April 1991

Friday April 5, Paris

            Seven and a half hours teaching non-stop today. I start with l’ENA* where all I had to do was enthuse about London and suggest some not-so-obvious excursions to two civil servants who are going to spend three weeks there. Then raced to the bank and got one of my executives talking about his past again, used the Fawlty Towers video episode, ‘Basil the Rat’ with my secretaries (restrained hilarity), then listened while my favourite student, Eric P., talked to me about real estate, about rural life, about the mountain guide he goes climbing with who has been killed by an avalanche (the danger he feared most) and about Dances with Wolves. I like him a lot; he’s a farmer’s son who knows simple country life not just here but in the Third World. He is an explorer, a traveller, a climber and yet here he is living in the city and dealing in finance and property. But he sees no contradiction; whether you are choosing the right place to plant your potatoes or the right quarter to invest in commercial property, basic rules of common sense apply. Sod the risk ratios and growth curves, he says. He has to go to Berlin to report on the new investment opportunities in commercial property there.

            In something of a daze when I came out from all this and in search of some recompense for my efforts (this week I have netted nearly 8,000F) though without knowing quite what. As I hesitated about which street to take, three possibilities competed in my mind: drinking, buying books or buying food. I went into Brentano’s, browsed, but bought nothing. Then brushed off the idea of having a pint in the Irish pub and headed for Marks and Spencer to grab some goodies to take home for the weekend. The place is packed with people carrying baskets and banging into each other as, salivating, they home in on the shelf that stocks their particular weakness. There is something for everybody, whether they are hooked on the sugary or the spicy; lots of lovely, well-lit, colourful, grabbable packages with ‘buy me and indulge yourself’ written all over them. I followed my impulses in the usual directions: the ‘Punjab Puri’ display, the ‘Greek starters’ stack, the cheese bank, the bacon rack, with a backwards glance at the pork sausages and a sceptical but covetous inspection of the oven-ready tandoori chicken.

*L’École Nationale d’Administration

Wednesday April 10, Paris

          Writing this in a café between the Gare de l’Est and the square Villemin. It’s a glorious bright morning and I’ve finished teaching for the day. But my mind is busy with the ghosts of abandoned work after bumping into Jallet for the second time in three weeks. He was walking down the canal Saint Martin as I was coming out of the business institute for the break. I took him into the café to have coffee with my colleagues and, after an awkward start (his presence completely deviating the course of our usual tattle and banter), the talk turned to psychoanalysis and he became the centre of attention. Again, Jallet prodded me about my achievements, the articles I could write, the conferences that could be organized, so that I again felt guilty about abandoning ship and again wondered whether I wasn’t an ass to have done so. 

          Back in the same café for lunch, I realised I hadn’t got enough change to pay for it. I was only 70 centimes short. At first, I planned to come clean with the waiter but decided he didn’t look the forgiving type. So, neither being able to laugh it off, nor face the humiliation of a cash dispenser hunt in front of spectators, I made a dash for it. I found a justification for this absurdly cowardly act only when I was anonymously swaying in the safety of a crowded métro train: I was getting my own back for them using up the old, dry cheese in what was, on reflection, about the most disgusting croque monsieur I have ever tasted. But then why didn’t I write this on the ticket, or, better still, complain straight away? Why did I run away like a criminal for the sake of a few cents; and why did I feel so guilty about it? And then it occurred to me that I had run away from Jallet’s set-up without ‘paying the bill’ – and without being able to be honest about the reason why.

Thursday April 11, Paris

          After coming back to the flat from the gym, I opened all the windows and let the fresh spring air in. It was clear and bright outside and the white walls of the living room gleamed. Had an urge to put music on. None of the cassettes accumulated over the years appealed to me; I felt like throwing them all away. Settled for Tracy Chapman, who gave me so much pleasure a few years back. Turned up the volume loud and listened while I showered and dressed. When I left for work the caretaker, who was on his knees on the landing swabbing the stairs, asked me if he could borrow the tape. 

          After teaching two classes, I wanted to sit out at a café somewhere and catch up on my diary. I wandered up to the Boulevard des Italians. The luminosity this afternoon is intense and there are very dark shadows. In this quarter of grandiose buildings, I have the impression of being in the mercantile district of an old Mediterranean city. Sitting in the shade in a wicker chair outside a bar run by two women with heavy eye-shadow and heavy Mediterranean hips cling-wrapped in Lycra, I begin to wonder what made the Latin impression. At first I thought it had something to do with the light and the way it illuminated the buildings. Then I registered certain scriptural details of my immediate surroundings such as Banco Sudameris, Banco Español, Banco Pinto. Quite suddenly, the businessmen strolling from one office to another, or to get a coffee, the people appearing at open windows, or stepping out onto wrought-iron balconies, or tentatively loosening rolled and dusty awnings as the sun streamed on them – even the passers-by – became inhabitants of a foreign city.

Saturday April 13, Paris

          I’m reading Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. In his obituary earlier this month, it was referred to as ‘his London novel’ – which is what made me decide to read it. It’s a curious book, because although very conventional in form, the descriptions and dialogues are often elliptical and there are gaps in the links between the ideas guiding the narrative. Sometimes he loses me altogether. But there’s a murky, weary London in it; the London of the early 1930s; a world of work and long hours and no money. A world of whores in the shadows and of prying eyes. I like to get the atmosphere of this pre-Blitz London, the London my father knew as a schoolboy coming in every day to Blackfriars and going to school in the City. It’s a world that has gone completely and only remains in the pages of books like this one and perhaps on a few dozen yards of celluloid. I say this with some conviction because the observation was made last night on TV by Peter Ustinov and Joan Wyndham,* both of whom lived in the same street in Chelsea before and during the Blitz. They exchanged a look that told us the London they experienced is impossible to describe to people who know it today.

*Peter Ustinov, actor (1921-2004), Joan Wyndham, diarist (1921-2007)

Wednesday April 24, Paris

          I’m sitting in front of my students who are doing their end-of-term test. It’s a pleasant change to see them so quiet and concentrated. They’re writing an essay that not even the most cynical amongst them suspects will never get marked; it’s the last class of the year so they don’t get their answers back. They’ve already shown what they’re capable of during the year; this test is a mere formality. There they sit, brows furrowed, hunched over their papers. The boys wear their hair very short and are dressed in pale blue denim, the girls all have shoulder-length hair and wear black jeans. The second group of students to take the test has the good-looking girls. The sun has begun to stream into the room. Now, after my coffee break, I sit here and consider who would win the class beauty contest. My favourite is Laure, who is sitting in a pool of sunlight dressed in black sweater and black jeans, her legs frankly apart, her voluptuous breasts rising and falling under her ribbed jumper, her brown, curly hair cascading wildly over her shoulders. 

          When it was over, I went looking for the computer software Carole has promised Jimmy. I discover, to my consternation, that the shops no longer stock my Amstrad computer nor the software for it. I ended up not with software but with the advice to buy my children a computer to play games on and with the distinct impression that my machine is obsolete. Which means I’ll have to scrap it before it conks out and get all my discs transferred onto a new system with which I’m unfamiliar. I’m afraid of having to change my habits but I’m even more afraid of being unable to access the discs on which this diary is kept.

Friday April 26, Paris

          Drove to La Tranche-sur-mer. La Vendée is still emerging from winter, the buds only now bursting. When we got there, we had a quick hamburger and went and bought some beach mats. The shopkeeper took me out into the street and explained to me how, forty years ago, there had been a dirt track leading down to the sea and that the place de l’Église had been a cemetery. He got me to notice how they had taken down all the wooden electricity poles and put all the wires underground. He also commented on the polished turquoise and pink paving that had been put down right through the centre of the town. Devil of a job to keep clean, he said. 

          This new paving adds an opulence to the town that the buildings cannot match. What is remarkable about the place is that few buildings have more than two storeys – it being forbidden to build more, apparently. So the town remains a village and in the centre, as well as along the shore, you see the most remarkably archaic, spacious or even dilapidated structures. There are little old villas with enormous gardens right on the sea. Because you are not allowed to build anything other than another house on the ground there’s little incentive to sell to a property developer. The result is that the resort has the unplanned architectural anarchy of the village; vacant plots here, fields there, tumbling sheds and everything from colourful seaside villas to dour farm cottages all built on narrow, winding streets that criss-cross the mount of La Tranche. 

          We lay on the beach on our new mats and the ocean rushed towards our feet while the children dug a moat around us. We kept our pullovers on but, under the sea wall, there were people in swimming costumes. Wind-surfers in black rubber and fishermen in anoraks vied for mastery of the seas. When it began to cloud over, we went and checked in to the Hôtel de l’Atlantique where we stayed two years ago on bi-centennial Bastille Day. It’s about the only three-storey building in the town. We have the top room at the front with a wrought-iron balcony covered in Virginia creeper that goes on up to twine its tendrils around the name of the hotel in red mosaic over the lintel. From our window, you can see just about the whole town. 

          While Carole watched an early episode of Twin Peaks on the room’s TV, I started Rue des boutiques obscures by Modiano.* I was so fascinated I read 140 pages before going to sleep; haven’t read like that for years. The prose is so spare, evocative – so French. A French novel is very different from an English one. Contemporary English novels want to tell you everything; they ramble on and the characters have souls. French novels give you the surface of things, they are clinical and existential and the reader has to fill in the blanks. I like Modiano’s story of the amnesiac groping for his past, picking up clues as to his true identity and projecting himself into the lives of others who may, or may not, have had something to do with him. 

          The novel I want to write starts from the opposite premise, i.e., a character who knows everything about his past (thanks to his journals) but who creates another version of it by selecting from the vast array of facts at his disposal. Whereas Modiano’s hero is hampered by the scarcity of information, mine would be hampered by a surfeit. But his obsession touches mine in that he is fascinated by the disappearance of lives and of places and the traces they leave. Mostly, in Modiano, they leave no trace; lives dissolve and leave, at best, only faded photos and mementos (in tin boxes) that no longer make sense.

*Missing Person by Patrick Modiano won the Prix Goncourt in 1978.

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