August 1990

Saturday August 5, Siorac-de-Ribérac, Dordogne

          Walked around the ‘backstreets’ of Ribérac. There are many houses for sale. The drains stink. There’s a nice old, grey-stone theatre but it doesn’t look as if it’s been used as such for a long while. There are notices on the door about dance and judo lessons. In a toy shop, I finally bought Jimmy the turtle he’s been craving for his collection. The good turtles are named after Italian Renaissance painters. The only one they had in the shop is called Raphael. Jimmy immediately starts kitting him out with his plastic weaponry. Raphael is part of a series called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which have ousted the Ghostbusters in the multi-million-dollar campaign to capture the hearts of young children and the wallets of their hapless parents. This New York ‘family’ of Testudines integrates (as the US is failing to do) Japanese members, one called Splinter, who is good, and Shredder, who is bad. We never tire, do we, of re-enacting World War II? 

          We went to Aubeterre and spent the afternoon by the river. Most of the people lounging on the grass under the trees were English, either conscientiously sunbathing, or reading. I want to swim but, in a river I don’t feel safe; it could sweep me along. I prefer swimming in the lakes here; at least they have limits. We visited the église monolithe, a church made by hollowing out the rock in an extremely high cliff that has a gallery at the top on three sides. From there you look down on the baptistery and reliquary. At ground level, there’s a honeycomb of early sarcophagi, each tailor-made to fit the corpse. Between the Revolution and 1860, the inside of the church was used as a cemetery and all was covered over with a thick layer of earth. One hundred years later, they removed the earth and the skeletons and discovered the remains of the fifth-century church beneath.

          We went into the square in Aubeterre and had a drink at the terrace of a wonderful little hotel with windows opening onto iron balconies and that I found marvellously decadent. We were served by a kindly bruiser of an English waiter who looked like a youthful Oliver Reed and spoke French with the accent of a London taxi driver.

Wednesday August 8, Siorac-de-Ribérac, Dordogne

          Everyone’s gone to Aubeterre and I’m sitting alone in the house with Pepys. Looking up, I’ve just watched a Peugeot 505 station wagon with English plates park in front of the church. It disgorged a large English family with Dad in short trousers leading the way, looking up at the tower of the church which, you can see by the good-natured reluctance with which the rest of the family get out of the car, it has been his idea to visit. Teenage daughters and pubescent sons unfold themselves from the multiple back seats and meekly follow the white and knobbly legs of the father down the hill to the door of the church. The woman stays in the car. No more than four minutes later they reappear. Doubtless to please their father, the children affect an edified air. He gets back into the car, does up his seat belt. Without a word, his offspring now somewhat enthusiastically take their places – and the car drives off back up the hill and out of sight. 

Friday August 17, Paris

          To Habitat to buy Venetian blinds and furniture for the new flat. Failure; came back empty-handed, but only after making a detour into Meudon, going first to the Observatory. Janssen, its astronomer founder, towers there in stone like a donnish Greek god. From the belvedere, there’s the best view of Paris I’ve ever seen: all the way round from La Défense to the eastern suburbs with the Seine gleaming in the middle as it runs towards us, sweeping into Issy. Over on the hill, in Clamart, at the edge of the forest, is the massive nineteenth-century orphanage. There’s a clear view all the way down the hill to the banks of the river at Issy that includes the red roofs fringed by trees on the lower slopes of Meudon. Then we went down towards the river and looked at the factory buildings and warehouses with bricked-up doors and windows that’ll all disappear when the Renault factory on and around the Île Seguin gets redeveloped. 

          The office in the flat is now finished and I’ve started putting up shelves for files, dictionaries, and disks. This is my new work area – an area waiting for a swivel chair until more funds are available. Above all, it’s the space where I imagine writing my way out of my present impasse. The days go by, the free time left before work starts up again is getting leaner. I face the prospect of not having made any progress at all this year apart from the strengthening of my resolve that the only thing to do is write. However, I’m distracted by the idea that I’ll go on prevaricating as the second half of my life slips by and then, one day, remember I’d forgotten to write. And realise that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Wednesday August 22, London

          The four of us went to Greenwich Park. From the Observatory, we walked down the hill and across the great lawn, like Pepys might’ve done in his time. By the Cutty Sark, the muddy river slopped and slapped at the rotting moorings. Easy to forget what a treacherous, dirty-old river it is. Across the other side, on the Isle of Dogs, the Docklands skyscraper-line is now traced by the metal-girder frames of future blocks. Three-quarters of the Canary Wharf tower is fleshed out with windows, the rest is orange girders. I ought to be more surprised to see this view totally transformed. In truth, find it disconcerting that I can’t remember quite what it was like before. 

          I wanted to come here because that’s where I feel my book ought to start: on the Meridian (which I get the children to stand astride, one foot East, the other West). On the hill west of the Observatory there are this evening a few people lying where I picture my unfulfilled hero first looking out across the east London landscape then up to the red ball on the Observatory roof as it drops to mark midday. The novel even has a working title: ‘Mean Time’. But the more it becomes again the Greenwich of the senses, the less it is the Greenwich of my imagination and its fictional potential rapidly drops away.

          Here in the streets of Greenwich choked with traffic, or in the pub garden by the railway line, looking up at the backs of a row of terraced houses with their angular roofs, black drainpipes, and small, paint-peeled sash windows, I find myself again in contact with the south-east London I knew so well twenty years ago. Despite the many superficial changes that have taken place since then, I experience it exactly as before. Extraordinary how the spirit of a place can abolish time. 

          There was a cricket match going on in the Ranger’s Field – the fast bowler racing to the crease in blue running shorts and pitching the ball very short of a length. All the other players were wearing whites. The scoreboard showed 96 for 4, chasing 151. Had I been alone, I’d have parked myself on a bench to see how it finished. 

Sunday August 26, London

          I went out at 7.45 a.m. to walk in Chelsea. Nobody about, of course, at this time on a Sunday morning. Not much sign either of anybody astir as I looked up at the windows along Sydney Street or in Paultons Square, stimulated by the possibility of being beckoned from a top window by a naked beauty. At this hour, before anybody’s up, such erotic encounters seem possible – with the Eurasian woman who stopped her car to ask me for directions, perhaps, or more likely, the beauty with bare, sturdy legs who (walking home to her bed?) exchanged glances with me as she passed. It’s definitely a time of day to dally.

          Slowly, I made my way along Cheyne Walk. I was overwhelmed by the statue of the seated Thomas Moore because I thought he was going to speak. Took a peek up the lane into the garden of Henry VII’s manor house, spotted the blue plaques: Carlyle, Gissing, George Eliot, Wilde, Mark Twain, all more or less contemporary in their dates of residence. I walked alone past rows of dinky houses some with a clapped-out Morris Minor Traveller parked in the driveway (the woodwork rotting away.) Everything still, undisturbed, clean, neat, the birds chirping in the trees behind the houses and in the bushes in the front gardens. Just the sound of a female voice taking an early phone call, giving news of the family. I then came upon the Physic garden and peered through the gates and marvelled at the pastoral scene, here, in Central London.

          Decided to walk back to Maida Vale. Cut through Draycott Avenue and into Walton Street, weaving through the mews up by Brompton Oratory and into Hyde Park, the day now more advanced and the charm of early walking gone. Now it became a challenge to walk on to Maida Vale and I walked briskly through Hyde Park along the Serpentine, surprised by the size of the park and of the lake itself; I’d never thought of it as much more than a large pond. To Lancaster Gate, then to Paddington, stopping for a bacon sandwich (which cost me 60p extra because of the piece of cheese in it) and under Westway, finally, to Warwick Avenue and to the Warwick Castle for a pint. 

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