October 1991

Saturday October 5, Paris

          The dominant tense of Pepys’ diary is the preterit. Many diarists, myself included, often use the narrative present for greater immediacy. Only people who are pretending to be diarists, writing a column for a newspaper, say, naively use the present tense throughout under the mistaken impression that it is the diary convention. A tense Pepys never uses to describe his actions is the present continuous. He’ll never say, for instance, ‘I’m alone in The Dolphin eating some bloat-herrings and drinking good sack, it’s bucketing down outside, and there’s a handsome wench polishing the tankards.’ Never the on-the-spot reporter, Pepys. He writes in private after the event, not in public during it. It’s actually quite difficult for me to picture him writing his diary at all. He tells us so little about the surroundings and the circumstances in which he does it. From what I can gather, he writes late at night, in his closet, – often after a good binge. Where did he write before he had his own closet?  Did he take his diary to work at the Navy Office and make his entries there? Such are the details that other diarists are curious to know about.

          It’s apparent from the crop of debates on French TV this season that ideology is in crisis. Now that the socialist ideal has collapsed, nobody knows what to believe in, or who the enemy is. This is perceived as a potentially dangerous stage for our Western society. What is the new status quo? The difficulty is in obtaining some form of consensus now that the monolithic givens that have operated up to now are pushed aside. Are we evolving out of a democracy and, if so, to what? Anarchy? Fascism? Dictatorship? … to Private Management or Corporate Society where the elected leader is like a Chairman of the Board?

Monday October 7, Paris

          Went to teach, for the first time, in the business institute’s new building on the quai de la Seine. It’s all sunlight, white walls, steel and glass angles. Pristine high tech right next to the shells of grey, blackened, scarred buildings that are being torn down between the bassin de la Villette and the rue de Flandre. In the new building, there is a layer of dust on everything, including the desks. The cleaners haven’t been yet so there’s rubbish and cigarette ends everywhere and the toilets are getting squalid. There are no board erasers so the teachers are using toilet paper. The walls haven’t yet been painted, the parquet is unpolished and there are wires sticking out of the plaster. Workmen are in and out of the classrooms, drilling holes in the walls and feeding in cables that should have been laid during construction. The sound of electric drills makes it almost impossible to gain the students’ attention. In this school devoted to economics and business, they’ve named the classrooms after artists and philosophers. Trying to compensate for the absence from its cursus of the humanities perhaps?

Le Couvent des Récollets in October 2021

          I came out and walked down the canal and along the side of the Couvent des Récollets, a fine, but dilapidated C18th building in the square Villemin. It’s the object of a wrangle between the Ministry that owns it and the artists who use it for studios and want to see it preserved, not pulled down to make way for offices and housing. The high wall around it (which is buttressed to stop it bursting open onto the road) is topped by metal poles at regular intervals. The protesting occupants have plopped a beige rubber glove over each so that, as you walk along, it looks as if you’re being waved to by people you can’t see. Just opposite, in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, the squatters who were occupying several old buildings (which they had decorated with a mural) have been evicted and demolition is going to start.

          Then to my bank to pay in the first income of the new year. They too have just opened new offices, but with marble floors mostly paid for out of the exorbitant commission they take for handling my foreign currency cheques. I was handed a gift by a hostess, offered some champagne and taken on a guided tour that included – at my request – the safe deposit boxes; one day I might want to lock a copy of my journal in there. Thought I might as well take advantage of their mood of generosity and ask for an overdraft of 15,000 francs to tide me over. Then went home and telephoned my new students at the bank, all of whom agreed to the times I suggested. And then got the classrooms I particularly wanted booked before the other teachers can grab them.

          Started getting ideas of how Defoe’s accounts of behaviour in plague London could be turned into a screenplay. Within an hour, I’d sketched out a plot and listed many of the scenes of the film. It might begin with the rural tranquillity of contagion-free Walthamstow (where some of my characters would later flee to) and switch to a close-up of a rat in a narrow London alley, then to the wheels of the carriages taking the King and his Court away to the country. It would be a film about how people change when they think they might be contaminated by their fellows; it would be a film about Aids but not make Aids its subject.

Wednesday October 23, Paris

          I’ve been thinking yet again about how this damn novel I haven’t yet started will start. I now see my narrator as a ghost writer commissioned by a mysterious recluse to make something of his private journal. But still, it has to start with Nadia. Who, back from her maternity leave, cut my hair today, replying enthusiastically to my questions about her baby, showing me photos. All in all, we get on rather well.

          On the BBC, a comedy series called Bottom with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson. They play a seedy, unemployed male couple who reminded me all at once of Steptoe & Son, Orton & Halliwell and Gilbert & George. Why do we cherish all these male couples in Britain: Morecombe & Wise, Gilbert & Sullivan, the Kray twins? A long list could be made. In France, all they have are the frères Goncourt. Basically, I suppose, it’s because British men have a problem with relating to women.

Wednesday October 30, Canterbury

          We went shopping in Canterbury and I bought trousers, a cardigan and brown shoes. ‘Air shoes,’ they’re called because they have compressed air in the soles. The Longmarket in the city centre is being built on instead of being turned into an open space. The Tory councillors who voted that in got voted out at the last election: small consolation. The sky was low and black and it was spitting with rain – a real November gloom and the lighted shops already displaying the green and red trappings of Christmas; baubles for the tree and cards lacking any design initiative or imagination. There’s a whole shop that a long time ago used to be the main fishmonger’s given over entirely to Christmas trinkets. The people have traded in protein for paper chains.

          I got my father onto the subject of the family and discovered that my great-grandfather [b. 1858] was the first in the family not born in Nottinghamshire but in London, Great Dover Street, SE1. He patented a reversible waistcoat and started a successful business selling them. The business collapsed after the First World War and the elder sons who inherited it got into dire straits. My grandfather, too young to join the business, trained as an accountant and did all right. It was he who moved the family to Wallington in Surrey which, in the 1920s, was countryside. Their last house was built on land belonging to a farm where my father used to play as a child. He thinks his childhood was idyllic. He had an active social life within an extended family, holidays in unspoilt places, explored the train and tram lines in and out of London going to school. Then there was the general absence of stress, of pollution, of violence and of danger. I think he felt chuffed that I asked him all this. I didn’t ask in order to flatter him but simply because I wanted so very much to know.

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