December 1992

Tuesday December 1, Paris

          I got an enthusiastic and intriguingly informal reply to my letter from the person in charge of the Association pour l’autobiographie, Chantal Chaveyriat-Dumoulin. She starts by telling me there’s not a single Englishman in the association. What she writes encourages me to get involved with these people and share my ideas with them to see where it all leads. From the articles about autobiography and diaries in the first issue of their bulletin, I’m disconcerted to discover that this field is all the rage, saying to myself that, yet again, I’ve been slow on the uptake. Some comments I highlighted, such as: ‘Dans l’autobiographie, la tension dérive d’un conflit interne entre la volonté de dissociation et celle d’association’ in which I recognize my conflicting desire to keep my journal secret and not tell others I’m writing one and the desire to fictionalize it, publish it, group diarists together, do public readings, dramatisations, and so on.

Wednesday December 9, Paris

          Now I know my Nadia days and this is one of them; that’s how it has fallen out. It’s a sunny day, as most Nadia days have been, I fancy. She doesn’t go to so much trouble these days to make herself look nice. She’s wearing a shaggy, black sweater and her hair – darker today; auburn, going on brown – is pinned up any old how. I found out she hails from the Porte de Pantin. I asked her if she remembered the abattoirs and the cattle market. She said, oh yes! and turned up her nose in disgust. Indeed, with the prevailing winds, the smell must sometimes have been overpowering just west of the slaughterhouses at La Villette. She told me her parents have a stall on the market there selling soft toys and doing plasticisation of identity cards. She showed me a photograph of her young son with a red cloth cap on his head. We’ve settled into a pattern, she and I; she cuts my hair just how I want it, I don’t have to give her instructions anymore.

          I still haven’t got myself properly organized with the new computer. It’s a real bugger having to experiment with toolbars, mouse clicks and unfamiliar icons when all you want to do is write. I expect Pepys would’ve loved computers, he being so keen on the cryptic. He would’ve been able to tuck his diary away in a directory where nobody else could find it. I’d do the same if only I could figure out how to set the damn passwords.

Monday December 14, Cardiff

          The dining room of this characterless hotel is empty but for me and the four hotel staff on duty. The guests are permanently serenaded with Yuletide muzak. Thank God they don’t have it piped to the rooms! It’s one of these hotels you look out of and see only a section of drab car park beneath a wing strictly identical to your own. I was at work at the office all day, relaxed about the task of awarding grades now that I’ve done it a few times already. But the more I go through the process, the less I’m convinced that we examiners are essential to its satisfactory completion. Before long we’ll be phased out and replaced by robots. Before we get there though, travelling to Cardiff will have become unnecessary; everything will be done by computer link and video phone. Business people won’t travel anymore; they’ll be able to hold video conferences and video meetings. And these insipid, cloned, international hotels will be abandoned and crumble. In fact, the only thing that keeps us coming to Cardiff for grade award meetings is that the candidates write scripts which can only be consulted in one place. Sooner or later they’ll do their exams directly into word processors. But I reckon it’s a seam that can be mined for another ten years or so.*

*more than twenty, as it turned out.

Monday December 21, Paris

          After teaching at the institute all day, there’s a tightness in the region of my heart and a glow on my cheeks. The bottom lid of my left eye twitches and quivers. I have aches and pains as if the whole upper half of my body had been hunched to protect my heart. Walking through the streets, I have an inkling of how vulnerable my body will become and of the way in which age will compress it, slow it down. I sense how not only my body but my mind will become slower without me noticing. Should I go to a doctor with my symptoms? Doesn’t the very fact that I think there’s something wrong with my heart mean that there is something wrong with it? Don’t people who consult doctors for heart problems already have heart problems? Carole and I went through the medical dictionary looking for suitable maladies. She’d just come back from an X-ray that shows one of the discs in her spinal column has worn away and so she’s combing the book for explanations too. Nothing has brought us so close for quite a while. She put my symptoms down to tiredness, so I went to bed early and slept. For ten hours or so.

Tuesday December 22, Paris

          Brentano’s bookstore is full of shoppers looking for Christmas presents. I bought a few calendars to give and Christmas crackers. Then went to a numismatist near the Palais Royal, entered the neat and courteous world of the collector, and bought a coin album for Jimmy. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve always rather despised collectors of coins, whereas philatelists I approve of. As I walked up the avenue de l’Opéra, I thought of Jean-Marc. I imagined him heading for the Galeries Lafayette to look for an ensemble or jewellery for Deborah, or to buy himself a pair of black shoes, a navy-blue blazer, some shirts perhaps. And the idea that I, and the other people on this avenue are able to do what he can no longer do, seemed to me unjust. Here I am, I thought, advancing through a continuous present from which he is forever excluded. I find – paradoxically – that one’s experience of the present is heightened because others are unable to share it as well as being diminished.

