Scenes from an uncomfortable year

It's been a year of moral anxiety, public and private: as a nation, we seem to have lost confidence in our ability to teach, protect or set an example to our children. And yet, as this writer's diary suggests, it hasn't all been bad

Blake Morrison
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:21

1 January: At Universal Studios - the Florida theme park, not the Hollywood dream factory. The whole of the US is here, to judge by the waiting times for rides. Most of those in line are adult. Most are obese, too - once you leave weight-conscious New York and Los Angeles, you're in a Brobdingnag of all-you-can-eat buffets and giant girths. This is the attraction of New Year package holidays to Florida: not so much the cheap flights, nor even the Orange State sunshine, but to feel that you haven't put on that much weight over Christmas after all.

2 January: In Britain, the usual New Year's Eve revelling: over 100 people arrested in a brawl in Farnborough. Here, in Florida Keys, it's stormy and cold: the motel's pet iguana, in reception, has a white towel draped over it, to keep it warm. Local newspaper snippet: 400,000 Americans have been murdered since 1977 - seven times as many as died in the Vietnam war.

6 January: In Britain, a woman pronounced dead at her home by a doctor is found to be alive in a hospital morgue. Daphne Banks, 61, a farmer's wife and epileptic, is about to be put into a "sealed body tray" when someone at the undertaker sees a varicose vein in her leg twitch, then hears her snore. Sudden nightmare thinking of all those, not so lucky as Lazarus, who've gone, quietly breathing, to an early grave or felt the flames lick at the coffin. Metaphysical dilemma. How can you be sure somebody is dead? Or, as Beckett might have put it, what makes you think you're alive?

8 January: In the eastern US, "the worst blizzard for a century". Skiers in Times Square. Bloody freezing in Florida, as well. Tail-winds from the great storm blow us home. Report in papers of an unusual racket - a retired vet has been jailed for eight months for smuggling the eggs of rare cockatoos sewn into the bras and underpants of couriers - makes me look differently at my fellow passengers.

16 January: Nick Tate, the government's chief curriculum adviser, complains that schools aren't teaching morality any more and should introduce lessons in right and wrong. Daft. Today's schools are much more moral places than they used to be: no use of canes or pandybats, and a sharing-caring ethos. Most kids seem hard-working, non-racist, eco-conscious, respectful of parents, anti-smoking and anti-drinking, unsilly about sex, even a bit dull.

20 January: Maxwell brothers Kevin and Ian acquitted of fraud charges. And Harriet Harman is to send her son Joe to a grant-maintained grammar school in Bromley, Kent, rather than to a local state comprehensive in Southwark or to the Oratory, the school attended by Joe's older brother Harry and by Tony Blair's son Euan. Tony Blair defends her decision. So, more surprisingly, does Bernie Grant, who attacks the appalling standards of London inner-city schools and says they failed his three sons.

Like most middle-class parents with children in London schools, I've sympathy for Harman. We all fudge it in one way or another. Even those who steadfastly refuse to go private end up paying for extra tuition, which is going private by other means. Blair now speaks of a "fast track" or "accelerated learning" system for bright pupils - but what is this if not selection? In other European countries, liberals don't seem to torment themselves as much: they accept that some pupils are cleverer than others. Heresy to say so, but the more honest thing for Harman to do might have been to pay up and send her sons to nearby Dulwich College or Alleyns, which would free a place in Bromley for a less privileged child - and avoid Joe having to travel an hour each way every day.

26 January: Thirteen-year-old Sarah Cook from Essex has become a national heroine in Turkey, after "marrying" and standing by 18-year-old Musa Komeagac, who is being held in a Turkish gaol on charges of abducting and raping her. The Foreign Office has been attempting to extradite Sarah, much to most Turks' disgust: "You meddling English," one man shouts, outside the court. Sarah's parents would like her to go home; the Sun, which is monitoring things at close quarters, isn't so sure. Part of the problem, it seems, is that Sarah finds Turkey preferable to dull old Essex, for which no one can blame her, notwithstanding the comparative human rights records in Ilford and Istanbul.

27 January: The poet Joseph Brodsky has died, only 56. The obituaries have been warm, so much so that reading one by Alan Jenkins in the Guardian today I found myself envying him simply for having known Brodsky: why couldn't I have had lunches like that with him, too? I did meet him a few times, but the only impression he made was as touchy and arrogant, not the qualities friends have been recalling.

9 FEBRUARY: Scientists in the US report that the basic constituent of matter, the quark, whose mass is a million billion billion times less than that of a grain of sand, is itself made of something smaller. I remember the priest in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, describing the notion of eternity thus: imagine a mountain of sand a million miles high; and imagine that once every million years a bird flies away with one grain of sand in its beak; imagine how long it would take for the whole mountain to disappear; and realise that when that happens not one second of eternity will have passed. The infinite scariness of billion- trillion statistics.

10 February: IRA bombers blast London, at Canary Wharf, near where I used to work and where several friends (and thousands others) still do: the ceasefire is over. At first it's thought that there are no deaths, but on Saturday two bodies are dug out of a newsagent's: Inan Ul-Haq Bashir, 29, and John Jeffries, 31.

14 February: Valentine's Day. Also fatwa day, seven years on. And Joan Collins wins legal battle against Random House, who'd taken her to court alleging breach of contract after she'd delivered two allegedly unpublishable novels. The issue was: were the novels "fixable"? Collins had asked for a "hands-on editor", since she knew she was "queen of the adjectives and the adverbs... over the top, melodramatic". The Random House view was that no editor could dethrone her into literacy.

16 February: Scott report is published, three years later. Government ministers, having leaned on Sir Richard to water down his report, make out that it has cleared them, since he says there wasn't an intention to mislead. But he also speaks of various Waldegrave statements as "untrue", "not remotely arguable", "inadequate and misleading". And of the Attorney General, Nicholas Lyell, a wonderful double negative: "I do not accept that he was not personally at fault."

19 February: A number 171 bus blows up in the Aldwych, killing Edmund O'Brien, 21, from Co Wexford, who was on his way to plant a bomb when the device went off. Back home he was into hurling and had been an altar boy. But in London, young, lonely and ripe for martyrdom, he became a good man to recruit.

20 February: Jarvis Cocker invades stage at Brit music awards to protest against Michael Jackson's sick-making "Earth Song" performance, in which he plays Christ to a gaggle of children, who revere him almost as much as he does himself. No doubt Jackson wanted to show that kids can safely mill round him without being touched up. But a cheap stunt, and exploitative. Good for Cocker for subverting it.

23 February: Sperm count drops 25 per cent in younger men, according to a Medical Research Council investigation. Semen samples from 577 Scottish volunteers show that we chaps born in the 1950s possess better "semen quality" than chaps born after 1970. Some compensation for being fortysomethings: my count's bigger than yours. But why all the anxiety? When the world population is spiralling out of control, isn't falling sperm-count a matter for celebration?

After winter storms, Spurn Head, the index finger of Humberside, has lost its causeway link to the mainland and become Britain's first new island in many years. Its 22 citizens want to be reconnected. Can't imagine why: as Sartre nearly said, and Larkin evidently felt, Hull is other people.

26 February: The film of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is out. Will it make heroin addiction fashionable? Doubt it: impeccably moral film, however many times the word "fuck" is said. Coincidentally, reports from the US of an invention, the V-chip, which will allow parents to filter out sex and violence from television and thus frustrate their thrill-seeking nippers. As if. Perhaps it's different in America, but the idea of British parents outwitting their computer-wise kids with any gadget is laughable.

6 MARCH: Trevor Nunn is named to take over from Richard Eyre at the National Theatre, ending a year of speculation. All a bit previous: Nunn doesn't start for another 18 months. Will his replacement be named before Nunn is in the post? But previousness is everywhere. Cliff Richard's Heathcliff is nearly sold out months ahead of the opening. Book reviews come out before books do. And seemingly everyone knows what they're doing on millennium night.

8 March: Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides theatre company is touring The Cracked Pot, a version I've done of Kleist's play Der Zerbrochene Krug, and reaches Skipton, where I grew up. The venue is the Auction Mart. OK it's not Broadway, nor the Almeida, but it's perfect. For three nights, the ring normally used for auctioning tups and heifers serves as a stage. Pleasingly (as one reviewer notes) the adverts for special offers on injectible sheep-worming treatment remain illuminated.

11 March: Concluding episode of Our Friends in the North. Maybe not as compulsory viewing as The Forsyte Saga, Jewel in the Crown and The Singing Detective, but leaving the same rare wish there were more weeks to run: what to do with Monday evenings now?

12 March: The English Tourist Board reports that after the screening of Pride and Prejudice on BBC last year, visits to Lyme Park in Cheshire (model for Jane Austen's Pemberley) rose from 2,000 per month to 10,000.

13 March: Dunblane. Thomas Hamilton, an oddball bearing a grudge and a Browning pistol, walks into a primary school just after 9am and shoots dead 16 five-year-olds and their teacher. Have been busy and isolated all day and hear about it on the car radio late-afternoon while driving to collect my son from his football practice. Watch him and his friends running round with the usual indecent but unavoidable reaction - thank- God-it-wasn't-one-of-mine. Feel, reading about it, as many people did about the Bulger case: that I don't want all these heart-rending details. They stick regardless: the ambulance service manager who said he had to restrain himself not to kick Hamilton's dead body; the boy saved by lying under the bodies of his friends; the man who lost his wife from cancer two years ago and now his daughter; the bullet holes in the gym bars.

17 March: Dunblane coverage going on indecently long. Major, Blair, Queen - everyone getting in on act, and droves of journalists hanging round town. After requests from local people, TV networks finally say they're going to withdraw, and not cover each family funeral. Big of them. As if they deserved a pat on the back for this.

Letter after letter to the papers makes the same point: that people should no longer be allowed to keep guns at home. Gun lobbyists bleat about the erosion of individual rights, like those who used to protest against wearing seat belts or crash helmets. Others again argue that madmen like Hamilton will always manage to get hold of guns. Yes, but illegality is crucial. Like the fatwa: true, if it were lifted Rushdie would still be at risk; but the sanction of a law or edict is (a) encouraging and (b) barbaric.

21 March: Ministers finally admit possible link between mad cow disease (BSE) and human deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD). Beef's off the menu for a bit, and thousands of infected cows are likely to be slaughtered. For John Gummer (who showed off his own daughter Cordelia eating burgers) and Douglas Hogg (who boasted the other day of eating steak "with total confidence") it's especially humiliating. But what about those of us who are sceptical of health scares, or feel we've eaten too much beef for it to be worth laying off now? Today, in the supermarket, alluring discounts on almost every beef product. The mean-git Yorkshire part of me at war with the concerned, health-conscious parent.

Part of my problem is believing those docile, big-eyed creatures capable of being mad or doing harm. And yet cows have been known to kill, even before they started poisoning the food chain. Back in the 1920s, a cousin of my father was mauled to death by one. Male relations, wanting to live down this rather ignominious chapter of family history, said the cow had turned nasty because it was protecting its calf. But maybe BSE, like Aids, has a longer history than people think.

28 March: Tory MP Nicholas Scott fined pounds 900 and banned for a year for leaving the scene after trapping a three-year-old in a pushchair between his car and another as he was driving off after a party. The latest squalid chapter in the history of the Family Values party.

1 APRIL: John Major resigns. Charles to marry Camilla once he's divorced. Privatised water company bosses take pay cut. April Fool.

3 April: Listen with my sons to Radio Five coverage of key premiership match, Liverpool v Newcastle. Extraordinary game which ends 4-3 with late goal from Stan Collymore. Never used to listen to football on the radio (never much to listen to), but with Sky buying up most of the live action, radio is the only alternative to shelling out for satellite. So there we are in the kitchen, like some family from the 1930s and 1940s huddled round the wireless listening to Chamberlain or Churchill. Half a family, anyway: my wife and daughter keep a scornful distance in the next room.

16 April: After the collapse of the Northern Ireland truce, a likely end to the Arab-Israeli peace process, too. Israeli shells hit a UN sanctuary for civilians, at Qana, killing more than 100. That's on top of the 100 already killed over the past week.

17 April: To the Royal Courts of Justice to sit in the public gallery at an appeal by those representing Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the 10-year-olds who killed James Bulger, against Michael Howard's right to impose a 15-year tariff. The appeal doesn't require T and V be present. But then their presence at the original trial was an irrelevance, anyway: they didn't speak and the proceedings went over their heads. The appeal is based on the premise that the Home Secretary acted illegally, and was unduly swayed by the Sun's 300,000-strong petition that the "Bulger killers must rot in jail" for life. It looks a long shot. But the contempt shown for the judiciary by Howard when he upped the trial judge's recommended eight-year sentence to 15 years has not been lost on Lord Justices Pill and Newman. The appeal is upheld.

25 April: Collapse of private prosecution brought by the parents of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in Eltham, south London, a mile from where I live. A covert surveillance video planted in the home of the three defendants caught them wielding knives and shouting racial abuse. Nothing conclusive to link them with the crime, though. Huge dignity from the Lawrence family throughout, but now they say they despair of British justice and are moving back to the Caribbean.

29 April: Lone gunman in Tasmania, Michael Bryan, 28, slaughters 34 people with a pair of rifles. Watch Dennis Potter's Karaoke with disappointment. Easily forgiven, since he was terminally ill when he wrote it, but too much up its own bum.

11 MAY: Dustin Hoffman, at the Cannes Film Festival, says films are becoming too violent: "Look at this global community we live in and what happens in Tasmania and what happens in Scotland. Are you saying [film violence] doesn't have anything to do with it? Do I feel that it contributes? Absolutely."

20 May: Road rage death at M20/M25 junction near Swanley. Man leaps out of Land-Rover Discovery and stabs to death a young electrician being driven by his girlfriend.

22 May: Jaymee Brown has died, at 11, better known as "Child B" in the famous case involving the Cambridge Health Authority, which refused to sanction a second bone marrow transplant, believing it could not succeed.

23 May: Suggestion, after rather silly attack by Graham Lord one of the Betty Trask Prize judges, that women novelists have become sleazy - eg, Tania Glyde, whose heroine fantasises sex with a bulbous Habitat pottery lamp. Have myself just read novel in which woman fantasises sex with various items of fruit and veg. The one thing they don't seem to be fantasising sex with is men. After reading sex scenes in some recent male novels (eg, Philip Roth's), I can't blame them.

31 May: Sara Thornton is cleared of murder, after a retrial. She stabbed her violent husband to death in 1989 while he lay on the sofa in a drunken stupor; the manslaughter verdict means she can be released at once, having served five years. Difficult to feel as exultant about the victory as she does, however right-on. Her putting on the washing as he lay there; the fact that her own father spoke for the prosecution; the blue stone she wears on her forehead because "It means I have a right as a woman to be who I am" - neither this, nor the victimhood, nor the lack or remorse, very endearing.

1 JUNE: Sixties LSD guru Timothy Leary turns in and tunes out. His last words are "Why not?" and "Yeah." In the autumn his remains are to be blasted into space. Marilyn Monroe would have been 70 today.

6 June: Tony Blair admits to smacking his children when they were younger, but says he is sorry.

8 June: Euro '96 begins. England unconvincing in draw with Switzerland. Best way to start, experience says, inauspiciously. But worries about Gazza's fitness, and many calling for him to go. If the team look tired, it may be the result of being dragged them off to China and Hong Kong for pre-tournament friendlies, then allowed them to carouse and cause pounds 5,000 worth of damage to the Cathay Pacific plane on the way home.

10 June: Peace talks begin in Belfast. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are locked out.

15 June: To Degas exhibition at the National Gallery. 10.30am and Trafalgar Square already taken over by Scottish fans, mostly good-natured. Gazza's day: his brilliant goal sinks Scotland after they miss a penalty.

16 June: Newspaper coverage of yesterday's IRA bomb in Manchester is much less extensive than that of the Canary Wharf bomb three months ago. No lives lost, true, but many more injured and the damage far worse, requiring the rebuilding of the city centre. British press at its worst, not just London-based but marooned up its own tower. (Eight papers, including this one, in Canary Wharf now, as if it were the centre of the universe.) Among the casualties at Manchester, Michael Schmidt's Carcanet Press, which lost its office, its address files and no doubt numerous aspirant poets' typescripts.

18 June: England 4 Netherlands 1. Scarcely credible; dancing in the streets. Best result since 1966.

19 June: Oasis now all-time favourite group, according to survey. Is it boring-old-fart of me to wonder how their half-dozen passable tracks rate higher than the Beatles' 50 or more?

22 June: My sister-in-law, Sarah, marries her long-time boyfriend Adrian. It's the first DIY wedding I've been to: they've written the service themselves, and everything - ceremony, reception, evening party - takes place under one roof. Her choirgirl-niece is roped in to sing, and I'm asked to write and read a poem, "something about love, but not too soppy, please". A dream come true: poets are lucky to get any audience, and here's a whole congregation. With the boom in self-made ceremonies, marital or funereal, it might be worth setting up as a roving troubadour.

Lunch coincides with the England v Spain quarter-final. Sarah has banned television, this being her special day, but some guests are watching under- the-table miniature sets, and two men opposite me openly share an earpiece to a radio cassette which isn't playing "Here Comes the Bride". I struggle nobly through extra time, but for the penalty shoot-out all pretence is dropped, and 20 of us slip away to gather round the largest of the minature sets. The cheer that goes up for David Seaman is, shamingly, much louder than any for the bride and groom.

After, driving home through Lewisham, we see two young men, as drunk- happy as the rest of the nation, step straight in front of a single decker bus. A terrible bang, and shattered windscreen. People run to help, but I fear they may be beyond it. Cabbie drives on. Silence: nothing anyone can say.

25 June: Midsummer, and the feelgood factor. Henman going great guns at Wimbledon, England in Euro '96 semi-finals, Damon Hill ahead in Formula 1. All very worrying: at this rate, Major will get back for another term.

