February 1992

Tuesday February 11, Paris

          It is with reduced confidence that I wend my way to the institute in the morning. I walk through the pedestrian precinct of Les Halles, past the Pompidou Centre with its counter ticking down the seconds until the end of the millennium, across the rue de Renard to the café where I usually stop for an expresso at the bar. Then the last trudge to the classroom where I no longer expect to be able to do miracles with the students and am more or less resigned to disappointment. For the early-morning class, hardly anybody turns up. “It’s because it’s raining,” say those who do, or, “we have our projects to finish.” But I’m uneasily aware that it’s probably because the class isn’t worth coming to; that my approach is just too hand-to-mouth.

          At lunch-time, was relieved to get out into the street. After I’d eaten and skimmed through the papers, didn’t know what to do next, most museums being closed on Tuesdays. On impulse, decided to go to Notre-Dame, where I haven’t set foot in years. Crossed the Pont d’Arcole and looked out along the quais. Paris looks at its worst: grey, wet, drab – not a green leaf in sight. It looks outdated too; stranded in the nineteenth century.

looking west from the Pont d’Arcole

There I was, going back to sit in the cathedral like when I first came to Paris. That was well before I discovered psychoanalysis; while I was still flirting with mysticism and the occult. Large notices and sturdy railings funnel visitors into one door of the cathedral. There was a big party of Germans going in. I sat down opposite the south rose window, like I used to, tried to relax, to empty my head. Distracted by the flickers of camera flashes. All those wasted pictures that will pile up in albums, boxes or cupboards. Another stained-glass window … and another: Flash! Flash! All around the church the little red lamps were glowing.

          And then, as if in answer to a prayer not uttered, I came back again to the story I’ve got to write around Nadia and to the way it ought to start. I got out pen and paper and wrote: ‘Here in France they call me a nigger, but in England I’m a ghost.’* The rest followed on in very simple language, which I took as encouragement to begin again – a sign!! After this, back unwillingly for the afternoon session. Feeling too unenergetic and vulnerable to attempt to be the centre of the students’ attention, I spared myself by giving them a long and complex exercise to do.

          Before going to bed, I recorded a TV news report about Mike Tyson’s conviction for rape to use tomorrow with my students. As I was falling asleep, watched the transmission of the Albertville Olympics opening ceremony. Somebody had had the idea of announcing each team’s arrival in the arena with a quatrain. This was all right in French and the alexandrines were ingenious, but what the organizers had forgotten is that they’re diabolically difficult to translate into English verse. The result was hideous. After each French quatrain, a woman translator, trying to inject as much enthusiasm into her voice as she could, gave the often excruciatingly contrived and metrically suspect English version. Then there was a vast Jean-Paul Goudesque spectacular that echoed, both in costume and in choreography, the TV adverts he made to try and change the image of the P.T.T. a few years back. Funny, the P.T.T. is the biggest sponsor of the Games.*

*in French, a ghostwriter is ‘un nègre’ (a nigger). **the P.T.T., equivalent of the Post Office

Wednesday February 12, Paris

          At the business institute, the recent evaluations of us as teachers done by the students in third year have thrown everything we do into question. Our new colleague, Flora – our Californian airhead – with 20/20 right across the board has, to use Mick’s expression “blown us away” showing us up as the “Mickey Mouse teachers we are.” In their evaluations, the students write of Flora: ‘At last, an intelligent professor of English at the institute’! What the students get from her is ‘content’. They do marketing case studies and she (who only teaches a few classes a week) spends hours correcting the work she gives them to do. The rest of us, with our 30-hour-a-week teaching schedules just try to contain them. For the students, English is a joke. They don’t want to be taught ‘language’ any more, they want ‘content’; they don’t want to ‘know things’, they want to ‘recognize things’. What’s been on the cards for years has finally come to pass; we are the old guard with the old methods and the old approach. We will be swept away by the specialists who can teach interesting content – anything at all – but not teaching ‘English’. This is yet to come, but it will come. Mick, Nathan, Stanley and I briefly discussed the sort of response we’ll have to make to the criticisms that’ll be levelled at us by the management. The question we asked each other was, of course: “What could you teach?” Mick has less to worry about because at least he got some good evaluations, but Stanley, Nathan and I are shown up as the piss artists we try to pretend we’re not. When I got home, after putting salary cheques in the bank to bring me back to zero, I couldn’t disguise from Carole how much I’d been affected by this slap in the face. Time I started doing something else.

Friday February 14, Paris

          I got a last-minute Valentine’s card for Carole from Brentano’s, then bought a single red rose on the way to pick the children up from school. Jimmy wanted to go to Monoprix and spend his pocket money on a Bioman riding a motorcycle, but they’d all been snapped up. The supermarket chain is having an ‘American Week’ at the moment. Most of the American products on display are brightly-coloured packets and tins. It looks like the product manufacturers have tried to apply all of the various theories about colour and packaging psychology. The boxes and tins are all piled up together; it doesn’t look like real food at all, it looks like a Warhol sculpture set. The French products there are becoming more packaged too, although here it tends to be of the transparent variety to advertise how natural the product is. With the American packs, you can’t see the product for artists’ impressions of what the product inside is supposed to look like. Warhol got it right: the representation of an object is more potent than the object itself.

          All sorts of new packaged foods are on display – especially Chinese food and exotic titbits packaged in enticing, grabbable shapes and sizes. 90%-resisting the temptations, I bought much the same sort of foods as we usually get. Food buyers are creatures of habit, though it’s easy to imagine coming out of that supermarket with a very different, but equally nourishing caddy-full of purchases. I’d like to try that some time, just for the hell of it: buy a caddy full of products I never choose off the shelves. As I loaded my provisions onto the checkout conveyor, I realised I had, as usual, gone a bit up-market. The caddy cost me 600F when normally it’s about 500.

          From Pepys’ entry for this day* it would seem that your Valentine was anyone but your spouse or sweetheart; indeed, the first other person of the opposite sex you saw on Saint Valentine’s Day. Apparently it was common for female Valentines to claim expensive presents. Which is no doubt why Pepys shunned being seen at Sir William Batten’s – so as not to have to buy a gift for his daughter. Elizabeth takes avoiding action too; she covers her eyes so as not to see the painters at work in her dining room. Then friend William Bowyer arrives at their house and she becomes his Valentine. Had he planned it? I suppose not; only a fool with amorous intentions would declare himself in this way. No, Valentine’s Day was obviously a game for fun – a bit like it is today. But a lot more unpredictable and exciting; the early bird got the worm.

*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Feb 14, 1662

Friday February 21, Paris

          I made yet another attempt to start the novel. As usual it came quite easily and I enjoyed writing. After about two hours, had to stop to go to work. I’d written about 500 words. As usual too, a beginning I’d thought planned in advance threw up its surprises in the making. It was a morning’s work that made me both elated and wary. As I made my way to work, I was mentally calculating the number of pages that could be written if I kept up this rhythm for three or four months. I quickly figured out how the book would be organized, how long it would be – and even who I’d have read the manuscript. However, my absurd optimism was tempered by my experience of the difficulty of maintaining faith in an idea, picking up the thread of the narrative day after day and having to confront its weaknesses and inconsistencies.

          At the bank, I discussed Mitterrand’s grand architectural projects with my favourite group of two, Catherine and Pierre. Do these gigantic and innovative creations reflect a healthy economy or mask a fundamental malaise? Is a boom in public building a sign of a country’s strength or of its weakness? And also, how many of these projects would have got built in Paris in the last ten years if Mitterrand had not had Mayor Chirac as a powerful political rival? In other words, how much of Mitterrand’s ‘Very Big Library’ project is really about the President trying to outdo the man who controls the capital?

          Despite the icy wind, I took Emma for a brief spell in the park. She ran around very energetically and wanted to go on everything. Her little nose turned red like her coat and when we played hide and seek – dodging behind the bare trees – she was so easy to spot it was ludicrous. She hasn’t yet got the thrill of hiding, a thrill that still echoes in me as I scamper off to find a place to conceal myself or as I crouch expectantly behind a tree trunk risking a look to see if I’m going to be discovered.

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