March 1993

Friday March 5, Paris

          When I got Jimmy from school, he was over-excited so I took him out for a walk to “explore”. We took a path I’ve never taken before down under the railway line to the slopes called Les Coteaux. I was immediately fascinated to discover unfamiliar houses, alleyways and views. I love this initial phase of discovery, especially when there’s nobody about. We descended to the second railway line further down the bank of the Seine. Here we found a large, abandoned property with a sizeable, secluded garden. Along the railway line, soon to be converted into a fast tramway to La Défense, enjoying an uninterrupted view of the Bois de Boulogne and Paris are several houses built to look like castles. I find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to be wealthy enough to own and maintain one of these places. The other side of the railway track is where ‘proletarian’ Saint-Cloud begins. It’s the old story: the rich man in his castle on the hill, the poor man in his hovel at its foot. We looked at the Icarus statue commemorating Alberto Santos-Dumont, imagining it flapping its man-made wings and plummeting into a field where now there are buildings.*

Then we went back uphill via the little post office, through the wealthy residential streets where turreted, half-timbered Normandy-style villas stand side-by-side with ultra-modern constructions made of what looks like aluminium boxes.

*In 1906, the Brazilian aeronaut made the first airplane flight in Europe from the heights of Saint-Cloud to a field in the Bois de Boulogne on the opposite bank of the Seine.

Wednesday March 10, Paris

          I’m often aware of living through the tail-end of Western civilization. Just about everybody is predicting its fall. I think of myself as a typical, egocentric, uncaring, apolitical product of my withering culture. It irks me to think that I’ve come in when my culture is on its way out. Or is it? Am I being pessimistic? Perhaps. What I see ahead, on a purely personal level, is a future absence of interest in what I write, because the reading public will have checked out. But then isn’t my pessimism and lack of confidence in my culture symptomatic of its decline? Cultures that are flourishing make demonstrative gestures; there’s a clear road forward. Pepys’, for instance. He doesn’t go worrying about the decline of his culture. Just look at the predominance of the verb in his diary; it’s all about taking action, going onwards and upwards. Look at all those emphatic, performative ‘dids’: ‘I did this day…,’ or those syntactically prominent verbs, ‘This morning, in comes Mr Brewer…’ Pepys did things whereas we (I, at least) tend just to think about doing things – when I haven’t got my head in the clouds that is.

          I talked with passion and conviction to my classes about the current situation of African Americans, although I can claim to know very little about the subject. I think I’d make a good barrister because I can deliver a plea and make people sit up and listen. The trouble is, I tend to go a bit over the top; always that one appended argument, re-phrasal, or point too many. The effect it has on a class, though, is to stun the students into silence. Not very pedagogical, I fear; they should be talking. Or should they? Most aren’t capable of expressing more than the most banal of ideas in English.

Thursday March 18, Paris

          At ‘Au Père Fouettard’ in Les Halles where I’ve chosen to spend the two hours before the theatre eating, drinking and writing. I rejected the vegetarian dish, which is probably compatible with the diet I’m trying to follow, in favour of a ‘foie de veau, sauce Bercy’, which is definitely not. I’ve now eaten what I could of this gristly, undercooked, indeed almost raw bit of offal. I should’ve sent it back but waited until it was too late. Why did I take the risk of eating it? I’m often imprudent in this way. One of these days I’m going to poison myself something rotten. I’ve also ordered too much wine and am swilling that down like water.

          With my shirt and tie, I’m very square in this bar. The other customers are half my age and wear black leather jackets. They’ve just turned up the volume on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, which has got feet tapping. Would any of them suspect that the square in the corner in his jacket-and-tie worshipped this song long before any of them had even heard of David Bowie? Why do I dress so squarely? Even the word ‘square’ is square. How have I grown into a style that I’m keen to change? It’d be easy to do so. What holds me back is that the people I dress for – students, basically – will perceive the change as being false; an imposture. Why false? Why an imposture? Because – QED – the ‘square’ style is you, old boy, it’s you to a T. I counter this unpleasant discovery with the preposterous idea that I’m a rebel in disguise. Still, these kids who look as if they’ve only just discovered Bowie, how ridiculous will they look twenty years from now?

