February 1990

Monday February 5, Paris

          Was it premonition that drew Pepys to the Bible story of Tobit?* He has alluded to it more than once. Tobit – had to get out my Old Testament – was the one who went blind when hot bird shit dropped in his eye. Seems an unlikely thing to happen. But then, something similar once happened to the grandfather of my French penfriend beneath the viaduct at Morlaix. The old man was looking up at it, pointing out to me some features of its construction. He didn’t notice what had happened, even when I pointed at the gunge about to drip from one of his eyebrows. I didn’t yet know the right words in French to convey his predicament. 

          It would doubtless have seemed unlikely to Pepys in 1660 that the reason he would stop writing his diary ten years later was the fear of going blind. He never actually did, though reading and writing tired his eyes enormously. If he’d been able to get himself a good pair of glasses, he might have continued writing the diary for the rest of his life – another thirty-three years. Would we be reading it at all though, if it had been that long? Perhaps not. Diaries, it seems to me, are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Short diaries like Anne Frank’s or Joe Orton’s are more popular than very long ones like Virginia Woolf’s – or John Evelyn’s. Indeed, Pepys’ has proved much more popular than that of his contemporary even though it covers a mere ten years to Evelyn’s three-quarters of a century.

I take Jimmy to the café by his school and he has a Coke and a Kinder chocolate egg. Inside the Kinder there is a plastic pink panther to assemble. It has a chef’s hat and a frying pan in its hand and comes complete with stick-on eyes and stick-on eggs for the frying pan. I don’t know what to talk to Jimmy about. If he answers my questions about school, he does so evasively. He is beginning to work his way out of his Oedipus complex by identifying with me and wanting to do as Dad does. He also wants to fight me all the time. It’s quite touching. But, for the moment, I don’t feel I have anything to teach him or show him; I don’t have any tricks up my sleeve. I lack initiative in guiding him – as my father did with me, I suppose. So he plays his own games and explores his imagination, sings songs he makes his own by changing the words, gets pleasure out of letting words collide. I don’t know any games or rhymes, riddles or songs. I have forgotten nearly everything of all that.

          When we get back to the flat with Emma, the corridor is soon strewn with magazines and papers that she pulls out from drawers and off shelves and coffee table. Now I see what they mean by the ‘terrible twos’. Amongst these is a forgotten horoscope printout from Astroflash, dated 1983. I sat on the floor with Emma and read it where it had fallen while she detached the perforated edges. I interpret it now in terms of my current dilemmas and find it uncannily accurate. Whereas it comforted me to read – or rather, re-read – that I had ‘in all probability a brilliant future,’ the advice on what I should do to bring this about appeared to depend not on astral influences but on my own efforts: ‘his strength will derive from his ability to express with clarity and force, feelings that are usually muffled or hidden; the prisoners of their complex and inexpressible nuances.’ Straightaway, I thought of this diary. The conclusion of this projection, that I now find astonishingly detailed, is this: ‘the best goal he can give himself is the construction of his personality.’ All very nice, this, but it doesn’t get me very far. 

* Diary of Samuel Pepys, Feb 5, 1660

Thursday February 22, Paris

          My sense of smell is keen today; I’m picking up traces of sweat and body odour – want everything to be clean. I put on a pair of light trousers in honour of this February spring day. In the sixth arrondissement, there are smells from the open doors of courtyards and from the open windows there is music. The city, the stone is releasing its sap; the odour of it is wafting off the walls and off the asphalt. I am walking tall, everyone is walking tall; preening, looking at ourselves in the windows as we pass. We’ve put on the clothes we feel good in. I’ve come from the rue des Capucines and am on my way to the Left Bank for the private lesson, stopping off at the Pré-aux-clercs for a ‘Mexican’ salad. The windows are wide open, just one place left at the pavement tables.

          There I read an article on the just-published war diaries of Simone de Beauvoir. An entry from 22 February 1940 is quoted and it starts thus: ‘Un temps doux de printemps mais avec dans l’air une sorte d’aigreur maritime.’ This is extraordinary because, walking to the station by the river early this morning, it surprised me to find I could smell the sea; there was a hint of its salty air. By lunch-time though, all trace of sea breeze is smothered by exhaust fumes. In 1940, no doubt, the air was cleaner. So here is a coincidence: fifty years ago to the day: the same freak weather.

          And then I got to thinking that fifty years ago my father was keeping a diary, in secret, below the decks of a destroyer and miles away from the Long Bar at Palais Royal where Simone, on this day, was ensconced in a low sofa having a clandestine drink with a lover whilst Sartre was well out of the way ‘serving’ his country. And it struck me that, just as my father kept a secret diary (secret because it was strictly forbidden), so do I, writing it when no one’s looking and putting in it things I wouldn’t say to anybody.

Monday February 26, Paris

          I wake up early, alone and disgusted with myself. I have no centre to fall back on, am just a straw in the wind. Life has obviously taught me nothing. I feel vulnerable and my literary ambitions seem ludicrous and vain. By the time I’ve got up and gone out, struggling against the gale force winds, and arrived at work, of course I feel better; more worthy, more useful. But if I need to go to work to give gravity to my life then it’s a poor show. I dream of adventure and glory but stay huddled in my corner.

          Three months ago, East and West Germany were divided by the Wall. Today Kohl is having to play down German territorial claims on Poland. He says he alone cannot decide. He goes to the US and is met by Bush in his pilot’s flying jacket; nothing like reminding Germans of the defeat they suffered at the hands of US and British aviation! Is that what his choice of costume means? He hands Kohl a jacket too and the big, burly bear of a Chancellor reluctantly puts it on. Kohl’s okay! he’s a fellow we can trust. But we’ll drop bombs on him if we have to. Lionel Jospin thinks he’s a man we can trust too and he surely is. But if the West has to reassure itself it can trust him, somewhere along the line it doesn’t trust him. Everybody is thinking that but no one – except the Poles – can say it.

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