Yes,’ says the padrone, Renato, ‘that’s Manuel, my son. He played in the 2006 Olympics.’ ‘Uh,’ I say, Italian for wow. Renato himself was an international hockey player and his father, Ivo, a professional. He explains how ice skating began here.

In the early years of the 20th century, an English vicar arrived in Alleghe. Mountains captivated him. The lake was frozen over. Aha, he thought. He came back…with his ice skates. The locals were mystified but intrigued – such improbable grace of movement on the treacherous open-air rink. The vicar planted an idea, Alleghe’s citizens began to wobble out onto the ice, the skating craze began. By 1924, Italian ice hockey had official recognition and Alleghe’s hockey club, inaugurated in 1933, now plays in Italy’s top professional league.

Some days later, exploring another sector of the mountains, I head for what looks like an interesting pass, a mere squiggle on the map. The road begins to compress, climbing on tiptoe along a spline of rock sliced out of the sheer cliff face. It’s raining hard. I nose gingerly round a slight bend into a stone archway, and, stationary in front of me, another car. Some hundred metres up this precarious sill, scarcely a single car’s width, two sets of headlights, fuzzy in the blinding wash of rain, coming towards us. There’s not a foot of spare room for passing. The driver in front and I begin to reverse in search of some cavity to huddle in. A dizzying drop to the right, crowding sidewall to the left…I’m very nervous. Eventually, I manoeuvre the car into a bare hollow, the car ahead finds another. A third car appears behind me. The oncoming vans inch past. We move forward, pass through the archway and see . . . another car ahead, descending.

The driver behind me gets out of his car, the torrent notwithstanding, and strides up towards the advancing vehicle. Whatever he says, it works. We drive on up, grope our cautious way past our would-be road block and the road is clear.

From the pass, it’s an exhilarating descent of 21 kilometres, fast all the way to the valley floor and the town of Asiago, the view dominated by a sizeable edifice on a hill just beyond it. On a whim, I decide against staying there and go, instead, to the Albergo Rutzer, about a kilometre back up the road, which I’d spotted on the way. The padrone offers to show me to a room. ‘I’m a bit shaken,’ I say, ‘I need a drink, un negroni, per favore.

He looks at me with blank incomprehension. Ma, che cosa…What’s a negroni? he says.

‘Uh,’ I say and give the full hunch of shoulders, mock prayer gesture of hands: ‘Only one of the most famous Italian cocktails and you don’t know what it is?’ and laugh.

He smiles, shy, returning the compliment of a comic shrug.

I sing out the ingredients and, hunting along the shelves of the bar, he locates them – gin, red vermouth, Campari, equal measures –  pours his first negroni (it’s gargantuan, I don’t comment), and, with a delighted beam, hands it to me.

I tell him where I’ve just come from. The road was, he tells me, cut by the Austrians in the War for the passage of troops and matériel – no parapet or barrier for them, I shiver to think of it – and the edifice above Asiago is a monument to the men killed in the final battle on the Asiago plateau. Many British and French soldiers who’d come with artillery to reinforce the Italians also died there, including the young fiancé of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth.

The remarkable thing is that Asiago’s shrine to the troops slain during the battles in this sector houses the remains of both Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers exhumed from 35 war cemeteries nearby: over 33,000 Italians, nearly 18,000 unknown, and, later on, 18,000 Austro-Hungarian corpses, over 12,000 of them unidentified. It’s not the only case of such humbling post conflict magnanimity I encountered hereabouts – the Austrian flag flying alongside the Italian, over a mausoleum of former combatants, united in death.

 

Back to Sevenoaks, walked up the long hill and had lunch in Zizzi’s, marvel at a woman sitting at a nearby table eating spaghetti with a knife and fork.

 

28 January

Nick tells me that he has discovered Chinese black beans and they are delicious. He adds that he’s heard of a woman who insists that mixing different varieties of beans leads to flatulence. Where’s she been? One bean will do it, large or small, a single pulse. Why, I recall the seminar, yet, I had from Camille in Biert on the properties of haricots – so many varieties of them – and their suitability to cassoulet, a speciality of the south-west. It was entrtancing. I never knew a bean could hold such fascination nor did we even touch on butter beans. And let us not dwell on the methane blast of a Jerusalem artichoke.