Wednesday December 23, Paris

          Lunch at ‘Le Coucou’ in the rue Danièle Casanova. I sat in the window and watched the beneficiaries of this little pocket of prosperity go about their lunchtime business. There’s nothing very glamorous about the bankers, insurers and shopkeepers in this golden Opéra triangle; Parisians are discreet and traditional when it comes to wealth. The people I see are onto a good thing, on a cushy number, but are keeping quiet about it – probably for tax reasons. I’ve got my little number going too: today I taught the same private lesson to two different people for the tidy sum of 1,200F.

          Then I went to the Marais to look for Carole’s present. At Arts-et-Métiers métro station they’ve ripped away several decades of advertising posters. Only a few, unfortunately, are visible, clinging to the original white tiles: they are posters of the early sixties, advertising things like the new rubber-tyred metro trains to the Porte Maillot, guided tours of the new Orly airport, learning languages at Berlitz, or even the Annual Police Ball. I stopped to inspect the tattered remains of these.

          I was on the lookout for a poster too, for Carole. Got lost looking for the poster shop in the rue Saint-Martin, coming across large-scale demolition. A tight labyrinth of derelict buildings has been exposed. Somewhere in the middle of it all, previously hidden behind the façades and courtyards of buildings, I glimpsed a timber-frame roof that looked almost medieval. So many shops along the rue Saint-Martin have closed or are closing down. The one I was looking for turned out to be right down near the Hôtel de Ville. I hunted through the old film posters for Jean-Luc Godard’s films of the sixties and found the one Carole wanted: Une femme est une femme, the very last one in the shop, for 400F. Only when I’d brought it home did I start to think about how much it might cost to frame it; it is billboard size. Although no cinephile, I enjoy looking at these film posters because of their graphic qualities that are so clearly of a bygone era. They are attractive in a way they were not, at the time. The experience stirred the collector in me. It inspired me not to waste the opportunity to collect something now that can be uncorked in thirty years’ time. But already I collect diary entries and maybe that’s quite enough to satisfy my desire to hoard. The price factor is absent, though, and it’s obvious that lucre is an essential ingredient of the anally-fixated collector’s satisfaction.

Thursday December 24, Paris

          At lunchtime, when I came out of my last class of the year, the air was still, the sky grey and I went to fight my way through Marks and Spencer’s. There’s a whole section now crammed with the kind of quaint, tartan-clad, biscuit-tinny specialities that are in fact highly incompatible with the dietary habits of most people these days. They’re a throwback to the Victorian era: the symbolic fodder of the Empire. I got mince pies, shortbread, mint chocolates; the kind of things you force yourself to eat at Christmas-time when you can’t eat any more.

          I went home, had a siesta. Twelve days ‘holiday’ to go, several days’ work to get done, several days eating to get through, a pile of books to read. And not much time left over, I imagine, to do any writing. If only I could get up ‘very betimes,’ as Pepys is doing these days. I envy his determination to get up (often at 4 in the morning) and get to grips with the world. How did he manage without an alarm clock? Don’t tell me there were cocks crowing in Seething Lane.

          It’s probably because Pepys’ diary was first transcribed as late as the nineteenth century that there are so few words – ‘betimes’ is one of them – that are unfamiliar. In today’s entry, there’s only the word, ‘a chine’ of beef, that has me reaching for the dictionary.* I assume it comes from échine, the French for spine. Before consulting the Oxford, I thought I’d test my new Microsoft thesaurus. Zilch. The Oxford says it’s ‘ribs’. Doesn’t say how they would’ve been served, though. Makes me wonder what the precursor of barbecue sauce was. I like the way Pepys says things like, ‘I don’t care a turd!’; sounds much more disparaging than, ‘I don’t give a shit!’ I like ‘jade’ for a woman of ill repute too; so freighted with innuendo. The archaic word I like best of all is ‘coxcomb’ which seems to have entered Pepys’ vocabulary in 1662, perhaps a jibe that was becoming fashionable. Let’s try it out on the computer’s thesaurus. Well, what do you know: coxcomb! Synonyms: blade, buck, fop, swell and dandy. No, not good enough; they’re all archaisms and only refer to someone who’s conceited. When Pepys uses coxcomb, he surely means a fool, a simpleton. Bingo, I’ve got it: a coxcomb is what the young today would call a ‘dickhead!’

*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Dec 24, 1662

Previous post, November 1992, next on January 15

in the meantime,

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

photo by Anne Zerkovitz

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