November 1991

Saturday November 2, London

          Today, I’m writing in a pub called The Warrington. It’s on the Edgeware side of Maida Vale, built on land that was fields in Restoration times. Pepys may have come this way on horse, but probably never ventured so far on foot, Saint Mary-le-Bone [Marylebone] being as far as he would have needed to come for a stroll in the fresh air. It’s a spacious, black-walled saloon and I’m surrounded by people having a Saturday lunch-time drink. It would be a great effort for them, as it is for me, to imagine the fields, ditches or ponds on which this pub and the surrounding avenues of Georgian and Victorian houses were built. It seems impossible, in fact, that such things were ever here at all.

          But I’m sure Pepys would feel at home here. The staircase, the pillars and the arches are encased in carved mahogany. The bar too. Not exactly Grinling Gibbons, but very accomplished. The place is capacious, convivial, and busy. The tables are laden with pints of lager and bitter, glasses of white wine, colourful crisp packets and large, green ashtrays. The drinkers are young, well-dressed and high-spirited. There’s much cracking of jokes and telling of anecdotes; the week at the office is being laughed off. Above our heads, there are electric coach lamps and big rotor-blade fans. These would probably puzzle Pepys. And he’d surely be alarmed by the noises and flashing lights of the fruit machines and the Space Invaders. Not to mention the sounds of traffic outside. But basically, I think he’d love it.

Tuesday November 5, Paris

          I’m the only person in the salon de repos in the Hôtel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. The room is square, with a very high ceiling, gilt mouldings and enormous, panelled mirrors. It also has some comfortable armchairs in which I could easily fall asleep. I’ve been looking at paintings of early nineteenth-century Paris. For the moment, I’m trying to imagine Madame Récamier sitting on the sofa over there opposite me, inspired by François Gérard’s 1805 portrait of her that hangs above it. She’d be wearing that white, low-cut Grecian-style dress he’s painted her in that makes you want to put your hands on her tits. As in the painting, her bare arms would be hanging limply at her sides in a pose of contrived submission. If she’d been alive today she’d have done a centrefold for Playboy magazine. Were she in the room now, we’d make subdued but witty conversation at a distance, then she would sit quite still as I went over to her. And shudder as I kissed the nipples that I’d freed from the bustier of her dress.

Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) by François Gérard, Musée Carnavalet (detail)

          Damn, it’s time to go and teach my rowdy group D at the business school! And I haven’t seen half of the paintings I came to see.

          I did a poor class, allowing the students to talk during an exposé by one of them. Lecture the students, I told myself afterwards; don’t give them a chance to express themselves, you idiot! The universities here understand that; anything involving letting the students open their mouths is handled by auxiliary, non-contractual personnel. Far too wearing for the regular teachers to be able to handle. Not until you get down to ten students is it feasible to allow them to express themselves. And yet, at the business school, with 25 to 30 students to a class, I am still being lured by the idea that some form of dialogue is possible.

Tuesday November 12, Paris

          I meander through the streets of the Marais espying courtyards and cottages, making the sort of discoveries that usually thrill me, but not today. I walk slowly through the drizzle, between the walls of damp stone. Through the rue des Gravilliers and the rue Chapon, past the sweat shops, the Chinese leather bag-and-belt shops, out into the rue Beaubourg just south of Arts-et-Métiers. Here there are office buildings, warehouses, dimly-lit shops, and petrol pumps in the street. It looks like London or New York in the 1950s. No, it looks like Edinburgh in the 1950s; the soot-black stone, the heavy, varnished window frames, the permanent lettering. From here Haussmann’s canyons stretch south to Notre-Dame, west to Saint-Lazare. I go into the café by Rambuteau métro with forty-five minutes to kill and write. Smoke from every table clogs the air and inhibits my breathing. The smoking couple in front of me each have a copy of Libération open before them and are reading the obituary of Yves Montand. I’m getting out before my clothes stink of the smoke and my throat is singed by it.

          I went to the Théâtre Marie Stuart to see Pinter’s One for the Road back-to-back with a play by Robert Coover called Love Scene. The auditorium is full on this first night. Ben is in Love Scene, but even he can’t save it from being a dreadful play. Things started hotting up towards the end when he and the girl got to miming fucking positions and began to take off their clothes. If they’d gone the whole way, the play might have been worth watching, but the voice-off director of the production ejaculates prematurely and the curtain falls. One for the Road was a lot better (Ben playing the torture victim being menacingly interrogated). So: pleasure in the first play, pain in the second; quite a bill!

          Afterwards I talked to Barbara Bray* (who directed) and told everybody it was very good, although I didn’t think it was. Ben and I then went to join the troupe in a restaurant in the rue Montorgeuil. When the people around the table asked me what I was doing these days, ashamed to say ‘nothing’ (since they are all doing something – or claim to be), I let out that I was writing a novel then lied about how far I’d got with it. This I said to two or three people and others overheard. When we left the restaurant in the pouring rain and parted, Barbara offered herself as “guinea pig” for anything I want to show her. She seems so eager to help me that I almost feel obliged not to let her down – let alone these other people who will now be expecting me to come up with the goods. I went home on a high and couldn’t get to sleep because excited by the commitment I’d found myself making; I really have to start writing immediately – if only to save face.

*Barbara Bray (1924-2010), translator.

Sunday November 24, Paris

          I’m intrigued by all this merry talk Pepys has with his patron’s wife, Lady Sandwich. Several times this month he’s spent afternoons and some evenings in private conversation with her at the Wardrobe where she and her family have their lodgings. Lord Sandwich, Master of the Wardrobe and recently appointed Vice-Admiral, is on naval duty in Tangiers. Was Pepys trying to seduce ‘my Lady’ in his absence, or what? What did they talk about? Pepys doesn’t tell us. If only we had her diary angle on this. On the 10th, he dines with her and all Pepys says is that she incites him not to be stingy about laying out money on new clothes for his wife, Elizabeth – which she gets cheap from the Wardrobe, presumably. The next day,* he agrees to £6 for a lace, though secretly thinking it’s too much. Yes, he is stingy, Pepys. But what else did they talk about?

            I spent much of the afternoon trying to find out more. Her name was Jemima and she’s thirty-six at this point. That’s eight years older than Pepys. Comparing her portrait with that of Elizabeth, they have a remarkably similar style of beauty; the same shape of eyebrows and chin, the same decorative curls on the forehead. But Jemima’s beauty is a nobler, more refined version of Elizabeth’s. Moreover, she had the maturity and experience of motherhood that Elizabeth did not. One can easily understand what Pepys might have seen in her. What makes it unlikely, though, that he was doing anything more than just enjoying her company, was that the eighth of Jemima’s nine children had been born in August. But then again, if there was something going on behind Lord Sandwich’s back, it would’ve been more than Pepys’ life was worth to write it down. So, in his diary, is he in fact telling us the whole truth?

*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Nov 11, 1661

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