26 June: The depths. England lose to Germany on penalties. Each England player to step up after Shearer seems uniquely unqualified for the job: Platt, has-been; Gascoigne, too temperamental; Pearce, remember Italy 1990. When even the fifth one goes in, Sheringham's, surely the curse will be lifted. But no, another unflappable German reply, then Gareth Southgate, whose talent (or lack of it) for taking penalties no one knew about except his mum. Yet it's not Southgate's miss I'll relive in nightmares but Gascoigne sliding in, leg outstretched, in the golden goal period and not quite getting there.

In Ireland, journalist Veronica Guerin, after a series of gutsy articles on Dublin drug-dealers, is ambushed in her car and shot dead. Her two attackers escape on their motorbike.

3 JULY: Global warming means a hotter climate is moving northwards several miles each year. By 2020 the south of England will be like Provence (all vineyards and sunflowers) and Yorkshire as warm as Kent. Excellent news, if not for southern Europe, which will become like the Sahara Desert. East-west changes, too, as ice caps melt and sea levels rise: up to five metres are being shaved off the east coast annually. Have seen it myself walking along the beach at Covehithe, in Suffolk: a copse of trees gradually, like lemmings, dropping in the sea.

Do rising temperatures explain the shift in political climate, too? Corruption used to be thought a Latin thing, to be found only south of the "olive line". Now sleaze is as common in Britain as ciabatta.

6 July: Eldest son's team reaches semi-final of five-a-side competition at school. They're 2-1 down, in the last minute, when he goes up with the goalkeeper, falls awkwardly and breaks his wrist. He admits later that these past weeks of watching Gascoigne made him more reckless than he'd otherwise have been. Arm in plaster for several weeks.

9 July: Horrett Campbell, 32, bursts into an infant's school in Wolverhampton, in the middle of a teddy bears' picnic party, and slashes at the children and their teacher with a machete. Serious injuries, but no one dies, thanks in part to the teacher's bravery. Material about the Dunblane and Tasmanian murders earlier this year is found in Campbell's flat. Questioned, he says he was angry after kids had taunted him as a "nigger". Which might be truth, or paranoia (he has a psychiatric history), or an exculpatory race card.

In Kent, a nine-year-old girl is recovering after seeing her mother, sister and dog battered to death by someone who stalked them in a quiet country lane. The year of the stalker, the knifeman at our back.

11 July: Defying their party leaders' call for restraint, MPs vote themselves a pounds 10,000 pay increase - a rise of 26 per cent on their annual salary. Less empowered public servants know better than to expect similar, though at the BBC John Birt does all right, with a pounds 35,000 pay rise, taking his annual salary to pounds 300,000, up there with the bosses of private companies.

12 July: Paris. First trip by Eurostar. Discrepancy between the invalid- car amble down through Kent and the Apollo spacecraft speed through France would be comic if it weren't so predictable. We stay near the Sorbonne and eat in a crowded restaurant once fraternised by Rimbaud and Verlaine. Belatedly realise they don't take credit cards. Vainly comb the streets in search of cash machine, then offer to wash up before they finally accept the flexible friend. Bet Rimbaud and Verlaine didn't have this trouble.

19 July: TWA flight 800 comes down off Long Island, killing all 230 on board. A bomb or a technical fault? No one knows.

23 July: 900 parents of 3,300 frozen embyros remain untraced. Under British law the embryos, being five years old, will have to be destroyed next week. (Thawing them out then adding a drop of water or alcohol does the trick.) The Vatican newspaper protests: "This is a pre-natal massacre."

27 July: A dismal first week at the Olympic games for Britain. One silver medal at swimming is the sum, whereas Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, accused of using drugs by jealous Yanks, picks up three golds on her own.

5 AUGUST: Britain ends the Olympics with just one gold medal, from rowing. This puts us level with Hong Kong and Finland, and behind Kazakhstan. On a per capita basis (medals compared to size of population), we do worse than every European country except Luxembourg, with one point for every 2 million people. Still, it could be worse. India wins a single bronze, which is a point per every 900 million.

13 August: From Bambi to Beelzebub. Tories launch electoral campaign against Tony Blair's eyes, which they say are Satanic. Air of mad desperation about this: plenty wrong with Blair but loon eyes not the first or even last thing one associates with him. Weak mouth, trilling voice or game- show host hairstyle surely more suitable to work on. Whereas no one's sure what Blair believes in, Satan knows exactly where he stands.

