December 1990

Monday December 10, Paris

          I feel dreadful this morning; have a headache, feel weak and have almost lost my voice. It’s freezing cold and, by the time I get into the classroom, it has started snowing. It snows all day and, by evening, it’s thick on the ground and the cars. It doesn’t excite me to see it accumulating anymore; a sign of getting old. I used to delight in the general disruption it would cause, now I’m more worried about the disruption it’ll cause me. I’m glad to get home because it has been a difficult day of having to do a lot of talking and not having a voice. On TV, I saw pictures of the snow drifts in England. The British media make a drama out of it; to the French it’s just seasonable bad weather. 

          I read an article inThe Listener about the diaries of Richard Crossman and of Bill Wyman.* Both are slammed; the first for being inaccurate and unreliable, the second for remembering everything but explaining nothing. On TV, I saw newsreel sequences of London in the seventies. Did they have too much yellow and orange in the colour composition of TV pictures then, or what? The people look sickly, everything so shitty. Life in Britain seems to have a patina of slithery, yellow dog turd. One day for sure the seventies will be resurrected, but how are the trendsetters going to make them appealing and marketable? At some point in the eighties, someone must’ve had the idea of giving TV pictures a blue rinse, making everything look a lot more hygienic, more temperate – somehow more sophisticated .

* R. Crossman (1907-74), Minister in H. Wilson’s governments of the 1960s; B. Wyman (1936-), former bass guitarist with the Rolling Stones.

Wednesday December 12, Paris

          Lunchtime at Opéra and the streets are full of employees. There’s a killing to be made here and there are killings to be made in Eastern Europe. It’s all a question of attitude to money, to earnings. If you change your attitude to money you can make a lot of it. You have to stop thinking in concrete terms, as I do (money honestly earned, sweat of the brow and all that.) Most of the people out there wrapped in their winter coats see it that way; you can see that they have respect for it. But there are others, like the group of men drinking behind me (over there at the bar), who are using hypothetical money to seize an opportunity in Budapest and make a killing. Their day is not working to make money at the end of it, but starting with money and planning how to make more out of it. What is the difference in psychical make-up between someone for whom money is an end and someone for whom money is a means?

          I had time to kill before the next class. I took a walk through the passage Choiseul, a narrow shopping arcade just off the Avenue de l’Opéra. It is little affected by modern retailing methods. If it were in a business quarter of London, it would have been, at best restored, at worst tarted up. But here there are few window displays and little marketing; just products being sold, piled high in boxes inside, with staff waiting to serve behind solid wooden counters. They make me think of the shops I went into with my mother in Canterbury in the 1950s. 

Monday December 17, Paris

            There’s a commercial on CNN advertising one of their business programmes in which the map of Europe is shown, as if in a board game. The counters and tokens are in the shape of currency signs (above all, the $) and desktop computers. The message is that, now the barriers are down (we see a token advancing through a break in a wall), Europe is a cross between a monopoly board and a battlefield (both game and war vocabulary are used). The dollar is going to knock down the other currencies, ride roughshod across national frontiers and beat the vicious-looking adversary: the Japanese (the only human faces shown on screen). Notice that this plundering of Europe is strictly confined to ‘continental’ Europe. Britain, at the periphery of the combat zone, is coloured a neutral green. France is coloured blue (cold, haughty?), Italy, yellow (too scared to play?), and the hotspot, Germany, is bright red and where most of the scattering of national flags and currency punch-ups seem to be taking place. This propaganda is presumably designed to appeal to the American businessman in Europe. In other commercials on the same channel, however, he looks ill-equipped for battle. Your typical businessman is seen sneaking out of meetings to phone wife and children, perhaps quite simply to hear an American voice in the Babel of European languages into which he’s been parachuted. There you see a major handicap of the American in Europe: homesickness.

Wednesday December 19, Paris

          Sometimes I’m afraid writing is going to make me ill. Or maybe, you have to be ill to write. I’m sitting here thinking I’ll get a novel published by the time I’m fifty, and thinking also that I’ll never write a line and am deluding myself. I feel there’s a destiny taking its course but at the same time tell myself there’s no such thing. I’m also afraid of writing these lines because they sound pompous. They’ll either turn out to be extraordinarily premonitory or extraordinarily vain. The fact is, I don’t know anything and there’s nobody else who knows either. Which means that all is still possible and I’m entirely responsible for my own destiny.

          The Sheltering Sky was terrific. I came out feeling a grander person, a nobler being because a sense of the tragic had entered my life and reminded me that any moment could be my last. Like all good films, it reminded me that I’m mortal and that, as Paul Bowles himself says in the last shot of the film, “everything is limited.”* My senses starved of fiction, I watched the film on edge, the adrenaline flowing, very suggestible: I weep, get an erection, feel fear. I’m grateful to those who write words and make images. It’s good cinema because it brings me into contact with emotions almost absent from my daily life.

          Raced back to Jimmy’s sixth birthday party. When I arrived, he wasn’t being the good host he’d promised to be. This was mainly because he’d been publicly ditched by his sweetheart of the moment. He sat in the swivel chair sulking, refusing to say goodbye to his guests as the mothers and fathers came to fetch them. A few of them accepted our invitation to stay on for a glass of champagne. 

*film by Bertolucci based on the novel by Paul Bowles

Friday December 28, Paris

            We went to dinner with English friends who are now back in their flat in the Boulevard Saint Germain after three years in England. It’s the only building in the street without an electronic code on the door. The narrow staircase (there’s no lift) hasn’t been decorated for years. The woodwork is painted a pale grey that is quintessentially French. This grey paint, to be found also on the windows in their flat, is the only French note in a place that’s been wallpapered in imitation oak in the hallway and carpeted by John Lewis. It’s this grey that helps me to imagine the building in the era of Be-Bop and Existentialism. It’s a colour I associate with fusty old Assimil textbooks with their frail line drawings, with the Zazie dans le métro* of Raymond Queneau, with rachitic young girls and Parisian great aunts. I sit at their dining table and look out of one of the small, round windows in the Mansard roof, imagining the menial and spare lives of its 1950s inhabitants; all the watery vegetable soups, the bad plumbing and the dicky electricity. I wondered if the building was safe. On the landing, as we left, I noticed the mass of charred electric wires hanging from a burnt wall and a banner in red that ought to say ‘Seasons Greetings’ but which says, ‘Danger de mort!’.

*1959 novel, made into a film in 1960.

previous post November 1990, next on January 15

when the Gulf War will be uppermost in people’s minds, on both sides of the Channel.

In the meantime,

Merry Christmas!

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