April 1990

Thursday April 5, Paris

          I got to Emile Zola with half an hour to spare and had a coffee and a croissant at the bar of a café. As I walked down the rue du Théâtre, a flock of pigeons was using it as a corridor, wheeling off to the left between two high buildings. Some flew back up the street as if to round up the stragglers. They darted about; I wondered what their purpose was. I saw them as the descendants of huge pre-historic flying creatures and wondered if they wouldn’t become extinct, and we live in a world where birds had been forgotten. Alternatively, they might continue to live in a world from which we had disappeared. The classroom where the orals are to take place has biblical stories on the walls and is where I’m writing this while the first candidate is preparing her extract.

          In the afternoon, I met the other oral examiner. He’s straight out of a Beckett novel: a greying shock of hair, ruddy skin and big, very pale blue eyes. An Irishman for sure. Spoke to me in impeccable French. His teeth are rotten. Shaking my hand, he holds his head to one side trying to maintain appearances. There is booze or bad teeth on his breath – maybe both. He takes a little turn in the corridor between candidates, hands deep in pockets, torso and head listing to port, trousers concertina-like over scuffed and weighty brogues.

Tuesday April 10, Paris

          Are fictional versions of events superior to autobiographical ones? Is that what I’m saying about the couple from the Ship Tavern who continue to prey on my mind? [March 23 entry]. Am I saying that the novel is art and the diary is not; the novelist a creator, the diarist a book-keeper? After all, that is the way most people see it, is it not? Had Pepys been born in 1933, not in 1633, he would surely have been a novelist first and a diarist second. But then one can hardly accuse Pepys of not preferring fiction, the novel not really having been invented. Nor, properly speaking, had autobiography, of which diary-keeping could be seen as a primitive form.

          I prefer diaries to autobiographies. The latter are premeditated constructs whereas diaries are rough and ready and have no idea where they are heading. If autobiographies try to make sense of the past, diaries are about the present – and, more importantly, turned towards the future. 

          However, I have been curious to know not only about that couple unmet by Pepys in the Ship Tavern but also about the unrecorded pre-diary life; the time before January 1, 1660 when, at 27, his voice comes through to us. He must have kept another diary before that. Rare can be the diarist who has not made at least one attempt to get started and keep going. I’ve made five – if I can count the primary-school class diary at seven. Next came the ‘teenage secrets’ zip-up volume, followed a few years later by the pocket Letts in which the introspective entries of a student were intermittently recorded. A long gap of diaries devoid of interesting content intervenes before the ‘living abroad’ diary starts promisingly on the very day I arrived in Paris. This flourishing ‘rake’s progress’ chronicle fizzles out after eighteen months as matrimony gains the upper hand. Seven years without reflection pass. Then this one, which began without my attempting anything at all, in a London pub, one afternoon in February 1988. 

Monday April 30, Paris

Jardin des Tuileries. Forty minutes’ break. I come from the rue de Rivoli and cut diagonally under the chestnuts to the central lawns. The foliage is now full and almost brushes the heads of those walking underneath. The spaces under the foliage and between the trunks are like frames that capture the movement of colourfully dressed people moving in and out of patches of shadow. The lawns are the pools of bright light where sunbathers bathe. I have no desire to get under the sun – I’ve become a shade man. Here I am, sitting on a bench under a tree, looking at the sun heat the pink legs and buttocks of a girl in hot pants.

          The man with the crew cut sitting next to me has just gone over and said a few words to her. She obviously told him to go away but he has sat down on the grassy bank nearby and taken his shirt off. She wears a black, lacy bodice that looks like underwear and she can’t keep still. Now she’s changing position, bending forward on all fours, offering her backside to the sun. At this precise moment, the first notes of the adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth can be heard coming from an amplifier under the trees on the other side of the central alley. It belongs to the Charlie Chaplin mime artist who is being a mechanical doll. We’re all behaving as if the summer has already arrived. Well, not me quite; I’m wearing my raincoat to keep off the chill breeze. The hot-pants girl is lying on her back with her knees up now, making me long for the touch of the fold between buttock and thigh.

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