25 August: Stories of lost children are as much a part of any August as nude theatre controversies from the Edinburgh Festival. Still, a bad summer. In Belgium, they're digging for more bodies after two eight-year- old girls were found buried in the back garden of the convicted sex offender Marc Dutroux. In Cornwall, French police carry out DNA tests on the friends of 13-year-old Caroline Dickinson after she was raped and murdered on a school trip to Brittany (a vagrant who confessed to her death is cleared). The body of 16-year-old Lucy Burchell is found behind a nightclub the day before her GCSE results; she'd been supplementing her pocket money with prostitution. In Hunstanton, little Tom and Jodi Loughlin run excitedly down the beach and are never seen again, presumed abducted or swept out to sea (in fact, the latter: their bodies wash up some days later).

As if to make up for all this, there's Mandy Allwood, who is pregnant with octuplets. "We'll be one huge family - a dream come true," she says. "I can't wait to have my own little army of babies." The "brave little fighters" are "alive and kicking", so far. But doctors give them no chance of reaching term, unless several are aborted, which neither Mandy nor Max Clifford (her agent) nor the News of the World (which owns the exclusive) will contemplate.

To love and want children: natural. To think they're all that gives life meaning: unnatural. To clock up multiple births when half the world's children are neglected, abused or starving: obscene. In Granta, the American novelist Joy Williams has an excellent piece on the Nineties obsession with babies, babies, babies, "those products of our species' selfishness, sentimentality and global death wish". But nobody's listening to such talk. Everyone must have a baby! Obstacles of age, health and circumstance don't matter any more. The unborn have rights. Even the unconceived have rights. In this hysterical veneration of fertility over quality of life, Miss B, the woman who recently aborted a twin because she didn't feel she could cope with more than one baby, is treated as a pariah.

29 August: Decree nisi granted to Prince and Princess of Wales. From the pomp of 1981 - her shyness and incredulity walking down the aisle - to the unceremonious divorce. Don't know what Charles's access arrangements are, but with the British divorce rate up from one in three to four in 10, Dads are becoming an every-other-weekend and holiday thing, like grandparents used to be when I was small. By the year 2000 half the nation's children will grow up in homes without their father. And Charles will be King of all this.

1 SEPTEMBER: My first trip to India, courtesy of the British Council. Bodies all the way in from the airport, next to bus-stops and rubbish heaps, on benches or makeshift beds or more often simply on the pavement. As if there'd been a war, and troops had moved away leaving these in their wake. Only they're not dead, just sleeping.

The hotel is opposite the Bombay Hospital, and to my eyes the regular pavement-dwellers are indistinguishable from those who come to see doctors, ill-health and limblessness being common to both. Out of a population of 10 million, half live on the pavement or in slums. Urban squalor under polythene or starvation in the countryside: you takes your pick. Naive and predictable of me to feel ashamed of my western affluence, but I do.

In the teeming streets it's natural to think of Victorian England. Mayhew would have enjoyed himself here, after a fashion, classifying the different professions: cane-strippers, corn-grillers, cobblers, cigarette-sellers, bethel-vendors, tea-makers, etc. I watch two men rubbish-sorting: separating the contents of a plastic sack into fragments of glass, cardboard, paper, polystyrene, polythene and Other. Rather a lot of Other. There is generally: sights and odours you'd not choose to see or smell. But this is a cosmopolitan city, and when I walk round no one bothers me.

Later, I meet the other four writers whom the British Council has invited: Philip Hensher, Jane Rogers, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Rachel Cusk. We're taken in a car to a reception. When it stops at some lights, small children carrying babies bang at the window asking for coins. Their fingers against the glass make a scraping sound like kittens or puppies being drowned in a metal bucket.

3 September: Lonavla, a hill station. I don't know exactly what my idea of a hill station was, but it isn't this. The road thunders with trucks from 5am on, and the hotel squats right alongside. Philip compares the place with Watford Gap; certainly Newport Pagnall. The only excursion means chancing your life to cross the road, then walking beside a canal up to a reservoir, where in the rain and mist (this is Monsoon season) it feels like the Pennines. Sleep? Forget it. Aside from the lorry noise, there are the participants at the seminar being held here (poets, professors, publishers, journalists), who ask questions from breakfast until midnight about the British literary scene. Most are bright, some frighteningly well-read, and all stimulating to talk to. I just wish there were the odd second of silence and inch of space.

4 September: US launch missile attack on southern Iraq, "to teach Saddam a lesson".

7 September: Return from Lonavla to Bombay. At regular intervals as we come down from the hills, the sight of crashed or overturned lorries, their drivers squatting beside them, head in hands. On the outskirts of Bombay, Asia's largest slum: mud and makeshift huts as far as the eye can see.

