Diary: Peter Preston

Writing the gospel of happiness

Maybe you live out alternative lives through your children. If so, I am now variously a battling defence lawyer, a film producer just back from Cannes, another journalist and – this week – a restaurateur. We are in Barcelona on grandchild-minding duty while our youngest daughter and her husband open their sixth restaurant. Gordon Ramsay is nowhere in sight; though, to some Catalan bemusement, Delia Smith popped in the other day, and now has her picture on the wall.

How does it feel to watch Kate rattling away in fluent Spanish on a local cooking and culture TV programme, or meeting and greeting when the latest show gets on the road? I’m full of pinch-yourself paternal pride, of course, but also a clearer realisation than ever that this industry is a show.

Newspapers are a show, too: a performance where the curtain goes up every night around 9pm. The audience sits there at breakfast next morning, thumbs up or down. You’re only as good as your last front page.

Kate and José toil, wheel, deal, keep smiling, smiling. Their curtain rises at noon, seven days a week, and closes at one in the morning. No time for kitchen nightmares, and not much for sleep. But by day three, the terrace is heaving and the tables inside are filling up. There’s a long way to go, but this show – unlike bloody chef Ramsay’s, always producing the same “fresh”, “simple”, grimly formulaic magic menus and then shoving off – looks set to run and run.

A neighbour, François Baschet, the inventor of the inflatable guitar and the aluminium piano, pops in for a beer. He’s an 89-year-old Puck, with fluffy grey sideburns framing an almost omnipresent smile. But this time the smile has gone missing. He wants to talk about Catholic priests abusing children, about the cruelties that believing in God brings in train. “We should forget these miseries of religion. We should write a new gospel of happiness together.”

François could do that for himself. He’s had an amazing life, from Free French Resistance fighter to Nazi hunter in Argentina to deviser of countless musical-instruments-cum-sculptures that he played in Parisian cabarets and exhibited, to great acclaim, at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art . There he was, at a crowded, noisy exhibition of his work in Stockholm, when he saw seven or eight hulking, blond Swedes standing transfixed and silent amid the din. “Are you waiting to play something?” François asked. “No.” “Are you simply listening then?” “No.” “Well, what exactly are you looking at?” “We’ve never seen so many happy Swedes in one place unless they were drunk.” Not since before the Lutheran Reformation, that is.

Back at the school gate, waiting for our trio to appear, a spectacle to rend the heart: a ribbon of tiny, angelic children, holding hands and heading for the bus. Here, they can start before they’re three, minute in dwarfing uniforms, chattering, curls bobbing, walking unawares towards the end of childhood.

El Periódico is the newspaper neither Scotland nor Wales can ever match, a big, bouncy, Barça Berliner selling around 150,000 copies a day in two quite different languages: red masthead Castilian, blue masthead Catalan.

Does a regional government subsidy for the blue job make a difference? Naturally. But there’s also a driving desire to serve every audience going that puts Fleet Street to shame in our own, teeming nation of immigrants. We don’t bother with “foreigners”, not even in London, where they’re nearly a majority. Just imagine a Daily Mail parallel edition in Polish! Better yet, send Lord Rothermere a sausage and ask for one.

Leonardo (age ten) asks an unexpected question. “If Mummy and Daddy die, could we come to live with Granny and you?” He means, could he live in a world where sweets’n’treats are menu fixtures and nobody ever tells him to do his bloody homework. “When’s Mummy coming back from the restaurant?” asks Georgina (eight) after a mild dispute with her brother about a packet of biscuits. “I need her. You always let him get away with everything.”

Home again, and MPs’ duff expenses are still toppling out of the Telegraph cupboard. Should I begin to feel sorry for chit-fillers, pelted in the stocks day after day? Perhaps, a bit, but I also remember the black nights of 1994 – after cash-for-questions and the Jonathan Aitken sagas, when I sat in the Gallery of the Commons while Honourable Members down below bawled and waved their fists at me.

That was the time when, in a storm, John Major invented the Committee on Standards in Public Life to get him off the hook now reserved for Gordon Brown, and Lord Nolan’s work began with a Gallup poll. Would MPs “tell lies if the truth would hurt them politically”? Eighty-seven per cent said Yes. And “make a lot of money by using public money improperly”? Sixty-four per cent said Aye. Plus ça change, except toilet seats.

Peter Preston was editor of the Guardian from 1975 to 1995

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother