September 1992

Thursday September 3, Paris

         My opinion was that Mitterrand’s idea of holding a televised debate on the subject of the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty wouldn’t do him any good at all. I thought it could only damage his image. Since he was playing poker by holding the referendum in the first place, it would’ve been better to sit it out and hope the vote came up ‘yes’. But, in fact, he defended himself very well. He gave a spirited performance and has probably persuaded a good number of people to change their minds. I’m full of admiration. Can’t see John Major having the presence of mind and the wit to sustain a debate like that for three hours.

Thursday September 17, Paris

         I’m on my way to Roissy by RER, looking at the semi-derelict industrial scenery; old things not wanted being bulldozed away. The ground is being cleared for this wonderful service economy we think we’re going to live off.

         Shuttled to the waiting plane. Opposite me in the bus is a couple who look, at first, like the successful yuppies you see in ads: all gold buttons, bracelets and bangles, in dark suits, brandishing pink newspapers. But get up close and you see the cracks showing, the features contorted with anguish, the teeth yellowing, you overhear the ‘go-for-it’ banter expected of them. Their lights are going out. Then there’s a whole brochette of Japanese Mona Lisas, smiling uncertainly. Up the row, there’s even Charlie Manson dressed in a suit, but looking shit scared. Here we are on the runway, me extraordinarily calm and worldly-wise. At least, until now; until the safety demonstration. Those oxygen masks that drop down – God help us if it ever comes to that! There’s a newspaper on the seat next to me. A headline about the Maastricht referendum says, ‘Nerves on Edge for French Verdict.’

         Having a coffee now in Covent Garden Piazza. I’ve just walked around the Courts of the Temple where there was nobody except for the odd barrister in robes and a dosser or two under a blanket on the pavement. Here in Covent Garden, it’s overcrowded with people come to shop. There are no locals, as far as I can see, and so it’s more shopping-mall in atmosphere than market. 

         I went to the London Transport Museum to see an exhibition of photos but spent most of the time looking at the buses and tube carriages. I looked inside buses I may have been on (a model scrapped in 1959) and one my father might have been on (a model scrapped in the 1927.) I worked my way back, model by model, to the horse-drawn omnibuses of the early 19th century in which about a dozen people could sit facing each other in a tiny carriage – no more, really, than a covered cart. The design has evolved through the years but those facing seats remained a feature of the London bus until quite recently.

         Then to stroll the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, followed by an enchanted walk up the New river to Canonbury and to the pub garden in Canonbury Place where I’m now sitting under a horse chestnut with a pint and a copy of the The Sun.*

The grass is littered with shiny conkers and their discarded husks. Hope I’m not going to get hit on the head. If Fred were here, we could compare Canonbury with Holland Park. I think it more rural here and the property just as attractive. London never ceases to amaze me. 

*Headline: the day before, ‘Black Wednesday’, the pound was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM), its value fell, interest rates rocketed.

Monday September 21, London

         Grey evening sky over Heathrow. I’m leaving England, as usual with a certain relief that I don’t have to stay; don’t have to live there. Most of the inhabitants seem to lead a dog’s life. Here goes the fucking plane now with a kick like a mule! That flimsy grey fin out there they call a wing is flapping around like hell. Down there is that indigenous configuration of ribbons of redbrick houses. Here comes the sun now; so much space up here on top of the clouds that at least the pilot should be able to see if anything else is coming. This one sounds competent enough; his voice betraying neither inexperience nor lassitude.

         I woke up this morning thinking about today’s meeting with Robert who might help me find myself a niche in publishing. However, I found my resolve to be far from full strength. It’s all very well talking about it, but have I got the guts to do it? Do I want to do it? At this time of the morning, all I want is to have myself a quiet life, with a minimum of anxiety. 

         At midday, to South Kensington tube station and walked down the Old Brompton Road. Here, in the 1970s, I never noticed the mews, never had the curiosity to nose around and find the shiny, dinky-toy-like Morgans and silver-spoked E-types crouching in discreet garages attended to by mechanics who went to the best public schools. On down to the grey and almost rural Fulham Road to have lunch with Robert. He arrived, red, square and grey-suited at reception where I was reading about the French ‘ouimais’ to Maastricht. We went to an Italian restaurant nearby (what is it with the publishing world and Italian restaurants?) There were mirrors all over the walls and soon the place had filled up with writers, agents and publishers all having quiet tête-à-têtes and all of whom Robert knew. Most of them, according to him, are alcoholics. 

