Thursday June 9, Paris
When I left Emma in her classroom this morning, she clung on to me, saying she wanted to stay with me. I tried to talk her through it, even to reason with her, but she remained firmly attached and uninterested either in her teacher or her classmates. Eventually, her teacher had to prise her off me and I was able to leave while Emma made a big show of howling, allowing all the parents arriving to feel superior because their children don’t make such a fuss.
I was at my desk by 9 a.m. to get the marking done and am still here at 10.30 p.m., having just called it a day. Now and again, to break the monotony, I swivelled away from my desk to look at the details on the large London map on the wall. My insides tingling, I lost myself in the labyrinth of south-east London; its white streets, beige built-up areas, green parks and main roads in yellow and orange. I like the details: the sports grounds with their ‘pavs.’, ‘tennis cts.’, ‘bowling greens’ and ‘gdns.’ and the cemeteries and the burial grounds. Looking at the calendar hanging next to it, I saw my space of London liberty right there in the middle of the month, less than a week away.
Next to the map also is the wall-chart Dad made showing the line of my male ancestors going back to 1550. I’m the twelfth man since. Am I, then, the one destined to sit it out while others play? Or will I be called on in extremis to save the day? In my adolescent days of cricket fanaticism, I was – in fantasy – the lone Englishman hauled out of the crowd at Brisbane when they’d run out of valid twelfth men and needed a batsman to save the match. I would accomplish the miracle of staying at the wicket all day, gallantly supporting England’s star batsman, score a century and be carried from the pitch in triumph.
I look up at my eleven predecessors, see their lifespans represented by vertical boxes, with their names printed inside in my father’s neat hand. Down the other side is indicated the succession of significant historical events. Today, I again wonder about the most distant of these ancestors, Thomas of Rempstone. The chart informs me that he was a yeoman, born at the time of the Council of Trent and laid to rest not long after the Pilgrim Fathers landed. He came into the world while Edward VI was king, went through Mary, Elizabeth and James, was dying when Charles I came to the throne. I looked up Rempstone in the atlas, opened it at the page showing the border between Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. I was amazed to think I’d never thought of doing this before. There it was, the village of Rempstone, on a little B-road just north of the Leicestershire border. I made a resolution to go and see what it’s like.
Sunday June 14, London
Woke up at 6 a.m. with a hangover. At seven, Jane, the two boys and I piled into the flashy Ford Scorpio and Fred drove us down to Brighton. We cruised through the empty streets of West London, going through Shepherd’s Bush and across Hammersmith Bridge, then through a swathe of solid wealth south of the Thames – through Barnes and Cheam – seemingly impervious to economic recession. A gem of a Sunday morning; the promise of uninterrupted sunshine, copious Sunday papers and intoxicating lunch-time pints. By 8.30, we were in Brighton, weaving between the stalls of the antique market next to the railway station. I’ve only a cursory interest in the ‘antiques’ and junk on sale; I’m rarely tempted to buy. The vendors, with their bare, brown limbs and easy patter, interest me more, for I envy them what I imagine to be the insouciance of their bohemian lifestyles.
After the market, we went to the beach, picking a patch on the shingle on the border between Brighton and Hove. A group of gay men crunched noisily over the pebbles shortly after we arrived. They had cropped and lacquered hair with Tintin quiffs, wore bulky trainers and immaculate, bum-enhancing shorts and trunks. While Fred and I talked, Jane unrolled her mat, offered her deep brown tan to the sun for the rest of the day, stirring only to remonstrate with him for not supervising the children. I prudently exposed my white and flabby flesh to the elements, noticing how broken-veiny my thighs looked. I put my ankles in the cold Channel to make the blood circulate better and take my headache away.
In no time, the pebbles were heaving with gay men in couples and with lone females. I spent a lot of time in the shade under the parasol nursing my fatigue. The sea wasn’t all that cold and quite a few people went in. What I liked was the relaxed and cosmopolitan ambience. At the end of the long day on the beach, I was even tempted to imagine what it would be like to live there. On my prompting, we went to The Regency restaurant and sat opposite the West Pier, severed from the mainland and decaying, but still the focus of much interest. I went for the lobster salad, Fred for the crab. Jane was not hungry. We drove back to London in the twilight, past a pub called The Queen’s Head that had a freshly painted sign depicting Freddy Mercury.* Then a jam slowed us down for the best part of an hour and we reached London after it got dark at about 10.30.
When we got back, I heard from France that Serge Daney died on Friday from AIDS – he too.** This was a shock to me. I hope at least that his death serves to establish him as one of the prominent French intellectuals of recent years.
*The lead singer of Queen had died the previous November. ** On my enthusiasm for the journalism of Daney, see the May 28 entry.
