Monday June 4, Paris
Another public holiday: Ascension. Mitterrand makes his annual ascension of the mount at Solutré accompanied by a coterie of the faithful. Jacques Lang, as usual, is at his side. Why has he consistently been one of the most popular ministers of the two Socialist governments? Because he’s a competent minister? Certainly not. Because he’s handsome and still youthful, yes – but that’s not enough. Because he has about him a slight air of vulnerability, then? The sensitive charmer; that’s more like it! And because the French like to seduce the world with culture it’s important that the Minister of Culture look the part. Here culture is more than just the arts, as it is in Britain; it’s a way of being. Yes, Lang’s success has a lot to do with casting. Why then shouldn’t the other ministerial appointments be more a matter of casting than of competence?
I saw Marianne Faithfull on Wogan. She looked tweedily middle-aged and every inch a product of her class. She sang one of her (very) old songs in a rusty voice. I watched for signs of discomfort because she hasn’t been invited on the show to talk about her career as a singer but about her past, as ex-girlfriend of Mick Jagger, drug addict and down-and-out. She represents the fallen angel par excellence. So that she doesn’t disappear from the musical scene altogether (‘Not fade away’ sang Jagger), she’s being offered the opportunity to come from her Irish home to repent before Father Wogan in prime time. She did, after all, go to a convent, which lends a keener edge to the penitence. Her repentance speech was obviously well prepared and she spoke, I thought, with great delicacy. It was rather touching.
Lest we forget her pact with Lucifer though, we were shown a clip of the Jagger of 1965 on TV. I was struck by how slapdash, how unprofessional The Stones were at the time. The members of the new group were inexperienced, and it shows. Jagger was so taken with the glower he returned to the lens of the camera that, at one point, he forgot to pretend to sing. His insolent stare to debauch a thousand virgins helped the group get by in those early days before he learnt how to move on stage – and before he learnt to lip sync.
Wednesday June 6, Paris
Went to the university to seek out Jallet and tell him I’m abandoning the thesis. I didn’t know how I was going to say it to him but needed to go to salve my conscience for what might seem to him like a ‘betrayal’. I found him making photocopies for his psychoanalysis and literature seminar. He showed me what he was copying: a page written by a psychotic patient – all conjunctions, repetitions, and sentences that stop in mid-stream. He took me to the Boulevard du Temple for a coffee and I told him I wasn’t writing my thesis anymore but a novel. He asked me what it was about and I sketchily outlined the plot. As ever, he gave me his floating attention before interrupting with, “Like Joyce’s Ulysses? Telemachus.” It was as if the whole project had been dismissed as an imitation of an age-old archetype. Not that I consider this a minus. At least I’d got my confession out of the way. Even obtained his blessing for, when we parted, he modified his usual refrain from “Get your thesis written!” to “Write your novel!”
So now I have permission not to finish the thesis. The heat, then, is off that burner. I went home wondering about the ‘Telemachus’ comment. Who was he again? – my knowledge of Greek mythology is pathetic. We weren’t taught it at school; it was no longer regarded as important. I spent my whole education being made to feel guilty for my ignorance by previous generations who learnt such things as a matter of course. At home I opened the copy of Joyce’s Ulysses studied at university and found abundant pencilled notes in the margins as to the mythical and symbolic references of the text. OK, so Telemachus is Stephen, and Stephen is looking for his father, but what has this got to do with what I told Jallet about the novel? Instead of asking him what he meant by the remark, I had nodded wisely as if the observation was one I’d already made myself; that it went without saying. I’m such a cultural snob; I hate to admit to ignorance. And look where it gets me? – a big question mark over Telemachus.
Unless of course Jallet is making some astute reference to the role he plays in my own little psychic scenario.
Thursday June 7, Paris
It’s not often it rains early morning when I take Emma to the crèche but today it was chucking it down. She thought it very funny to be carried on my arm under an umbrella. On the way back, I stopped for half an hour at the gym. Six months I’ve been going now. I ought to feel much fitter, but I don’t. I’m tired and ache all over. Am I exhausted by this heavy teaching schedule, or is it simply the thought that I’ll soon be forty? Some of my muscles are stronger, certainly, but the flab on my tum is dimpled. I’ve put on weight: 71 kilos. In the mirror, clothed, this extra weight pleases me, suits me even. Naked, it’s a slightly different story.
After the shower, I rapidly prepared a video sequence about the raising of the embargo on British beef. Then bolted down a quiche and a salad before going off to do my usual Thursday rounds on both sides of the river. On the Left Bank, my Councillor of State, expressing himself in almost faultless English, gives me the dirt on friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of his, some of whom are well-known civil servants. Of course, discretion doesn’t allow him to give me the names of these twisted individuals – which is precisely what one wants to know. He’s a bit twisted himself actually. How satisfying it is, though, to be paid – and handsomely – to sit and listen to such tittle-tattle!
Sunday June 17, Paris
Waiting for take-off for London. I’m a timid traveller, paranoic almost. We’re rolling gently across the tarmac and the hostess is going through the safety drill. An aircraft seems to me such a fragile thing. And I don’t like airports. At Charles de Gaulle you walk into baggage check and you’d think you were in the Middle East: there are moukkers sitting around in veils weeping, desert tribesmen in the vast hall, wandering, as if lost.
Take off. Jesus! I’m never going to fly again. I hate all those whining engine noises and those falsely reassuring smiles the hostesses wear. I’m afraid; that’s the trouble. Now they’re giving us lunch (I already had one at the airport) and it’s a bit better now the plane is up here and cruising instead of blowing up or falling out of the sky. Looking around at my blasé fellow travellers I wonder how I’ve become so unworldly-wise. It must be the sheltered life I live, going around with a notion in the back of my head that travelling by plane is a bit special. True perhaps when, as an adolescent, I flew for the first time, but no longer. So I’m surprised that all these people have also come to fly on this day at this hour. And I’m frankly amazed, as I look at them trailing luggage and children half-way round the world, that so many actually manage to get themselves out of bed, get dressed, organize their lives sufficiently to get to the airport at the right hour, presentably turned out and apparently not in the least anxious about flying. Frankly, I take my hat off to them.
Bumping down now through the clouds, the landing gear whining and the plane jiving, I’m in a cold sweat as we drop down over English parks with their centennial oaks. We’re going to make it. Touch down! It’s like I’ve been reprieved.
Half an hour I stood on the Gatwick station platform. Nowhere to sit. Mild, greying porters who were lads when I first used this station mother the passengers, “You’ll be all right love, it’s on time today.” Pulling out now in soiled rolling stock, painted in jingoistic colours – red, blue and white – I feel the dirt contaminating my clean clothes. The towns and stations go by with their signposts in primary school colours and lettering – also to be found in The Sunday Independent, proudly proclaiming it’s the Sunday paper most read by first-year undergraduates. The front page is all violence: beatings-up in Romania, combat between police and English soccer hooligans in Sardinia, the arrest of IRA terrorists in Belgium, the unearthing of one of Stalin’s mass graves, and Aids (strain 2.) It’s a Sunday in the back gardens, boxed in by their wood-weave fences, each with its drying umbrella. What does this Britain have to do with the one you read about in the press?
Monday June 18, London
I took the N°6 bus from Maida Vale and got off in Queen Victoria Street opposite the Mithraic temple. First time I’ve ever noticed it. I crossed over and took the alleys up to Bow Church. Outside, against the railings, was a blackboard advertising a wine bar and it bore the following notice written in coloured chalk:
World Cup ’90. Egypt v. England. Thursday 21st. at 8 o’clock.
Come and watch England win!
Sphinx Surprise (if they score)
Pyramid Panic (if they win)
St. George (if we score)
Bulldog Bonanza (if we win)
On Garlick Hill there’s a strong food smell wafting up through the air ducts from basement kitchens (lunch is simmering, it’s only 10.30 a.m.) It takes me a while to figure out what the smell is. Not garlic, of course, but gravy – a peculiarly British smell. Another one I’ve noticed is the smell of ear wax in the underground. I enter some of the Wren churches; they’re light and clean and there’s not a soul. Saint Stephen Walbrook is superbly luminous and well-proportioned, with a Henry Moore altar-piece of stone that he made to look as if it could be kneaded like putty.
The noise outside is terrific; behind me, on the other side of Thames Street there’s the noise of traffic mixed with hammering, the clanking of iron and all the sounds of construction. There’s so much building going on around here that it’s almost extraordinary to discover there’s still something of the ‘old’ or ‘older’ London left standing.
I went looking for a pub, wandering down towards the river by Cannon Street Bridge, but there was nothing except a moored boat advertising a bar and making it plain that ‘people wearing soiled working clothes will not be served.’ So I walked up to the Monument and then into Lovat Lane. There are no pubs, only brasseries or wine bars not only closed to ‘people wearing soiled working clothes’ (and ‘muddy boots’ in some establishments) but evidently also to people not attired in grey, or at a pinch, navy blue. And then I turned a corner into Lime Street and came upon Leadenhall Market where the men of the dark-suited brigade were having lunch and the market stalls had fresh salmon on display and Pommery at £14.99 a bottle. It’s an unreal world, bristling with imitation authentic – right down to the sawdust on the floor.
