June 1991

Sunday June 2, Paris

          Now here’s something of a coincidence: although born in England, Elizabeth Pepys had a French father who was born in Anjou – just like my father-in-law. And not so very far away, as it turns out. Every French person knows that the Anjou region has two boasts: the douceur, or mildness of its climate, made famous long ago by its most celebrated poet, Joachim du Bellay and the belle poitrines, or beautiful breasts of its womenfolk exalted by Boby Lapointe in an early-sixties song. The former I can vouch for but my objective experience of the latter is limited to the belle poitrine of my father-in-law’s daughter. However, one of the illustrations in my edition of the diaries is that of a copy of a bust of Elizabeth in the National Portrait Gallery. From this, it is apparent that a) the second of the boasts is not an idle one and b), in Pepys’ time, necklines being low, one would’ve had ampler opportunities than present themselves today to judge the truth of it for oneself. 

          I also learned in passing from the texts about Pepys that I’ve strayed into that Elizabeth narrowly escaped concealing her charms forever beneath a nun’s habit. It is said that she spent ten days in the Ursuline convent in Paris until her father – sensible man – came and got her out. I’ll have to go and take a look at that bust of hers for myself.*

*see it for yourself

Tuesday June 11, Paris

          This old plane (a Douglas DC-9) has been painted in bright colours and re-vinyled inside but the seat frames are a relic from the ‘white heat of technology’ era. The carpet is BOAC blue and the Tannoy is playing martial music. Inspires enormous confidence. It jiggers along the runway with all its aluminium vibrating and forty brown-haired heads sway from side to side. Taking off, it goes up through dense white cloud that’s like an impenetrable luminous fog. 

          The hostesses are dressed like harlequins and they have their work cut out plying the passengers with food and drink before the plane starts its descent. It’s quite absurd, but at four in the afternoon here we are being served a light meal, sweets, gin and tonics, coffee and chocolates. Now we’re bumping down through those luminous clouds and the tubby blonde with the sun-tanned arms and the Brummie accent is tonging out hot towels. It’s the pièce de résistance – as if we hadn’t had enough service already.

          Can’t see anything down there at all and my ears have started to hurt. We’re almost motionless now on a white sea and all I hear is a hiss of air from behind and a noise outside like wind and waves. My eyes and throat are aching and I’m going deaf. The engines accelerate and then decelerate. Still this thick fog outside but grey now – London grey. Now they appear: the carmine-tiled roofs in rows with green strips in-between and the parked cars glinting. Christ! this feels like a dodgy old aircraft. But the hostesses are unconcerned. It wobbles down over housing estates, lurching from side to side; seems very hit-and-miss. 

          On arrival, I wait for my sister in the lounge. Immediately asked if I want to buy a £5 raffle ticket to win the red Ferrari parked below the arrivals board. I don’t buy one, but the possibility I might win if I did nags at me. The lounge is full of yellow indication panels on which, curiously, is that primary-school lettering in black. The plastic seats are a vivid green. There is a W. H. Smith, a Thomas Cook and a ‘health food’ counter top-heavy with oranges. There are thin, grey chauffeurs pulling on cupped cigarettes. I sat in the hall for about twenty minutes until Deborah arrived with the girls in grey school uniforms. We got into the maroon Ghia and became part of the traffic moving steadily on roads that slash through green fields. The sky is very grey, the cloud is low and the rain is just holding off. This country is being destroyed by cars.

          I walk down Deborah’s street – Park Avenue – to buy some beers from the Indian corner shop. It’s a residential street just on the fringe of Watford town centre. It’s another planet. There are houses that try to look Elizabethan with black, stick-on timbers, there are houses coated in pebbledash and there are houses with stick-on timbers on pebbledash. There are old people’s rest homes and naturopaths. There’s a single black-and-green pay-phone box with a yobbo in it. Plump Indian women in bright saris shuffle along the pavement, old skeletons of men with wispy beards and turbans prod across the road with canes.

Saturday June 15, London

            I went to Hart Street to see Pepys’ church. They’d been busy demolishing that part of The City – though not Saint Olave’s. It’s a wonderful little place; compact and rural-looking. Two old ladies were arranging the flowers. But I had eyes only for lady Elizabeth. From the moment I turned into the nave, I caught her surveying me from her vantage point high above the altar. Approaching, I saw that she must’ve been a handsome woman. The lips, slightly parted, make her all the more so. But they also suggest she could be as vociferous as the proverbial fishwife. The Virgin Mary excepted, it’s very unusual to see the likeness of a woman in a church.

My ignorance of Latin (Pepys would be appalled) frustrated my attempt to understand the dedication inscribed beneath the bust. I took a photograph of it and will try to decipher it later. There’s a bust of Pepys on the opposite wall, where the entrance to the Navy Office pew used to be. But it took nearly two hundred years for them to put him there. Where his wife could see what he was up to, I suppose.

          Fred and I went this evening to the Bengali restaurant at the Westbourne Grove end of Queensway and ate a tandoori. He was guiding me through the local mythology: the cinemas that had been pulled down, the first launderette in Britain across the road, the illuminated glass dome of Whiteleys – the country’s oldest department store resurrected as a shopping mall. When we went there after the meal, there were lots of young Arab couples with children come to eat ice cream and drink coffee. “Where are they all from?” I asked Fred. “Kuwait, of course.”* Then to Finch’s, full of drinkers. The pavement outside was crowded, even though the night was chilly. Shivering, I zipped up my new brick-red blouson. The Portobello Road was almost empty, the debris from this afternoon’s market being swept up. 