Tuesday June 16, London
Early morning, under an overcast sky, a fresh wind rustling the leaves of the plane trees in Bunhill Fields, I peered at tall gravestones fenced off by railings. Daniel Defoe and William Blake are neighbours here. Both dead at three-score-and-ten – like Samuel Pepys. One died unsung and in affliction, the other went out singing to heaven. Gravefellows in death, would they have appreciated each other in life? The thing about cemeteries is that one can never be sure what company one’s remains will keep; an appropriate final abode, then, for shakers of convention and takers of risk such as Defoe and Blake. As for Pepys, conformist in all but the tenor of his private writings, he is snugly buried inside the church of his parish, out of the rain and, for the foreseeable future, safe from the schemes of property developers and urban planners.*
These Bunhill fields, then, were once nonconformist territory. John Rocque’s map (drawn about the time Defoe was interred here), shows a wide corridor of land beyond the moor gate in London’s wall left undeveloped; waterlogged ground. Animal carcasses from Smithfield were dumped here, followed, after the concept of purgatory was finally abandoned, by the remains of those who’d been awaiting resurrection in the congested charnel houses of Saint Paul’s. And then, in 1665, as Defoe himself reports, plague victims were removed from The City to the pest house without its walls. When they died, they were flung into newly-dug pits hereabouts. The place became London’s Golgotha; its Bone-hill. Henceforth, this zone beyond the pale of Bedlam’s walls but within earshot of its inmates’ cries of despair, would be a refuge for outcasts and dissenters of every sort. As I sit at the café by the bowling green in Finsbury Square waiting to be served a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, it is difficult indeed to visualize the neighbourhood as it would have been then. The green itself is so densely-knit and close-cut it might be a carpet of Astroturf were it not for a dozen seagulls pulling up the worms.
Converging on the imposing Triton Court building across the way are smart young men in suits of grey or blue, each swinging his chunky attaché case. At the pinnacle of its high tower, stands Hermes atop a globe. Although better versed in the art of self-image, these young men look much as I would’ve done, twenty years ago, arriving at the somewhat more modest London office where I worked. Then, I didn’t think of myself as a conformist any more than they probably do now; I was just chuffed to be in a proper adult job.
By the time my breakfast order arrived, I’d noticed the price, £1.15 per scrambled egg – not including the toast. I complained to the manageress about it. She replied, “D’ye know ’ow much dey ’as to pay in grawnd rent darlin’?” Had I not been ravenous for breakfast, I might’ve continued beyond the cemetery to see the memorial to one of the most charismatic religious nonconformists of them all: John Wesley.
The part of Shoreditch all around Rivington Street has been almost entirely bought up by a property developer called Stirling Ackroyd: warehouses, old cabinet makers’ workshops, chapels, railway arches and shops. On nearly every building there’s an ‘offices for sale/to let’ sign. All the buildings they’ve acquired are about a century old and have character that will be greatly enhanced once the architectural features are highlighted. But as for the mid-20th warehouses and offices around here, it’s difficult to don the aesthetic mind-set that would make most of them restorable. But, who knows, in fifty years they might be perceived as highly desirable properties and the rubbish in the streets will have been swept away, the rogue bushes sprouting in courtyards and on cornices alike, uprooted, and the festering rubbish piles removed from neglected alleys, squares and courtyards. At midday, I chose a pub near Old Street underground, called The Old Fountain. It’s a basic, working-class pub and – to judge by the tapes being played – the landlord and his missus are anchored back in the pre-rock’n’roll era of the 50s.
From there to Dillon’s in Gower Street where, in two hours this morning, they sold out of Andrew Morton’s sensational book about Princess Di (her ‘suicide’ attempts, etc.). Then to Oxford Street where I got lured into a clearance sale of electronic gadgetry orchestrated by a smart young man in a blazer with an astounding gift of the gab: “Who’ll give me a pound, who’ll give me 50p?” And he chucked a ‘Game Boy’, a ‘Nintendo’, or a radio at the punters standing with their hands up. I was sucked in there and got convinced I was in with a chance of walking out with the main giveaway – a whole mountain of electronic hardware. But well before the rigmarole of choosing the lucky winner got underway, I left with the cheap watch I’d handed over £ 2 for. The young man was playing with us like a cat with a cornered mouse. As I walked out into the street again, I felt sickened by my gullibility.
With Fred later in The Warrington on Sutherland Avenue, I steered the conversation off architecture and sociology to ask him if he had an ambition in life. After a long pause, he said, “Well, I suppose it would be to own a nice house in W11.” The reply disappointed me. When I probed a bit, I discovered he regretted having had things too easy – or rather, regretted being in a generation that’s had everything its own way. He said he envied those who’d been in the army and fought in the war. He felt they had the spirit of solidarity and shared experiences we lack. “I’ve no ambition,” he said, “and, anyway, it’s too late now.” I looked hard at his face as all this came out. As usual, his eyes didn’t meet mine, except that this time they were the eyes of a frail old man. My “Same again?” soon snapped him out of it though. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said. What an odd thing that is to say when you think about it.
* see the entry for June 15: June 1991