July 1990

Sunday July 1, Paris

          For a while there during the Cameroon v England match it looked as if the lithe Lions were going to humiliate the English team. You could see the logic of a Cameroon victory with every loping stride, you were anticipating the slap the children of the colonised were going to inflict on those who were once masters of Africa. Third-world domination in a white man’s preserve, the football field, will come one day soon. But not tonight. A pity, because it would’ve been interesting to see commentator Jimmy Hill, after his barely disguised racist comments at half time, apoplectic, his magnified eyes swivelling uncontrollably behind those thick lenses. The carrot-haired, freckled, stodge-fed boys in white would have turned crimson and hung their heads in shame and Bobby Robson’s eyes would have smarted with the tears of humiliation and the fans would have got drunker than they’ve ever been before and disgraced themselves in the streets of Naples. As it was, the African players were defeated not by their lack of skill, but by their lack of ‘fair play’; they ruthlessly scythed down two players in the goal mouth and of course Gary Lineker didn’t miss the penalty chances. The England squad got through not due to skill and teamwork but, it seemed, by dint of phlegm and even valour.

Monday July 2, Paris

            If, as Françoise Dolto says, reading means representing for oneself the parental bed and writing parental intercourse, then reading is for voyeurs, writing for copulators. And writing a diary? For masturbators perhaps?

            I went in to teach ‘Manuel’ for the morning (clocking up a few extra classes to pay the estate agent’s fees.) As I waited for him to turn up on the top floor of the rue Thérèse (he had a late night watching the football and overslept), I wanted to film what I saw from the window to be able watch in thirty years’ time (why don’t I get a video camera?) I looked down on the Avenue de l’Opéra, first on a window cleaner on his ladder perilously wiping the green-framed windows of Havas. Opposite, the Monoprix cafeteria beneath the elaborately sculpted portico of ‘Au Gagne Petit.’

the low wage-earner (le gagne-petit) represented by the knife grinder

Going up the avenue: a Brink’s security van, a pair of suntanned thighs in the back of a taxi. Going down: a bus going to Porte de Vitry and an open lorry with nylon-netted potatoes. On the side of the bus a poster bears the message: ‘Un Parisien qui a de l’instinct, ça se reconnait.’* You see that everywhere these days and I haven’t the faintest idea what the message is.

            ‘Manuel’ took me out to lunch in the rue Danielle Casanova, downstairs in a little room that was both intimate (because of the size) and discreet (the starched white napkins and tablecloths, the gap between the tables.) We were shown to the one they keep for him. The two middle-aged waitresses were underdressed and over made-up and they kissed some of the customers on the cheeks as they arrived at the foot of the steep stairs. I couldn’t help wondering if they hadn’t been to bed with one or two of them.


* One can always tell when a Parisian has instinct.

Saturday July 21, Saint-Julien-des-Landes, Vendée

          We went to spend the day with family in nearby Saint-Jean-de-Monts. Parked the car in a sandy street by the beach and went up into a brilliantly white building to find the flat where my sister-in-law is staying. I liked being on the small balcony looking out at the people passing on the promenade and at the sea. I liked the gleaming-white building opposite with its curved edges and its dark-blue shutters and its sandy-pink façade against the blue sky. It gave us a colour scheme for the new flat, which has something of the seaside about it in the candy-stripe of its balcony blinds, its mast-like, navy-blue downpipes. 

          I enjoyed too being on the vast expanse of flat, wet sand. The tide was out. I felt vigorous and free and had little difficulty in convincing myself that I’m not forty but twenty and starting all over again. As I gently floated in the sea and looked back at the land, at the white buildings all along the bay, I felt entirely convinced by my ability to become a writer. There was only this that mattered.

Wednesday July 25, Saint-Julien-des-Landes, Vendée 

          Reading Pepys on the beach. What impresses me most as the summer of 1660 unfolds is the way he dashes about, from one part of town to another, on land or by water. He leaves his wife – or so it would appear – to her own devices, as she leaves him to his. I imagine they row about it more than he lets on. Almost daily Pepys plies between the Navy Office on Tower Hill, the offices of state in Westminster, the Earl of Sandwich’s lodgings at Blackfriars, and his father’s house in Fleet Street. At least, my twentieth-century vision of his movements is that he’s dashing about. I’d prefer to think he took his time; stopping to observe, to hail friends and acquaintances, to converse with them. He certainly never mentions being late, or in a hurry. There can have been few clocks to distract him, so no reason, other than impatience or curiosity, for him to have been in a hurry at all. He seems to be free to do pretty much what takes his fancy.

           He’s hardly ever out of the Sun, the Dogg, the Bull’s Head, Rawlinson’s, or the Rhenish winehouse. During these summer months, he’s always eating and drinking; giving priority to the satisfaction of his appetites. Including those of the flesh, of course, though his diary is a good deal more guarded about the Westminster escapades with Mrs Lane or the postprandial dalliances with Mrs Dinah. Which is a pity. Tales of infidelity and deceit are the very stuff of which the most commercially successful diaries and memoirs are made. My curiosity extends to knowing just how private he can be with his wife, what with the wench sleeping in their chamber on a truckle bed. Can’t imagine our cleaning lady spending the night in a corner of our bedroom.

          It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that what Pepys took for granted would have required pages of explanation that, naturally, he neither had the time nor the inclination to supply. Yet it’s the everyday things; those that didn’t seem worth mentioning at the time, that future readers are likely to want to know about. 

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when Paris Diaries goes to London again

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