          We elbowed our way to the bar and found a niche from where we observed the kids now flocking to this and other pubs in the immediate vicinity. Fred and Jerry, who have been regular drinkers in the area for twenty years, have never seen anything like it. Steadily, over the past few years, young people have been converging on these very basic, dowdy and old-fashioned pubs with no juke-box, Space Invaders or even bar snacks. The landlord of Finch’s is Irish and so are all the staff. The walls are mahogany brown and the wallpaper is nicotine yellow. Yet here you see kids in their early twenties, mostly white. The girls are stunningly well-dressed with nice hairstyles but the boys are not much to look at; the girls sophisticated, the boys, nondescript. We surveyed the crowd from the superior heights of 40-plus, conjectured about what it all meant, whether it was the start of something and, at the same time, smirked at the idea that in ten years’ time they will all be at home and bringing up babies and trying to stop smoking. 

          On the way back, Fred stopped the Volvo outside the little shop in Porchester Road above which he was brought up in a two-bedroomed flat with parents, two brothers and Gran. It was above the United Dairies, where Fred’s dad was a milkman. 

*after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990, hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis fled the country.

Sunday June 16, London

          I’m in Dino’s café in Kensington Church Street. Have just eaten a bacon sandwich and drunk an expresso coffee and now ordered scrambled eggs and more coffee. I should’ve had the cooked breakfast. The waitress has brought an old lady a plate heaped with fried button mushrooms. I’ve been walking Campden Hill, and made a detour to see if I could recognize which shop was the old Biba. Found it, stood outside wanting to be reminded of how I went there on my own to buy Laura a blue, see-through, floral dress – a diaphanous garment she wore to student parties throughout the summer of 1969.

          I had started off on Campden Hill with the Square, wondering if I’d see Harold Pinter and feeling like an obvious literary pilgrim. But there was hardly a sign of life anywhere except for a few people badly parking cars or on foot on their way to play tennis. There was a burglar alarm going off on a house that looked as if it could’ve been Pinter’s – but I couldn’t remember his number. It’s so green here and so protected. Perhaps everybody is abroad.

          In Holland Park for the first time, I was surprised not to find a formal park with mown grass but wild woodland with rotting tree trunks and a riot of suckers. It started to rain and I stopped to watch the men going through their t’ai chi routines, sweeping the air with their arms and swivelling in slow motion on their heels. On a bench, under an enormous spreading tree where it was almost pitch dark, a black man in a suit was reading out, in a loud voice, what sounded like a dialogue from a play. 

          Then I walked all the way up Landsdowne Road to Finch’s. Fred was right; Landsdowne Road must be about the most attractive residential street in London. There’s absolutely nobody about; just birds making song and squirrels hunting for buried nuts. It’s so exclusive, so English; a world-and-a-half away from where ordinary people live and struggle. 

Monday June 24, Paris

          Spent the morning interviewing some very mediocre candidates at the business institute. A lot of them try and use the word ‘paradox’ and look pointedly at you to see if you’ve registered. This discovery of theirs that every situation is ‘paradoxical’ seems to be the latest line in clip-on intelligence. Worst of all are the nineteen and twenty-year-old boys who dress ‘executive style,’ presumably because they think the panel will see them as potential executive material. These kids already look like the redundant fifty-year-old executives they may well, one day, become.

            During a pause, I stare out of the window of the interview room. The last section of the front wall of a building is being snatched and toppled by the jaws of an excavator. Revealed behind is the semi-circular, metal-and-glass front of an atelier; probably one of the last workshops along this stretch of the Canal Saint-Martin, now given over to residential buildings and high-tech office blocks. High up, on a balcony on the other side of the canal, leaning on the rail smoking a cigarette, is a man or woman who is, to all appearances, the smoker I once was. I have stood on balconies and smoked, smoked through open windows, the white smoke of the cigarette drifting up to meet the white sky, silently cocooned in the ritual of burning the tobacco and the paper all the way down to the sad stub. The person I can see, who looks like I must have looked to another on a grey, summer afternoon in some European city, carries with him, or her, a different history, a completely alien reservoir of memories, different aches and pains, a different body smell, different reasons for being there at that moment, leaning on the rail, smoking a cigarette. 

          Came home and had a beer in front of the TV. I’m not good for much in the evening after a day interviewing. It’s now warm enough to have the door to the balcony open, but the sky is still white or grey and it rains often. Jeremy Irons is on, smoking nervously before being introduced by Antoine de Caunes. In his usual provocative manner, he does this in English with a heavy Inspector Clouseau accent, manically showering the studio audience with slices of bacon, teabags, Agatha Christie paperbacks, and French letters, scornfully reminding them that the French call them capotes anglaises. Irons looks more than a little puzzled by all this.

          There followed a programme on the future of TV and about the devices we will have to explore virtual reality. The generation brought up on TV and computers, it was said, will be perfectly adapted to the audio-visual environment now in preparation. This world of clip on visors and artificial extension of the senses frightens me, just as TV itself frightened an earlier generation. It ‘frightens’ me, not so much because it looks inhuman but because I see myself becoming a relic from an old world – one based on direct experience and books. I see any future I might have as a writer vanish because there will be no books. I ought to be walking around with a video camera and recording my journal on video disc instead of writing all these words that no-one will have the patience to read. Always this fear that I will live to see the book disappear. But if I am honest, I still have confidence in the superiority of the word over the image.

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