10 September: Three days in New Delhi, with its wide Lutyens avenues. Constant rain still. The one rule of the road seems to be: never use your windscreen wipers.

17 September: Back in UK. Likely end of Labour Party as we know it. Kim Howells says, "The word `socialism' should be humanely phased out," while Stephen Byers, shadow employment spokesman, says Blair is considering holding a ballot to divorce the party from the unions.

19 September: Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition opens at the Hayward. It doesn't include his photo of "Rosie", a small child sitting with her legs open, which Esther Rantzen has denounced as pornographic. But it does include Mapplethorpe's notorious look-what-I-can-do bullwhip up the anus, plus assorted phalluses of a proportion to arouse sensations of inadequacy in the male visitor. Maybe, in the current climate, it's a relief only one photo has been censored. But something mad in the new anxiety about what constitutes child exploitation and abuse. Paedophiles the Hitlers and Pol Pots of 1996. Wicked Uncle Ernies everywhere. It's said parents, especially fathers, are even becoming worried about touching their own children, for fear of giving the wrong signals.

1 OCTOBER: At the Labour Party conference, Tony Blair outlines his vision of a decent society: "I say to the British people, have the courage to change now. We are coming home to you." "Coming home", the year's great catchphrase. Cherie Blair's congratulatory podium kiss of her hub is much scrutinised and felt to be stiff and awkward. But who wouldn't be stiff and awkward, in front of several thousand delegates and journalists? Would be much more worrying if she hadn't been.

3 October: Mandy Allwood loses her octuplets.

8 October: My birthday. Have been unwell the last few days, so don't do much to celebrate. Mentally translate this as: "After a short illness, quietly, at home."

17 October: Clare Short is reunited with the son she gave away for adoption when she was 19: he is Toby Graham, a solicitor in the City, and he has always voted Tory, until now. The photos - he in pinstripe, she in red - are very touching. With Mike Leigh's prizewinning film on the subject, Secrets and Lies, this has been a good year for adoption: more understanding of why adopted children need the truth about their parents. On the other hand, a golf club has banned a boy from playing with his adoptive parents because he isn't their "natural" son. And Barnardo's still apparently wary of showing its files to those, now grown-up, who once came into its care. Meanwhile Diane Blood has still not succeeded in her fight to be allowed to use her dead husband's frozen sperm so as to have the child they'd planned before he died. First his death to cope with, and now the courts. The "sensitivity of the ethical issue" means gross insensitivity towards her. Someone should smuggle her the test tube.

22 October: Kingsley Amis memorial service at St Martin's in the Fields, arranged by his son Martin. Outside afterwards, Paul Johnson apoplectic that Kingers has been hijacked by the Left, meaning Christopher Hitchens and other of Martin's friends who spoke. Silly. Old buffer Garrick Club side of Amis well represented at the service, too. And isn't it right to insist the old devil matters despite his social and political views, not because of them?

28 October: Staff at the Ridings school in Halifax say they will take action unless 60 of their 600 pupils are excluded or suspended. TV crews show children giving V-signs to the head as she arrives for work. Ofsted inspection highly critical of how the school has been run. Other stories of exclusion and indiscipline around Britain, including a junior school in Worksop which has temporarily closed because of one disruptive, "unteachable" pupil. In the press, the usual never-did-me-no-harm demands to bring back corporal punishment. But what good would the cane do? The one time I had it (can't remember what for) did little except improve my esteem among naughtier boys.

1 NOVEMBER: Biters bit, critics coming in for criticism. Michael Bogdanov denounces the crassly ignorant notices of his version of Faust, and (never using a single adjective when three will do) describes one unnamed reviewer as a "vicious, vituperative, vitriolic, objectionable, abusive, arrogant, excretory, disgruntled, cavilling, small-minded, toadying sycophant who should never let be near a theatre again". The artist RB Kitaj feels similarly: his wife, Sandra Fisher, died of a brain haemorrhage shortly after Kitaj's Tate retrospective had been rubbished last year, and his riposte is a painting called The Critic Kills at the Royal Academy Summer Show.

4 November: Paul Gascoigne beats up his wife, Sheryl, at a Scottish hotel. Should he be removed from the England team in consequence? And should goalkeeper Mark Bosnich be dropped by Aston Villa, after a seemingly anti- semitic gesture to the Tottenham crowd? These days the morality of footballers is debated as anguishedly as that of writers. Should TS Eliot be left out of the squad for what his poetry says about Jews? Is Larkin's place as sweeper in doubt, now he's been revealed as a racist and misogynist? But Larkin and Eliot soar above prejudice and ugliness when they write at their best; as Gazza does when he plays.