I tell him how Pythagoras forbade the eating of beans because farts and burps were release of dead souls and we owe it to our ancestors to give them quieter passage to their metempsychosis, although there could, I guess, develop a curious expertise in the sniffing of farts to determine the character of a departed being. A curious nod at the process of wine-tasting, where individual traits might be labelled as sulphurous, vegetal, lentil orange, lentil Puy, fruitous, alcoholic, morbid, omnivore, carnivore and herbivore, and so on, and where pungency might relate to strength of personality, faintness a certain whimsicality or feebleness of mind or moral pith.

The advent of black beans to the mix, however, also opens up the possibility of nationalistic casseroles, Belgian and German flag overtones, for example. Bean-belly is idiom for a man from Leicestershire and Lincolnshire people have been known as bean-eaters in the past, if not now.

Which courtier was it – Aubrey will name him  – who quit the Elizabethan court after letting go a ripe one to return some years later, having been told he was forgiven, and to be greeted by the Queen who said: ‘Welcome back, Sir -…we have quite forgot the fart’?

 

Mike pitches up with a brace of verty plump pheasant given to him by the owner of a large country house where he’s been working on the electrical installations. I later get them ready for the pot – no plucking, just a brusque scissoring away of tail, wings and feet and skinning (as with a rabbit). And of that time when I was working on the Christmas post during the vacation and had to deliver a brace of birds, tethered at the feet with strong twine, an addressed label tied round the neck of one of them, no packaging.

 

30 January

I finished reading The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard this morning and having recorded what a banger the first sentence of the book is, some while ago – ‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised’ – I marvel at the final sentence: ‘If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.’ It seems to be a summation of magnanimity and entirely spun from the author’s humane, reasoned, fair-minded and poignant account of that tragic adventure.

I skipped some pages – the repetition of days traversing the ice grew wearisome, albeit so very well-described and evoked – but found the concluding chapters, the search expedition, the recounting of Scott’s ownreport on the woeful demise of the men on their return from the Pole, utterly riveting. And C-G’s assessment of why the expedition foundered at the last, the arguments for and against the use of dogs, the route taken, the level of nutrition in the provisions, the failures of supply, the inadequacies of storage vessels for oil, and so on, ther mark of a superior mind and great moral decency. And the piquancy of his own immediate take on the experience – ‘I leave Cape Evans [Site of the Terra Nova hut] with no regret: I never want to see the place again. The pleasant memories are all swallowed up n the bad one’ [p585] – has, in it, the strike of a terrible candour, a dismissal of any thought that his part in the ordeal, had anything but the fact of his presence in it, no touch of heroism.

Raymond Priestley, an Antarctic explorer, summarized the weight of the three most prominent men of what Scott described as an awful place: ‘Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton’.

There was a light covering of snow overnight, much of it frozen hard by the morning, and my walk up into town to the market was precarious. Even as I contemplated the spread of patchy ice, shimmering in an early sunlight, ahead of me, its skiddy surface intermittent, the safer transit on the crunchy stuff, I thought of the incalculable wastes of ice in the Antarctic and imagination failed. It’s beyond conceit for us mere tippy-toe pedestrians on urban partial rinks.

 

More blather about Brexit. If only we had a remainer Jesuit on the case to argue the devious subtleties of the issue. I think of that young man who climbs into a carriage on a cross-country train in America at the start of a long journey westwards from the East Coast to a Dominican Priory, there to enter the novitiate. Seeing a man wearing a clerical collar he sits opposite – this will be congenial company. The man is SJ, sworn foe of the Order of Preachers. By the end of the journey, he has convinced the ardent young man that his vocation lies with the Js not OP and has redirected him, back the way he has come, to a seminary conveniently located not far from his home.

 

2 February

An American woman speaking of her life, getting married and having children, divorced age 30 ‘and then I married my current husband’ as if he came with planned obsolescence.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 February, Knole Park

The colours in the photographs are wrong: the trees were silvered in a monochrome landscape, varying intensities of black and sepia, the shadowed interior of the woodland, the exposed trunks and bare branch profiles of trees, the uniform white of snow. Overall, a rather sinister absence of any other colour, the pallid face of winter.

The road up to the track leading to the Steps in the Wall was wet, the verges still thick with snow, the thaw had clearly been advancing for some time. Having clambered over the wall steps into the Park, I was overheated and removed my ear-flap hat.

Up the first slope, down into the first dip, the view of the house misted with chill air and the gloom of night’s last sombre hues refusing to give in. I stayed warm all the way to the open ground opposite the higher area on which sits the Bird House. Here, the wind whipped hard at me, with a ferocious cold bite and I put my hat back on.

The little snowman presided over the patch of ground immediately after the cattle grid and gate at the bottom of the main entrance way.

