January 1992

Thursday January 2, Paris

          Le Bourget, grey dawn: factories with saw-tooth roofs and windowless walls all along the track, railway wires, pylons, stationary vehicles. The name ‘BABCOCK’ in man-high letters over the cornice of an ancient stone-and-glass façade. The factory was once someone’s pride and joy. Industrial architects lost sleep and the sympathy of their wives over the designs. Now a sick, yellow light partially illuminates the interior. The silhouettes of employees can be glimpsed through the liverish glass. Another day has begun; another year has begun. Can they keep their jobs? I know what that factory is like. I’ve worked in such places, arriving with a sinking stomach in the dark on winter mornings. How fortunate I am now, sitting in the blue, red and yellow RER carriage looking out at the crumbling industrial brick pass by, comfortable in my assumption that I’ll never have to work in such a factory ever again.

          On the Airbus starting the descent to Heathrow. It’s cruising, waiting to make a hole in the cloud-floor. Up here it’s a beautiful day, down there it’s probably a damp, grey day. Here we go towards the wad of cloud! There go the council estates and the dark green parks. My muscles are tense; my feet are gripping the bar under my seat, my fingers damply clutch the spirals of the steenbok I’m writing in. Beneath my feet, the landing gear judders and thuds into place. I’ve had no alcohol, that’s probably why I’m so scared. Not far off being a free man again. The wheels now contact. Jigger-jigger the plane goes. It slows down like drawing in breath. 10.30 a.m., 11°C.

          A pint in the hardly convivial bar at Charing Cross station. From the loudspeakers, raucous girl singer backed by energetic percussion. This is the ‘Kent Bar’, so its carpet is tile-red, the chairs and tables lacquered beam-brown. I ate a disgusting hamburger on the station (I mean, really disgusting.) Peered through the dirty window of the train as it went through grimy Waterloo and an even grimier and lugubrious London Bridge. I stared in amazement at the titchy, yellow-brick, nineteenth-century warehouses and offices and at the blocks of red-brick council flats with their pale-blue doors. They look no different than they did twenty years ago. Behind all this now is the Canary Wharf Tower and the new buildings it dwarfs, flashing its strobe lights at low-flying aircraft.

          From the train, it looked as if all the cowls of the Kent oast houses had been freshly painted white. In this English countryside everything’s on such a small scale. I understand how easy it must be for the people who have power in this land to feel that they control it.

          I went for a walk with my mother to the church and down to the stream. It was dusk already, mild but windy. We walked through the graveyard. When she seemed to point to the ground where the next row of tombstones would be, I thought she was going to tell me she wanted to be buried there. Not a bit of it. “Wouldn’t be seen dead” in the churchyard! She wants to be cremated, “and to hell with it!” I was surprised to see her unheedingly trampling across graves. “When I broke my ankle,” she said, “I used to come and walk here. The uneven ground helped strengthen the muscles.”

Saturday January 4, London

          I’m in The Anchor pub, Bankside, and Stevie Nicks’ nasal voice sings, “Thun-der only ha-ppens when it’s rain-ing…”. This soon followed by Go Your Own Way. I do things on my own now. Back in 1977 when that record was a hit, I would’ve been like that young man there at the next table, nibbling peanuts and punctuating the silence between me and my sleeping partner with talk of domestic arrangements. At least now I don’t sit there drugging myself with smoke and beer and wallowing in the nostalgia that the sounds from the loudspeakers evoke. Last time here was probably with Matt – twenty years ago. When we were up-and-coming executives.

          As I walked across Southwark Bridge just now, the wind was blowing and the tide was out. Almost every building on both banks has disappeared since I used to cross it back then on the way to work at the Oxoid factory on Bankside. I remember the Courage Brewery, east of the bridge approach. You can walk down on to the shingle there, stand by the waves lapping at the shore – the strand. Here is a river frontage that all the steel, glass and marble in the world can’t take out of the eighteenth century. Near the site where they’re building the new Globe is a group of beautiful old houses split by the shoulder-wide Cardinal Cap Alley. I ventured up it, afraid of rats biting at my ankles. Further on is the Bankside power station, a lugubrious, windowless, brick cathedral; a vast, redundant bulk fronted by a rough lawn and rambling shrubs.

          I decided to take a boat to Greenwich. My thoughts were much with Pepys, of course. What a wide river it is! Much wider in his time. And how small the boats that ferried him up and down it must have seemed. At least, I imagine so; his diary is of no more help on the practicalities of river transport than mine is on the ABC of underground travel. But I do know that before getting to Limehouse Reach he often used to cross over at Ratcliff stairs to Rotherhithe. From there he’d walk the rest of the way to Deptford and Greenwich. It was this crossing-place I was looking out for. Few people, these days, would dream of being landed (stranded!) in the vicinity of the King’s Stairs at Rotherhithe and having – God forbid! – to walk to Greenwich. The unmarked crossing-point wasn’t exactly a sight the other souls on the boat were on the lookout for. Most of them appeared to have lost interest after we went under Tower Bridge and the guided commentary ceased. Out of indifference, or perhaps impatience to disembark at Greenwich, they had glazed eyes for the renovated warehouses, the deserted wharves, the idle docks and the architectural follies on the Isle of Dogs.

          It was only really on the return trip, when passengers had dozed off to pass the time, that I got a good look at Pepys’ landing stages. Curiously enough, they’re in just about the best-preserved spots on this stretch of the river. On the Ratcliff bank, you see The Grapes public house in a group of old buildings giving right on to the shingle. On the Rotherhithe side, next to Saint Mary’s church, there’s perhaps the oldest surviving warehouse on the river. It’s completely derelict; its Victorian splendour all but gone. Due to be demolished shortly. I had my camera to hand but debated with myself whether or not to take a picture. Now, writing this, think I should’ve done. But this afternoon, I felt that the preparations necessary for taking it would’ve prevented me from seeing the site properly and making a mental snapshot of it. A photograph rarely proves to be a good substitute for the impression. But that doesn’t stop me now wanting both. Clearly this is not a dilemma with which Pepys could have sympathized.

Sunday January 19, Paris

          We took the children to the Bois de Boulogne and they cycled around – and sometimes at – the joggers. Cyclists and joggers were out in force. There were a lot of fit, muscular joggers oozing willpower and determination, hacking down everything in their path. They always leave me with the impression that it’s they who are the succeeders. I imagine them going back and towelling off all that healthy sweat then flopping into designer sofas in spacious, original apartments. Then there are the joggers who ought not to be jogging; the purple-faced, paunchy variety with buckling legs and obstinate eyes. Not to mention the joggers whose bodies were just not made to run, jiggering about like a sack of bones or a wobble of blubber.

          The unhealthy and nocturnal activity of this Bois, on the other hand, is about to be seriously curtailed by the police this week in an attempt to reduce the spread of AIDS. Nearly all the whores who work here, both male and female, are HIV positive. They say some clients pay extra not to use a condom. According to a survey, some thirty people get infected here every night.

          There is a memorial to thirty-five members of the Resistance executed by the Gestapo in August 1944. There are bullet holes in the oak tree next to which the victims were made to stand. I tried to picture the line of prisoners facing their executioners in this makeshift clearing. On that leafy August day, the soldiers must have marched them just far enough away from the road for no one to see.* Will there ever be a monument here to the AIDS victims of the Bois de Boulogne?

*in fact, the 35 walked into a trap set for them by the Gestapo and were gunned down – just a few days before Paris was liberated.

Wednesday January 22, Paris

          I came out of a class into the bitter cold and walked through the Place des Victoires and down the rue Etienne Marcel past bright displays of designer clothes at vastly reduced prices, to the Théâtre Marie Stuart. I was going, for the second time, to see Barbara’s* production of One for the Road because I’d been tipped off that Pinter would be there in person. Sure enough, when almost all the places in the tiny theatre were taken he came in, big head bowed as if to duck projector lights, followed by Lady Antonia. There wasn’t enough room on the end of their row for him to sit comfortably, so Barbara asked very politely if people would mind moving up the bench. They wouldn’t because they were saving places and Harold had to remain perched on the end.

          I’m sure few of the people there knew who the balding man in the centre of the auditorium was. What struck me about him as I surveyed his profile from my seat in the top corner was the size of his head. It’s as though it were so heavy he has difficulty holding it up, an impression accentuated by his slight stoop. Not only is the head large and heavy but a pronounced beetle-brow makes him look positively pre-historic. His hair is rebellious black wire, gone on top, but the long thick sideburns of the sixties photographs are still there. So is the black polo-neck sweater. When he smiles his mouth turns up sharply at the corners and his eyes swim with kindness. At that precise moment he looks like a Neanderthal rabbi.

          The play was done so much better than it was on the first night. Most of it – as it should be – was very nasty. After the show, in the cramped foyer, Barbara interrupted Harold to introduce me as “an expert on your work.” I cringed. He limply shook my hand and headed for the exit as I babbled something about my article on The Caretaker I’d sent him and which, of course, he’d never read. The last person the poor man wanted to speak to was “an expert” on his work.

          I felt like disappearing too but was persuaded to come for drinks. Eventually, Harold and Antonia turned up with Barbara at the flat in the rue de Belzunce just as we’d decided they weren’t going to come. The couple held their ground in the centre of the large room and let people come to them. A wood fire spat charcoal on to the rug. I got stuck with a French actor. He didn’t speak a word of English, though boldly claimed he understood everything. He seemed anxious to swap notes with me on all those language, behaviour and food differences that provide most of the subject-matter of Anglo-French conversations between strangers.

          Not being able to think of a suitable gambit to re-engage his nibs, I clung to my pride. Harold smiled a lot and was very nice to everybody but was also something of a prisoner of his celebrity status. Lady A looked even more cornered and smiled vacantly at everyone from her great height, her glazed eyes peering out from under thick mascara. Barbara, looking serene and no more than fifty, what with her hair freshly tinted, steered the couple away to a private dinner in the expensive restaurant below. I joined the actors and we found a restaurant in the boulevard de Denain that did an excellent dish of calf’s liver.

          Returned home disgusted with myself for being stand-offish and for missing the opportunity to talk to Pinter. But with my thesis on him abandoned and the waning of my interest in his texts, what was the point? On my way home, I tried to justify to myself my attitude of aloof superiority, concluding that a period of adulation had ended in anti-climax and that I was now, truly, out on my own.

          Monday’s Airbus accident over the Vosges has completely undermined any confidence I’d developed in the aircraft that take me to England and back. A lot is being said about the nine lucky survivors, but the way in which the other ninety passengers died in the crashed fuselage is only alluded to, i.e., the survivors waiting on the freezing mountain to be rescued heard their screams but could do nothing to help them.

*Barbara Bray (1924-2010 ), translator. For the first time, see November 12, 1991

previous post, December 1991, next on February 15

New reader? You may also like to see: About, previous posts, or discover the Version française

%d bloggers like this: