Thursday, 30 June 2011

Southern Upland Partnership

Some 15 years ago, somewhere out and about in the upper Clyde valley, I came across a simple A4 typewritten sheet flyer announcing the formation of The Southern Uplands Partnership, a new membership organisation 'to keep people living and working in the southern uplands of Scotland'. I joined, and at the SUP AGM held yesterday at the Buccleuch Arms hotel, I was co-opted onto the board. This pleases me greatly, because all my life I have enjoyed building bridges, for practical purposes, and that is what the SUP aims to do from coast to coast, making life better for the people and places we live in. Vyvyan Wood-Gee, local champion of horse trails, is also a new member of the SUP board, and we hope - for example - to find a way to enable people to use the many miles of new road being built for the wind farms in our region.

My copy of The Coming of the King - The First Book of Merlin by one of our session leaders at Moffat Book Event Oct 15/16 2011, Nikolai Tolstoy, arrived this morning. It is a long book - 850 pages -, setting the legend of Arthur in the ancient British kingdoms of Strathclyde and Reged, based on much scholarly research and exploration on the ground.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Friends Evening at Brodies

Moffat Book Events' first Friends Evening at Brodies on a lovely sunny evening (Tues June 28)was a most enjoyable and productive gathering. We toasted our new chairman, Adam Dillon, who outlined plans for our October 15/16 2011 event on the theme of identity: its manifold aspects from the mythical ability of characters such as Merlin to 'shape-change', Merlin's connection with Moffat (his cave on Hartfell); the role of DNA in enabling us to trace our personal history; the stories we tell ourselves and how to compile an oral community history; the importance of the presentation of self through dress etc. What promises to be a fascinating day with something for every taste will end, as has become traditional for MBE, with a festive tea at our venue, the Moffat House hotel. New ideas were invited, and will be explored such as adding a creative writing workshop session, perhaps on the Sunday morning, and, through the good offices of Andrew Wheatcroft, inviting a representative from the Chinese book industry to attend the October event to see how a community book event can work for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What Travel Really Broadens

I got back from London on Sunday evening, after a pretty typical journey – set off to Euston from South Ken on my usual tube but as I was about to change at Victoria onto the Victoria line there was an announcement that the Victoria line was closed for repairs/engineering work so I continued to Embankment and got the Northern line, which lands you at a station new to me called Euston (Charing Cross branch) - a long walk to the mainline station. On the concourse there was an announcement that because of the theft of copper wire, a whole area of signals had been knocked out and a train to Manchester Airport had been cancelled. There was a mile-long queue for (my) Glasgow train as a result, because all the Manchester Airport passengers transferred onto that one. I got a seat, and we proceeded to Milton Keynes where we came to a complete stop for nearly an hour because of the self-same signalling problems. Luckily, I avoided a three hour wait at Carlisle having missed my scheduled connection to Lockerbie because son in law Jim gallantly offered to come and pick me up.

Yesterday, I was to go to the dentist in Lanark but instead Jim and I spent the morning poring over spreadsheets to see where our business is going. We (Jim, Elly and I) have formed a family partnership, Forestry Purposes LLP Work should soon be starting to convert 21 Well Road (the 18th cent cottage previously used as a builders yard next to Elly & Jim’s house) into two offices upstairs and a ‘workshop’ and shower room/WC downstairs. We plan to let one office and the workshop, and will make a garden - fruit & veg ,hens etc plus a ‘sit-ooterie’ for me because I have no garden at my house in School Lane.

Jim had a setback with the spruce beer which was continuing to ferment in the bottles, then, having cracked that, the drink was losing fizz because he discovered that the bottles he had bought were only airtight if filled with hot liquid (don’t ask). Anyway, we should have some of - hopefully fizzy 0.5%, therefore 'soft', spruce beer for two occasions in Moffat this week: a Moffat Book Events Friends Evening tonight and the AGM of the Southern Upland Partnership tomorrow. Elly is o/c sales, and she and a friend Elaine will be swinging into action in Sept to do tastings with a view to get orders within an area roughly bounded by Glasgow & Edinburgh to the north, Carlisle to the south to begin with.

Plans for our Oct 15/16 2011 Moffat Book Event are shaping up nicely: a 'Transformers' workshop for children first thing, looking at shape-changers from Merlin to the present-day; Nikolai Tolstoy on Merlin and Moffat; Alistair Moffat on the ever-evolving story of our national DNA then after a break for lunch, Ruth Tittensor will lead a panel discussion on how to compile an oral history, drawing on her highly praised 2009 history of Whitelees
From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Community and Landscape. We hope to finish off a full day’s programme with a session by Moffat style consultant Moira Cox, on the presentation of self via colour and style before what is rapidly becoming our signature festive tea designed by Julie the baking genius at Moffat House hotel to match our Scottish traditional theme with some appropriate 21st century twists.

Sadly, all bar one of this year’s hens in the forest have been knocked off one by one in the past couple of weeks by predators unknown – leaving just little heaps of feathers. The sole survivor has stopped laying and our handyman Russell has installed two decorative silver pheasants to keep her company.

Looking to the weeks ahead:we (Elly, Jim, boys & me) have booked The Granary, a farmhouse just behind North Berwick, July 9-30. But I have a family wedding in NYC which means I will be away July 14-18 and have to be back in Moffat for a couple of meetings July 26-28. For some insane reason I am then booked to sail from Oban to Falmouth on a boat called the Bessie May July 31-Aug 6. Abi is doing her show Abi Roberts Takes You Up The Aisle in Edinburgh in Aug – I thought I might catch it on Aug 10 with Elly for her birthday with the sister of a friend from university days who will be in Edinburgh that week staying with her daughter.

Next Mon July 4 I have organised a gathering up at Crookedstane to meet Michael Pawlyn, the architect of the Eden Project, who is coming up to suss out possibilities for a ‘destination’ visitor attraction to bring visitors to the area.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


I had planned to meet a friend for lunch at Geales, the fish place on Chelsea Green,but on my way to buy the Saturday papers, I passed the fishmonger so I rang and suggested we have something fishy at my place instead. I bought: scallops; a dressed crab; a jar of salmon roe, a salmon fillet and a lemon. We chatted in the kitchen while I cooked the salmon in a little water and olive oil, and the scallops with four slices of streaky bacon. We opened the jar of salmon eggs and scooped them out like a dip, onto salt and vinegar crisps while the fish was cooking. We have known each other for over 50 years, and learned 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse', motif of my funerary pavement at Crookedstane Rig, together at school. She is celebrating the first anniversary of her new lease of life after a major heart operation last year, and now, with the operation safely behind her, is in the process of 'downsizing' from her family house as I did two years ago. She is looking for a flat in the same area of west London where she has lived for thirty years, disappointed to have been outbid a couple of weeks ago for a new build, evidence that the housing market in some areas is stronger than ever, some say at 2007 boom levels. Death, the journey of life, change and the passing of time are the themes of The Enigma of Arrival - both the book by V S Naipaul, a masterpiece which I finished reading and closed with regret just now, but will certainly re-read - and the appropriately mysterious painting that inspired it by Giorgio di Chirico. I have a bad habit of listening to BBCR4 as I read, and this morning heard a reference to Thoreau's On Walden Pond, extolling the virtues of simplicity and living close to nature. Nature and the passing seasons, the tending - or neglect - of gardens, the cultivation of fields and livestock are the backdrop to Naipaul's deceptively modest narrative, about a period of rural life and the people who drift in and out of the life of a small country estate in a Wiltshire valley which Naipaul nevertheless surreptitiously invests with profound philosophical significance, whereby the book becomes a meditation, not just on the writer's life, but on life itself. After lunch I went to see Potiche starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu - a brilliantly executed and witty comedy of family life and social history set in 1977 France. The only elephant in the room, in this case almost literally, is Depardieu who is now so colossally fat that hints in the plot at the fanning of an old flame between him and Deneuve strain credulity (like Depardieu's seams) to breaking point. There is a family business at the heart of the story, an umbrella factory started by Deneuve's father and at the start of the film, being run so badly by Deneuve's small town tyrant and bully of a husband that the workforce is on strike, her children refuse to have anything to do with the business and needless to say she is firmly sidelined to the role of 'trophy wife'(the translation of an untranslatable French word 'potiche'. Being myself a member of such a family, there was plenty to enjoy in her husband's come-uppance .

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Down memory lane

A few random notes and observations from an occasional visitor to London: Fitzrovia, the Georgian village between the Euston Road to the north and Mayfair to the south has undergone a great revival. Fitzroy Square has largely been pedestrianised, and Guy Ritchie is restoring two houses on the south side of the green grass square, which on Thursday was decked with two white tents for a summer party. After my meeting at No.6, I decided to walk home and set off south to Oxford Circus, on down Regent St, across into Hanover St and then zig-zag into Brook St where I saw a branch of Jo Malone, the British luxury brand (candles, perfume). Always on the lokout for possible outlets for our Zacharry's organic Scottish spruce essential oil, I went in. An assistant explained that the brand now belongs to US cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, and wrote the office HQ address in nearby Grosvenor St for me. There, the receptionist explained that everyone had gone for a meeting in New York, but gave me the MD's name and telephone number, and his PA's to follow up. On I went, past Claridge's hotel and down the west side of Berkeley Square, across Curzon St by which time I had been walking for about three quarters of an hour, and my feet were getting sore. I decided to cross Piccadilly and get a bus the rest of the way. I know every corner of this part of London, having lived there - first as an A level student at the redoubtable Westminster tutors in Curzon Place where I shared a flat with Vidal Sasson in 1961 (well, we had adjoining flats in the same small building across the road from where Hugh Hefner opened his Playboy Club; I went to the gala opening with Tim Bligh, then Harold Macmillan's PPS). From my bedroom window I could see John Osborne and Albert Finney going in to see their agent; I shopped for groceries in Shepherd Market; as a young journalist, I later interviewed Stirling Moss in his ultra-modern house tucked in behind Hamilton Place and did visiting celebrity interviews at the Westbury hotel in Conduit St where they used to stay. Yesterday (Friday June 24), an odd experience which I am still trying to fathom: at Victoria Station, on my way back from a meeting in Kent, I picked up a copy of the free Evening Standard newspaper. Continuing across the concourse, I noticed at another booth, a man standing beside a stock of copies of the same paper but also with a colour magazine. I waved my newspaper at him and made to pick up the magazine, but he stopped me and told me that the first one 'came from a different firm' and that I had to return the newspaper I had picked up to the other stand some way back. I put the copy down on a ledge on the stand, took the replacement paper plus magazine and walked on, the man shouting after me 'You didn't, did you'. 'No', I thought 'I didn't - because I cannot understand why on earth I should'. I think this may be an entry for my 'Recession' or 'Austerity' Diary. As a footnote, after some years of hob-nobbing with the famous and interviewing people who had done/were doing interesting things, I decided it was time I myself did something interesting instead of recording other people's deeds. Reader, I became a property developer in Los Angeles, then planted a forest where I built a house, which is now on the edge of the biggest windfarm on land in Europe. More in my next...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Stories told by gardens

For a book event organiser, the AGM of a society founded to celebrate buildings might not seem an obvious way to pursue an interest in story-telling. But yesterday's AGM of the Georgian Group proved me wrong. The guest speaker was Richard Wheeler, billed (wrongly, as he explained - he has a more complicated NT remit now -) as Curator of Parks and Gardens The National Trust. With the help of a series of slides, he showed how features placed in a landscape, such as towers or temples, demonstrate the garden owner's allegiance to philosophical or political ideas, or versions of history, as at Stourhead and Stowe. An axis leading, for instance from the front of a house to a distant church spire across a cruciform body of water mimics that at Versailles, symbolising the Christian vision of eternity. Afterwards, I asked him what he makes of the sudden outcrop of gigantic features in the British landscape, from the Angel of the North to the White Horse in Kent, and those proposed or in course of construction, such as The Great Unknown at Gretna and Charles Jencks's Northumbriana on the east coast. Do these monuments have a philosophical purpose, and if so, what ? Land Art is another way of telling our story, or stories, posing questions or suggesting answers. My own modest contribution to the genre is an installation I have commissioned, to be placed in a ruined sheep 'stell' (drystone shelter) at Crookedstane: an engraved round slate pavement bearing lines from the poem by Joachim du Bellay 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse' - appropriate because of its reference to the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece which the artist, sculptor Peter Coates, will reference with a small central medallion inset with lines of fleecy gold. Peter did much of the work at Ian Hamilton Finlay's wonderful sculpture garden at Little Sparta - one of Scotland's greatest (perhaps the greatest) works of 20th century art, as well as the pavement engraved with the names of British trees and their Latin botanical names, retrospectively dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park - or does the garden become Kensington Gardens on that side of the road? Probably. The story behind my pavement installation is that I learned the poem by heart at school, and kept myself going during a pilgrimage to Canterbury from St Martin in The Fields by reciting it over and over again when the going got tough.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Climate change?

