February 1993

Wednesday February 3, Paris

          Heavily armed with arguments and statements to impress my second-year students, I gave two classes in which I did most of the talking and to which they contributed little. The choice of text for the first of the ‘American Studies’ student exposés clearly earned their respect. It’s an extract from the very recently published The Culture of Contentment by John K. Galbraith that seeks to demonstrate the follies of laissez-faire under Reagan and Bush and calls for a return to the sure and benign hand of government. However, in trying to demonstrate to the students that I can keep them up to date with what’s happening, I indulge in a good deal of intellectual dishonesty because my knowledge of what I’m talking about is approximate and often gleaned from ill-digested sources. My colleagues are all American and can probably rap convincingly to their heart’s content on any subject from anti-trust laws to the currently topical one of Chelsea Clinton’s biorhythm. When I joined them in the café for the break, I must’ve looked as if I’d just completed an assault course for they were soon supplying me with some of the historical background that they assume (often correctly) I don’t possess.

          I finally got around to enquiring about life insurance. Went to my bank and discussed the subject of my demise with a girl young enough to be one of my students who was anxious to impress me with her knowledge of the current profitability of the various financial products she had to offer. She didn’t know much about life insurance, though, and had to get a calculator out to multiply something by ten. She had coal-black eyes outlined with coal-black mascara and blushed to the roots of her coal-black hair several times during the interview. I tried to concentrate on asking pertinent questions and not on how easy she would be to seduce. But I was embarrassed by the subject of life insurance too; felt my face and neck getting hot also and my heart suddenly vulnerable. At the moment, it’ll cost me 4,000F a year to insure my life for a million francs. I imagined you kept on paying the rate at which you contracted the policy, but, oh no! Ten years from now it’ll cost me more than double. I hate having to deal with these things; I don’t know the right questions to ask and worry I’m going to be taken for a ride. Or that I’ll sign a contract only to discover afterwards that I could’ve got a much better deal elsewhere.

Monday February 8, Paris

          No joy this cold morning; just the dull call of duty. Even if I had the leisure to advance my narrative today, I don’t think I’d have found the motivation. Instead, I think about my heart, which is quiet this morning, although the closer it gets to my appointment with the doctor, the more it thumps, the more vulnerable it seems. I make a note of the French terms for my ‘symptoms’ and experiment with opening remarks to the doctor; remarks I’d not yet settled on when he called me from the waiting room. I was taking a bit of a gamble for he’s a doctor I’ve never seen before. I didn’t want to go to my GP; he wouldn’t have known how to handle it.

          There’s nothing wrong with my heart! Unconsciously, since Jean-Marc’s sudden death, I’ve focused the physical vulnerability I feel on that part of my body. In other words, I’m suffering from a psychosomatic reaction to the shock of it. My tiredness and morbidity are due to a process of mourning that I didn’t realise I was experiencing. When the doctor had listened to me talk about myself and had commented on what he observed, he said I was ‘the sort of person whose body reacts to external events.’ I felt 50 times better and no longer thought I too might die. The doctor said I needed to re-gain confidence in my body which I’d come to think of as ‘vulnerable’. He also said I needed to lose 4 or 5 kilos.

          I’ve been watching the BBC documentary series on Graham Greene [1904-91]. I got into bed to do so; in the warm, as if I were a child – or a foetus. All the better to capture the resonance of the voices of those reading from his novels – voices of my parents’ generation; that modest RP accent of the ‘educated’ I heard as a child – especially on the wireless. Images too. There on the TV screen was black-and-white London: the neon glare of Piccadilly, the light bouncing off the humped boots of Austins, women in hats and men with neatly-parted hair, gaunt faces, and great-coats. This is the London I saw as a child. These images now on my screen are like the positives of negatives etched in my brain. If only I could make the leap of imagination necessary to make today’s images old, to see my ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ surroundings as my grandchildren will see them – or perhaps as I will, thirty or forty years hence.

          I’m repelled by Greene’s preference for religion and psychology, but attracted by his secrecy, his promiscuity, and his capacity for melancholy. He’s a solitary figure, a lone wolf, an expatriate; all of which I sometimes think of myself as being. His writing was the rock on which he anchored. He was writing 500 words of a new book every single day. Mention is made, in passing, to his diaries – as if they were of little significance. That’s all I’m ever going to write, I thought. If I’d been going to write a book, I would’ve done it years ago – in my twenties, like any self-respecting future novelist. But then, why shouldn’t a diary be as gripping as a good novel?  

Saturday February 13, Paris

          On my own this weekend, I watched the BBC and it was the same old BBC I watched as a child. Love Hurts and Casualty, despite themes that wouldn’t have been dealt with years ago like rape, child molesting, and gratuitous violence, are dramas sealed with sentiment. Running through the ‘controversial’ themes the BBC shows us, is the comforting world of Dixon of Dock Green where villains make good and people keep their chins up in adversity.

