March 1990

Thursday March 8, Paris

          Instead of going to the gym this morning, sitting on the floor at our new smoked-glass coffee table, I prepared video sessions for my classes using an extract recorded off the TV and an article in the Financial Times. The TV report I chose was about the Harrods takeover by the Fayeds. Reactions to it are the xenophobic hysteria of a class society. What shocks most is not so much that they lied about what they were worth but that they ‘lied about their family background’. They committed the unforgivable sin of pretending to be what they were not. In the Commons, an MP got up and actually said they were “undesirable aliens and ought to be deported.” 

          As Nicholas Ridley [Trade and Industry Secretary] announced there would be no sanctions taken against the Fayeds, I spotted John Redwood on the front bench plucking fluff from his sleeve. He looked just like he did at school when waiting for his turn to speak in a debate; with an air of insouciance that attempts to disguise an impatience to get up and tear the adversary’s arguments to shreds. Which he could be relied upon to do with superbly controlled aggressiveness. If he was in your team, you knew you were going to win the debate.

          I went to Boulevard de la Madeleine first and showed my banker student a news bulletin about the poll tax demonstrations and the Birmingham Six. The bank’s offices there are barely out of wraps, smell of fresh paint. The predominant colour is good old battleship grey which ought now to be called stereo grey, or VCR grey – or, better still, Japanese grey. In the grand staircase, they’ve put a very expensive red carpet. A Persian? No, an imitation … surely? ‘Come on up,’ it says, ‘this is where the dosh is.’ Then I go across the river and plunge into the familiar canyons of the sixth arrondissement where spring-like warmth is bouncing off the walls and the pavements. The pace is slow, the wealth discreet. I had a salad again at the Pré-aux-clercs and dashed to my classroom at ENA [l’École Nationale d’Administration] to do the Harrods takeover for the second time today.

Wednesday March 14, Paris

          Sitting in the sun in the window of a café called Le Longchamp in the Place Colonel Fabien. A 75 bus going to the Pont Neuf has pulled up at the lights. It’s one of those with an open-air viewing deck at the back. There, two girls are chatting to each other next to a man in a trench coat with a cigarette in his mouth, as if posing for a Doisneau photograph. I’m hungry and have just ordered a croque madame, otherwise I’d like to jump on that bus and take it to the Pont Neuf, just for the ride.

             In a Renault 25 GTX parked on the corner, a blonde with jewellery and fake leopard-skin sits manicuring her nails. Her hand is the only part of the arm not in a plaster cast. People, with their anomalies, with their as yet undetected cancers, cross the pedestrian crossing between the blue Renault and the sandwich board in front of the café that says: ‘Notre formule: 1 salade aux noix, 1 entrecôte, fromage ou dessert, 59F 90.’

          On one side of the square is the Communist Party headquarters with its white dome looking like a five-star bunker. What’s going on behind those smoked-glass windows – is anybody bothering to go in anymore? Haven’t they put it up for sale yet?

          On the other side, opposite this café, is an old baker’s yard piled high with rusty metal objects. A wooden fence, which has burst in several places, can barely contain the mountain of rubbish behind. Above this junk-yard are hoardings advertising Marlboro and Burger King. A boy is running across the road dodging the traffic. On his sweatshirt, ‘Happy Days.’

            A youth with a shaved head in a black leather jacket has just got out of a post-office van, kicking the door shut with his foot. He’s carrying a yellow parcel box. To my surprise, sticking out of his pocket is a copy – in English – of The Wild Palms by Faulkner.

          After lunch, I walked up to the Marché Secretan and skirted the Buttes Chaumont by the Avenue Simon Bolivar. Then into the park, lugging my heavy briefcase and across to the town hall of the nineteenth arrondissement, hurrying now; I was going to be late for work. In the overground stations of Stalingrad and La Chapelle, every surface, whether glass or iron, not to mention the train, is sprayed with tags in a wide variety of colours. But at the next stop, Barbès, in the dilapidated Arab quarter, not one is to be seen. Just in time, I got to the business school in fighting form and threw the latecomers out. The others shut up after that.

          Jimmy has sent me a card from the Jura mountains that he wrote all by himself. There is no snow!

Friday March 16, Paris

          The pavement café at Pyramides, my nostrils clogged up from atmospheric pollution. Young Japanese women on high heels trot past my table. They’re the ones who work here in the offices. They’re much better dressed and more attractive than the run-of-the-mill tourist but haughty and self-conscious. I’m not under pressure today; classes at the business school are cancelled so I only have the one-to-one with my trading-room boss. I call him ‘Manuel’ because he looks like a Spanish waiter. Then just my lunch-time group of secretaries to teach.

          At the bar of the café, there’s a tall and very elegant African being loud and mischievous. He’s starting a conversation with the woman sitting beside him at the bar’s only stool. She’s pregnant. He predicts she’ll have a boy. If he’s wrong, he says, he’ll buy champagne all round – a bottle for every year she has lived. He enquires as to her age. She’s 31. Then he gets the patron to witness his promise, asks the woman when she’s expecting the baby: the tenth of June. He takes out a fat Filofax and a stylish fountain pen to make a note of this.

          What I dream of doing is being able to sit here, take it all in, then jolt myself back to say 1950 and observe the same surroundings. Now that would be something! I’d find myself sitting on a metal chair instead of a wicker one, my clothes would be less synthetic, there would be less noise and the air would smell different. Until we discover how to travel like this, however, the only way to do it is with words.

Friday March 23, Paris

          The most enjoyable moment in the Pepys entry read this evening is a non-event – at least, as far as the diarist is concerned. He’s busy preparing to put to sea with Edward Montagu who has secret orders to bring in Prince Charles from Holland. Serving him on such an important mission is the career break Pepys needs.

          Understandable then that he doesn’t have time to meet up with some acquaintances in the Ship Tavern for a drink. One of them had brought his new bride along, having told Pepys she was ‘a very pretty woman’ and was keen for him to meet her.* Sounds rather rash to me. Anyway, Pepys couldn’t go. So didn’t see her. And because he didn’t, we only have her husband’s word for it that she was exceptionally pretty. Which she surely was. But consider this: if Pepys had gone to the tavern, seen her, and found indeed that she was a very comely wench, she might have found her modest place in history as a beauty, in the company of the actress Nell Gwynne, or the King’s current mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine, who so enchants Pepys every time he glimpses her at Court. And this simply because he recorded his enthusiasm for her looks and her physique in the pages of his diary.

          As I read of his travel preparations, my sympathies were not with Pepys but with the young couple, drinking in that tavern, expecting him to come, keenly hoping that he would, disappointed that he didn’t. Then, after another drink they hadn’t bargained on paying for, going home, possibly a little drunk, the husband peeved at not being able to make a show of his bride, she now irritated by his vanity. And then the next day and the next, unmet by Samuel Pepys, they lived lives we know nothing of – can know nothing of – she getting older and less radiant, he older too and less eager to show her off, until death parts them, possibly in the Plague, but maybe (if there are ends to rainbows) at an advanced age in the next century. My point is that this couple he didn’t meet intrigues me more than many of the people he works, dines, and drinks with on a daily basis.

* Diary of Samuel Pepys, Mar 23, 1660

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