All still, the faint moan of the wind and the soft thud of my boots in the snow carpet, rooks squawking intermittently, no other sound.

The papers hadn’t been delivered to Waitrose so I went back, by bus, just after noon. No Times to be seen. I go into the café, a man sorting through the paper on his table. I ask if he wants the Latin crossword. He does. I retreat towards the entrance and see a man standing at one check-out conveyor belt, a copy of The Times in plain view. The conversation proceeds thus:

Is that your Times? (I ask.)

Yes. (Startled look.)

I wonder, do you want the Latin crossword?

The what?
The Latin crossword, it’s on the back page.

It’s my paper.

Yes, but I wonder if I might have the Latin crossword, it doesn’t occupy much space.

But it’s my paper.

Indeed, but I wonder, if you don’t want the Latin crossword, whether I might have it, snip it out.

What, mutilate my paper?

It’s only quite small.

[Faint mumbling to self.] Oh, all right then. [Ill grace.] My paper…never had anything like this before.

[I snip out the crossword and] Thanks very much. I’m really very grateful.

 

When I report this absurdist interlude to Marie, she laughs and says: ‘How very Sevenoaks.’

 

 

8 February

I’ve finished – that’s to say plodded through All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski – which I found very hard work: a patchwork of scenes without any real punch of coherence, such a curious style, indifferent, even apathetic, so it came to me. The story didn’t become animated until the final chapters, the refugees on the road, the horror of bombing and strafing.

Now to Martha Gellhorn The Face of War. Wow, what vivid writing, the heat of the emotional reaction somehow allowed to percolate through the clarity of the description yet not taking over, not interfering with the objectivity of the sharp reportage.

‘It would be a silly thing, I thought, to fall into a bomb hole, like the one I saw yesterday, that opens right down to the sewers.’ [p 32 In Madrid, November 1938]

Somewhat inconsequentially, I recall that night at Greshams when I left the old shack where the band rehearsed around 8 o’clock, to go to a party. The hut astood at the far end of the open air swimming pool, now out of commission, old-fashioned wooden changing booths round the two longer sides, rubble accumulating in the mpty basin. In the pitch dark, I missed my footing and fell in, landed on my feet, luckily, and wasn’t hurt. I yelled, as I fell, and looked up to see a number of cigarette ends advancing to the rim of the pool, troubled enquiry are you all right? and hands, dimly visible, reaching down to help me clamber out. Boys who’d escaped their boarding house and come to the quiet of the woods for a smoke. I thanked them, brushed myself down and left them to it.

I heard later, that five minutes or so after I left, the housemaster of the boarding house where I had briefly been tutor, had walked down to the woods from Holt, distance of over half a mile, expressly to patrol the smoking venue – ah, we of the Masters Common Room are no slackers, we know what goes on, don’t think you can escape the purview of our beady eyes…- and arrest the culprits.

The thought.

As Barry Cryer would say: ‘My advice in the circumstances would be to make early contact with your local Getalife club.’

 

13 February

Lucy tells me in an email that the application for Lasting Power of Attorney has been delayed because I did not send copies of four pages. I have a week to rectify this omission – the letter was dated 5 February and she received it yesterday. The letter includes a phone number and an email address for enquiry.

I phone the number, wait for several minutes until a Chinese voice tells me that no one is available to answer the call at which point the phone goes dead. I send an email to the given address.

After lunch, I sit to read awhile but wonder if there is another phone number I might try – indeed, there is, on the first page of the application forms. The man is helpful and explains that even though the pages required are marked ‘Optional’ they are, nonetheless, necessary to the application. Since one of these pages covers instructions to the attorneys before they sign and are, therefore, completely irrelevant to my request for registering the application, this is clearly of a madness it’s not profitable to query.

And the printer does not function.

Recent switch of routers has left the machine abandoned in wireless nowhere. Fruitless attempts to coax copies out of it leave me in that state of dismay peculiarly associated with the servile stubbornness of computers, correspondent only to the right command in a microcosm where the right command is often a closely guarded secret from the unwitting.

 

Saint Valentine’s

The pages for the LPA are in a new envelope, ready for dispatch.

Every time I phone a so-called Help line, I dread the anonymous goon who answers questions from a pre-prepared set of instructions for answer and this, almost inevitably, after having been made to listen for fruitless minutes either to the gormless notes of the dialing tone or the gormless effusion of music. The prepared answers come in a kind of storeroom idiom impenetrable to the unenlightened and, in the context, no kind of enlightenment has any attraction to anyone desirous of maintaining a grip on straight talking.

