May 1992

Friday May 1, London

          No rain – for a change – but a chilly north-west breeze blowing as Jimmy and I went down by train to Greenwich. We got off at Maze Hill and walked through the park to the Maritime Museum. There were hundreds of schoolchildren milling about on the lawns wearing cardboard pirate hats and black eye-patches. Pirates are in! Turtles are out. Even the venerable Maritime Museum is cashing in on the Peter Pan revival by staging a ‘PIRATES’ exhibition, complete with all the spin-off merchandise imaginable heaped in plunderable, kiddy-height display trays. The exhibition is poor – mainly because there’s not much to say about pirates; they weren’t exactly the record-keeping kind. Most of what we think know about them was invented by writers like R L Stevenson.

          What Jimmy enjoyed far more was the Maritime Museum proper, especially its real and model boats. While he was looking at these, I got interested in the paintings of William Hodges, Cook’s draughtsman. I was fascinated by his idealised yet ominous paintings of South Pacific paradises such as Tahiti. His mountain pinnacles were far too high and phallic and the dusky maidens languishing on the shores of translucent blue inlets too depraved-looking.

          We then went to the King William IV pub. Jimmy wanted to play darts and so we had a game. He was surprisingly accurate, despite the height of the board, and was egged on by a table of drunks with accents so thick and voices so slurred I could make out neither where they were from, nor what they were saying. All I understood was that they were inciting me to offer Jimmy a substantial reward if he won. When he did, and I handed over a measly 20p under the pressure of jeers from the red-faced crowd, I was chided for my stinginess. The men came up and pressed coins into his hands. We walked out of the pub, me embarrassed, Jimmy flabbergasted. When we got into the street and counted his ‘winnings’, there was over £2.

          We went under the Thames by the foot tunnel and took the Light Railway to Canary Wharf. Only a dozen floors up (out of 50) in the lift of the new tower, Jimmy wanted to get out. So we walked around its base instead, stroking the smooth steel-plating in which the building is encased. There are some fine buildings in this area of Docklands. Even though they’re half empty and the promoters are going bust, I share the optimism of those who’ve gambled on this site being one of the motors of London’s future. Looking across the docks, pools and basins all the way to The City, seeing the imaginative shapes of new buildings – either completed or under construction – and surveying the tracts of waste land to be developed, I imagine bridges leaping from one bank to another, one pool to another, making the whole area more accessible and, above all, more inhabited. At present though, the scale and grandeur of the whole project is out of all proportion to the needs of the local community.

          Taking the Stratford line, we made an impulse stop at Bow to see the church with its small graveyard and high trees. It’s marooned in the centre of the High Street, blackened and eroded by pollution from the traffic that passes on either side; a sliver of pastoral Essex in this dull East-End cityscape and, no doubt, an endangered space. We ran for a bus that was going to Oxford Circus. Sat on the top deck with Asian schoolchildren – mostly beautiful, dignified girls in black headscarves who got off at stops along the Mile End Road and returned to depressing council estates. All the way down the Mile End Road we went, through Stepney and Whitechapel, past bars selling oysters and jellied eels to take away and past the most prosperous-looking building of them all: The Blind Beggar pub – no doubt still dining out on the Kray shooting.* In The City, around the Bank, there were boarded-up windows everywhere and office blocks with all the glass blown out, the office furniture exposed to the elements. This then, was the material damage caused by the IRA bomb blast on Election night. When we got to Oxford Street, we walked down to Hamleys and Jimmy bought some Playmobil pirates with his ‘winnings’.

*In March 1966 at the bar of The Blind Beggar, Ronnie Kray shot dead rival gang member George Cornell.

Thursday May 21, Paris

          For the afternoon session with my students, I did an article from The London Evening Standard that rejoices in the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the French are at the bottom of the table of heart disease despite their fondness for foie gras and confit de canard and probably also because of their regular consumption of wine. It concluded triumphantly that the sackcloth-and-ashes approach of the dietary and health food gurus (especially in the US) was completely misguided because the French eat what they like, including a lot of things that are supposed to be bad for you, and live longer than anyone else – especially in the Périgord, apparently, which is ironic given its reputation for rich food.

          Came home to turn on the TV and see the Queen in a ridiculous blue hat subjecting Euro MPs to her tight vowels and to vocabulary as circumscribed as her power. No doubt it’s because her sovereignty is threatened that she’s decided to speak up and remind Federalists there are still a few European monarchies tucked away in the closet. Oh, how they marvel here when she comes out with a stilted, carefully-rehearsed sentence or two in French! Surely, it’s the very least someone with years of private tutoring ought to be able to accomplish.

          This was followed by a documentary about Ross Perot, the man who, according to opinion polls, is now the front runner in the presidential race. Basically, he seems to think that America’s problems can be solved by someone like him who is prepared to “roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.” His discourse smacks of both material and spiritual fundamentalism but he might just get away with calling a spade a spade and make the other candidates look insincere and ineffectual. If he does stand and gets elected (although I don’t really see how the system would make it possible), then maybe he will be fulfilling the prophecies of people like Fukuyama who see politicians being superseded by managers. ‘If you can run a business,’ Perot seems to be saying, ‘you can run a country.’ But I don’t think he’s right. I was reading an article about Fukuyama’s book* in the park while Jimmy and Emma went down and down again on the slide. I thought they looked neat and happy and that they played together in complete harmony and complicity. It’s my good fortune to have these two healthy, alert, and good-looking children of both sexes.

*The End of History and the Last Man, 1992

Friday May 22, Paris

          As I write this entry at twilight, I can see the garage opposite where the guests of the manager are standing drinking and chatting on the pavement clustered round a gleaming claret-coloured ‘Safrane’. The launch of the new model coincides with the retirement of Renault’s chairman. This new car is sleek and modern and its lines are pleasing to the eye but in twenty years’ time, if I see one go by, I’ll probably think how cumbersome and ungainly it looks – unless, of course, it’s destined to acquire the charm of a ‘classic’ model.

Thirty years on: Renault Z.E. (Zero Emission)

          On the Avenue de l’Opéra this afternoon, I saw an ancient bus go by; the sort of model that must have been commonplace in the 1950s and 60s. It looked square and solid – definitely all metal – and cramped too. It was closely followed by the latest generation of concertina bus with an enormous front windscreen that seems almost to reach the ground. Behind it was its predecessor of a less visibility-and-space-conscious design. So there, below me (I was looking out of a window on the top floor of the rue Thérèse waiting for a class to begin) – until the lights changed – were three generations of Parisian bus.

          I’d been having lunch with Ben in the rue Danielle Casanova. He was looking handsomely sunburnt, but pensive. We talked about the present drought and the dangers of exposure to the sun. Like me, he’s concerned about what our reduced protection from the sun (the hole in the ozone layer) is doing to us and our children. He too had been struck by the leisure domes in England where you go to spend a weekend or a vacation in an artificial environment. Aren’t they the prototypes of the environments we’ll all soon be living in? Are we among the last generations to know fresh air and rain? What vexes us both is that we’ve no way of knowing if our anxieties are legitimate or alarmist. For example, do you decide – said Ben – to cancel your seaside holiday this summer or do you carry on as normal?

Thursday May 28, Paris

          Serge Daney, Libération’s film and TV critic, has such intelligent observations to make about the cinema and television – indeed about images in general – that some of his remarks actually give me physical pleasure. An insight can give me as much satisfaction as the first mouthful of juicy roast beef. He talks about the cinema in the past tense because for him it’s a dying art; one that has ceased to amaze us. The last film able to do that, he says, was Kubrick’s 2001. For him, the ‘adulthood’ of the cinema was over by 1950. Where does this put the novel, I wonder … on a life-support system? Does the novel still have the power to amaze us … does any literature still have that power? I think not. It just has the power to comfort, like the corner of a blanket being stroked across the child’s top lip. There are books, though, that quicken the pulse, or go where no man – or woman – has trod. Patrick Süskind’s Le Parfum, that I read before going to sleep, is one. He simply describes the smells of the world into which his protagonist was born in early eighteenth-century Paris. Everything stank – from the food stalls of the Marché des Innocents to the undergarments of the monks in the cloisters. The whole city was high!

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