         I think I managed to convince both him and myself that the idea of setting up a database of diary writers and trying to acquire rights and licences to publish their unpublished journals was a good one. I would then have to persuade a publisher to pay me to acquire rights to diary material that may, one day, become warm, even hot property. He gave me the names of a few who might be prepared to listen. When I told him I keep a journal myself, he wasn’t curious to know anything about it. No conversation, Robert; I wonder how he gets on with his writers at literary lunches. Perhaps I was boring him because he suddenly seemed eager to cut the meeting short. We shook hands and went our separate ways to Heathrow: he in a taxi which he’d generously offered to give me a lift in, only to change his mind, and me in a hurry now, back to Maida Vale by tube to collect my bags, anxious not to be late at the airport. But got there with thirty minutes to spare and checked in in a matter of seconds.

          I got home to find Carole in an efficient and dynamic mode and I love her all the more for that.

Tuesday September 22, Paris

         Started the day by finishing chapter ten of my novel. Although I enjoy writing dialogue and it comes fairly easily to me, I have reservations about it as a formal component of what pretends to be a journal. Fundamentally, what bothers me when I write is this impulse to deceive the reader. No one is prepared to be deceived these days, neither by politicians nor by the media. Neither do we particularly want to be deceived by novelists. Even though I derive pleasure from writing stories, from fabricating lies, I have the impression that these are the least successful parts of my narrative. And yet when I try not to lie, I lie all the same; it simply seems more amusing to do so. Or rather, it’s what’s expected of me as a story-teller. Thus, I have the impression of falling into a trap; of not being able to capture and write down what is both honest and vital. 

Wednesday September 23, Paris

         The prints of the photographs I took with the new camera in London last month are a disappointment. Why? Because what I took doesn’t correspond to what I saw. In the photographs, a street is just a street, a shop front just a shop front. Missing is the surprise of discovery and the sense of ‘being there’. Missing most of all is the desire I projected into my subject. What is the ‘subject’ of most of the photographs I took? Not clear. Was it an overall impression I wanted to capture; merely a record that the subject exists? First lesson, then: choose a subject and know why you chose it. The inanimate object – the street, the building, the pub – is implacably resistant to the desire I have to photograph it. In order for a picture to be really successful, it has to have a human subject and that subject must desire to be photographed as much as the photographer desires to photograph. The photograph, then, is dynamic; it’s an encounter between two desires. The more I think about it, the more I consider that when the voyeur meets the exhibitionist, both are supremely happy. Photography, in that instance, is not an afterthought, or an aesthetic gadget, it’s indispensable to the pleasure of photographer and subject.

         I watched Newsnight on the European currency crisis. The British are reacting as if the Bundesbank had snubbed them. Nobody wants to admit that the Germans failed to come to the defence of the pound because it’s overvalued. Instead, they see German support for the healthy French franc as some kind of betrayal. The talk is all nationalistic; the problem seen not from an economic point of view, but in terms of national stereotypes. This union of Europe that seemed so objective, so rational just a few weeks ago, is suddenly fissuring under the pressure of the subjective, irrational minds of its citizens. What Britons cannot digest, cannot admit, is that they’re being relegated to the lower tier in a ‘two-tier’ Europe dominated by the economies of Germany and France. That the crisis has come over a monetary issue clearly indicates the Community has pre-occupied itself, until now, with economic harmony while ignoring the problems, both economic and social, of Europeans. This isn’t my assessment, this is what people are saying; they’re finding a voice to express ideas about ‘Europe’ that they hadn’t been able to formulate before. Perhaps we’re reminding ourselves that we’re capable of going to war with each other. To my mind, the current vein of jingoism in Britain harks back to the last time we did.

Previous post, August 1992, next on October 15

New reader? You may also like to see: About, previous posts, or discover the Version française

%d bloggers like this: