November 1990

Friday November 2, Paris

          I took the TGV-Atlantique for the first time from Montparnasse: one and a half hours to Angers instead of two and a half. For the first time also, I made my reservation and ordered my ticket via Minitel, then withdrew it from the automatic ticket machine. The transformations to the station have come on a long way since I was last here. The tracks have been entirely covered, the concrete arches of the new structure leaping through the clefts in the supports of the old. The new TGVs, with their lime-green doors, are all lined up with their noses nuzzling the buffers. The overall effect of this technology and ambitious engineering impresses me and makes me proud of this country.

          The train was packed. I sat wedged in by three sleepy, blonde schoolgirls (there’s not much room for legs) and dipped into Arthur Bryant’s biography of Pepys.* It begins like a novel, Bryant describing the primeval Fenland swamps that was home to his subject’s ancestors. In his description of Pepys’ early years, the biographer seems to feel the need to explore the motif of invading water. After the first thirty-odd pages, I gave up. The writing, typical of the period, lacks rigour. I’m suspicious of the confidence with which he uses similes, metaphors, and platitudes, not to mention the strident anthropomorphism of it all. What’s more, he confines himself almost exclusively to paraphrasing the Diary and so fails to answer the kind of questions I have when reading it, especially about customs and social behaviour. Maybe his readers in the 1940s and 1950s were still familiar with such things as choosing someone else’s wife as a Valentine on February 14, drinking morning draughts of ale, or eating a barrel of oysters. The least he could’ve done was give the reader an idea of the general arrangements for cooking, shopping, travelling and so on. Clearly Bryant is no social historian. 

*Samuel Pepys, The Man in the Making, 1933

Sunday November 18, Paris

          The cover of Paris Match has a picture of Diana looking pale in a black dress, alone … separated. The caption reads, ‘After ten years of marriage the strain is too great.’ There’s tension between me and Carole this week too (also after ten years together). We’re both irritable and she is “fed up of always looking after the children”. So I take the children out to the park to let off steam. Jimmy takes his bike, Emma carries her lorry. They run around the damp grass, then whoosh down the slide together, ending in a giggling heap at the bottom. The tasks I have to do for the beginning of the week hang over me like a heavy weight. I’m already wishing the weeks away and thinking about glorious vacation. 

          Later, for an hour or so, I put my feet up on the new sofa and dip into Rock Day by Day which claims to contain ‘every important rock date since 1954.’ I was hoping the titles of late Fifties and early Sixties hits would burst a few memory buds. What appealed to me most was reading forgotten titles and catching an echo of a melody or a refrain. Then I tried something similar with the place and street names in my London A-Z. Opening it at random, I stumbled on the pages for Carshalton, Wallington, and Sutton, which enabled me to notice how close my two sets of grandparents lived to each other in their last years. Yet they hardly knew each other and, now I come to think about it, didn’t visit each other. In which of the cemeteries on the map, I asked myself, are they – or their ashes – buried, indeed where are the remains of any of the various uncles and aunts who lived in the neighbourhood to be found? Which soon brought me to the realisation that I didn’t know, and then to consider that my absence at the funerals of three out of four of my grandparents was, frankly, deplorable. 

          Carole’s foul mood passed and she took the children to the Champs-Elysées to see a film about an orphaned dinosaur. I made a start on the unpleasant tasks, the first of which was to change a tyre on the car. 

Tuesday November 20, Paris

          I’m pre-occupied with the novel I want to write. All the signs are that it begins not in Greenwich but with Nadia. I went this morning to the rue La Fayette to get my hair cut by the muse herself (do I discern the influence of André Breton, who, in this very street, place Franz Liszt, first made the acquaintance of the Nadja about whom he would write a book?*). I found myself less awkward in her presence than before and we exchanged the sort of confidences that hairdressers and clients are wont to do. Nadia, I learned, is to become a mum; the news is fresh but the evidence lacking, so she was quick to offer the information. I examined her in the mirror and noticed that she’s already begun to let her appearance go and to arrange her clothes to hide her forms rather than show them off. She told me she’d been reading an article in Parents magazine about naming children. It wasn’t difficult, then, to find out that her child would be a Marie, if a girl, Martin if a boy. These were the names she and her husband had chosen, she said, ‘so as to turn over a new leaf.’ Which encouraged me to do my bit for popularising psychoanalysis by remarking how amusing it is that parents think they have chosen an ‘original’ name for their baby when often they more or less just copy their own – or someone else’s in the family – only to stay, as it were, on the same page. As if to prove my point, she added that the father, whose name also begins with ‘M’, chose the names and they’d only realised afterwards that the child would have the same initials as him. A classic case!

*Nadja, 1928

Thursday November 22, Paris

          I am learning to play tennis. Properly, this time; with a coach. He’s so tall he makes me feel like the young boy I was when I first had lessons. I’ve reached the stage of becoming aware of what I’m doing wrong. It’s frustrating because, as a tennis player, I’ve gone from being chuffed about my streak of natural talent, to being acutely conscious of my faulty technique. My ignorance of tennis technique is almost as great as my ignorance of tennis history. I know that people have been playing the game for longer than seems plausible and, like many perhaps, I attribute its invention – incorrectly – to Henry VIII. Apparently, it was the French – if not the Greeks – who started it. Anyway, unlikely as it may seem to us now, people played tennis in the seventeenth century. I say people, but am not sure if anyone other than the King and his cronies did. I know they played indoors – I’ve seen the real tennis court at Hampton Court – but don’t know the rules and can neither picture the rackets they used, nor the kit they wore. It’s actually difficult for me to imagine Pepys’ contemporaries being athletic enough. The sportsmen of yesteryear look so inelastic in the old black-and-white newsreels that I’m inclined to believe that nobody living much before about 1890 could possibly have been sprightly enough to stand the pace of competitive sport.

          When I wrote the first line of this entry, ‘I’m learning to play tennis,’ I certainly didn’t think it necessary to explain that a waist-high net divided the court into two equal parts, or that the balls were soft and yellow, or that I sprinkled the clay surface with water from a hose-pipe when the game had finished. Nor did I think it worth mentioning that I was wearing a baseball cap and Nike trainers, or that my partner’s legs were bare and brown beneath a short white skirt. But maybe I should’ve done; maybe someone will be keen to know these things one day. 

          It was actually the theatre I was getting curious about when I got side-tracked by tennis. On 20 November 1660, Pepys went to the brand-new playhouse of the King’s Company near Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see Moone.* He was said to be ‘the best actor in the world’; not the sort of endorsement a thespian could get away with these days. In an intriguing aside, he mentions that this new theatre was formerly ‘Gibbon’s tennis-court’. So presumably, of the two royal entertainments frowned upon during the Protectorate, drama was the more in need of restoration.

          Pepys is much more forthcoming on the theatre than he is on tennis. He sees The Merry Wives of Windsor by Killigrew’s company at the Lincoln’s Inn theatre and Othello at The Cockpit in Drury Lane. Our curiosity knows no bounds. But the plays and the performances barely get a mention. Shakespeare even less so, which is almost tantamount to heresy as far as we’re concerned. But, to be fair, the last thing most people – diarists included – want to do every time they go out to a show is to don the mantle of critic. When I come home late, replete with post-performance food and drink, I’ve no desire to assess the merits of an evening’s entertainment. And the next day, well … life goes on.

          If photography had existed Pepys would’ve done us all a favour by recording how his wife looked in the fashionable black patches she wore to go to the theatre. ‘Much handsomer’ than the King’s daughter, Princess Henrietta, he says she looked.** One can tell it gives him a thrill to get close to the Royals. If only they’d had paparazzi then, think of the photographs we would have to gloat over. Ah photography! Photography! – why couldn’t it have been invented when tennis was?

*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Nov 20, 1660  . The actor’s name was Michael Mohun (1616-84). **Nov 22, 1660

Friday November 23, Paris

          I took in a video of interviews with the three candidates for the second ballot of the Conservative leadership election and showed it to my students. One of the pretenders is Michael Heseltine whose reaction to Thatcher’s resignation was given to journalists whilst he was on an official visit to London Zoo. Very fitting in view of his nickname, ‘Tarzan’, I thought, but of course no comment was made on this by the reporter. He looked unduly hurt when Neil Kinnock attacked him in the Commons the other day, so maybe he’s vain. In any case, I don’t like the look of him. John Major looks less and less like a humourless chartered accountant and more and more like a potential leader; at least he knows how to handle an interview, which Heseltine doesn’t very well. My students found the third candidate, Douglas Hurd, typically British and paternalistic. I couldn’t help explaining to them how unfortunate his name is (Hurd-turd). One of them observed that it’s doubly unfortunate: Douglas Hurd, he said, makes us think of “Dog Turd”. Bravo! True, he definitely needs to do something about his image, what with the pebble-lenses, the ill-fitting suits, the scruffy hair, and the impression he gives that he can’t stop himself from scratching his balls. 

          After this class, I decided to go up to Place des Abbesses and take pictures of those condemned buildings I’ve been meaning to photograph for at least ten years: the pork butcher’s ‘Au Cochon Rose’ with a pig painted on the façade and its neighbour, le Grand Hotel du Midi, with ‘Électricité dans toutes les chambres’ still visible above the door. Armed with my old 35mm, I went up there on this grey and foggy morning, wondering if the pick-axes hadn’t already begun their attack on these two vestiges of the nineteenth century. No, all was still in place. I took half a dozen shots and then dived into the café on the corner of the rue Germain Pilon to keep warm and have a quick lunch.

place des Abbesses, Montmartre, 1990

          The back room here is a temple devoted to the turf. There’s some serious studying of form going on; the yellow pages of the horseracing supplement spread out on the Formica tables. Next to me, a very butch character of indeterminate sex is peering through a magnifying glass at the list of runners and giving a continuous commentary of his/her observations to the man at the next table. He isn’t taking the slightest bit of notice, so busy is he filling in the boxes on his betting slip. Opposite me, someone’s reading Le Parisien. On the front page is a cartoon image of the ‘Dame de Fer’ blazoned on a Union Jack ground. Punters are studying the form, looking at print-out listings hanging like ribbons from the wall. The atmosphere is one of intense seriousness and concentration. 

          It’s a good place to work; it’s cosy, it’s a haven. But not calm. The sounds: the flippers of the pinball thudding, the electronic gargle of the space invaders, the click of saucers being gathered, the coughs of the punters poring over their betting slips. They are occupied, busy … making it last. The only odd ones out, apart from myself, are a couple talking about the pitfalls of film-making and an old woman in the corner. She’s very old and very frail and sits with a very straight back wearing a leopard-skin cloche hat. She nods off after drinking her coffee but remains very dignified. I would like her to talk to me about the quarter she has probably lived in all her life. But I don’t think many old people talk well about the old days; it’s often disappointing when they do. I don’t suppose I’ll do much better when it’s my turn. 

          On the walls is a fresco of Montmartre images on a yellowing background: Moulin Rouge can-can dancers, an artist at his easel seen through a studio window, prostitutes in flimsy nighties watering flowers on their balconies (a canary in a cage looking on), a poulbot stealing a kiss from a young working girl in the shadow of a gas lamp, about to be disturbed by a bourgeois couple arm-in-arm as they descend the steps. Then there’s a striking lady in a boater, carrying an enormous hat box and being admired by an elegant gentleman, who, so it seems, just happens to be passing. These vignettes against a background of windmills, a crescent moon and, of course, the Sacré Coeur.

          I had to hurry to go and teach my secretaries. What got them talking – even arguing, was not the ambitious, culture-orientated video material I’d recorded specially but the question of whether it’s good to do anything about wrinkles or not. The hour went by just on that.

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Archives: 1990

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