December 1991

Monday December 2, Paris

          Arriving early at the institute, I was one of the first to witness the hammer-smashed glass doors to the office and the teachers’ room. The frames had buckled under the blows, allowing the intruders to get in and ransack, looking no doubt for the key that opens the cupboards where the audio-visual material is kept. All the video-recorders in the place were cleaned out and the lecture theatres stripped of equipment. I went down to see the caretaker; he’d seen and heard nothing. Neither had the night watchman. The police, when called, didn’t want to know.

          Conway’s diner, lunchtime. Caramel-and-chocolate walls, dim light – so dim I strain to read. A cold blast in the kidneys from the overhead rotor blade flicking chill December air around whilst a radiator scalds my right leg. Not quite the cosy little meal I’d had in mind. The hamburger was disgusting; I’m definitely not coming here again. The waitress comes with my sundae, “There you go…”, she goes.

          The customers sitting at the high, bench tables look self-conscious: either because they’re Americans pretending they’re Parisians or French people pretending they’re in New York. Me? I was looking for a snug corner to hole up in for two hours. A corner, yes, snug, no. I have a backlog of book reviews to catch up on. The more I read about the writers I’d like to be like, the more I discover how depressed they were. Not being depressive, homosexual or alcoholic, I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll ever make it. Or, perhaps I’m all those and don’t know it yet. In which case, I’m in with a fighting chance.

          I also read, in The Independent, about the student who strangled his unfaithful girlfriend (an undergraduate at Oxford), put her body under the floorboards of her lodgings, then continued to write her love letters to mislead the police. I’ve been trying to imagine how he felt in those days before his arrest. How surprised he must’ve been by what he’d done, how puzzled by the strangeness of his act and how darkly confronted by the primary object of his wrath. I mentioned this to my students in the afternoon in an attempt to attract their attention. For a minute or two, they actually shut up and listened but the rest of the time I found myself talking over a babble and shrank from the repressive words and actions that might have brought quiet.

Monday December 9, Paris

          Black morning, black thoughts; the bottom of the pit. I’m getting older and reaching an age where you don’t change. I’m stuck with my stupidities and timorousness, stuck with the job, with the deadlines, with the marking. Stuck with having chosen to give priority to money, not pleasure. Soon to be a rebuked parent, a fuddy-duddy, a middle-aged duffer. Too old already and on the convoy to the scrap heap. I get up in the dark, eat my breakfast, wash and shave, put on thermal underwear against the cold and sit huddled in the trains that take me to the classroom, shrinking from the day, the week ahead, wishing I could crawl back into bed, be warm, nurse myself and go back to sleep.

          At eight o’clock there’s little sign of life in my classroom. It’s still dark outside and the heating’s still not working. By half past eight, a few students have traipsed in, waiting passively to be entertained. I was actually quite sprightly despite my heavy reluctance to teach.

          Came out at five-thirty, bolstered rather than whipped, bought a ‘financier’ at the boulangerie opposite the Pompidou Centre, now with its counter counting down the seconds to the year 2000. I noted approximately how many of them had been deducted since I walked past it this morning. How awful to have this right in front of your windows, constantly reminding you that the sand of your life is running out! This evening at 5.35 there were 254,330,000-odd seconds to go before the millennium. Put this way, the time remaining looks like a store to be used wisely. I thought of Gurdjieff’s maxim: ‘Time is breath.’

Saturday December 14, London

          In Maida Vale there was thick fog, in Covent Garden bright sunshine. I veered away from the market towards Trafalgar Square. From Saint Paul’s church came West Indian carnival music; there was a Christmas-pudding race going on. In Saint Martin’s Lane, outside the Duke of York’s theatre, two lads were loading a van. I heard one say to the other, “Be’ergedatdunSteveay’anwe?” The sun’s rays were hitting its façade at an angle, throwing the Ionic columns of its balustrade into sharp relief and making its salmon-pink walls look like Venetian terracotta. Noël Coward’s name in blue over the entrance. What had the two young men ‘better get done’? Steve was slinging what looked like a charred vulture into the back of the van. For a split second, I fancied they’d dislodged it from a chimney breast. I stopped to ask, “What on earth is that?” Got my answer by turning to see where this strange object had emerged from: the backstage of The Coliseum opposite. The two lads were merely taking some props away.

          Posted my Christmas cards and emerged into a magnificently bright Trafalgar Square where I can’t help but think of Empire. But how small it all looks, how modest in scale. Went into the new Dillons on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and came out with just two books as presents – nothing for myself. I don’t want to read other people’s books, I want to write my own. Can’t come to this part of London without getting visual echoes of being taken to try on school uniform at Gorringes outfitters in The Strand, of oak-panelled tea rooms and of wooden escalators in the underground. Yes, there was a lot of wood around in London back then.

