April 1992

Thursday April 2, Paris

          France waits for a new Prime Minister. Edith Cresson is assumed to have tendered her resignation but there’s no announcement of her successor. Libération expresses the impatience with the headline: “Et alors ?…” But you can hardly expect a Prime Minister to resign on April Fool’s Day, now can you? In the UK election campaign, Major is making a fool of himself with a soapbox, trying to crowd please in his thin little voice (“Wherever I go, this soapbox is going with me!”). At the institute this morning, I talked to my students about Bush’s chances of being re-elected in November, in the afternoon, at the bank, I’d switched to Major and Kinnock.

          With early-morning lucidity, I saw that when all is peeled away, I’m nothing but fear and repression – staunch old British repression. Going to work, I’m still in these early-morning thoughts. My fellow passengers too are hiding their doubts and fears behind a mask. Isn’t this the central theme of our late 20th-century existence; this discrepancy between the image we show to the world and the self the image hides? I write in the métro, standing up, feeling that I’ve lost my anchor and wondering how I can possibly find the courage to handle my busy April schedule.

          Now, at 6 o’clock, sitting with a beer in Au Père Tranquille at Les Halles, I feel a lot better. It’s beginning to fill up with young people with bright eyes, dressed in black. They talk animatedly. The day began to improve after a visit to the rue La Fayette to have my hair cut by Nadia. I asked her about my thinning crown and she confirmed the worst: I’m going to have a bald patch like my two grandads. To make it grow again I have to rub some stuff in every day, the salon has jars of it; now is the time to act. Am I, who have let my stomach go to flab, vain enough to go through with it?

Wednesday April 8, Paris

          In the closing stages of the election campaign, the three candidates are concentrating on what they’re most comfortable with. Major is visiting factories, making inane asides and telling us that business has confidence only in the Tories. Kinnock is out talking to the people – this time in hospital. But the people he bends, squats and lounges alongside are either too senile or too young to vote for him. Ashdown is rolling around the countryside in his bus trying to pick up the ecology vote. His main photo ops of the day were throwing a fish to a seal in a wildlife sanctuary – ‘Ashdown gets the seal of approval’ – and skimming stones on the waters of a Cornish bay. To me they all look like losers but Kinnock less of a loser than the other two.

          Talking to my Indian colleague at the bank, I discovered her husband is a novelist. His third book is just coming out in French. I asked her how he managed to live. “I support him,” she said, “he likes writing so much that he doesn’t want to work.” She even hires someone to do the housework and the cooking. I asked her if she had children. “No!” she said, “I’d like to but I can’t afford to stop working.” Now that’s the way to get something written: be utterly selfish!

Friday April 10, Paris

          I caught five minutes of the TV news at 7 a.m. before going to the institute – enough to be surprised and irritated by John Major’s grins. Why do I dislike him so much? Probably because he comes out of the suburban Surrey chartered-accountant mould that formed my paternal ancestors. My students did a TOEFL test, fortunately, so all I had to do was sit there and keep an eye on things while they sweated. The sun poured into the white classroom through high windows.

          Place des Vosges: lunchtime. I’ve just been walking the Marais, through streets I hardly know, or don’t know at all. I walked up the rue du Temple, around the streets off the rue de Bretagne, into the rue de Turenne and round to the Place, where I’m now in the shade under the heavy pillars of the colonnade, eating a bacon-and-blue-cheese salad.

Place des Vosges

What amazes me is the contrast between sophistication and rusticity; here are designer leather-goods shops, art galleries and sandblasted 18th-century mansions but also repairers and artisans of all types, bazars, old zinc-bar cafés and old-style grocers. The quarter has the unpretentious and anachronistic authenticity of the unfashionable provincial town.

          My students at the bank were delighted with the election video footage I showed them. They were particularly intrigued by the way constituency results are announced; the fact that all the candidates are together on the stage surrounded by their helpers and supporters so that you get an impression of the atmosphere up and down the country. When the results come through in a French election, they said, you don’t see anything that happens in the provinces; everything is tightly and technically controlled in the Paris TV studios where political personalities are thrown together for a ‘cock fight’.

Sunday April 26, Paris

          The train pulls out of the Gare du Nord and moves slowly alongside what I take to be the future Eurostar train shed; a long white one with a green girder-and-glass top. Looks quite horticultural. New buildings have gone up too in Saint-Denis around the Dionysia hotel. With its name in large, red-bordered lettering, it still looks like the hotel of a Greek-island port. There are horse chestnuts heavy with white blossom that make me think of the lush springs of my childhood, evoking avenues of semi-detached houses and old suburban parks. Next to tower blocks like the ones we’re passing now, it changes to poplars and open areas of recreational grass. I ought to put pictures in this diary: the horse chestnuts, the Dionysia hotel, the old wooden casements of the offices nestling right up under the roof of the Gare du Nord, soon to be ripped out.

          Jimmy’s putting pictures in his diary. I’ve just encouraged him to start one. It’s a brown ‘patchwork’ Clairefontaine notebook like the ones he uses at school. He put his name on the cover, opened the notebook and wrote the date. There was a long pause before he explained that he didn’t know what to write. I asked him what he wanted to write and he told me. I said to just write what he’d told me. And he did. He wrote about the house he’d seen by the track and which he’d like to buy. When he’d done that, I asked him to describe the house to me and he did so, in some detail. I told him to write that. He said he preferred to draw a picture. I had to concur that this was a very good idea because why write a description when a picture’s what you need? That’s when I thought about the camera I hadn’t got with me and the picture I didn’t take of the Dionysia hotel or the horse chestnuts.

          A roughish crossing on the new catamaran, the Seacat. It’s like the boat, really, only more womb-like. Jimmy and I sat still while adolescents from school parties staggered and giggled along the gangways making jokes about the seasickness bags. We grimly stuck it out for the hour it took and arrived in Folkestone harbour where drizzle was falling and fog clinging to the cliffs. Dad was there to meet us, stiffly kissing us both, his white beard prickling our faces. Mum was waiting in the new car, a blue Metro with well-upholstered seats. We drove to a pub for lunch. I regretted ordering the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding because the meat was gristly and overcooked and there was little of it. Jimmy adapted immediately, being lively and inquisitive and going along with his Granny’s foibles.

Tuesday April 28, Canterbury

          I took Jimmy shopping in Canterbury, dashed from one shop to another with him in tow, taking advantage – while it lasted – of my single-minded application to the task. Woolworths, in particular, struck me. There used to be high counters staffed by innumerable girls in pale-blue blouses. It’s now a pristine, white mall where the customers have free range to feel up the merchandise. Here they sell, a little cheaper, what the whole High Street sells: T-shirts, video games and trainers. Nothing edible in sight the whole of its length, except of course, for chocolate bars.

          Lunchtime now and I’m having a pint in the Hare & Hounds. I’m the only customer in the saloon bar. The interior glistens with polished copper-and-brass gadgetry. Jugs and vases hang from the beamed ceiling and the walls and shelves are adorned with bugles, ladles, dishes, bellows, shovels and even handcarts. The bar itself, all copper and stained-wood planks, is a Manhattan skyline of fancy pumps dispensing a wide variety of liquids. One of the things that helps me to picture the pub that I, as a teenager, would slip into for an illegal drink is the lifeboat collection box, now beneath the ‘low-alcohol’ lager pump. The walls are still chocolate brown, the ceiling low and the tile porch unmistakably Kentish.

          Walked here in the pouring rain from the University. Stopped beside the primary school and looked at the playground, the brick buildings around it, the front entrance, the Nissen huts and ‘temporary’ wooden classrooms put up after the war. Nothing, but absolutely nothing – not even the smallest detail like the push-button water fountain – has changed since I first went there in 1955. From the playground, an adult comes towards me under an umbrella. Thinking she might have taken me for a paedophile, not for an ‘old boy’ trying to give himself a nostalgic thrill, I moved on. This peek at my past did little for me except when, through the open refectory window, I caught the odour of dumplings and – in my mind – saw mashed potato being scooped and released onto the plate.

          My visit to the University library was to look for critical works on Seamus Heaney to confirm my suspicions that an essay I have to mark has been plagiarized. The library was full of students sitting at tables, getting books and making photocopies. I sat there re-reading the essay, wondering what to do about it, for the library has no books on Heaney. Predictably, I was distracted by the female students and irresistibly reminded of the world of daytime fornication in narrow student beds, a privilege for which I’m no longer eligible. The boys wear fanciful hairstyles as a mark of their individuality. I used to read them as statements, now they’re no more to me than signs of immaturity, of token bravado. I walked away, looking through the windows at the students in their lectures and at the PhD writers sitting at their desks in their study rooms and looking back at me. There are new buildings and new car parks and so many cars now there’s hardly any room left for them on the site. It all looks like the architectural model I made for A-level Art – but with bits tacked on.

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