Simon Carr: Notes from an eerily familiar past

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This tradition of releasing documents under the 30-year rule has embarrassing effects. My own archive has just been opened for inspection, a private inspection, I say hurriedly, you can't look.

It's a black, waterproof version of the Moleskine notebooks, bought from an Oxford stationer in January 1978. Inside, quite childish, rounded handwriting fills the pages. The prose style is that common to young diarists and is very difficult for the author (now missing) to read back.

I can't quote verbatim from the reports, but I can say they reveal a complete Portrait of the Columnist As a Young Man. I had no money, no dress sense, nowhere decent to live, no prospects, no idea of what life was, no confidence, no purpose, no position in the world. I was the very image of the country that produced me. The way I used to stay in people's houses, assuming they couldn't have enough of me. I had that in full measure, the delusion common to young men that they are – if not attractive or necessary – always welcome.

We still had that as a country, against all evidence. And like the country itself, I was bewildered; uncomprehending, waiting for some great event to give shape to my life.

In those days I wanted to be an actor. It was impossible. I didn't have an Equity card. You couldn't work in the theatre without an Equity card. But you couldn't get an Equity card without working in the theatre.

There were two posts available per year per theatre – 100 people a year started out as Assistant Stage Managers and worked their way up. It would have taken me a decade to discover that I'd never play Hamlet at the National. Not being good at acting was the other problem with my career choice.

London seemed to me to be a secret society – that hasn't changed. There's a diary entry about wandering through the public squalor and looking into a private world through tall windows in Park Walk, Chelsea. There sat a woman leaning back in her fireside chair, fingering her pearls and dangling a court shoe from her toe; there was a man in a red waistcoat talking to her and laughing. I can still see them, and it still gives me a pang. It used to be called exclusiveness. Now the term is "exclusion". At least it's their fault now, not mine.

Oh, yes and the accents. Jimmy Tarbuck had just noticed that Prince Charles said "hice" instead of "house" and the upper middle class was following him, and the middle class were about to follow them. It was like competitive Christianity, with vowels instead of piety determining who was to be saved.

And how did you get a "hice" in those days? There was a rumoured instrument called "a mortgage". But you had to be proposed and seconded for one of them, and interviewed by the building society manager (who would examine your "savings history"). And you needed a job of some sort but they were unobtainable, in my experience. And you couldn't get the dole either, because you had to present paperwork at widely separated offices. Utterly bewildering.

But in due course, my life-changing event did turn up. I went overseas and got a job. Then a wife. And a house. Britain got Mrs Thatcher. And everything became clear, we all knew what was happening.

That was then. Now the wheel has turned full circle and we're all bewildered again.

Dreaming of the golf course, the romantic English Eden

Poor old Tolkien got a terrific kicking from James Fenton back in the old days. His medieval landscapes were descriptions not of countryside, Fenton said with great contempt, but of golf courses.

My son gave me a Golf Courses of the World book for Christmas to help me doze by the fire. They make me dreamy. For my money – such as that may be – golf courses are among the loveliest of modern conceits.

Each hole is designed to create a view of its own, almost a small world of its own, and one that reveals itself pace by pace through the play. Well-designed courses are complicated arrangements forever bending back on themselves, with fairways set into each other like jigsaw pieces.

Personally, I find it impossible to reconstruct a whole course in my head after playing it only half a dozen times. It's always a surprise to find that the screen of trees on the seventh has become a copse lining the return up the 12th.

Golf courses are more than large-scale gardening; they are park design. They're an echo of the romantic revolution that started in the early 18th century, when a looser design sense started to manage nature rather than dominating it with formal plantings and straight lines.

They are very English, with their stands of trees and wandering water. All very asymmetric, in that way weEnglish liked. Today, Capability Brown wouldn't be so much in demand at Petworth House, Kew, Blenheim Palace – he'd be wanted at Wentworth or Sunningdale.

He'd be designing golf courses.

Invasion? What invasion?

It's reassuring for cynics everywhere that Stalin is being rehabilitated by the Russian authorities. They have discovered some reason to put him back on a national pedestal, and many Russians take a positive view of their very own genocidal maniac.

Notwithstanding that, the authorities have more than enough to work with. There was the Second World War, of course, and the way he managed to pull that off (though the Russian effort improved enormously when he stopped interfering in it). The story that most appeals to me, or at least most illuminates the nature of national madmen, came from the day Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet Pact and attacked Russia. For some time before, the Germans had been gathering for the offensive, but Stalin refused to believe they were on anything more than manoeuvres.

When the planes started bombing and strafing and the heavy artillery opened up, messengers would bring in the news. And an increasingly angry and incredulous Stalin screamed: "Stop telling me this rubbish!" A phrase used, interestingly, by Adolf Hitler in his last days in the bunker.

It'll be a phrase Gordon Brown will find useful when sterling moves towards parity with the lira.

Comments