Wednesday May 5, Paris
Went to Martine Boileau’s workshop in the rue Poliveau expecting at last to be given the sculpted teapot she owes me for translating her exhibition catalogue. Thinking I ought to get her a present, I went into a florist’s and bought some freesia. They have the fragility and ugly beauty of the plant-inspired sculptures she was doing when I last saw her. Instead of a teapot, she gave me a glass dish on a sculpted pewter stand, the top of which looks like a cross between an unfolding flower and an open cunt. Supporting it is a stout male stem.
She gives me a thorough account of what she’s been working on since we last met five years ago. She’s been doing altarpieces: the Mary and child and the Annunciation. She’d focused on the thought that Mary was an unlucky mother because all the decisions about her life and the future destiny of her child were taken right out of her hands. The sculptress portrays Mary not with a babe in her arms but with an adolescent Jesus whom she has to let go so he can accomplish his destiny. In this Annunciation, there is no Angel Gabriel (if God had wanted to speak to Mary, she said, he didn’t need an angel as intermediary), just a sculpted cloud hanging heavy over the frail, pubescent figure of the thirteen-year-old Mary. It’s clear from her obedient posture that she has no choice in the matter. Clear too from her withered arms and unfinished face that her life has been nipped in the bud.
Afterwards, carrying my recompense, I took a familiar route up to the rue Mouffetard and the Place de la Contrescarpe. Here I stopped at a café for a tomato juice and surveyed the surroundings to gauge the effect that a decade’s absence from this quarter has had on my perception of it. My first observation is that the people are scruffy, have free time but no money, and read a lot. Many customers at the pavement cafés have their noses in books. There are American exiles with bloodshot eyes wearing crumpled or paint-spattered jackets who look as if they’ve missed the last boat. The light flooding into the place is a diluted light; a second or third-hand light – too often borrowed to illuminate the dreams of would-be Hemingways. Clearly the place is on the beaten track of ‘Paris-was-my-Mistress’ clones and other aspiring bohemians in carefully-torn jeans. There was a time when I too took this light to be the genuine article; the gold from which literary fortunes derive. Fool’s gold.
Tuesday May 11, Paris
Pepys’ dedication to mastering his new slide rule should be an inspiration to me. Surely I too can master this new computer and stop feeling like a helpless child. If he can become an expert at measuring timber, I can become adept at processing images, sounds, and text. It’s just a matter of obstinacy, persistence and a certain love of order. Pepys calls his love of order a folly. I like order too – especially where my diary is concerned. To be more exact, I’m only a lover of neatness when what has to be put in order pleases me. There’s great order in the diary files on my computer, little in those that conserve my administrative paperwork. This weekend I stocked the filing-cabinet drawer of my new desk. Only the ‘pleasure’ files got selected; the ones whose content I care about. The rest will have to hole up at the back of a cupboard somewhere.
The big difference between Pepys’ slide rule and my computer is that his implement was made to his own specifications; it was customized – ‘bespoke’, he would have said. My computer was mass-produced. It’s called a ‘personal computer’ but to look at there’s nothing very personal about it. Frankly, I find it quite unfriendly. There are row upon row of them in the big stores, all very much identical. When I’ve got the hang of it – if I ever do; the manual is at least two inches thick – I’ll customize it on the inside.
Nadia has her hair up today. Today it’s dark brown with red highlights. She looks fresh and sexy. She tells me she’s bored. With her life at home, or at work? It was her job. Her husband, she says, got laid off recently but has found a new job selling lingerie; ‘So I’m all right for suspender belts and that,’ she adds. Did I detect a raised eyebrow? She tells me – in response to my questioning – that she’s from a family of three girls. With three different fathers. One has blonde hair, one brown, and one red. Is that why her hair keeps changing colour? Is that why she became a hairdresser? She tells me her middle sister had been laid off too. What does she do? ‘She’s in caravans, mobile homes, and that,’ says Nadia. ‘What does she do, rent them out?’ ‘No, she cleans ’em.’ She leaves my hair long; barely do I pay attention to what she’s doing anymore, just let her get on with it. Then she hand-dries it. As she holds out my jacket I look her in her brown eyes and they smile a complicit smile.
Wednesday May 19, Paris
It’s hot and sticky in seat number 23A. My neighbour is a Friar Tuck of an Englishman in a blue pin-stripe suit with white stripes and a white pin-stripe shirt with blue stripes. He has a navy-blue tie and the R.N.L.I. badge on his lapel. He’s my age and has my accent. As soon as he has squeezed himself into the seat next to mine and taken off his jacket, I want to ask him how he got from being a sixties teenager to where he is now; how he slipped into the mould. There are so many like him on this plane. Then I could tell him how I got into my mould and perhaps he could even begin telling me what my mould is. We could have a conversation.
How did we English all get to look so smug? Social conditioning must be influential indeed to get us into this (fairly limited) set of moulds. I mean, you can spot the English in the airport lounge a mile off. Take-off coming now. I’m scribbling furiously, almost indecipherably. I’ve given ‘Pin-stripe’ my copy of The Independent and he’s buried in that. I’m so on edge that there was nothing in it I could read more than a few words of. I can get myself into a real state on these journeys.
While I dashed around the flat this morning, packing my bag, I was imagining how Ben would be able to assemble the clues about what I’m up to should I not come back. Even took the precaution of telling Carole where I put my system and work discs. I like to imagine someone, someday re-tracing the steps I’ve made and am anxious about not leaving anything to chance. Here we go! Jesus, what power! And what sweat on my hands! How the fuck do we stay up here? ‘Life Vest Under Your Seat’. Which reminds me I still haven’t got around to sending off that life insurance policy application. It’s a good job these hostesses keep grinning their ears off. I scrutinize the face of the one in my aisle. Will she ever be pleasured again? She certainly looks as if she will.
Big fields of bubblesud clouds, then the real fields – so many of them. So many rows and crescents too. And football fields. Friar Tuck interrupts my thoughts: “Statistically, this is the most dangerous moment,” is his opening gambit. Such a subtle one. I asked him about the insignia on his tie that looked like a little golden camera with white wings. “It’s the Barclay’s Tokyo tie,” he replied, proudly. “That’s the golden eagle, and that’s Mount Fuji in the background.” A banker! Well, yes, of course.
Hounslow on the Piccadilly: a new cemetery, allotments, a playing field and players in blue tunics, a miniature golf course. Rudimentary suburbia. University couple in the seats opposite. Going to stay with university chums. He looks a tit, she’s got big tits. Off to a wedding with them. Elderly chap with a blazer next to her. Military buttons. How did they all get like this? Above them there’s an advert that includes a reproduction of one of Monet’s paintings of the Seine. Next to it, the caption: ‘Loadsamonet: Paris £99.’ I ask you!
Westbourne Park, Elgin Avenue. A shirtsleeves evening. People already home from work (if they had any to go to.) Flock of pizza-delivery boys idling on red scooters, waiting for trade to pick up. The first thing Fred and I did was go down The Warrington on Sutherland Avenue. We stayed for a few pints. He told me how higher education institutions are being turned into businesses, how they’re only going to offer contracts of employment giving teachers just five weeks’ holiday. I said, “Then it’s not worth being a teacher anymore.”
Thursday May 20, London
I went to Senate House for the conference called ‘The Autobiographical Impulse’. The first person I ran into when I arrived was Philippe Lejeune. He spoke to me conspiratorially, arching his eyebrows, entreating me to ask him a question after his talk so that he could mention the Association Pour l’Autobiographie.* He was very good; the star of the show. He’s able to get his audience to laugh – without making jokes – and get them on his side. He says, “Diaries are a response to the future, not to the past.” The speakers were nearly all academics. Lorna Sage from UEA came on last. After a quarter of an hour of embarrassed avoidance, she read us excerpts from the autobiography her publisher has commissioned her to write.** Her prose is polished and literary and not really about her at all, more about her parents and grandparents. I asked her afterwards if she thought that the safest way to write an autobiography was to write about the other people in one’s life. She thought perhaps I was right; if you really want to write about yourself, you write a novel. It was apparent that she was perplexed by the task her publisher had set her. In fact, the circumstances in which she’s writing her book, the questions it raises and the discoveries she’s making whilst doing it are, she said, more fascinating than the story she’s actually writing. Lejeune had intuitively picked up on this and homed in on her with the question: “Are you going to put into your book what you’ve just been telling the two of us?” She answered with a perplexed, “No!” Lejeune didn’t pursue it, but for me his point had already sunk in. Writing about the process is perhaps how I can get the honesty I want into my ‘Nadia Days’: write the diary of my journey through the diary entries that constitute the corpus on which the book is based. Nothing invented, no trickery, nothing fictional, just what I wrote originally and my reading of it today. Is that possible?
*Lejeune is co-founder of the Association pour l’Autobiographie.
**Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was eventually published in 2000.
Saturday May 22, London
I walked down Portobello Road to Finch’s. The antique market was just packing up for the day. I stood on the pavement outside drinking with Fred and Jerry. The sky changed while we were out there; turned into a summer-evening sky with high, fleecy clouds. The fruit and veg market traders moved out, leaving the Portobello Road strewn with rubbish. All the freaks, pimpernels and peacocks stood and sat about in their scruffy clothes. Jerry, who always dresses in a black leather jacket, black jeans, black winkle-pickers and has his black hair slicked back with gel, was surprised to see me wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He remarked, “Usually you’re quite tweedy.” Which vexed me, though I didn’t say so.
On the way back to Elgin Avenue, while parking, Fred was hit by a midnight-blue Rolls Royce. I was aggressive towards the pin-striped septuagenarian who climbed out. I pinned him to the pavement with a stare he avoided. Wisely, he was not provoked. His hands trembled. His small shoes were highly polished. He was wearing strong scent. Fred went through the process of exchanging details without a hint of irritation or malice; a paragon of patience and goodwill he was. Then he just quietly got on with repairing the damage.
Tuesday May 25, Paris
I went to pick up Emma and her friend Naomi from school. Naomi is staying the night. She and Emma get on very well. They play a lot with dolls. I made the girls supper. When we were all in the kitchen, a pigeon settled on the window ledge. I clapped my hands to chase it away. Naomi asked me why. I said “Because I don’t want it doing poo-poos on the ledge.” This made them both howl with laughter and, for the next hour until they went to bed, everything and everyone was “poo-poos” – even Naomi’s mother who rang up to find out how she was getting on.
I’m still crawling through Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. What a gloomy character his narrator has turned out to be. Here he is, at the end of his life, looking back over his diary entries: ‘Lucidly, slowly, piece by piece, I re-read everything I have written. And I find it all worthless and I feel it would have been better never to have written it.’ I wonder what my evaluation of mine will be.
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