I am indebted to The Writer's Almanac for the following: 'On this day (June 23 - ER) in 1801, Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent a letter from his house in Keswick, in Cumbria. He wrote: "O that you had now before your eyes the delicious picture of Lake, and River, and Bridge, and Cottage, and spacious Field with its pathway, and woody Hill with its spring verdure, and mountain with the snow yet lingering in fantastic patches upon it (ER's emphasis)'. Really ?? On June 23?? It was chilly yesterday both in Moffat and later on when I got to London, and met a friend for supper at a restaurant where we were able to sit at a table outside on the pavement. I wore my woollen jacket most of the time, although for the first hour or so the sun was warming my back. My friend and I both worked for Thomson Newspapers in Cardiff in the 1960's, before she went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent and author. Yesterday, she was mulling over an invitation to repeat a visit she made in 1957 with another journalist to what was the then newly-opened (under Nikita Khrushchev) USSR. I urged her to consider accepting, because I enjoy reading accounts of return visits especially one so long - it would be 55 years - after the first. Another topic of conversation was an absurd attempt by the Human Resources department of an academic institution where she still teaches to cost her contribution by breaking down her job into segments: student contacts, correcting work, time in class etc. As my friend said, it is like asking a surgeon to try to break down the component aspects of his job, apportioning lesser cost to 'patient contact' compared with time spent actually wielding the knife. I am adding this anecdote to my new 'Austerity Diary' where I am recording instances of how the cuts are biting. So far, entries range from the existential : the despair of young neighbour, contemplating the prospects for her young family as she struggles to complete a professional qualification to entitle her to a decent salary - to the practical e.g. the station room at Lockerbie was closed all day yesterday 'due to staff shortages'. My beady eye will be kept on the size of chocolate bars and other such indices of national decline, or 'belt tightening'. My supper companion and I were remembering how, in our early travels, in countries like Italy and Spain they used to give you sweets instead of change because small coinage in the currency was worthless. On an entirely more cheerful note: my Swedish friend emailed to say he has dispatched a jar of 'gramskottmarmelat' - a seasonal delicacy as prized as Beaujolais Nouveau, a spread or 'jam' made from new spruce shoots.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Enigma of Arrival

Sorry not to have blogged since last Thursday - I have had my nose in a book The Enigma of Arrival by V S Naipaul. It is classified as a novel and until page 300 or so this mystified me, because it appears from the start to be a factual memoir of Naipaul's occupation of a country cottage on a rundown estate of a 'big house' in Wiltshire. Then, art reveals itself in small, subtle ways, and the suspicion of fiction creeps in through its musical structure, repetition of motifs etc - in a good way. Composition, pattern, and discreet hints of metaphor make themselves felt, in a way reminiscent of (say) Graham Greene's undoubtably fictional 'autobiography' but certainly the extraordinary W S Sebald's Rings of Saturn. Coincidentally, today marks the birthday of Eric Maria Remarque whose best-selling All Quiet On The Western Front was written as a fictional anti-war novel but marketed by its publisher as the 'true' memoir of a WWI soldier. Here at Moffat Book events we are celebrating the arrival of our new chairman Adam Dillon who will bring a lively new perspective to our activities. Friends can meet him at our forthcoming Open Evening at Brodies at 7pm next Tuesday June 28. More tomorrow - I hope to finish the last forty pages of Enigma on the train south, not for Wimbledon but to a family gathering, to see friends and to attend the AGM of The Georgian Group tomorrow.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Great Unknown