          Does the social cohesion worked into the plots of these fictions actually still exist out there, or is the BBC merely offering role models and moral lessons? From the way I see it tonight, the BBC is fossilized, perpetuating the myth of social cohesion, of that old Dunkirk spirit. After each programme, the globe revolves on a black background and the next comforting programme is softly announced. Here I am, at forty-two, watching this globe and hearing these soothing voices but I could be eighty-two and have the impression that all my life nothing had changed, that the BBC had always been there turning, like the globe revolving. And maybe nothing has changed, fundamentally, in the years TV has been around. Or, at least, that’ll be the impression an observer gets decades or centuries from now when the late twentieth century is seen as a homogenous block. In the meantime, who will write the book that takes the BBC apart? Who compile a semiological lexicon of its tics, deconstruct its formulas, psychoanalyse its attitudes, scrutinize its use of language? Where is the Serge Daney who will reveal to us the ideological impulses and reflexes governing British television?*

*Serge Daney (1944-92), film and television critic, see also May 28, 1992.

Monday February 15, Paris

          All day, alone, I resolutely worked through a list of marking and preparation jobs to do before tomorrow. The only highlights of the day are, a) eating the bacon and eggs I cooked with considerable relish and b) getting warm and comfortable in bed to watch the last part of the documentary on Graham Greene. I’ve been completely under the spell of this life about which, ultimately, the programme tells us next to nothing. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the part of his family, close friends and the BBC to maintain Greene’s status as the enigmatic odd-man-out of English letters. Not once do the makers of the documentary use the words he actually wrote to gain access to Greene’s mind; to what made his psyche tick. Despite the excellence of its fabrication, it is guided chiefly by adulation not understanding, by mystification not explanation. The makers were obsessed by his ideological contradictions but didn’t attempt to question the psychic determinants of these contradictions. It struck me that he was a physical, not an intellectual man; there was something physically vulnerable and sensitive about him. I imagine, had I known him, I would’ve been more intrigued by how he was going to move next than by what he was going to say next.

Wednesday February 17, Paris

          I look at myself in the mirror and see a judge. I must then have reached the ‘fifth age’ of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man: ‘the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lin’d, with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, …’ No wonder my students are intimidated. What can I do to change my image? Dye my hair, change my style of dress perhaps? I’ve discarded the ‘Professor Higgins’ cardigan recently – who on earth did I take myself for? As for the ‘fair round belly’, at the institute this morning, Stanley gave me a tip about how to lose it. He’s been following the Montignac diet plan, Je mange, donc je maigris, [‘I eat, therefore I lose weight’] and says he’s lost half a dozen kilos in a dozen days. At the café, in the break between classes, he watched me eat my tartine beurrée [buttered baguette] and observed that the worst thing you could possibly do was to mix carbohydrates and animal fats. I’ll have to buy that book.

          There are times, reading Pepys, when the glaring absence of a footnote is scandalous. What am I to make of the story Pepys hears from an acquaintance as they return to The City from Westminster together? He’s told that one of the ladies of the Court – one of the several mistresses of the King, I assume – ‘dropped’ a child whilst dancing at the Court ball. So far, so plausible. But what to make of the disclosure that the King had the foetus ‘in his closet’ a week later and ‘did dissect it’? Upon which he joked that he’d ascertained it to be ‘a month and three hours old’, quipping that he’d ‘lost a subject by the business’ – and a boy into the bargain. No judgement is made by Pepys as to whether he thought the King’s behaviour amusing or degenerate – although elsewhere he sounds disapproving of the decline in moral standards at the Court. Certainly, like many at the time, the monarch was fascinated by experimental science. So was Pepys. But to me, this ‘experiment’ of his makes the King sound like a tortured soul. What am I to think; is the story apocryphal? The editor fails to enlighten us. Perhaps he just didn’t know.*

*Diary of Samuel Pepys, Feb 17, 1663

Friday February 26, Canterbury

          Everything about the English is negative today: they dress in shoddy clothes – colourfully certainly, but badly. They eat stodgy food that makes them flabby and pasty-faced. The shops are full of unimaginative goods. My target, as a shopper, was clothes. Heaps of the striped shirts that office clerks wore as passports to yuppiedom are stuck on the shelves despite rock-bottom prices. All the upmarket clothes in black and grey tones have gone out of the shop windows. In the street, everyone’s in jogging-style clothes in vivid pastel shades made of cheap materials.

          I joined my parents and the children for a disgusting pub lunch. English pub food is predictable despite the fact that everywhere the ‘menu of the day’ is attractively written up in coloured chalk on a black slate. More appropriate if it were engraved in stone because what your keen gastric juices are going to have to deal with (when it comes down to it) is a pile of stodgy carbohydrate, a slab of tough, heavily disguised meat of dubious origin, or something coated in batter served with a token assortment of dry leaves and cress. The English – even the poor, innocent tourists – sit there and stuff this crap down themselves every day. They really have no idea how to eat at all.

          The house here is cluttered and there are many murky, dusty and mouldy corners. The kitchen is the worst. I’ve never seen such an odd assortment of dishes, jars, pots, pans, cutlery and paraphernalia. Meals too are so complex, so cluttered: a vast array of dishes containing an eclectic palette of new concoctions and mixtures together with old leftovers. I staunchly tuck in and close my senses to the possibility that there is some salmonella lurking. Emma, though, straight off spots the odd taste, the adulterated morsel and refuses point blank to eat it. I dread to think of the day I’ll have to clear out this house; to dispose of the objects my mother has a compulsion to accumulate. I think I’ll just want to chuck most of it so that I don’t have to carry the burden.

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