Well, it’s nearly Christmas again – the years seem to come and go so fast now. When I was a child a year was an inexpressibly long period of time. If the foreshortening is the effect of the familiarity of experience now compared with its novelty in youth, then maybe one ought to pay more attention to finding new experiences as one gets older. Could be rather uncomfortable, though!
This year for me has seen some new experiences, however: some pleasant and some decidedly not. The latter have unfortunately been dominant, but the pleasing ones included an excellent holiday, walking in the Pamir foothills (up to 14,000 feet) in Tajikistan, and having the whole house redecorated – inside and out – in consequence of fairly serious subsidence damage that began about six years ago. Since it had not been decorated since 1982, when Lois and I bought it, this was overdue, and it now looks – or would do if I could only complete putting away again the contents of the 36 tea chests that were at one time stacked in the cellar full of china, glass, books, CDs, files and all the impedimenta of everyday life while total chaos reigned everywhere else. When I returned from holiday (looking forward to a good sleep!), I found not one habitable room in the house! My bedroom, which alone was not redecorated (an economy measure when the insurance company’s loss adjustor started being difficult at the last minute), was like a warehouse with furniture and bedding and all manner of stray stuff piled up on every square inch of the floor and bed, just as I’d left it. The rest of the house was knee-deep in polythene and hardboard protection for the carpets, paint cans and stepladders and thick plaster dust. What a home-coming!
One of the unpleasant experiences is pendant to this work on the house. A few weeks ago, a letter from the loss adjustors arrived – announcing that the insurance company had gone into liquidation. I still owe about £17,000 to the builder and my structural engineer agent and although I shall (I hope!) get 90% of that back through the statutory Policy Holders Protection Board (PHPB) in due course, the due course of such affairs is likely to be protracted – well over a year, I think – and meantime I have to pay the builder, who did an excellent job – and was especially good over “snagging” (i.e., inspecting the job and dealing with the final details) – and is already in severe cash flow difficulties. I’m having to cash the remaining part of my Coal Board redundancy lump sum, incurring a tax bill and a penalty as well as lost interest. The overall cost of being a few weeks too late in getting the work finished and the final account in to the loss adjustor looks like being well over £2,500.
The insurance company, Orion, a Dutch-owned concern, was (it emerges) in difficulty with its marine and aviation business and sold all its other business to the GRE (ex-Guardian Royal Exchange) in spring 1993. They are using the same name and logos and letterhead and renewed my insurance on the house without pointing out (other than by adding “A GRE Company” in tiny type at the foot of the letterhead) that there had been a change of ownership. Similarly, neither company told me that my longstanding subsidence claim had been split off and left in the original company. The proceeds from the sale were obviously not enough to bail out the original Orion which went under in October. It all looks like sharp practice but short of being illegal. I’m now waiting for the liquidators – Price Waterhouse – to clear the way for the PHPB to step in.
Financial woes were already mounting with the Inland Revenue announcing a major error in their own favour in their calculation of my PAYE codes for the last three years. I now have £8,000 to pay off over the next few years!
The downside of 1994 is completed by having to step down from being Director of ASH. This is a long and convoluted story, but in short it is the result of our taking on as deputy director in autumn 1993 an Australian tobacco control campaigner of world renown, Steve Woodward, then Director of ASH Australia, who asked for the job since ASH there was being wound up, allegedly having achieved all the legislation that was needed at commonwealth level. (It was, however, rapidly re-formed when he had left, which is suggestive.)
From the moment he arrived it was apparent that he was quite unwilling to fit into ASH here and it soon became clear that he was determined to take my job as Director, going out of his way to criticise anything I did. He saw much of what ASH does as irrelevant and wanted to confine us to campaigning first and last. He ran a first class campaign for the private member’s Bill to ban tobacco advertising – and a simultaneous surreptitious campaign to promote himself and put it about that ASH was in dire straits and needed rescuing by him.
An escalation of encounters between us led to my bringing in the officers (trustees) of ASH, but they weakly avoided the problem and then tried to mediate between us. Steve took every concession as a platform to escalate his demands. All through the summer I kept my own counsel in the interest of reaching a settlement (and at no time did an agreement look more than a few weeks away). In the end, however, he first accepted and then rejected a plan for us to be co-directors and then put in his resignation – it would seem now as a ploy, as he clearly never ceased campaigning for himself. He split the staff at ASH and won the backing of many of the branches, with whom he was much in contact in organising the advertising ban campaign.
Finally the trustees decided that they did not want either of us – him they could not trust (they were appalled at his behaviour and, although they considered appointing him to take over, they told me they rejected the idea as he would not accept any constraints or accountability), me they saw (as he had been saying, not unfairly) as poor at networking with other people and organisations, besides being compromised by his campaign against me.
The result is that he goes back to Australia at the end of the month, taking with him the girlfriend from the Health Education Authority who was probably his real reason for wanting to come to the UK in the first place, while I have accepted a one-year contract, theoretically renewable, to undertake a number of special projects for ASH. This in itself promises to be quite rewarding: my salary is not far short of what it was before, I can work from home, and I shall be working substantially uninterrupted on projects that I found it impossible to give adequate attention while I was Director – work on tobacco taxation, on litigation, on model legislation, and on preparing various briefs and reports.
Meantime, I can look at leisure for another job. If I do not feel wildly optimistic, I do not feel too pessimistic either. The whole affair has been a considerable strain, and I am glad it is now resolved, even if not ideally.
There were, of course, good things at ASH too: helping draft the advertising ban Bill, acting as Kevin Barron’s adviser during the committee stage (I actually wrote many of the speeches!), a conference & then a free weekend in Empoli (near Florence), giving oral evidence to the National Heritage Committee on tobacco-sponsorship of sport, going on two deputations to Ministers and one to the BBC and so on.
The highlight of the year was my holiday in Tajikistan – which lies on the south-east border of Uzbekhistan and north of Afghanistan. I went on an organised trek with the company Exodus: there were 16 of us, plus a leader, and we were joined in Tashkent (the Uzbekhi capital) by nine ethnic Russian student mountaineers (they acted as porters and tent-pitchers, and one was the cook), one ethnic Russian student interpreter and one Uzbekhi mountain guide. After a coach journey south almost to Samarkand and a turn to the east across the frontier into Tajikistan, we stopped the night in the best hotel in Penjikent – the second city of Tajikistan, even if it looked like an overgrown village. (We only got to the best hotel as the second best, where we had reservations, had no water. The best, by contrast, had a half-inch of water in the squelchy felt carpet in the dirty and dilapidated en suite bathroom, but no light there and very loose connections to the light in the bedroom!) We ate in a municipal hall, where ethnic Islamic geometric murals contested the wall-space with heroic Soviet peasants rejoicing over their latest Stakhanovite miracles.
The next day we travelled lurchingly in an ex-army bus with wheels five feet high up a rough road due east, following a high-sided narrow river valley that at times became a gorge. At the bottom was a huge roaring torrent grey with silt; sometimes we went down close to it or even crossed it, on bridges one was glad to get across; at other times we climbed high up the mountainside and lost sight of the river. The valley sides were bare rock, eroded with deep straight channels where in spring the melting snow poured down to the river. In mid-afternoon the valley opened out and we drove down near the river to camp under apricot trees.
The next day we started walking, south to start with, later west, parallel to the way we had driven, and finally 15 days later north again towards Penjikent until we were again picked up by the bus. And there was a day in the middle of the walk when we reached a road again and the bus took us down one valley and up another to a fresh roadhead.
We were a miscellaneous group – there were several teachers, one or two women from the City, an Ulsterman about to take a post at Bristol university, a much-travelled speech therapist rather disdainful of the rest of us, an AT&T engineer from the Cotswolds, a solicitor from Maidstone and his friend, the retired European boss of Kimberley Clark, the US paper etc. company. These last two were with their wives and all four were over 60: they were far from being the least energetic, however.
The first day was easy: a gentle stroll across the river and up a valley, passing a primitive village sitting under what must in winter have been an almost sheer slope of snow. In spring it must have risked being washed away. Maybe sometimes it was: the houses were primitive (mudcoated unshaped stones in a framework of rough-hewn wood) and it seemed probable that the people went down to lower valleys in winter with their animals. Later we walked through a second village, where we were followed by shy but curious children who were worldly-wise enough to ask for gifts, even though we were only the third or fourth tourist trek ever to come this way. Already here the brilliant cloth of the women’s silk dresses stood out: there is a traditional type of design, known as ekat, of zigzagged stripes of gold and black and red and yellow and blue. The men, by contrast often wore what always looked like cast-off western-style suits, but sometimes traditional but dull cotton robes and headbands.
Our second night under canvas – actually, only a couple of my nights were under canvas: I preferred sleeping under the stars – was near the head of this side-valley, beside a booming torrent of melt-water from the glaciers higher up, where we were to go next. The noise of the river – 20 feet across and travelling at high speed over the rocks – was enough to require shouting if you were near it. The water was so cold here and everywhere that washing in it had to be accomplished at speed before your hands froze solid. Washing my hair two days later, I almost had to leave a thick lather in place, the pain of pouring this glacier water over my head was so intense.
At this camp the next morning we were joined by half a dozen donkeys and their friendly driver, whom we quickly called the Mad Mullah. He was devout about his prayers (and had us trying to work out points of the compass by reasoning in which direction Mecca should lie), while his madness took the form of an engaging habit of striking poses and asking to be photographed at every opportunity, especially on the ramshackle swaying bridges that became a constant of the trek. His donkeys carried the kitbags that had hitherto been in the bus and left us carrying only our day-bags and cameras.
The next day saw us climb steeply through scrub and thorns and rocks to about 10,000 feet. The temperature was in the 90s, but when after lunching by a lake we had to paddle through the outflow stream, the water was so cold that our legs became numb and we found ourselves wondering if we could make it the last few yards! We climbed high up to another lake and camped in the gloom under snowy mountain peaks as the sun went down.
The third day of the trek was one of the most demanding. We climbed up to a pass at 14,000 feet, over shattered rocks and a melting glacier, and then down the loose scree and steep dusty paths of the south side of the mountain to about 9,000 feet where we camped beside another river, the Zerafshan. Starting at 6.30 a.m., we had reached the pass in under four hours – an hour less than scheduled – and even the two who became ill with altitude sickness did it in 4½. The donkeys took longer, and we became worried that they had slipped off the snow traverse just below the top, sliding inevitably hundreds of feet down the glacier and taking our tents and bags with them. But no: they all appeared at last (although one had shed its bags) and they stood at the top trying to graze off bare rock.
The southern side of the mountain was greener, and the new valley was at times Alpine in aspect with meadows of flowers and tumbling streams going through occasional ice tunnels that somehow survived the heat. We walked down the valley for several days, up and down the valley sides, over landslides and for long stretches on scarcely traceable trails across steep loose scree. We passed many ruined villages abandoned by the Sogdians, remnants of a once cultured people, whose last 25,000 subsistence-farming families Stalin forcibly moved to more productive labour some decades ago. A few had found their way back and were scratching a living from a few steep fields the size of a suburban back garden.
I cannot describe the whole trip in detail. Later we passed through deep gorges, met nomads living in yurts who gave us creamy homemade yoghurt to drink; saw tiny plantations of opium poppies walled protectively round unlike the other crops – grain, potatoes, lucerne; stayed in a village guesthouse with elaborate wooden ceiling and splendid carpets and wall-hangings; crossed another pass below which bright green grass as lush as in a watermeadow grew for a yard either side of each rushing divided channel of the stream while inches away the ground was dry and parched and thistly.
The domestic arrangements were fairly primitive. The cook, Mishka, provided a bucket of hot water first thing each morning, from which we dipped enough to wash and shave. Water to clean our teeth – & to drink – had to be purified: most of us had small handpumps which forced it through the necessary filters, others had iodine tablets. We ate porridge for breakfast – sometimes made with rice, sometimes with crushed wheat – and followed it with green tea and stale bread with jam. (The bread was stale because it was bought only at the start of the trip and halfway through: at all other times we were far, far from anywhere anything could be bought.) At lunch we had tomatoes, tinned ham, cheese, bread, shortcake biscuits (until Sasha the interpreter spilled kerosene over them) and tea, at night vegetable stew – mainly of cabbage and various roots, flavoured with whatever herbs we had passed during the day. Given the limitations, Mishka did pretty well, but it was not haute cuisine and many of us found it did not agree well with our stomachs!
At the end of the trip we had two days in Samarkand, where disappointingly the ancient remains of Tamurlane’s city – the madrasahs and mosques and mausoleums – are now museum pieces in a modern city – modern, that is, in relative terms: mainly nineteenth century in the centre, I would guess, with some Soviet-style additions, including the headquarters of the ruling Democracy (né Communist) Party, where a plinth that once bore a statue of Lenin (his name is still partly legible) now supports an inapposite cupola. There was a bustling – but modern – covered market, selling little but vegetables, and a series of state shops, including a depressing department store where one would be hard put to find anything worth buying. One display case held a pile of little cardboard calendars – for 1993! Nearby, another held the entire DIY department: a miscellaneous assortment of tools from a half-a-dozen trades, some in faded boxes and all lightly covered in dust.
