Thursday August 6, Paris
In the afternoon, I took my mat and my book reviews and walked to the park. There was hardly anyone else there; a few parents with babies and some middle-aged women sunbathing topless. Lay on my mat and tried to think about something else than the narrative I’m writing. I had a beer at the café and looked at the view over Paris. There were half a dozen painters earnestly painting it. I just contended myself with letting my eyes map it and the empty park. The sun belted down with all its August futility. Not so long ago, I would’ve been moved by this splendid panorama and by the brilliant light and the dark shadows under the trees. I would’ve been in awe of it because it reminded me of other, distant summer days. But now that what I have to do seems so clear to me, I’m acutely aware that this bright August day is one of a diminishing supply and that one day (in the not so distant future, at the breakneck speed time passes for me), I’ll be sitting on a bench like that old man over there, trembling with age, and not knowing what the hell to do with myself.
Friday August 7, Paris
All morning, and most of the afternoon, I worked on a narrative that I felt to be false. My chief method is the ‘and then, and then, and then…’ – if you can call it a method – and there’s a distinct absence of understanding of the motives of the characters. What’s more, the plot returns again and again to the stereotyped.
Emerging from the flat at six o’clock, I was slayed by the intense, cloying heat. Went to Le Printemps to look for a present for a one-year old, arriving there drenched in perspiration. The store is rigorously air-conditioned. The staff were just finishing for the day. They’re so tightly controlled there, and probably seriously underpaid – but oh, listen to them complaining amongst themselves; you can tell they just love it! These prestige French outfits thrive on both the snobbery and the masochism of their employees.
I got a rather expensive top-like toy for Teddy and carried the smart bag all the way up the hill to the seventeenth arrondissement. I’m wearing my black silk shirt and duck-egg blue trousers. Wish I’d worn shorts; it’s fiendishly hot and airless. When I got to Ben and Sarah’s, the boy was out on the balcony in his high chair. I helped him open his present. He’s a barrel of a baby, with straw-coloured hair. Looks just like his grandfather. The Amstrad printer was buzzing in Ben’s new office; he was printing his latest translation of one of Leo Mallet’s detective novels, corrected and abridged by Barbara [Bray] with the most extraordinary concision. She does whole paragraphs of his translation in just one line.* I’d also brought a bottle of champagne and we drank that out on the balcony. We ate the pork Ben barbecued as lightning, both forked and sheet, flashed around the sky, eventually driving us inside when golf-ball drops of rain fell.
I was encouraged to tell Ben in detail about how the writing of ‘Nadia Days’ was going and where it might be heading. I did so aware – as ever – that I may simply be indulging in a sophisticated form of pipe-dreaming.
*The Tell-Tale Body on the Plaine Monceau, Pan Books, 1993.
Thursday August 13, Canterbury
It just pissed with rain the whole day so that we saw Southern England from Kent to Devon though sheets of drizzle and mist and from behind windscreen wipers. I had imagined a countrified A road with pubs and villages (like the ones I remember from the late sixties) but of course road transport has been updated since then and the route is mostly motorway and dual carriageway (funny how we cling on to the term ‘carriageway’.) We stopped at Stonehenge so that the kids could see it. Walked around it – at a distance – I who naively imagined you could still park your car by the side of the road and simply walk across a field to go up and touch the stones. Bracing our umbrellas against the drizzle-driving wind, with guidebook to hand, I rapidly dispelled the commonplace misconceptions I had about its construction and function.
The next stop we made was in Exeter, where there was even more rain. Like Victorian travellers, we visited first the main sacred place: Exeter Cathedral. It had been entirely restored inside (no doubt at great cost because there were prominent notices asking every adult visitor to contribute at least £1 to its upkeep.) This is something I didn’t do, but it struck me coming out into the pedestrianised High Street with its sacred places of commerce (C&A, Boots, Mothercare, etc.) that the Church should think of reviving the ancient link between Trade and Temple by letting the cathedrals be used as shopping malls. I mean, why not lease Exeter Cathedral to Tesco’s; the tourists could kill two birds with one stone – and all under the same roof; everything from stained glass to stainless steel. Predictably, we had tea in a tearoom and used the toilets.
When we arrived at our destination, it was still raining and dinner was all ready. My godmother never stopped talking from the moment we arrived to the time I, after making several hopeless bids, got us up into the beds we had been longing for. Early on, Uncle Will took me aside, drew me away from the women and down to his domain in the basement for man’s talk. May is really chronically logorrheic (had to look up in the dictionary how to spell that, noting in the process that diarrhoea follows diarist!) She asks no questions, tells you everything in the minutest detail and doesn’t listen when you finally succeed in interrupting.
Saturday 22 August, London
I’m in Finch’s on the Portobello Road with Pepys and a copy of The Daily Mirror. The tabloid is full of ‘Fergie and Johnny’s Holiday Snaps’ – the complete set of poolside photographs taken with an extremely powerful telescopic lens in Saint Tropez recently. The captions of every one of these photographs are the nails being driven into Fergie’s coffin. She is put down on every count: unfaithful wife, neglectful mother, disloyal Royal. She’s even castigated for her cellulite. Rarely can the British press have stooped so low. Pepys, on the other hand, is full of Lady Castlemaine, the King’s current mistress, though his enthusiasm for her beauty is hidden from all but his diary. And herein lies one of the advantages of our very private practice: it allows us to reveal to ourselves – ultimately perhaps to others – the counterfeit we coin in our daily lives.
Charles II’s infatuation with Lady Castlemaine, however, is no secret to anyone – except possibly to the Queen herself. Poor Catherine of Braganza; brought all the way from Portugal to marry a King whose language she doesn’t speak and whose bed she doesn’t share. We think our Royals are faithless and tactless – witness Fergie in The Mirror – but compared with Charles Stuart they are angels. Oddly enough, the most popular drink in this pub seems to be Castlemaine’s lager.
Fred came in with The Independent, sat down and turned straight to the obituary page, the way some would turn to sports. We both agreed the annoying thing was that you usually don’t find out how people died. I suggested a set of symbols would be helpful: an empty glass for ‘died of drink’, a noose for suicide, a crab for cancer, and so on…
Sunday 23 August, London
At lunch, on the chilly terrace of The Crabtree pub in Fulham, I stood and looked at the Thames. Not a single craft to be seen up or downstream. The tide was out, revealing the shingle strewn with rusty and battered consumer durables. What disenchantment; I had wanted so much to be by the river, to commune with it. Pepys, I see, today clambered his way through the crowds to a vantage point at the top of the Banqueting House to watch the King arrive by river from Hampton Court with his new Queen.* He says he couldn’t see the river for barges and boats, couldn’t even see the King and Queen. Had no difficulty in espying Lady Castlemaine on a nearby balcony, though. In fact, he ‘glutted’ himself ‘with looking on her’. I do so love the use of that verb there. It describes what I would’ve done in the circumstances. Pepys observes how she and the King feign not to take any notice of each other, except for the conventional civilities of salute, despite taking it in turns to dandle their newly-born child in public. The diarist watches her ‘run down among the common rabble’ to take care of an infant hurt by falling scaffolding and is full of admiration for her noble gesture. Enamoured, he follows her every move, reluctantly leaving when the ‘show’ was over, ‘not weary with looking at her.’ There must be onlookers today who would say the same about Princess Di. All of which makes me think, yet again, that Pepys is predominantly a visual diarist; he describes what he sees, not often what he hears. Don’t most diarists? Maybe. One auditory diarist, however, immediately springs to mind: Joe Orton.** He has that enviable capacity to recall exactly what was said and how. Yes, Pepys is definitely a visual. He peeps; he’s a peeper. Snap!
*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Aug 23, 1662 **The Orton Diaries, Methuen, 1986