March 1992

Friday March 6, Nice

          We drove to Monaco, arrived in pouring rain and did the ‘sights’ – which is the only thing to do in Monaco. It holds no surprises, there is nothing to explore or discover. Nothing is left to chance; everything, right down to the last waste-paper bin has been strategically placed to cause the least inconvenience to the tourist. Everybody files into the mock-Gothic cathedral just to see Princess Grace’s tomb. The Palace itself is a kitsch design disaster. The whole town is tacky with the sort of bad taste only the really rich can indulge in. We took the children to the oceanographic museum to see the fish. In the subterranean galleries of illuminated tanks, visitors shuffled round peering at one improbable-looking species after another. I’m not a fish man myself, although the colours they come in, I admit, are often very ooh! and aahish! What staggered me most, though, was the number of men filming the fish with video cameras; every tank got the same thorough treatment. What happens to all that footage? Who sits and watches those fish gulping in their tanks?

          Later we took the children to the rue de Suisse in Nice and watched the Mardi Gras carnival procession go by. We bought bags of confetti for the children to throw at the floats with their giant papier-mâché kings on which pubescent girls tried to gyrate beguilingly to mostly Anglo-Saxon pop. They threw it at the masked figures who bobbed and swayed their grotesque heads at the crowds and at the uniformed brass bands preceded by majorettes with thick thighs and pimples. On a first-floor balcony on the other side of the street stood three very old ladies, wearing thick winter coats and hats, who waved at the procession as it went past. I thought of all the carnivals they must have seen, going back perhaps eighty years. And it struck me that waving is an archaic way of showing enthusiasm; everybody else was throwing things.

          Carole and I went to see Dead Again in a tiny cinema in the place Garibaldi. In this ‘reincarnation’ film, which for thrills relies heavily on scissor-stabbing, Emma Thompson again makes a stronger mark than Kenneth Branagh. And yet he gets most of the credit.

Friday March 13, Paris

          I taught first year at the business institute, applying myself to the task of making them work and to monopolising their attention. I hope at least to get good evaluations here. Mick says that unless we come up with content programmes (political science, marketing, etc.), we’re not only going to lose our classes in third year, but second year as well. Stanley, Nathan, Mick and I sat around the café table joking like schoolboys and trying to avoid the increasingly obvious: we’re soon to be relegated to the scrapheap of teachers of English unless we find something else to teach – in English. At the bank, my class consisted of two hours of conversation with my group of accountants on a wide variety of subjects. They think my method excellent and that it has the added advantage of allowing colleagues from the same department to get to know each other better and so improve the atmosphere at work. Normally they don’t take an interest in each other’s lives, but because they’re obliged to in my class, it spills over into their work. Maybe I could make ‘conversation’ my speciality at the institute too but it doesn’t sound technical enough to be taken seriously by the management.

          I continue with Richard Ollard’s biography of Pepys, recognizing in myself some of the diarist’s puritanism as well as his egocentricity (although twentieth-century egocentricity knocks spots of that of the seventeenth.) But here the comparisons end because I can pretend neither to be a witness to momentous events and the doings of notable people, nor to have much influence on the lives of others. How discouraging it is to compare the petty existence of the late twentieth-century man I am with the robust and wide-ranging intelligence of the seventeenth-century diarist.

Tuesday March 17, Paris

          At ten to nine, when I arrive at the café in the rue de Flandre, where I kick start myself with caffeine, my body and brain are aching from trying to come to terms with the reality of the teaching day ahead. One by one, the unemployed or semi-unemployed locals come in for an early-morning glass or two and to gamble. There are speech impediments on their lips, bursting trainers on their feet and rivulets of veins on their gnarly noses. There is forced joviality and racism. They check their horses, ponder over their coupons or scratch with coins to uncover a number that never wins the jackpot.

          At lunchtime in the café at Rambuteau métro too there are chain-smoking, bar-propping, gambling locals and the usual complement of stray, tongue-tied tourists. The sky is yellow and grey with rain that doesn’t fall. I went back for the afternoon and fed my students fill-in exercises to stop them from fidgeting. At this period of the year, I neither have the energy nor the inclination to get up and inspire them with speeches about books they could read. In my plain shirt and tie, I look pompous and old-fashioned. I got into this garb about four years ago to put a business-like image across to the students preparing for a business career. Now this same image makes me a dinosaur. When I look through the windows into the classrooms these days what do I see? Teachers ten or fifteen years younger looking dynamic and casual. I did away with the casual look because it didn’t look serious enough. Now I look too serious. It was my colleague, Ralph who actually used the word ‘dinosaur’ this afternoon, “We’re the dinosaurs of English teaching.” He said this because most of what we teach is ‘general English’ and general English is no longer the currency of the day. We’re on an exit path. This change of perspective has happened so quickly; only a year ago I thought I was the bee’s knees and that the employment outlook was just fine.

Saturday March 28, Paris

          My great-uncle has sent an article from the Dictionary of National Biography about an ancestor of ours who was a contemporary of Pepys’, a certain Dr Benjamin. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the early 1670s, he became chaplain (one of many probably) to the Duke of York – Pepys’ boss.* The article reveals that despite the prestigious positions the Doctor managed to obtain during his lifetime, all ended in failure. Towards the end of the century, having been nominated several times to important positions only to find his appointments revoked and other candidates preferred, he had the good fortune to become Principal of an Oxford college. But his management of it was a fiasco. Short of funds, he had a brainwave: he would have a Greek College built on the site and attract to it Greek youths brought to England by the advocates of union with the Greek church. The building turned out to be of flimsy construction and attracted no more than ten Greek students. It became known as his ‘folly’ and was eventually pulled down in 1806. Dr Benjamin lost a lot of money on the project – some from his own pocket. Later in life he got into an expensive lawsuit about his private property and was declared bankrupt. He was even imprisoned in the Fleet for debt when he was over seventy.

          Perhaps the career of this contemporary of Pepys’ was not untypical. The diarist is frequently worried about falling out of favour and of losing his money. It’s what scares him most. One can see the potential market for insurance companies and the like. If Pepys hadn’t stashed so much away, adverse circumstances could so easily have made a pauper of him. And then what would have become of the diary?

          They let Dr Benjamin out of prison in time for him to die a free man, though still impoverished, in 1711. He was buried at Saint Bartholomew’s by the Royal Exchange.

*As Lord High Admiral, the future James II was in charge of the Navy.

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