17 November: Elena Sheppard of Norbury, South London, hears her five- month-old baby son screaming and rushes into the conservatory to find a fox on his pram, biting; the wound requires hospital treatment and antibiotics. The Sheppards have a thing against foxes, as shepherds usually do: the baby's father had previously complained to the council about them. Wild life experts are sceptical about the story: remember the dingo. In my experience - there's an earth in the garden, and four cubs were born there last year - foxes are a nuisance (forever barking, shitting and sicking up berries) but not aggressive. If they're as cunning as alleged, it's time they got themselves a lawyer and sued for defamation of character. People have been maligning them since Aesop.

18 November: Advertisement for a personal pension plan, on a hoarding: "Procrastination is just another form of self-abuse." Greed, pride and envy used to be the qualities ads appealed to, but these days nothing sells like guilt.

3 DECEMBER: To Manchester for Evening News theatre awards. Last and principal award, for services to theatre, goes to Ken Dodd, whose remarkable court victory over the Inland Revenue concerning certain tax irregularities is now safely enough behind him to be part of his stand-up routine. "Self- assessment? They stole that idea from me."

8 December: Long weekend in the far north of Finland, above the Arctic Circle. No wonder Scandinavians are angst-ridden: below-zero temperatures, exorbitant prices, a landscape with only trees for company, and, at this time of year, daylight that lasts only from 10am to 2pm. Can imagine a diagnosis of Ibsen's plays, or Ingmar Bergman's films, showing how all they really express is SADness, the ache of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Diane Abbott was attacked last week for stereotyping the workers in her local hospital as blond(e) and blue-eyed Finns; Finns are more multi-ethnic than that, it seems. But no black faces here, only black moods. Cheer myself up with a drink called "teardrop of a reindeer", half vodka, half Cointreau.

11 December: Over-tall lorry collides with entrance to Blackwall Tunnel and gridlocks London, "the worst jam for 17 years", with traffic after- effects for the rest of the week. Such is road rage, the police refuse to name the truck driver, "for his own protection" or, as a DJ casually puts it, "because we all want to lynch him".

12 December: Labour win Barnsley by-election, wiping out the Tory majority. "They think it's all over," says the successful candidate, 44-year-old Jeff Ennis, re-using the second most overused phrase of the year (does Kenneth Wolstenholme now regret it?); "it is now." The no-nonsense Ennis once played rugby for South Yorkshire under-19s. Whatever happened to all the those New Labour candidates who were going to win the Left the next election - smart, eco-conscious, Christian, power-dressing, above all female?

Consolation for the Tory Party from The Spice Girls (currently at No 1 in the pop charts of 27 countries), who tell the Spectator that Margaret Thatcher is their inspiration: she it was who founded Girl Power and enabled wannabes to become have-it-alls. "We need more women MPs," says Gerri. "That's why we're considering politics."

17 December: Sudden anger everywhere at the long-standing tradition that, as a season-of-goodwill gesture, prisoners in gaol receive up to pounds 10 bonus for good behaviour. What a churlish, begrudging nation we've become. The mood's all let-'em-rot or let-'em-hang. And, indeed, another prisoner hanged himself last week, one of dozens this year. With security cameras on every high street and motorway gantry, it can't be beyond the wit of the prison service to ensure cells are monitored so that any inmate fixing himself a noose would be picked up on camera before doing the deed. Or would that be thought a waste and abuse of money, too?

18 December: Most sought after toy this Christmas is Buzz Lightyear. Parents have been driving round the nation's retail parks in search, but Buzz is not to be found in the whole of Europe, and an emergency shipment from Disney won't get here till 28 December. Am grateful that my seven- year-old, though a fan of Toy Story, has asked for a video rather than Buzz. (Repeat, horror: am glad he wants to watch the video, not play with the toy.) But question the claim that there has "always" been a craze for certain toys at Christmas. Can't imagine my parents combing the department stores of the north for the latest Dinky toy or Meccano set. Nor, 100 years earlier, searches for stick-and-hoops or Jack in the boxes.

19 December: Along with his art-work and other end-of-term bumf, my youngest son brings home from primary school a letter from the local education authority addressed to all parents. It warns us that it is taking seriously a threat from a prisoner who's being released next month to "do a Dunblane" at one of the borough's schools. Security will be stepped up, we're reassured.

In Afghanistan, a Taliban publicly executes the murderer of his wife and children. Six Red Cross workers are murdered in Chechnya. A man is shot dead in the Portobello Road. And Prince Philip says handguns are no more dangerous than cricket bats. Happy Christmas. !

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