February 1991

Friday February 1, Paris

          I’m writing this with Emma sitting on my knee arranging her Duplo people around the keyboard. I refer to the notes made this morning in the café La Nouvelle France in the rue La Fayette: it’s sixty-five years since André Breton sat at this same terrace bewitched by Nadja. If he’d been able to tear his eyes from her, he could’ve looked across the street to the entrance of number 91 where two caryatids with eyes closed, breasts exposed and arms crossed support the second-floor balcony over ornate, wooden doors with carved faces, which today are being restored by a workman in white overalls.

          I’ve just walked down the rue La Fayette from the Boulevard Magenta – Nadja’s destination when Breton accosted her as he left the L’Humanité bookshop – which is still at number 120 today and has anti-war posters in the window.

          After lunch at the café, feeling the chill – the temperature has dropped a few degrees since earlier – I walked all the way down the rue La Fayette to the grands boulevards and to my lunch-time secretaries. They’re all turning up regularly every week now, so my course can’t be that catastrophic. 

          It’s one of those days when I can smile and get attention; one of those days when I get looks from women in the street. Went to my bank and charmed my way to an overdraft, two female employees vying with each other to assist me. Then thought I’d take another look at the exhibition in the Saint-Cloud museum before picking up the children from school. First I went and looked again at the display of early eighteenth-century views of Saint-Cloud and surroundings, standing looking at them in the empty room though soon realising I wasn’t alone; there was an attractive woman attentively studying some explanatory notes. In the rotunda, I came face-to-face with her, the only other visitor, before taking the stairs. She lingered over the decorated floor tiles so that we didn’t have to walk up to the first floor abreast. Although I wanted to see again only one photograph, that of the naked dancer draped in garlands of roses in the garden, I did the whole circuit just to re-live the magic of coming across it.* Wanting to share the surprise with the other visitor, as I worked my way around the room, I prepared a remark to address to her about the absence of people in the pictures … all except for … and here I’d nod to indicate the naked dancer. But for the moment she seemed engrossed in the display of architectural plans. I could see the reflection of her bright-red lipstick in the glass under which the plans were framed. 

          I was standing right next to the photograph when she suddenly moved across the room to my corner. This was the moment. I had no more than thirty seconds to seize the opportunity. But the prepared remark stuck in my throat and she briskly moved out of the room and crossed the landing into another section. I stared blankly at another photograph of no interest, then left hurriedly by the main stairs. My mood had completely changed; I was dazed by my failure to act. I thought of Breton and how he says that one should not be afraid to act when one feels the moment is right; there’s nothing to lose. I feel an immense disappointment because I failed to end the day in Breton’s spirit by taking the risk of making contact with a stranger. 

          And it occurred to me, on the way home with the children, that keeping the diary might be a way of provoking me into taking such risks so that there would be something more interesting to recount in it.

*see January 18 entry

Tuesday February 5, Paris

          This morning, I understood with clarity on awakening that I’m writing a diary because I’m afraid of death. I saw myself spending a good part of my life constructing an antidote to this fear, patiently compiling a barrage against the inevitable. My enterprise seemed futile and it occurred to me that, by recording, I was saying no to imagination, saying no to life. 

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen so few people in the streets, shops and cafés of Paris. Three reasons for this: first, although it’s bright and sunny, the temperature is well below zero; second, people are not coming to town for fear of bomb attacks; and third, there are no tourists because of the war. Anyway, you can’t get much more out-of-season than the first week in February. To reduce the risk of terrorist bombs, dustbins and litter bins have been removed, especially in the métro, but people continue to drop rubbish where the dustbins were. The result is that the underground corridors are empty and dirty. There’s no joy this year; people aren’t going out, not buying anything. All the shops have sales on but no customers. There’s recession, uncertainty – and vigilance.

Thursday February 7, Paris

          Freezing this morning; minus 12 or 13. Went to the gym but exercised with less pleasure and determination than usual then came back and prepared a video for today’s class. This lighter teaching schedule is making me more conscientious in my preparation; I should have spent the 45 minutes I had on the diary. I went and gave two classes at the bank, then went and bought a pair of brown leather shoes I can’t afford (but need.) 

          A mortar bomb dropped into the garden of 10 Downing Street during a cabinet meeting. I never realised 10 Downing Street had a back garden. Would’ve been nice if they’d shown us a photograph of it so we could see what it looks like. Come to that, what does the inside of No. 10 look like? Even though cameras are now everywhere (there were even some on the spot to record the explosion), there are still a number of places of which we have no images at all. One of my students asked me what the difference was between French TV news bulletins and British ones. I told him it lay mainly in the neutrality of the presentation. On tonight’s Journal télévisé there was a good example of the editorial irresponsibility of French newsrooms. The newsreader, linking news of the bomb explosion in London to the threat of terrorist attacks against the Allied coalition, said: “Entre l’IRA et l’Irak, il n’y a qu’une petite lettre” (the difference between the IRA and Iraq is just one small letter).

Thursday February 14, Paris

          I felt stronger at the gym this morning and stayed for a full hour of workout. There are two Air France stewardesses who come for a natter and a peddle on the exercise bicycles and I told them about Valentine’s cards and romantic messages in the English newspapers. They thought it was a wonderful idea. Most people here do, but Valentine’s day is still no big deal in France despite the country’s reputation for romance.

          Just one class today at lunch-time and after that I went to Le Forum des Halles and saw Pretty Woman. All the cinemas are offering special prices to attract custom because people are staying away, afraid of bomb attacks. It’s a great film; I let myself be taken in by it and realised how much I was identifying when my tear ducts were activated. I’m always surprised by the efficacy of the emotional triggers in films. Why do we all cry in the cinema? What is it in our collective history that touches us to the quick? I’m always embarrassed about crying during a movie; don’t want to be heard sobbing, don’t want to be seen to be crying when the lights go up at the end. In the struggle to pull away from it I realise how much I’ve been identifying and how absurdly unrealistic and cinematographic the tear-jerking sequence is. It’s at these points I both scold and admire the film maker for playing around with my primitive emotions.

          Pretty Woman is a sort of Pygmalion story except that here, all the L.A. hooker [Julia Roberts] needs to do to get by in the best circles is to dress the part. The language and accent are not a problem; she knows how to speak in the appropriate register from watching movies on TV. Just like Eliza, though, she slips into gutter language in the heat of the moment. Moved by the opera she attends in the company of her Professor Higgins [Richard Gere], she spontaneously responds to the enthusiasm of the grand dame in the adjoining box: “Loved it? I almost pissed my pants!” Gere tries to repair the damage by explaining to the perplexed lady that she’d been alluding to The Pirates of Penzance. I flashed a glance at the subtitles: they’d chosen Oedipe à Colonne [Oedipus at Colonus] Which isn’t bad at all because it sounds a bit like ‘pipi’ [pee] and ‘collants’ [tights]. All the same, I was the only spectator to laugh out loud. 

          I began to read David Gascoyne’s Paris Journal because it’s the Paris journal of an Englishman (there must be hundreds), but mostly because he knew Breton, and Breton is close to my heart at the moment because of Nadja. And what do I find in the entry dated 25.9.36? A reference to Nadja the novel, of course. Gascoyne’s writing is extraordinarily mature for a 20-year-old – at that age I was writing drivel. His most remarkable observation is made after climbing Parliament Hill, as he looks down on London ‘spread out under mist and smoke.’ He says: ‘What a heart-breaking spectacle it will be from this height some night soon to come, when the enemy squadrons blackening the sky rain down destroying fire upon those roofs!’ This was written in October 1936!

Monday February 18, Canterbury

          All the London stations were closed this morning because bombs went off at Paddington and Victoria. There were people killed and injured.

          Jimmy got his Grandad to make him a wooden dagger according to his own specifications. As soon as it was ready, he painted it in four or five colours. We went to the University bookshop and an assistant was very kind to Jimmy and helped him look for a book. Then I asked her to help me and she patiently looked through microfiches. I prolonged the investigations as long as I could, not because she was attractive but because she had a ‘stay still’ manner and voice. Close to her, listening to her, I entered into a trance; a rare state of serenity and harmony, the timbre of her voice seeming to penetrate right to the very cells of my body. 

          There were students walking along the paths of the campus who looked just like students looked when I was one. On the patio outside the Gulbenkian theatre was a group making sets for a play. As I watched them, I was acutely conscious of no longer being young; of being now in middle age.

          We walked back down through the bare woods and I recalled with hopeless longing how I’d followed Laura up that same path in July 1969. She’d gone on ahead and playfully, but quite unexpectedly, flicked up her psychedelic mini-skirt to show me her bare bottom. It was muddy by the stream which was in full spate with the melted snow. Two leather-clad males got up from the long grass and moved off along the edge of the field. One was dressed à la Joe Orton with a black leather cap.* All along the stream great trees, uprooted by the October gales, straddled both banks.

          On the way back via the recreation ground, I examined the shape of the fields, the hedges and the woods; the way they were in the light. The light today triggered an amalgam of indistinct memories. I’ve seen this landscape in every different light imaginable. I wondered, as I looked at today’s light illuminating these fields that have never changed, whether I’d be prepared to fight to defend them; this village – this country – where the light is so special because it is etched in me. I supposed I would, but avoided answering my own question.

*as the playwright is depicted notably in Stephen Frears’ biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Wednesday February 20, Canterbury

          After lunch, Jimmy and I took the train to Cannon Street, our bags stuffed to bursting with things my mother had given us. As usual, I was feeling guilty about being ungrateful. The dirty train screeched and ground through the dirty south-east London suburbs. London Bridge station has been cleaned up but it still looks the dark and grimy place I used to stand on every evening after work. Is it because it’s February that London and its people look so grey? The commuters on the underground, wearing expensive suits and coats and with professional haircuts, look as if they’re in costume dress. They look to me like people who’ve been conned into believing they could play the part if they just dressed the part. Now the clothes they wear can be seen for what they are: status symbols. Yes, the yuppies now look tawdry and the recession has hit: ‘It’s official,’ scream the papers, ‘Britain hits zero growth.’ Meanwhile, in the Gulf, Allied troops are ‘straining at the leash’ to get in there and ‘mop up the Iraqi war machine.’ For the time being, they continue to ‘soften them up’ by dropping thousands of bombs each day on the Iraqi forces. Saddam Hussein is ominously silent and the world waits for his reaction; either capitulation or defiance. 

          Fredand I slink off for a drink like two male chauvinists, while Jane gives the kids their supper. We go to the Warrington Hotel on Sutherland Avenue and I sink a few pints of Ruddles’ County with no trouble at all. 

†16 January, 2021. RIP

Friday February 22, London

          Fred and I went to the Portobello Road to meet Jerry and started a drinking session that lasted well into the afternoon. We ended up in the Warwick Castle. There’s a poster behind the bar for I Hired a Contract Killer starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. It’s premiering at the Electric. The film was shot in the Portobello Road, especially in and around the Warwick Castle. Jerry – a veritable mine of trivial information – pointed out the locations to us. 

          The thirty-year old Irish barman looked more like sixty. Business at four in the afternoon was slack enough for him to draw shamrocks in the head of the Guinness with the drips from the beer tap. Jerry says he may be meeting Brian Keenan*tomorrow; he has expressed a desire to visit Portobello Road. He jokes that he’s a bit worried about bringing his wife along because Keenan boasted, after his release, that he wanted to sleep with every woman he met. Jerry says he’s staying at the Dorchester. Apparently, he’s very touchy; he sent back the champagne because it wasn’t chilled enough.

          There’s talk of doing up the Portobello Road; pedestrianizing it and regimenting the market stalls – doing a Carnaby Street on it. This, of course, would kill it dead. Kill what? A street – a real street, with a real community evolving slowly, precariously, but making its own distinct stamp on the surroundings. I got through five pints of bitter. Could’ve gone on all afternoon. 

          After we’d had supper, we went out drinking again – this time in Bristol Gardens down by Little Venice. Here’s another place that won’t survive long; an Irish pub clinging on tenaciously in a district that’s no longer Irish. Here we bumped into some of Fred’s old football and childhood friends. They talked about football and how the youngsters now don’t have enough skill to play, are not “hungry” enough to want to play. Young lads now were “tarts”. The schools don’t push the sport and there’s no one prepared to devote hours to coaching like there used to be. They all talked about the old times and the schools they went to, about the local characters, the Irish mothers. I just listened. Here then, is another community disintegrating, the drinkers coming from the suburbs to keep camaraderie alive in the old haunts. Another two pints to add to the five at lunch-time and no unpleasant consequences whatsoever.

*Brian Keenan (1950 -), Northern Irish writer held hostage in Beirut from 1986-90

Sunday February 24, Paris

          Pepys has just celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday – the best age to be in my opinion. Never having been to the theatre in his life (what with the playhouses being closed for the best part of it), he’s attending plays as if they’re going out of style. He’s at the theatre several times a week, which I never was, even at my most enthusiastic. He goes back again and again to see the same play. But not to see what we now regard as classics; such as The Changeling or ‘The Moor of Venice’ (better known to us as Othello.) No, what he enjoys most are the plays that immortality-status has somehow eluded. Plays like The Bondman by Massinger, or The Mayd in the Mill by Beaumont & Fletcher. Aided and abetted by hindsight, it would be all too easy to jeer at Pepys’ taste in entertainment. At least, he wouldn’t have seen eye-to-eye with the last few generations of university professors of English. I’m tempted to write to The Globe theatre and suggest they stage say The adventures of five hours by Sir Samuel Tuke – in daylight of course – so that theatre-goers can pit the works of Shakespeare against some of the popular successes of his day.

          Diarists are maybe more prone than most to creating their own anniversaries. It’s not the day of Pepys’ birth he celebrates so much as the day ‘I was cut of the stone’ – as he familiarly calls the lithotomy he was lucky enough to survive. No wonder he wanted to celebrate and to thank God after coming through an operation performed by surgeons with rudimentary understanding of anaesthesia and antisepsis.* My special day is the 15th of September, the day I stopped a vice that was only just catching on in Pepys’ time. Every year I celebrate the miraculous moment when I went from more than twenty cigarettes a day to zero overnight; I open a bottle of champagne and invite whomever happens to be around to drink it with me. 

            The only vice I still can’t do without is writing a diary. But is this habit I share with Pepys, and millions of others, a vice? Is it an unnatural, reprehensible, subversive, unhealthy, suspect – even dangerous activity? Or is it constructive, creative, therapeutic, philanthropic, and an altogether life-enhancing pastime? It’s non-diarists who seem to have the answers to such questions. As for diarists, they’re never quite sure whether to think of their daily habit as a good or a bad one. 

*Pepys’ annual ‘festival’

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Archives: 1990

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