March 1991

Sunday March 3, Paris

          Just been through Amiens on the train going to the hovercraft. It looks like a fine place. There are lakes near it with tall, straight trees, their new buds glistening in the sunshine. My head feels like it’s had too much smoke, making me recall the unpleasant side of my old habit; going on a journey and smoking too many on an empty stomach. Maybe I’m being affected by the smoke drifting in from the smoking compartment where someone’s bronchial tubes are noisily bubbling and spluttering. Or maybe it’s because I’ve just read an obituary of the great smoker himself, Serge Gainsbourg, whose death, although no surprise, affects me strongly – as it must do most of France. Extraordinary how such a reprobate could be so touching and command such respect.

          Across the aisle, a young couple slouched in TV-watching posture are loudly crunching cocktail snacks out of a crinkly packet, devouring Mars bars, and sluicing the lot down with Coca Cola from a shared can. I hope, by giving myself the task of writing every day, that I will preserve myself from just that kind of lethargy. You can’t be sure of anything, though. 

          It’s turned out to be a beautiful day. I should’ve flown, but every time I fly, I think the plane’s going to crash, and I don’t want to die, not yet. I’ll try and come back from London by plane, though – cut the risk in half!

Monday March 4, London

          I went to walk around Spitalfields. The spacious trailer park by the market is nearly empty (it’s 10 a.m.) and there are boxes and rubbish and rotting fruit and vegetables heaped amongst the few parked cars. The enormous turquoise-and-pink bulk of the Broadgate development is just across the way – like a cliff. It’s obvious that this smelly open space, with its scraggy trees sprouting in the disused yards, is going to be developed as well. Already the streets around the market are being transformed into offices and smart houses; some of the buildings have been scrubbed, their architectural features highlighted. In the little streets round the Truman’s brewery: Folgate Street, Elder Street, Hanbury Street, there are some magnificent examples of Victorian housing and warehousing. In Hanbury Street, there’s a fine row of eighteenth-century Huguenot houses but they’ve been over-scrubbed, the brickwork over-pointed – like a facelift that takes away all the wrinkles. There are still places – but not for long – where you’re back in Victorian London; on the corner of Wilkes Street and Princelet Street you enter a time warp. In Elder Street too. But, on the whole, demolition has already begun. 

          I tried to get into Hawksmoor’s Christ Church but it is closed. But I met the man who runs the community centre next door and he talked to me about this area where he was born and where he has worked for twenty-five years. As he talked, he pointed to the area that we could see through the window of his office: Fashion Street and Brick Lane. The Asians don’t integrate, he said, “they’re the only immigrants who haven’t.” He adds: “They control everything.” During the day, it’s clothing patterns slung over the shoulder, shops full of cassettes and posters of Asian film stars and, at night, he says, you wouldn’t recognise the place; Brick Lane is lit up with neon and there are prostitutes, both male and female in the street looking for action. You can’t open your mouth round here, he says, without being taken for a racist. It’s all going to go soon. There’s a preservation order on the ‘historic’ properties, of course (i.e., the nice gentrifiable houses) but the rest will go. When I asked where the Asians (Bengalis for the most part) will be pushed out to, he said Dagenham, because it has become run down and the people there are moving out to middle-class areas like Billericay.*

          What I’m looking at as I weave through these streets under the protection of my umbrella, drinking in the masonry, the perspectives, the atmosphere, is the fag-end of poor Victorian London. I’m paying my last respects. And kicking myself for being so blasé and ignorant when I lived in London that I never thought of coming to see all this before anybody had the remotest notion of colonising it. Had I crawled out of my corner long enough to do this, would I have had the astute idea of buying one of those beautiful eighteenth-century houses in Fournier Street or Hanbury Street that could be had for a song? I think not. I’m furious with myself for always arriving too late. 

          I’m sitting in the Ten Bells opposite Spitalfields market. It used to be called the Jack the Ripper. I was the first lunch-time customer. The landlord was listening to the radio. Speculation about the break-up of Iraq and the appeal hearing for the ‘Birmingham Six’.** Cigarette smoke drifts my way above the bare, wooden floor with iron-frame stools and tables. It impregnates the thick curtains and the flock wallpaper. Fleetwood Mac is on the sound system singing a sixties-style tune. Jim Morrison is on the cover of City Limits. He is who they want to make into the flavour of the nineties. Caption: ‘Dead Sexy.’

          Jane, as I’d anticipated, said she wasn’t going to come with Fred and me to The Homecoming (although for any woman with three sons, Pinter’s play is surely a must.) Fred managed to sell her ticket on within a few minutes of arriving at the Comedy Theatre. I had expected to revel in the performance of a sharply insolent young Lenny but instead he was played balding and oddball and most of his provocative lines were expedited without scoring a hit. Elder brother Teddy, on the other hand, was played relaxed and suave – whereas I always thought of him as tense and neurotic. Greg Hicks did wonders with weak lines. Warren Mitchell played vicious patriarch Max as Warren Mitchell. Cherie Lunghi as Ruth, dressed in well-tailored black, looked like Christine Keeler and stabbed me with lust when she opened her legs to admit cocky, adolescent Joey, baring creamy thighs framed in black suspenders. It was an uneven production but made me notice the flaws in the play – the main one being the difficulty of having Teddy witness his wife’s infidelity without batting an eyelid.

*In the early 1990s, Ford’s major car plant at Dagenham was threatened with closure. **The Court of Appeal was to quash the life sentences given to the six Irishmen convicted after the pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974.

Wednesday March 13, Paris

Les Halles today and before the removal of the pavillons Baltard

          Being Wednesday afternoon – when schoolchildren and students are free – Les Halles is crowded with young people spending their money and showing off. In the underground station, there’s an exhibition of photographs of the old market streets full of stalls, people, and horse-drawn vehicles and trees all around the market buildings, the pavillons Baltard. There are also engravings of the pauper’s cemetery, the Cimetière des Innocents and its church, which is now the Square des Innocents, a place for eating hamburgers from cartons, in the sun. 

          I went to see The Comfort of Strangers, a screenplay by Harold Pinter based on the book by Ian McEwan. It gripped me at times, especially when the three main characters are together. But I came out feeling morose, perhaps because of the abrupt, gratuitously violent ending that the film makes no attempt to explain. What I saw in the story (and probably what director Paul Schrader intended me to see) was the slaughter of a weak, ineffectual and ignorant Englishman. Ignorant because he scorned the past and the history that made him. He looked to me a product of the eighties: no family ties, no political opinions, no culture – all ‘look’. And because of this he is used as the object he has become: a bi-sex object. He becomes the victim of someone who has all the things he has eschewed: culture, tradition, family, respect for the past – but to an extreme, pathological degree. The film stops when his killer, Robert, is being interviewed by the police. Now, you think, we’re going to get to the bottom of this cruel and courteous figure but he merely mechanically repeats the story about his father’s cruelty to him. We conclude then that he’s a psychopathic killer. So what?

          After this film, I was acutely conscious of belonging to a generation that had been encouraged to consider any link with tradition, and, to a certain extent, history – whether individual or collective – as outdated, unnecessary. I think this is wrong; we ought to have an understanding of the circumstances as well as of the ancestors that produced us. But not, obviously, to the extent of turning our history into a litany, or making fetishes of the material objects its actors have bequeathed us – as in this film. I travelled home, disturbed especially by the image of this bewildered Englishman who goes like a lamb to the slaughter.

Friday March 22, Paris

          I’m getting worried about the things I have never had to do before such as running a two-day seminar on ‘Professional English’ next week and another on ‘Negotiating’ in ten days’ time. So, after my last class at the bank, I go to WH Smith’s and buy a couple of books that look useful but which, on second inspection at my café table on the rue de Rivoli, look as if they’ve been concocted by people who have never had to teach the subject. It reassures me to have these books, however, and it will give me something to riffle through this weekend, looking out for ideas.

          For some reason, there are a lot of old couples walking the rue de Rivoli today. Maybe there’s a convention or something and they’re all staying in a nearby hotel. But not only are these couples old, they are very French and very decrepit – at least, the men are. They walk, for the most part, arm-in-arm, but have difficulty trying to keep up appearances. They have memories no doubt of sauntering along the same pavement back in the thirties or forties. The faces of the men (generally older than the women) betray the pain, the effort of this brave walk; mouths agape, brows furrowed, swivelling on unsteady legs. The women’s faces are set, resigned. They all look as if they’re afraid of dying, of that death that is just around the corner, whilst making believe that they’re still too young to die.

          Yes, it’s very French, this evening under the colonnades of the rue de Rivoli; passing in front of my table is the entire cast from a thousand French newsreels and films. The waitress asks, in a thick Parisian accent, if she can take my money because she’s taking her half-hour break. I wish her a pleasant evening. She looks at me and smiles, showing her gums. There’s a short man in a suit waiting for her and she walks off up the street on his arm. She has knots of varicose veins along the backs of her legs. 

Tuesday March 26, Paris

            When I came out of running the seminar on ‘Professional English’ this morning at the Tour Gamma, walking past the entrance of the Gare de Lyon, I heard my name being called and turned to see Jallet. There he stood on the steps outside the station, his bag over his shoulder, just off the TGV from Marseille. He immediately started talking to me about vacant posts at the university. I told him it didn’t interest me anymore. If I feel guilty, it is for having abandoned him, for having gone along with his dreams of creating a research centre, but having done nothing to promote it. He looked older, a little bowed and sounded disappointed in the modest success of his ventures. He seemed bitter and tired by it all. Perhaps simply because he’s been running the same seminar for over twenty years. Think of all the people he has influenced during that time. I tell him I haven’t taken any interest in psychoanalysis of late, and he says simply, “As long as you’re happy, that’s the main thing.” He asked if I’d been writing my “novel” and I said yes – sheepishly. I couldn’t possibly admit that I am, for the moment, only writing the diary. I promised to go to his seminar tomorrow.

Wednesday March 27, Paris

          Went to Jallet’s seminar. He brilliantly demonstrates how Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, although about the effects of the Depression in America and the danger of it leading to fascism, is unconsciously organised by anxiety about the danger of the Great War repeating itself. The descriptions of the camps for migrant workers evoke the camps in Nazi Germany and the book is full of military words and metaphors. Even the structure of the narrative, going from one cataclysm to another (from the dust bowl to the flood) and Tom’s story – from one murder to another – show that a repetition of a disaster is what Steinbeck unwittingly presages. Jallet gives an absolutely convincing reading of this book as a vector of the American collective unconscious. I was very impressed, and told him so because he looked as if he needed cheering up. 

          The first reaction a lot of people have to the kind of reading he did today is that it’s bloody obvious. And it does look bloody obvious after he’s given you all the quotes to support his interpretation. You say to yourself that the author must’ve known what he was doing; that his book is not unconsciously about the fear that America will again have to go to war, but clearly an intentionally pacifist work. However, if Steinbeck did know what he was doing, he failed miserably, because no one reads his book as a warning about the forthcoming cataclysm in Europe and American involvement in it. Everybody reads it as a Marxist-inspired criticism of the capitalism responsible for the Depression. Which of course it is – on the surface.

          I left feeling saintly that I’d come to make my peace with him and put an end to a period of indecision and avoidance. 

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