Went into the New Moon and stood at the long bar with a pint in the midst of all the people wearing soiled working clothes. Here were the builders and electricians and plumbers working on the new offices. On the other side of the street, in an almost identical pub, were the people who worked in those offices, standing out on the pavement making jovial conversation in small groups under vaulted ironwork of the market’s roof re-painted bright red. On one side, then, the fifty percent of the population who left school at sixteen, on the other side, those who didn’t.
I had a pastrami-and-salad sandwich at the food counter and went to look at the Lloyd’s building that I’d not yet seen close up. With its guts hanging out, like its cousin, the Centre Beaubourg, it seems to have been put up just so that the dark-suited boys can whizz up and down in the exterior glass lifts in full view of astonished passers-by. I weaved my way back to Bank through the Courts, passing by the George & Vulture and the Jamaica Inn where the brokers were inside having lunch, or outside drinking little bottles of Becks or Budweiser. The empties stood on the cobbles of the courtyards and on the grass of Saint Michael’s Cornhill. If it wasn’t for the churchyards there would be no green spaces left and nowhere to sit.
In Dillons, I gravitated towards ‘London history’, buying Arthur Bryant’s biography of Pepys and Peter Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London. When I came out it was a luminous late afternoon and windy. The day had peaked and I dithered about what to do next. I got lost around Charlotte Street and Goodge Street, then wandered up Oxford Street making a half-hearted stab at looking for a jacket in the sales. My sinuses are hurting with the pollution. There are cyclists wearing face masks.
Tuesday June 19, London
Portobello Road. Fred took me to meet his friend, Jerry, in Finch’s, next to the re-vamped Electric Cinema (showing a restored copy of Olivier’s Henry V). Jerry is 46 and dresses 26, with black leather jacket and cropped, gelled hair. He talks nervously and fast, bordering on a stutter and when he screws his eyes up looks like Michael Palin in some of the Monty Python sketches. Both Fred and Jerry are very good on local history, local personalities and so on. Jerry points out to me a bearded, white-haired wreck of a man on the other side of the bar who has the dubious distinction of having hitchhiked up from Cheltenham in 1962 with Brian Jones. Fred says, with a chuckle, “and that’s what Brian Jones might have looked like now.” People were drinking Guinness or lager. I was about the only one on bitter.
We moved to the Warwick Castle – so-called centre of West London low life. What I saw was a genuine local, with all kinds of people of all ages, no in-crowd or poseurs. It’s like the pubs Martin Amis describes in London Fields. Jerry mentioned his own diaries and I quizzed him about them. It turns out he has kept notes in pocket diaries for every day since 1963. I was impressed that he knew the exact date of a concert by The Who at Charlton Stadium, which I’d also been to. When we went back for coffee in his flat in Arundel Gardens, he showed me an enlarged photograph of himself and some of his friends waiting outside the entrance to the stadium. The hairstyles, the clothes, and the cars made it no longer a banal image but one of historical interest. He’s something of an archivist is Jerry. I asked him if he ever re-read his diaries. He warmed to this and got out his 1980 diary and read us what he’d been doing ten years ago to the day. I was delighted. Nobody thought to ask me why I was so very interested.
Thursday June 28, Paris
I went to the gym for the last time before the summer break and abundantly pumped sweat pedalling an obstinately immobile exercise bicycle. Then, for an hour, I keyed in the diary from my notebook. I’m two months behind with this. There’s so much copying up stretching before me that I’m beginning to doubt whether I’ll ever get around to writing the novel that is to come out of it. Only when I’m out in the streets do I feel special enough to be able to bring it off.
At the moment, I’m worried about money; that there won’t be enough for the move to the new flat. It’ll also mean that a lot of my free time this summer will be taken up with practicalities. Before I know it, I’m going to need to be earning again in September and my so-called ‘free’ part of the year – on which I’m counting to make progress – will have been whittled down to an afternoon here and there. On the face of it, I’m condemned to be a worker not a creator. If so, why not a university teacher? No and no! I must give it a try.
It was a day of aggravation too; the car’s been broken into – the front passenger door wrenched open, the clock plucked out and the radio stripped of its knobs. Then I mislaid my métro season ticket and my photocopy card, got bogged down in admin red tape at l’ENA* and, after one of my bankers didn’t show up for his private lesson, came back to find Jimmy had had two stitches in his chin.
* École Nationale d’Administration
Previous post May 1990, next on July 15
when Paris Diaries goes to the country
Subscribe and receive the next post in your inbox