July 1992

Wednesday July 1, Paris

          Went to post the pile of mail I’ve been preparing for the last few days. You don’t queue any more in the post office; you take a numbered ticket, sit down and wait your turn. It was like an airport departure lounge in there; at least thirty people sitting or standing, waiting for their number to come up, one eye on a TV screen showing a re-run of the Albertville Winter Olympics. I suppose it’s better than the anxiety of wondering whether you’ve joined the right queue.

          This evening, to the Salle Omnisports at Bercy to see Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry in concert. The place was only half-full of fans, from 20 to 50 plus. Bo Diddley first up. He got the audience going not with his singing or his dexterity on the guitar but with his strumming. I felt the charge of energy from it; it made everybody feel good. Just the kind of stimulation needed to youthen me up a bit (even if played by a sixty-year-old.) Chuck Berry was the one I was waiting for, but it turned out to be Jerry Lee Lewis who stole the show. He had his act off pat and didn’t bother to finish a familiar number – just medleyed into the next one. A lot of charisma but stiff as a board. A few token wiggles of the hips standing at his piano, but either a corset, or arthritis, got the better of him. Yet he had the tattooed, denim-clad rockers jumping in the aisles, whereas Chuck Berry never got them out of their seats. Clearly, he was under-rehearsed and, on top of this, he dampened the audience by insisting that a video camera be removed or the show wouldn’t go on. He never got the audience back after this and I was sorely disappointed because his are the songs I like best. At the end, he jammed with Jerry Lee Lewis, bowed his tall, lean body in tribute to him (he far and away the most agile of the three) but then upstaged him by sitting down at the piano to show that he too could play it spectacularly, before handing Jerry Lee his guitar that the poor man could do no more than strum.

Monday July 6, Paris

          How do I describe these thoughts and feelings I have this morning on waking? They’re of the sort that maybe never get said in a life; the secret anxieties we take with us to the grave, making of our lives an enigma for others no matter how talkative or demonstrative we are. It seems to me we cannot give voice to these thoughts or share these feelings because they have to do with what beckons us to destroy ourselves; what Lacan, calls our Desire, with a capital D. They have to do with the way our life is going in spite of ourselves, not with the way we think it’s going or would like it to go. There are so many dark trails here along which fate can lead us.

          I’m sitting in the train clutching at these murky thoughts but my attempts are seriously compromised by the warbling and strumming of a group of buskers who are ‘entertaining’ the carriage. I’m in escape mode; don’t want to have anything to do with anybody, want to run away and never come back. At the business institute, the feeling is even stronger: I handed in my marks, said some cursory goodbyes and got the hell out of the place. I feel like a criminal who has to change hideouts every so often. But I don’t mind; something in me is forcing me to burn my bridges and go on to something else, somewhere else.

Monday July 13, La Tranche-sur-mer, Vendée

          Went for a swim; my first of the year. I headed out to sea feeling distinctly more decrepit than I did just a few years ago – before my body got out of shape and my joints began to ache. Don’t kid yourself that you can get that form back! Things get more difficult to change when you get older. I understand that now; I never understood it before. But when I came out of the water, I was glowing and relaxed. Walked back to the house through the town, stopping to buy the last shrimps at the fishmonger’s and then to the terrace of the Hôtel Atlantique where I sat with a beer and got out my notebook to write.

          At dusk, Jimmy and I went for a walk around a local circuit that I let him choose. There was a very light drizzle and, in the market gardens on the fringes of the town, we bent down to examine snails and slugs dragging themselves across the damp ground. This is a special moment for me because I like to share with him my enthusiasm for walks and for calm observation.

          Later, to see Basic Instinct with Carole, the cinema only half full. I thought it very poor, its ideology distastefully reactionary. Maybe the film is deliberately calculated to offend the middle-age group to which I now belong, because if you’re twenty you think it’s just great. What I don’t like is that it consigns a century of psychological science to the trash bin; people’s motives for committing the most heinous crimes are a mystery. Someone slashes the throats of all the members of his family. Why? “Because there was a razor lying around.” The heroine, a beautiful, blue-eyed-blonde incarnation of the American dream (attractive, rich, a successful novelist) murders her lovers – and anybody else who gets too close to her – with an ice-pick. Why? Well, nobody knows really, but she’s definitely evil, stay away from her, she’s trouble (“a bitch”, if not “a witch”.) While the women – in addition to being attractive and successful – are predatory, dominate in bed (tie the men up), are equally at home in heterosexual or homosexual encounters, the men have very little to commend them; they are alcoholic, workaholic and misogynist and think that people such as foreigners – and especially psychologists – should be rounded up and shot. As a detective thriller, the film doesn’t have a fraction of the subtlety or suspense of even the worst Hitchcock. Even the sex scenes are tame.

Wednesday July 22, La Tranche-sur-mer, Vendée

          I had a good morning on the novel, writing fluently but in a conventional narrative style that falls hopelessly short of the prose of the inventive and pyrotechnic variety that often gets written in my head.

          I spent the afternoon with Jimmy. We had a hamburger that he wolfed down with enormous pleasure and then a go on the electronic games. He soon got the hang of the operating buttons and had Asterix biffing and bonking an army of heavily-armed Roman opponents. I had a go too, but couldn’t keep in my mind at the same time what more than two of the buttons did. So was responsible for Obelix being knocked senseless by Roman weaponry. The boy in the house next door has a ‘Game Boy’ and Jimmy misses no opportunity to play with it. Much to the irritation of all the adults here, he sits on the wall separating us from our neighbours, hunched over the toy and completely impervious to any other outside stimulus.

Wednesday July 29 La Tranche-sur-mer, Vendée

          It’s extremely hot; not a breath of wind. When I got to the beach, the sand was so hot, I had to run quickly down to the shore. Even at two o’clock there was hardly anybody out there. Carole was lying in the shade in her black, one-piece costume, reading a book and Fred was standing near the water; hands on hips, peering out to sea from under his baseball cap. I’m wearing a baseball cap too (the one Lenny gave me I thought I’d never wear.) Wonder whether people take us for Americans. My hair seems to get whiter by the day.

          On the beach, read Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx. I particularly enjoy the descriptions of travelling by coach on the turnpikes in the early nineteenth century. Palliser is very good at making you visualize the England of the period. Curiously, it’s as if this world were familiar to me; as if I can apprehend it because my forefathers experienced it. But it was too hot to read for long. I kept going into the tepid sea to try and cool off. As I was drifting aimlessly around on Jimmy’s surfboard, thinking about how I’d choose the diary material on which to base my narrative, I hit on the idea of using only the days on which I’ve been to see Nadia to have my haircut. What could be more arbitrary chronologically and more consistent thematically? A new title immediately came to mind: ‘Nadia Days’. We will see…

          Even at seven o’clock, while we were having an extended apéritif outside the Hôtel Atlantique, the heat was prodigious. Our table was full of glasses and the shells of peanuts. The children pestered us for money to buy bubble gum from the machine. English families sat at the neighbouring tables eating an early supper of chips. Their red-haired, red-skinned brats kept kicking our table with their swinging legs and squabbled over little ice-cream umbrellas. I bought The Independent and Fred and I scoffed smugly reading about the come-uppance of Lloyd’s underwriters.

          We kept all the windows open, but there was not a breath of wind. I couldn’t sleep, turned this way and that and thought about my writing and how eager I was to get on with it.

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