Moffat Book Events started in October 2010 as a community group with a constitution, and is now in the process of becoming a Scottish Charitable Organisation 'to promote the advancement of the Arts,Heritage, Culture and Science of Moffat and District'. A theme of our forthcoming October 15/16 event is the nature of identity, from a personal physical point of view (our DNA) and psychologically (in October: the significance of Merlin, the wizard/shaman figure in the Arthurian cycle). As Alistair Moffat discovers in his A Genetic Journey , all that an analysis of our DNA proves is that 'we are all immigrants'. Notoriously, while Scotland's politicians campaigned for 'independence' in recent years, a group of Scotsmen was running Britain from Westminster. Even now, our UK Prime Minister is a Cameron. So what, in 2011, does 'nationality' mean? According to an item in yesterday's (Thursday June 16) Moffat News , 'The Great Unknown' - theme of a monumental artwork to mark the west coast boundary between England and Scotland at Gretna. This £2m enigma is conceived as a counterpart to 'Northumbriana' - Charles Jencks's massive recumbent green goddess - and Antony Caro's rusty metal 'Angel of the North' to the east. In addition, land artist Andy Goldsworthy will be making a 12-mile long trail across the Debatable Lands, scene of 300 years of lawlessness, raid and counter-raid by border families who acknowledged no authority but the sword.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Pentecost at St John's

Yesterday, Sunday June 12, we celebrated Pentecost at St John's, Burnside in Moffat. I had been feeling a bit empty and low, until I remembered that I live virtually next door to the community I had been thinking I lacked. Through the clear windows of the little white church, the sky was blue and the leaves on the trees an intense bright green. Pentecost is a milepost in the year, a time to take stock, and make ambitious plans. In my handbag, I am carrying Bishop Seraphim Sigrist's new handy pocket-sized collection of meditations A Life Together as emergency reading matter, savouring it as it is intended to be, not rushing. As soon as I got back from church, it was time to set off for a picnic in the forest with family and friends. The miraculous weather held; the children played on the pirate ship, the new picnic table was inaugurated, the hens pecked around in the grass nearby and Flo the family's faithful Cairn terrier sat under the table being fed pieces of cold sausage. In a kitchen cupboard, I found a packet of meringue nests at least five years old but none the worse for that, which we ate crumbled with our strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. A book was planned, school issues aired, we went on a slug hunt but they had all gone to ground. On our way out, we met Lee who lives in the barn coming in - we had borrowed some of his salt to sprinkle on our tomatoes. I saw two hares on the hill, and a buzzard over the newly felled open land at the east end of the plantation. The willow tree by the house is flowering, sending out puffs of thistledown seeds called 'pukh' in Russian. Tolstoy was only 4ft 11. I cannot get over that, after a lifetime imagining him a bearded six-footer like my sister's partner Jacques. All in all, an auspicious day, when a long-dreamed of plan to organise an event to celebrate the life and work of that great Christian, martyr and friend Father Alexander Men looks finally possible to bring to fruition.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Moveable Feast

I described myself to an old friend as 'a moveable feast' when she asked for my current telephone number, because I only use my mobile telephone nowadays. I now read that this is becoming the norm among the under 40's. For the first time in my adult life, I cannot tell you what my landline number is. I do not give it to anyone as a contact because I never collect messages from it. The landline receiver sits unused in the kitchen behind the microwave, its only function being to enable the broadband from BT. I am keen on community or 'oral' history because change such as this creeps up on us and before we know it, we have forgotten - or risk forgetting - that for years, things were different. In our house when I was growing up, if the telephone rang my parents vied not to answer it: 'You go. 'No. you go' 'I went last time' etc. When I started work as a reporter on a daily paper in Cardiff, all such compunctions had to be overcome - one was endlessly on the telephone to complete strangers - but in advancing age they have returned. I do not like the telephone. I prefer email. The Enigma of Arrival by V S Naipaul is a fantastically good book, keen Proustian-quality observation and speculation on every page, every line. It is the sort of book that nourishes one's daily life.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Merlin in Moffat

We're holding a Friends of Moffat Book Events evening at Brodies in Altrive Place to share ideas about our Oct 15/16 2011 celebration of Scotland's Family Tree. What is it defines who we are ? Alistair Moffat has been looking at our DNA, with the conclusion that 'we are all immigrants'; so we fall back on acculturation myths with the help of Count Nikolai Tolstoy, and consider the earth beneath our feet with peat expert Ruth Tittensor with whom we will be exploring Merlin, after whom a cave is named on Hart Fell, and the peat laid down when the climate changed and the trees fell 5,000 years ago. NB There are many faces in this picture: can you see them?

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Zulu Principle

I sent off for Jim Slater's The Zulu Principle to try to understand how investment in the Stock Exchange works. The first disappointment was his throwaway advice to spend three hours a week studying the shares in the niche chosen before selecting the one that is underperforming. What he hasn't explained yet is when to sell. Anyway, I have signed up for the Halifax online share dealing service so will be tiptoeing into the swamp before the summer is out. Talking of swamps, I am warming to V.S.Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival which describes his acculturation to life in a Wiltshire village in exquisite and oddly hypnotic - because repetitive - detail, like listening to Bach. It rained heavily last night and at midnight I put my face close to an open window and could smell the wonderful scent of plants exhaling their perfume after many days of drought. There is a family living in a ground floor flat just below the second floor flat where I stay when I am in London with a Mediterranean unconcern for raised voices, including a crying baby and noisy toddler, breaking the respectful silence of this former police barracks. Luckily this family like me are only occasional visitors, and in any case their unconcerned conversation is normal by any standards other than the sepulchral hush of English convention.

Thursday, 2 June 2011


Today is the birthday of the man who said, "The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things." This could be an appropriate description of the work of V S Naipaul, whose The Enigma of Arrival I started to read yesterday. But the words belong to English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, born on this day in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, in 1840. He often helped his father with various building projects, and when he was 16, he took a job as an architect's apprentice. He moved to London when he was 22, to take a job with another architect, and he delighted in the city's literary and cultural environment. He began writing fiction and poetry; his first published story was "How I Built Myself a House" (1865), and he also wrote a novel, The Poor Man and the Lady (1867), which was never published.
He set many of his novels and poems in "Wessex," reviving the old Anglo-Saxon name for the counties of southwestern England, where he grew up. The Wessex he wrote of, though, was part real place, part literary conceit; he always insisted, "This is an imaginative Wessex only."
His first commercial and critical success was Far From the Madding Crowd (1874); it did so well that he was able to quit architecture and write full time. He produced six novels in the 1880s, and seven in the 1890s; two of these -- Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) -- caused so much scandal that he eventually gave up on novels forever. He wrote a few plays, but in the end he returned to his first love -- poetry -- which he regarded as a purer art form anyway. He produced eight collections before his death in 1928. He had two funerals simultaneously: His cremated remains were buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, while at the same time, his heart was buried in Dorchester, in his beloved Wessex. (Information courtesy of the Writers Almanac)

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


Well, James Naughtie, ultra-Scottish presenter of BBCR4's flagship Today programme is an Angle! His DNA shows him to be descended from the Danes who settled in Northumbria and JN's forefather was transplanted from there by David I in the 11th century to bolster the Canmore kings' power in the northeast of Scotland. A commentator on the programme explained that national identity is a mindset, not a collection of genes, giving as an example the uber-English reaction 'Typical!' to news ranging from losing a sock to the outbreak of WWIII, said in tones of triumphant resignation and lack of surprise ('I knew it would happen'). On then to V.S. Naipaul last night at the Royal Geographic Society 'in conversation' with Geordie Greig, editor of the London Evening Standard who I had up to then wrongly assumed to be a woman. Be that as it may, the conversation lurched awkwardly forward, Naipaul coming to life at the news that he had supposedly buried the hatchet with US travel writer Paul Theroux who once ruined my summer holiday on Cape Cod, but that's a story for another day. The gossip columns had reported that Naipaul and Theroux had been reconciled in the green room at the Hay on Wye book festival on Monday (May 30). As Naipaul told it last night (May 31), he had not recognised Theroux when Theroux was propelled towards him, hand outstretched. It was Naipaul's wife who had murmured 'We've missed you', not Naipaul. Etc. Walking away down Exhibition Road (in the process of being converted into a pedestrians-first highway) after the event, the most appropriate comment seemed to be 'What a character'. Naipaul is a great writer, whose work I treasure above all for his 'Among The Believers', his expose of the obscurantist aspects of Islam. His latest The Mask of Africa' is a sly, often comical, profound look at the reality of 'modern' Africa which europeans would be unwise to read as though of something alien to our own shortcomings. Naipaul tells it straight, and, he said last night, tries to load every sentence with 'more than one thing'; other books of his are now on my 'must read' list - A Bend in the River; A House for Mr Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival which my sister, whose birthday we were celebrating, told me last night was Marcel Duchamp's daughter Yeo's favourite book. Dinner afterwards at Madsen, a miraculous Swedish restaurant just by south Ken tube station.