          In the evening, I went out on my own to the Almeida in Islington to see Pinter’s new play, Party Time. The theatre was only half full. There were some inimitable Pinter lines but it lacked the density of his earlier plays. It was an elaborate vignette, orchestrated like a tango or a two-step. One thing at its height, though, is Pinter’s compulsion for repetition of words and phrases. The audience was mostly made up of students, all wearing black jeans. Behind me, some were discussing how to cook a cheap meal: veggie burgers laced with baked beans. When it finished, I just went back to Maida Vale in the fog. There was nothing else to do. Didn’t see myself stopping off for a pint at a smoke-filled pub in Upper Street and standing out like a sore thumb amongst the sixteen-year-olds.

          Pepys has a real problem with theatre-going in the autumn and winter of 1661. The Puritans have got their claws into his conscience and won’t let go. His solemn oaths to give up not just wine but plays as well amuse me. I make resolutions to give up drinking – I did so again this morning – but theatre-going? My resolutions last as long as Pepys’ oaths; they’re broken the very next day. Such infidelities to one’s conscience are a minor inconvenience for most people but for diarists, the hard evidence of inconsistencies and contradictions cannot be wished away. We’re saddled with the traces of all our plans, intentions, and resolutions. And are forever able, as time passes, to measure how far we’ve fallen short of acting on them. Again, it occurs to me that there’s something of the book-keeper in the diarist. He is keeper of a kind of spiritual balance sheet. Look at the way, for instance, that Pepys often rounds off the month – and always the year – with an assessment of his state of physical and material well-being. There’s accountancy for you!

Monday December 16, London

          All the London stations had been closed early in the morning because of an IRA bomb scare and so commuters took to their cars. In the general pandemonium, I missed my flight from Gatwick. So, went to stay with Fred and Jane again, arriving back at Maida Vale bearing a bottle of good Médoc I bought at Oddbins. What a shambles the transport in this country is: the roads are congested, the trains not only late or cancelled but also encrusted with grime. They’re the same ones I travelled on twenty years ago, only with an extra few centimetres of accreted grime. The ten o’clock news is a catalogue of decline and economic recession: mortgage re-possessions, crime rates up by a third in one year, falling output – the flip side of 1980’s confidence in the power of money to triumph. A frenzied belief in the potency of market forces has now given way to a glib stoicism about becoming a Third-World nation.

          Fred and I talked about the decline of textual literacy. His A level students won’t – or can’t – read a book. It’s too boring and too difficult to understand; too taxing on their powers of concentration. One of the teacher’s jobs now is to read the book for them, summarize the essential chapters and distribute some edited highlights. They don’t do Shakespeare any more – they don’t do poetry. Basically, they don’t really do literature. Makes me think there’ll be nobody out there to read my books even if I get around to writing them. The novel will die, I thought, and literature will go audio-visual.

Tuesday December 17, London

          In my ‘Club Class’ seat now, drinking my champagne and eating my prawns, but all the same feeling most wary of the sounds this aircraft makes as it starts to descend through bumpy-looking clouds to Roissy. I think about people who’ve flown regularly all their lives and are still alive and I think of the will I haven’t made yet. The cabin starts to hiss and deafness comes on. I wish I could have the confidence in these aircraft that the steward seems to as he makes obsequious conversation over there with two elegant and, no doubt, very wealthy passengers. I’m the only one in this section not wearing a tie. I have my leather-collared shirt on, black jeans and my dark, colour-flecked cardigan. I fancy these businessmen take me for an intellectual … but then, maybe they’re not businessmen. Here go the bumpy clouds and here we are in the zero-visibility cocoon. It gets darker, then grey as the mist-covered fields appear. I assume we’re low enough now to make it. Down we go! Come on, son, it’s a two-year old Airbus – the best that technology can provide – what are you so worried about? Mist. 7°C. A quarter to one. There’s some confusion in my mind as to whether I’m in England or in France. On the way into town, I soon know it’s France because everything works, is reasonably clean, and there are no delays.

          I dashed to the bank to give a class to my two favourite students, but it turned out one had cancelled and the other had been taken to hospital with kidney trouble. While I was waiting for them to show up, an American colleague came into the classroom and added his voice to those who are feeling the pinch in this recession. He said he was having trouble re-paying the loan on his apartment, that he was earning appreciably less than two years ago. I agreed it was getting more difficult, but I’m not earning less than two years ago – I’m earning more. I didn’t tell him this, of course. The mood of recession spreads like wildfire because people pretend they’re as hard up as the next man.

          When I got back to the flat, I was mildly disorientated by my own domestic environment. What snapped me back into my accustomed rhythm was taking the children to the Christmas party at the swimming pool. They had a magician and a team of nubile adolescents doing formation dancing in the water. The high spot is when the bald monitor, Gérard, floats across the pool on a rubber raft that’s being guided by the nubile nymphs. In a wig of white, synthetic hair-and-beard that covers up everything except his eyes, he looks like a cross between Father Christmas and old Neptune himself.

previous post, November 1991, next on January 15

in the meantime, Dear Reader,

The Neptune Fountain, Place de la Concorde

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