September 1990

Saturday September 1, Canterbury

          I’m in the University library, experiencing once again my love/hate feelings for these places. On arrival, I got myself into an aggressive mood and failed at first to find the book I need, Lucina Gabbard’s The Dream Structures of Pinter’s Plays. Here I sit between the rows of books, the neon humming, the smell of decaying paper and floor polish, the doors squeaking open now and again to admit a pale and puffy academic on a mission or, better still, a female student who’ll distract me as she reaches up for a book and I won’t be able to concentrate until she’s out of sight. The text I’m reading is heavily underscored and commented on. Nevertheless, I follow the crit-babble as closely as possible because I need to reference it in the article I’ve started on Pinter’s The Homecoming.

          Actually, I’ve no wish to return to this form of parasitic activity; combing through the text and the sources, as so many have done before me, in my turn underlining and writing comments in the margins, re-writing, borrowing, re-hashing, re-organizing and just maybe, at the end of it all, adding my grain of sand. My first impression of this book is entirely confirmed: Gabbard treats fictional characters as if they had psyches of their own. For that alone, she’s way off beam. I can’t wait to finish my reading and get out. Clearly, I still have a fantasy of myself as the diligent academic who could spend months shut away in a library sifting the evidence and compiling a thesis or a book that would be underlined, ticked and crossed and annotated by others, but I’m not. I want to get out there and smell the air and the trees and see the effects of sunshine on these fields I know so well – since I was at primary school.

          Cleaned the car, clipped the hedge back and pulled out Virginia creeper so that Dad doesn’t have to get up on a ladder and do it. He has a stiff neck and a stiff back. What I used to think was impeccable posture, I now realise, is rigidity. As he gets older he won’t be able to move his neck and the top of his back. I wanted to go for a drink at the Hare & Hounds at six but now, with flexible opening hours, they open later than they did before. So we went into town, to The Bishop’s Finger and sat in the garden with a pint of Shepherd Neame and the children devoured potato crisps and I could see from the faces of the staff that we were disapproved of, though nobody said anything. The last summer pint this, so I was quite melancholy.

Monday September 10, Paris

          Jimmy goes off to his first day at primary school with great enthusiasm. Emma wants to go too, and since the crèche is under-staffed by girls who are soon to leave, it won’t be long before she does. 

          To the business institute where the three girls in the office are far too pre-occupied to be bothered with teachers and, as usual, don’t know anything anyway – not even when classes start. Worse, they always confuse me with a colleague who has been kicked out because of poor student evaluations. Mine weren’t exactly brilliant. It was a mistake to have popped in, to show myself so keen and willing. Then for a sandwich in Les Halles, just off the rue Saint Denis. It is a beautiful day and I am back to my regular haunts for the first time in over two months, but strangely, Paris fails to impress me today. 

          I go to Beaubourg to see the Warhol retrospective.* I had imagined it would all be very familiar and I was in half a mind to give it a miss (this is the last day). But I liked the way the exhibition was organized so as to bring out the themes and obsessions of his work as well as demonstrating how his development of a technique exploited to advantage a few basic, persistent, and very simple ideas. He is best as a portraitist and I liked the later ones where acrylic predominates over silk-screen image, especially those of Lana Turner, Truman Capote, Henry Geldzahler and Mick Jagger. The retrospective doesn’t gloss over his morbidity either; there’s a whole room of electric chairs and car crashes. But the Brillo boxes and Del Monte crates in wood are just, well … brilliant. 

          On the mezzanine, there was an exhibition of industrial design by Raymond Loewy and his various associates. There were a lot of young students there furiously taking notes. But all this streamlined chrome, Coke dispensers and bottles left me indifferent – except for the Studebaker ‘Commanders’ displayed on a ramp in the middle of the hall. There were two models from 1949 and 1953 with white-walled tyres, probably very similar to the ones I had in my dinky car collection circa 1955. Jimmy now plays almost exclusively with his toy cars, making a garage for them in his cupboard and getting pleasure from parking them.

            I went to Le Bizuth on the Boulevard Saint Germain to drink an orange pressé (to try and liven myself up for my four o’clock meeting), as well as to write. At four, I met my contact, Bertrand, in the street outside his office in the rue du Bac – by the loading bay at the back of Monoprix. He suggested we have a drink back at Le Bizuth.**

N° 202 was where Guillaume Apollinaire lived from 1913 until his death in 1918

Once there, it was soon apparent that he was prepared to hire me without any discussion (the fact that I speak fluent French seems to impress him most). We mapped out a programme for the three-day ‘Communication’ course for managers he wants me to help him run in October. If this works on a regular basis it could replace the worst of the business school jobs. What worries me though is that he’s not going to pay me; when the bill arrived, he said he’d left his wallet in the office, could he pay me back later?

*Andy Warhol had died in 1987.

**Traditionally frequented by students from nearby Sciences Po, Le Bizuth café, whose name refers to ragging, is today called something more politically correct.

Wednesday September 12, Paris

          After a night waking up every half an hour for fear of oversleeping (I had two alarm clocks set), I got up at six and, very apprehensively, went to teach my first class of the year. I was the first teacher to arrive, chose the room I wanted, gave plenty of smiles to the students and tried to be as animated as possible. I’d decided to dispense with the tie and altogether dress more casually. It was OK, of course – I knew it would be. 

          Coming back on the métro, there was a man with his handicapped wife in the compartment and he walked up and down telling us why they needed money. He kept talking to us the whole time, explaining like a good pedagogue or a good actor. He’d put on his smartest clothes and she a crescent of eye liner, almost as if they were going to a function. They had been camping in the streets in the nineteenth arrondissement with many other people who are demanding that the Mairie house them. This man’s speech was so moving, so dignified, that people gave a lot of money. As he collected it, in a Malboro packet with the top torn off, he repeated over and over again, “No need to be ashamed”, as if to give himself the courage to beg.

Sunday September 23, Paris

            In the afternoon, we took the children to the parc de Saint-Cloud and walked along one of the wooded alleys on the Sèvres side. Emma was in the buggy, Jimmy on his bicycle. The trunks of trees blown down in last year’s storm lie everywhere; hundreds of them. When we got to the slope overlooking Sèvres and the road up to Meudon-la-Forêt, the sky was dark and the wind had begun to gust. There were just two couples on the terrace of the café and another frolicking on the gently-sloping bank. The heavy sky and the fading light brought a moment of excitement, of madness, before the imminent storm and the arrival of autumn. We rushed back to the car in the rain along the perimeter path, Jimmy needing a push to keep him pedalling and Emma wanting to be pushed only by her mother.

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Archives: 1990

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