January 1990

Friday January 5, Paris

          Coming out from teaching an early class into the Avenue de l’Opéra, I went straight into Brentano’s bookstore and found, in one fell swoop, most of what hadn’t been available in London last week. Books such as Ishiguro’s Booker winner, The Remains of the Day and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time are already out in paperback here. 

          In the métro, they’re modernising the white-tile stations, knocking out the gilt-framed hoardings, chipping away to the rough plaster and brick. Here and there you get a hint of poster from the 1950s or 60s. At Notre-Dame-des-Champs, I saw one that’s almost intact; for furniture. Could I perhaps have seen it the first time I crossed Paris by métro in 1965? Why did I take all those photographs of the monuments back then? The monuments are still standing. I’d have done better to take pictures of the posters underground. Or of any ephemeral object.  

     Next to me in the café on the corner of the rue Henri Barbusse and the Boulevard Saint Michel is an Englishman in a pin-striped suit, striped shirt and tie. You can tell he’s not a businessman; he has long hair and a greying beard. An academic no doubt. At the same table, a young man – a student? – is showing him large-format photographs taken in Bucharest during last month’s revolution. There are pictures of the demonstrators collectively holding up banners before tall buildings with dark, coffin-shaped windows. 

          Spent most of the afternoon on the sofa reading the newspapers. So many articles now with projections for the nineties; many about Eastern Europe and the international geo-political consequences. Like others, no doubt, I’ve started to look more closely at the map of Eastern Europe. For the first time, it seems, I notice exactly where Romania and Bulgaria are and their relative size. Romania, I’m surprised to discover, is not that much smaller than Poland. Other discoveries are made; the names of the peoples who live in these countries, the position and size of the Baltic States, their principal towns. Moldavia, Bessarabia, Serbia rise like phoenixes from the ashes of twentieth-century European history. I get out the historical atlas and look at the map of Europe for 1914; it’s essential for making sense of the Europe we Westerners have screened off for so long.

Saturday January 6, Paris

          Since the first of the month, I’ve taken to reading Pepys’ diary. We’re in the final days of the Cromwellian regime, Pepys is twenty-six. A cousin of his father, Edward Montagu, is putting a bit of secretarial work his way. This is the man who’ll soon play a key role in bringing the future king back from exile in Holland. The younger man spends many hours of his days and evenings in the taverns of The City dining, drinking and making merry with friends, often drinking too much but, all the while, gathering intelligence that could help him get on. It’s so detailed and fascinating that I’ve decided to read just one entry a day; to consume the diary in real time, as it were. At this rate, it’ll be nine and a half years before I reach the end of it. It’s a project that appeals to me enormously.

Wednesday January 24, Paris

          It’s the unattractive women who get saddled with the early shift, the 8.30 routine. Coming out of the métro station at Pyramides around 8.20 a.m., eight out of ten travellers labouring up the steps to the exit doors are women; tubby, coming up for middle age. Not an attractive, well-dressed woman in sight. These poor ladies have been cajoled and charmed into doing the shift that nobody else wants. Flattered by such unexpected attention, they have acquiesced. For a while their sacrifice is prized and rewarded with smiles and solicitous comments from the sharpshooters who come in at ten. But pretty soon they feel they’ve been had; that they are the drudges and that this has always been so. And yet they continue to heave their surplus kilos up the steps of the métro early in the morning because they can’t say no, because it’s difficult to refuse once you’ve fallen for the charm and said you could be available … to please. Perhaps it’s one way of being ahead of all the rest and of making them feel grateful that you exist.

          The men, on the other hand – especially the ones who frequent the zincs of the Opéra quarter cafés – are enamoured with their own importance. Take this one, for example, swanning through the door of Le Coucou now. He has this cocky way of crossing the threshold, head tilted up, cigarette held between the lips. His brazen gaze takes in the customers and the property as a whole in one sweep, as if to make us think that he might have just made a killing. Or rather, that he is privy to a secret that might allow him to do so.

          In The Independent there’s an ode to N°6 cigarettes to mark the disappearance of the Player’s brand. The journalist beautifully describes the ‘N°6 moment’ and its rituals. He recalls how it would vanish in three puffs, even in a light wind, leaving a trace that disappeared up the filter. The ‘three-drag-fag’ we used to call it. He also says that smoking a N°6 was all about compulsion, not about pleasure. Yes, for us it was a rapid, forbidden burn between classes. To smoke N°10s you had to be even more desperate; it was known as the ‘micro-weed’.

next instalment on February 15

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