We were again in the best hotel, and again because the one we were booked in could not take us, though this time it was the fault of Exodus’s local agents. The carpet in the bedroom corridor had a scalloped pattern where the water from each room’s shower had flooded out through the bedroom door and stained it in neat half-circles; and the kitchen on our last morning could give us breakfast at 6.30 or at 8.0, but not when we wished at 7.15 – not because they were fully booked (far from it: we made up a large part of their clientele) but because that was when they did breakfasts. We felt there was something to be said after all for a bucket of rice and a ladle.
What of the rest of my news? Lindsay is now nearly 15, embarked on his GCSE courses at Pimlico and growing up fast. He continues to get good reports from school. The work on the house has given him a comfortable sitting room – with computer, TV, video and super-Nintendo – next to his bedroom. This summer he went with Lois to Australia to visit Christina, his half-sister, and her husband Tom and baby Paige. They live in Perth, near to Lois’s parents and her brother’s family. It was this prolonged trip of his that allowed me the freedom to go off to Tajikistan. At Easter he and I had a few days in the Brecon Beacons – we climbed them on a bright but cold day with a whistling wind that suddenly brought hail flying horizontally at us and plunged us into thick cloud. As we came off the top, the wind was blowing straight up at us: Lindsay managed extremely well, all things considered. This, and a strenuous weekend climbing in Snowdonia with my friend Robin Simpson, was all the preparation I managed to do before the Tajikistan trek.
April saw my mother’s 80th birthday. Dad arranged for us all (barring Malcolm & his family, unable to make it from New Zealand) to stay for a long weekend at a small luxury hotel on Exmoor. We took five of their six rooms & by the custom of the house they therefore left the sixth empty. This enabled Geoff & Lin’s six-year-old daughter Katy to take it over: a double bedroom up its own little staircase and with its own bathroom all to herself! She was excited and delighted. The whole weekend went superbly well. The weather was warm and sunny, the food and service excellent. Breakfast and lunch we had on the garden terrace overlooking the lake and a long view of woods and the moor. All the children played well together – Lindsay a tolerant favourite of his three young female cousins. And our old friends Ken and Marion Yates-Smith surprised us by dropping in – I forget how they found out where we were.
Mum’s memory continues to fade, but I gave her as a present a large collection of old OS maps and local history booklets about the places where she used to live – Dulwich and Beckenham – and she was delightedly raking up memories of her childhood, finding photos of buildings she remembered, tracing her route from home to school and so on. This kept us all busy for hours!
Apart from her memory loss and the natural fact that age is slowing them both down, Mum & Dad keep well. They holidayed in Cyprus with my aunt and uncle – Mum’s older brother – in January and are doing so again after Christmas. Apart from my trips down to Somerset, they have spent three weekends with me this year: they come up by train and I meet them at the station. I take them – and Lindsay – to the theatre on the Saturday: Crazy for You was a great success.
As to my three brothers, Ken is still with the BBC but is now developing a possible new motorsports programme rather than producing Top Gear. Malcolm, in NZ, has just left ICL, fed up with the cramping bureaucracy imposed since Fujitsu took it over, and has joined a small systems company as their chief marketing manager. Geoff (whose wife Lin is halfway through an English degree and loving the Beowulf especially) has also changed jobs, moving to a small insurance broker/financial adviser business in Cirencester where he seems very happy.
This letter is already far too long, so I will omit mention of my garden – little done this year and so little to say anyway – and of theatre-going – though I’ve continued frequenting the National especially, and seen the moving and superbly staged two-part Angels in America (about AIDS), a good production of Sweet Bird of Youth, a fine new play by Arthur Miller (Broken Glass), and many other plays. I am increasingly able to take Lindsay to the theatre with me, which (though expensive!) is rewarding. He came with me & my old friends from Canada Henry (Laycock – ex-Oxford) & Devaki, who came to stay for a few excellent days in April to the RSC to see The Merchant of Venice, set in a post-Big Bang City of London. I also saw at the RSC a fine production of Ibsen’s Ghosts with Simon Russell Beale and (appropriately before my holiday) Antony Sher in Marlowe’s Tamburlane.

1993 ————- 1995