Thus, when a bright, intelligent voice answers the call, I wonder if I’ve dialled the wrong number or else been connected to the local library or the Samaritans.

When the man tells me that the pages I omitted to send are, even though each is described as ‘optional’, nevertheless requisite to the application, it was entirely in line with the fact that the lwetter which Lucy received included a phone number which appears to be unmanned and an email address from which no response to enquiry is forthcoming. A bureaucratic dystopia. Does bureaucracy have any other state?

But I can now proceed, there remains the simple matter of printing. We’re there. right?

Not so fast, pal.

Because I’ve recently switched network suppliers (servers? Providers? Cartels? I don’t know) the device (don’t you love the homely feel of ‘device’ for a home printer) is wireless, unconnected, the app installed but unlaunched and even when the device itself says it’s connected the on-screen help line says it isn’t and…who speaks this sub-Esperanto?

I tried, and failed, to get copies. Searches in one website after another, more help lines, idiot answers to plaintive questions – the pre-programmed double speak again in pop-up boxes on the screen. These exchanges risibly described as chats.  However, finally, and how is beyond me to recount – who, by now, as misery encroaches, cares? – I succeeded, at which the device began to spew out all the copies it had failed to supply earlier – they had come out as blank pages – having stored the instruction to print in its electronic circuitry, page after page after page.

With a mixture of relief and defiance I go to the post box.

 

19 February

The woman at the Waitrose check-out counter is stolid, short-statured, her expression one of faint bewilderment as if she’s not entirely sure what she’s doing there nor what she is supposed to be doing now that she is there. Has she had training? Probably. But first encounter with the people trooping up with their baskets is clearly proving something of a facer.

She picks her way through the stuff I’ve brought, her expression fixed, evincing neither interest nor uncertainty but dustant, distracted, an immobile mask.

The basket emptied and the items stowed in my back pack, she asks, mechanically, whether I have a Waitrose card, managing to remove the intonation of question from the sentence. I hand over the card and then pay.

The transaction completed, she bids me have a nice day, in the same flat tones, a distinct accent, barely tailored, possibly Russian, certainly, to my ear, Slavic, and I ponder this have a nice day. It’s not immediately apparent that she knows what the import of what she has said is, exactly. She’s been told tosay have a nice day so she says have a nice day.

I proceed on the mtb – this is after my Wednesday Park-market ride, Knole luxuriating in early sunshine, as I toiled in early near seizure of lungs and blood – constriction across my chest, the blood feeling as if it were having tobe squeezed with some force through the arteries so that my arms and midriff felt gorged with oxygen-depleted life fluid, my mouth dry…ah, the hills, the hills – I proceed down the ramp of the car park to the exit and a short way along to the fruit and veg stall.

Richard greets me, I tell him about the woman at the check out and he says that he’d been served by her recently and had a similar experience, save that when he returned a second time, he made a particular effort to be friendly, thinking that maybe she felt a bit at sea. A kindliness in him. However, she reacted to his overture by brightening, marginally, and asking him whether he was famous, was he on television?

            Perhaps she is not Russian, it makes no difference to the impression that she is not yet quite settled and I think of Boris and Elena, Russian émigrés whom Jane and I met in Deia at the Graves house one summer, and, later, in Queens, NYC, after they’d moved there to join the growing diaspora in that Borough.

We had dinner at a local Russian restaurant one night and in the course of conversation about their new home – were they settling in? Did they like Queens? – Boris told us that there seemed to be two basic approaches for the displaced Russians: either they were deep in denial that anything had greatly changed, so they continued life as it had been in the old country in the new country, a little Russia in the Big Apple, or else they rejected wholesale the memory and practices of their former life, anxious tobe as New York as they could possibly be. Boris ruminated on the advisability, as he saw it, of both attitudes and, at one point, segued into a langorous description of their homeland, where he and Elena had lived, of the countryside round them, the greatswathes of forest, the empty grasslands between, the quiet and the tranquility. This rhapsody triggered a brief lamentation from Elena, piqued with an unbearable nostalgia. ‘Oh, Booooris,’ she moaned, ‘doan’t…doan’t’, her pronounced accent adding lugubrious tone to the pitiable, lorn cri de coeur, her face clenching slightly as if fending off tears. The low murmur might have been a wind on the Steppes filtering through a comb of pine leaves.

The balalaika band struck up and the female singer began her repertoire of songs from the far-off homeland. Poor Elena, it must have been a difficult evening for her, we, of course, delighted with music and imaginings of the vast taiga.

 

21 February – 1 March Massat

We go into Saint-Girons for the Saturday market. Nick advises me to make the yellow jacket from the car emergency kit visible. The gilets jaunes take absence of it amiss. We pass them at their post on the roundabout which is, as they put it, ‘the symbol of our liberty…our Elysée palace, simple fare, bread, coffee, pancake, all free to hand out’. Their QG quartier general, HQ.

Lunch at Au Traiteur de Massat where Nick helps the owner Souad with cooking. My contribution to Souad’s Facebook page:

Massat, avec une bonne choix de coins d’excellence déja en a un nouvel superbe: Au Traiteur de Massat. C’est avec un tel plaisir que j’y ai entré l’autre jour – quand la porte s’ouvre on entend le tintement d’une clochette attachée – et là, sous la couverture du comptoir un trésor de délices: couscous, confections de legumes, poulet aigre-doux, gateaux, (cheesecake et baba au rhum d’exception), tout l’accueil plaisant de friandise. En plus, des couleurs vibrants des comestibles.

Puis on voit le sourire joyeux de la patronne et fondatrice, Souad, qui vous attend. Elle utilise un bon nombre d’épices et goûts intéressants, séduisants, pour charmer chaque palais. Car Au Traiteur de Massat offre et de la bonne cuisine – ou à emporter ou à consommer sur place – et une ambiance bien agréable.

Avec son assistant, Nick, Souad a créé un endroit dans lequel se trouve une abondance de choix, de satisfaction pure en cuisine. Moi, je me suis installé avec mon verre de rouge et un plat rempli de bonnes choses: artichauts rôtis, poivres lustrés, rouges et jaunes, du riz…et, bien sûr, pour dessert, le ch-eese-cake. Ouâ.

 

Sunday, to friends who live off the Col de Port, above Espies, for lunch on their terrace, a fine view of the distant, snow-capped mountain range, a baked alaska of rock in glittering sun.

Monday, lunch at the resto by the Etang de Lers, road left to Port de Lers, right to Col d’Agnès, blocked with deep snow. Crowds of cross-country skiers. I look down from the balcony – Nick inside talking to the patronne – and watch a family, mother, father and two daughters, gingerly inching their way down a nearby slope until, one by one, they fell over like badly balanced teetotums. Much laughter.

The rest of the week, lunch in the garden of Couleur Café.

On Thursday, I walked up the steep road towards Bouatès at the head of a deep-sided valley hollowed out by a tributary of the Arac. An hour to where the tarmac peters out into forest track and the tiny village of houses huddling together for security or against the winter cold. Hot sun. I felt no discomfort. Massat is at around 750m above sea level, a great bonus to the work of blood and lungs.

Back to the foot of the road, which picks its way through the straggle of woodland trailing away from the denser Forêt de Massat at the top, like a ribbon loosed from a parcel. Thence to see M. Gasparrou, the Mayor with whom I have an hour’s conversation, as always when I visit. At one point, I ask him whether the gilets jaunes have touched Massat. He smiles and says: ‘Non. Massat n’a pas un rond-point.’

He also tells me that a deal to take over Le Maxil is imminent but didn’t say which of three there are in the offing, nor did I press the point.

That evening, I buy a bottle of rosé from Philippe at the Cavo di Vi which he and Joelle own for a drink with, as it turns out, a gathering of other friends, already installed in the back room.

Pizza from the local pizzeria to avoid cooking on the eve of our departure – Nick to come back with me en route to see his daughter Jane at the stables in Oakham where she’s worked for some time. Now she has a jockey’s licence and is heading for a new job in Newmarket.

 

2 March 

Home again and glad to be so.

8 March

I’m in the bathroom cleaning my teeth, the doorbell pings. Like the landlord of the Admiral Benbow at the beginning of Treasure Island, I open the casement window and peer down at the caller. At the door, two neatly dressed, varnished, broad-smile young people, one male, one female. The comportment a giveaway, corroborated by the grey-covered holy book the young man is clutching. JWs…‘just visiting your neighbours’ he says, in which case, I wonder, but do not say, ‘why, then, are you visiting me if my neighbours are your target?’

‘Not interested,’ I say and close the window, wondering if disappointment, rejection, is part of their daily replenishment of faith, confirmation that, in persisting with so ungrateful a round of door knockers and bells and dismissals, their tiny flame of truth still flickers in this bad world of darkness inhabited by the people who are not interested in what they have to say and the promise they extend?

 

9 March

The days of starting the Park-market walk in the dark are over for the season. I no longer have the moon in attendance unless she lingers in the lucent mo