August 1991

Sunday August 4, Daglan, Dordogne

          We went to Cénac on the river Dordogne to bathe. The river flows past strongly across smooth brown pebbles that are surprisingly painful to walk on. A constant stream of canoes heads downriver. The Dutch women paddle bare-breasted. Right down by the river is a campsite. Half of the site is occupied by middle-class Dutch and British tourists; the other half is proletarian and French. In the French pitches, the woman is under the awning preparing the salads, the man out prodding at the barbecue, running a hand over a brown pot belly. Cadaverous grandpa in trousers and a white sleeveless vest is lighting up yet another cigarette and hovering around the table hoping to be given something useful to do. The smoke from the barbecues, along with the smell of methylated spirits wafts over the pink bodies of the tourists prostrate on the river bank. 

          It is the Dutch who predominate in the area. The hill we look out onto from the gîte is entirely inhabited by them. I had expected to find the Brits. In the little hamlet where we are staying, called Bargès, there are just three homes and about ten barns or outbuildings. The young people have gone to study and get jobs in the cities and the small farms are run by old people, growing tobacco, walnuts and vines. There are sheep, rabbits and ducks, and calves raised in the dark in a stinking concrete shed. You can’t see the animals but you can hear the constant shuffling of their hooves on the concrete floor and the occasional awful bleat carries across the steeply sloping field. 

          We went up the hill to Domme and walked the main street to the belvedere overlooking the valley and then back again to the car park. Smartly-dressed women shopkeepers (mothers and their daughters) await the customer in shop after shop filled with displays of carefully arranged cans and bottles. The profits from the sale of foie gras and of Bergerac wine have paid for the sandblasting of the ochre stone walls. Domme is a medieval shopping mall that tries so hard to be authentic it looks artificial.

Sunday August 11, Daglan, Dordogne

          To visit the grotto at Saint-Cirq near Les Eyzies. It is a tiny cave with a few stone carvings that you can only make out with the aid of a torch. Even then I don’t recognize much except the human form (crouching, half animal-half man) which brings the grotto its custom. This lunchtime, though, we are the only visitors. We park the Renault in the shade of some stout, green bamboo. I adore the strength and colour of this bamboo and make a mental note to grow some in my garden – if ever we have one. The caretaker, sleepy and deadened by years of repeating the same actions, the same commentary, gives us the guided tour. He is wearing carpet slippers. We drive through Les Eyzies, the Hollywood of cave scenery. The place is a sort of open-cast museum.

          I’ve been hyped by You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, Julia Phillips’s best-selling account of her rise to fame as the first woman film producer to win an Oscar and her fall through drugs and bankruptcy. I feel like a grammarian of the old school when I read her prose; badly structured and irritatingly abstruse. Who are all these people she mentions and what’s so interesting about what they got up to? The book reads like it’s written for a handful of initiates. Names are enough for her; she names people but can’t convey what they are like. Her world is one of labels. There are six hundred pages of this and half of it (the part about past success) is written in the first person in the present tense, whilst the part about her miserable present is written in the third person, but in the past tense. The two narratives converge in the middle, I suppose. To me, this is a sign of total ego confusion. But this poorly-written ego-dribble is now a major bestseller. I keep on with it anyhow, just waiting for her to deal the dirt that will, apparently, make it impossible for her ever to eat lunch in Hollywood again.

Friday August 16, Daglan, Dordogne

          La Roque-Gageac: last day of the Dordogne leg of the holiday. Last bathe in the river. Lying on the sandy bank, I look up at the yellow cliff face. Stunted pine trees growing halfway up it seem almost to tumble off the top. I stretch out and write in the diary notebook. Next to us, a couple, fiftyish. He was un beau mâle [a handsome man], now gone fat. Still does press-ups though; top of biceps meaty. Artistic, show-business face. She too; Catherine Deneuve with a weight problem. Sexy. Blonde. Fifty. No varicose veins. Big tits, big bum. No, they’re not fat, they just eat too much. Gastronomic meals. Enjoy themselves. Fuck a lot in hotel rooms. Is that a whip mark on her buttock? Just touring. No ties but a long affair. They look interested, I am interested. We would have things to say to each other. We don’t enter into communication. We eye each other. They get ready to leave in their white station wagon. Standing up in her black bikini she is sexily overweight. No dimpled fat; still firm. I take my last bathe in the Dordogne. I’m feeling better now, I’m feeling on form. 

Friday August 23, Paris

          Gorbachev is back, arriving at Moscow airport looking like he’d just been woken up from an afternoon siesta. One theory is that he himself set up the putsch to eliminate the hard-liners. In which case, it would make sense for him to look as if he’d been out for the count while all this was going on; look the victim so that the people won’t think he’s the executioner. *

          Most of the afternoon, while the sky was grey and the children played inside or out, I read Les Passagers du Roissy Express by François Maspero. It’s the account of a journey through the Paris suburbs dictated by the stations of the RER, Line B. A brilliant idea, this, beginning with an introduction to the village of Roissy – an insignificant and unknown place until the building of the airport made it internationally famous. The book takes the opportunity to describe its topography as well as its history – not forgetting its notoriety as the place where ‘O’ was taken, tied up, and used in Pauline Réage’s novel.**

          The children have been in bed for an hour now but every five minutes they call me because they’re afraid of something, or because they’ve heard a mosquito, or because they want a cuddle, or a song. Not until 11 o’clock can the evening begin for adults. Now Emma calls yet again, I lose my temper and she starts to cry. I get her out of bed and tell her to walk around if she isn’t tired. She comes and sits at the kitchen table and watches me while I write and the herbal tea I promised her is brewing. I wish I could be honest in these pages; be brutally honest and observe what is happening here, as a Martian might. But I am dishonest and fail to open my eyes to what goes on around me. Emma’s hair is almost the same colour as her eyes – a sort of golden brown. She looks at me quizzically as I write in my notebook, keeping silent, running her fingers up her scratched and sunburnt legs, waiting for the promised lime tea.

*After being side-lined by reactionary elements of the Communist party in an attempted coup d’état, Mikhail Gorbachev returned to Moscow to resume his duties as General Secretary only to resign the following day, August 24. 

**Histoire d’O (1954) by Pauline Réage [Anne Duclos]

Friday August 30, Paris

          Here I am with the flat all to myself. I keep the blue-and-white striped balcony blinds down and the living room stays shady and cool. The foliage out there on the boulevard seems denser than ever, the building is almost deserted and the heat has slowed everything down. 

          At 2.30 p.m., I went to be taken on a walk around what’s left of the wine and spirit warehouses at Bercy. Paris walks are advertised as ‘conferences’ and this one attracted me because it claimed to be ‘the ultimate visit before demolition.’ The tour was very long and inappropriately academic. The ugly little man in the green suit who guided the vast group of sixty people had all the mannerisms and the phraseology of the French academic. How he bored and irritated us with his interminable preambles about what we were going to see next and his repeated asides about Philistine property developers. For the most part, the warehouses are 100 years old. If this were London, some of them would have been restored to create a ‘period’ shopping arcade. But this is Paris, so everything will come down. I found it difficult to feel concerned about the disappearance of these buildings; most of the site has already been levelled. Had I seen it as a working village I’d probably have been outraged. Our guide, looking like a pre-historic lizard, has been following the destruction stone by stone, tile by tile for twenty years.

          I left the hot and dusty site and took the métro to Odéon, then to the terrace of ‘Le Buci’ in the rue Mazarine for a beer. The Carrefour de Buci is tagged and freshly tarmacked and the pavement of the rue Mazarine has been widened, making the crossroads narrower. Rubbish litters the five streets that radiate from this point and scruffy people wander aimlessly in the cloying evening heat. It is the evening hour of promise and, it seems to me now, thirteen years on from coming here for the first time, that although the sense of promise still lingers and skirts are very tight and breasts bared, my reverence for this language, this luxury, this European sky and these shabby, cream-coloured buildings has somewhat faded. Past my table stroll healthy, hygienic American tourists while at neighbouring tables slouch young American residents, haggard and red-eyed from boozing and partying. 

          In the rue Dauphine, there are now a lot of smart restaurants. The old, glass-engraved pâtisserie and crémerie have gone for good. The door to number 13, however, is still there – and still hanging off its hinges. The building is dark, except for a light on in my old window on the top floor, the dirty net curtain (the same?) draped over the left-hand side of the frame, opened to let the air in, as I used to do. The other side opened directly onto the desk where I would sit at night in front of my yellow typewriter, typing my diary. In the streets, then as now, are the poor, the young, and those willing for sex. From that window, I would see the tourists sitting in white plastic chairs on the open deck of a bateau mouche, waiting for the off. Over La Sainte-Chapelle there is a fat full moon looking like a crusty old camembert. 

previous post, July 1991, next on September 15 when Paris Diaries goes to New York

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