January 1991

Tuesday January 8, Paris

          There are at last ‘talks’ tomorrow in Geneva between the Americans and the Iraqis but nobody is expecting them to last very long and war looks inevitable. When there is a refusal to talk things over the only outcome can be confrontation. And this is what we are sliding towards without being able to do anything about it, even though it is not impossible to talk. And in this reluctance, refusal even, to verbalise and so admit the reasons for the conflict squats the desire to make war. And I am afraid of this coming war (but for sure not as much as the poor sods in their desert dug outs) but I also (secretly) welcome it so as to know what it means to be a country at war. I feel that people in August 1939 must have experienced a similar fatal attraction for war; wanting to be horrified by the declaration of it on that Sunday they all remember. I also understand that we would be wrong to accuse those people of doing nothing to stop the war because it was a war that was perhaps as inevitable as the one that is coming. Even the economic circumstances are classic, what with the recession upon us. I wonder too, now that the title of that recent film, Fatal Attraction has slipped out onto the page, whether the collective desire for this conflict isn’t represented in that film (even though basically it’s all about commercial rivalry with the Japanese) – and in others too perhaps. I mean, isn’t it extraordinary that one of the biggest box office stories of recent years should be Baghdad Café? Although on the surface a film about the healing of wounds between antagonists of the last war (a German and an American), is it not also a truce (the end of the Cold War), all the better to take on a new enemy: Iraq? 

Sunday January 13, Paris

          I woke up from a dream where I was the only interlocutor acceptable to Saddam Hussein. There was a certain complicity between us and so I’d been designated to carry out talks. He was really rather a nice guy in my dream: quiet, sensitive, witty. 

          When I look at the cars parked on the boulevard outside – so neat, so shiny – I wonder how long this state of affluent grace can last. There’ll be a war by this time next week; that seems certain. But what if we lose it and the process of domination by the Arab world is set in motion? How long would it take for this land, this boulevard, to be marked with the stamp of another people, another culture, another god? Just how solid does all this consumer hardware actually make us? Does it mean we are impregnable, or does it make us blind to our own vulnerability? 

          It was cold in the park; my hands got cold. But there are buds beginning on the trees. More than five years I’ve been coming to this park now. I don’t like it much, it has little to recommend it. I would like to live elsewhere, go to a different park, live in a different state of grace. 

Friday January 18, Paris

          Before picking the children up from school, I made a quick visit to the municipal museum opposite. I wanted to see the photographic exhibition about the Maison Brunet in which the museum is housed. It was a private house in the thirties and the colour photographs show what it looked like inside and out. Because of the restoration work done on the building and garden you can get your bearings and picture these large rooms where the images are displayed as they were then: busily but comfortably furnished, with splendid views from the windows to a summer house, a statue, a pond.

          But there is not a single person in any of these pictures of a rich man’s palace. Rich woman’s, rather; the rich man too busy earning his riches to be there much. I had to try and imagine people sitting in the highly-polished, ample but vacant chairs, or to picture diners sitting at the circular table in the circular dining room with its pillars reaching up to support a glass roof. I could only imagine people of exceptional qualities dining in such a room, people who had a wealth of experience, who had done difficult things in difficult circumstances; the kind of people (I don’t know why I say this) that don’t exist anymore.

          Then, on the way out, I noticed a photograph hanging on the back of a display panel which gave the uninhabited Maison Brunet a whole new dimension. There, incredibly, was a naked woman posing in the twilight of the garden, a chain of roses draped from her raised arm to her fleshy thighs. It was entitled ‘The Dancer.’ The smile upon her face suggested uninhibited carnal desires. Suddenly, these lifeless rooms and landscaped garden in the photographs became the scenes of orgies and sexual intrigues and I suspected Madame Brunet of having a whale of a time while Monsieur was busy making his money. This one photograph, like a Freudian slip, was her own way of leaving a trace of the truth of what really went on in her ideal home.

          And I walked away along the municipal path, through the garden in which the dancer once displayed her ample thighs, thinking of the frail old lady she perhaps became; no doubt dead by now and a skeleton in a cemetery.

Thursday January 22, Paris

          The war is beginning to look a lot trickier than at first the Americans had us believe. In the space of just a few days people have re-discovered what a media circus can be made out of even the gravest of events and have been reminded that war is dirty and that nobody knows what’s really going on because everything is censored. We were told this was going to be the first war seen live on TV but it has turned out to be quite the contrary. There are few pictures of it; there is virtually nothing offered as spectacle except the spectacle of journalists and reporters struggling to make up for the lack of pictures by much blah-blah, conjecture and wind wrought from the few events reported and from what little (heavily censored) information is released by the Pentagon or other official and military sources. In a few days, CNN has gone from reporters improvising an on-the-spot commentary through gas masks in the news room in Tel Aviv during a missile alert, to a reporter asking the censor by his side what he’s allowed to tell Atlanta about the pictures we see on the screen. Over live footage of people in Tel Aviv being pulled out of destroyed apartment buildings and being carried to waiting ambulances, the reporter asks the censor if he’s allowed to tell Atlanta that the attack took place in a residential quarter: yes, he is. But he’s not allowed to give an estimate of the number of victims. 

Monday January 28, Paris

          When the children’s breakfast has been accomplished and their lunch-boxes have been prepared and they’ve had their faces washed, their hair brushed, their teeth cleaned, and they’ve swallowed their homeopathic granules, are dressed and have their shoes on, their coats and their Balaclavas on, and I’ve taken one to school, the other to the nursery and have returned and the breakfast things have been tidied away, the beds made, the curtains drawn, the playthings cleared up in the children’s room, and I’ve washed and shaved, I can at last sit down, turn on the computer and attack the novel. Miraculously, I have a morning to devote to it. No beating about the bush; hack straight in and turn the first-person narrator into a safer, more ironical and distancing third person. I enjoy the process, and the result, for the moment, pleases me. I’m wary though, because, so far, this has been the way of all beginnings.

Wednesday January 30, Paris

          I watched a documentary on the London blitz. Although I’d read about it and seen pictures, I was astounded by the extent and the regularity of the bombing. Extraordinary how people soon adapt to danger, to the destruction of their city, to buildings in flames and in rubble. 30,000 people killed! It makes Scud missile attacks on Israel look like tiddlywinks. I’m fascinated by this world less than ten years before I was born; feel I know the people and can imagine my way into their peacetime lives. But I cannot connect at all with how they experienced wartime.

          One thing already clear to me from this new war is that, whereas during peacetime civilian victims of accidents are scrupulously counted and re-counted and deaths are deplored, during wartime they are expected to die and nobody seems too worried about keeping track. In wartime, what you read in the corner of one short paragraph of a despatch would have been a major headline in peacetime. I mean, B52s have been bombing Iraqi troop positions with impunity for days. That must be costing a hell of a lot of lives but it’s just a parenthetical comment in the news reports.

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Archives: 1990

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