          I’d just sat down in the box in the theatre at the Porte Saint-Martin when Carole arrived, hungry, minutes before the play started. It was Knock by Jules Romains with Michel Serrault. After the first scene, I thought it was going to be dreadful, Serrault a caricature of himself. I really do think theatre has had its day; it just can’t compete with film for sound and picture quality. Every time I see a play these days; I want to step onto the stage and hit the actors for being so wooden, predictable and slow. At the very least, I want visual and aural enhancement so that what’s happening on stage makes a larger claim on my attention, on my emotions. It’s a very good play, though; very modern in theme, what with the present health budget deficit due to excessive spending on treatment and medicine. Also, con man Dr. Knock is an entrepreneurial innovator; he knows how to recognize a need, stake out his market and give satisfaction to the customers. He has the sort of flair for marketing that the school-leaver would give an arm and a leg for. These days, in France, even school-leavers who don’t know what to do when they leave school will tell you not that they want to teach but that they want to do marketing.

Saturday March 20, Paris

          How much time Pepys spends walking! He thinks nothing of walking down to Deptford and back to do business for an hour or two. Often on to Greenwich and Woolwich. Who’d do that today? No one. A tramp perhaps. I’m resolved then to walk from Tower Bridge to Greenwich just to see how long it takes. I shall surely stop at Rotherhithe, Pepys’ ‘Halfway House’ to take some refreshment. One thing I certainly won’t be doing on the way is reading. Pepys sometimes mentions that he reads as he walks: philosophy, plays or poems. Sometimes he even reads the vows he has made to give up this or that. Helps to drum them in, I suppose. I can’t read and walk at all. I like to take in my surroundings – and there’s the traffic to watch out for. I can’t understand why he didn’t go down to Greenwich on horseback. After all, he’d go to Clapham by horse. If you wanted a horse, where did you go to get one? How much did it cost to hire? Did you have to pay a deposit? And what happened if your mount went lame on you? Could you exchange it at the nearest post-house for another? What were the fastest, most reliable breeds, I wonder – the top-of-the-range models? I’d like to think the answers are in store in the remaining volumes of the diary. Somehow, I doubt it.

Tuesday March 23, Paris

          It’s a beautiful day; cloudless and with a rare clarity of light. And the air tastes so pure and smells of dolly mixture as I drop the children off at school with the delicious feeling that I’m playing truant. In fact, there’s just one hour of freedom ahead of me before I have to go and teach. The first thing I did was put on Léo Ferré’s Verlaine and Rimbaud tape. Now, at 8.50, I am sitting at my computer and the music fills the living room. It doesn’t so much evoke the apartment in the rue de Dunkerque and the intimacy of those early days with Carole (it was our favourite tape) as the Paris I was discovering then with its language, its frankness, its atmosphere of intellectual commitment, its Right/Left political polarisation, its succulent dawns and its enchanted twilights. I imagine this music will always serve as a poignant aide-memoire. I imagine listening to it when I’m old but wonder whether I’ll be able to do so without despair. I imagine myself listening to a lot of music when I’m old to make up for not listening much to music now.

          I thought about Jean-Marc this morning and of how quickly we forget the dead and how the lives they lived are soon reduced to anecdote and myth. This seems to me an injustice; that one’s disappearance should make so little impact, that one’s life should leave such a meagre trace. As I prepare, day by day with this diary, to burden the living with the weight of the dead, I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to leave the quick in peace.

Tuesday March 30, Paris

          Balladur has been named Prime Minister. To the English, he looks a poker-faced pontiff. The BBC pronounce his name ‘Ballad-er’. Unlike the French media, they underline the competition, if not rivalry in the right-wing UPF alliance.* The British are sceptical about party alliances. Look at the Liberals and the SDP, remember the old Lib-Lab pacts?

          This evening they announced the new set of Ministers. Not one of them do I find appealing, and some of them, frankly, make me want to vomit. Pasqua is in this category and Juppé too. Veteran toady of them all, Léotard, has finally been handed the Defence portfolio. The new wonder-creep is Sarkozy.

*L’Union pour la France (UPF) was an alliance of the Republican right that had just defeated the Socialist party in the legislative elections.

Previous post, February 1993, next on April 15

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

%d bloggers like this: