Europe is falling apart, everyone tells me. The economies are plummeting, people cannot take for granted the basic things they could even three years ago, the end for this brand of the first world lifestyle is nigh, the future is bleak, solutions and relief are very, very far away. Arriving in Paris, and then London, in this sharp early winter, you can see it on people’s faces: the end is nigh, the shore of economic safety is far, everything sucks, everything is done for, putain, merde sod this winter. On the high streets near where I normally stay in London, even more shops have shut down since May, when I was here last. Cheaper, less investment-heavy establishments have come up in these middle-class areas, the cheap chicken joint replacing the outpost of the fancy chain of Italian restaurants, beauty parlours of dodgy provenance and production swamping bookshops. On Oxford Street, the ‘auctions’ have grown, where men standing in yawning shopfronts sell you everything from deodorant to the actual Nelson’s Column because “laydeez n gennelmen, this store is shutting down tonight! In half-an-hour this store is gone!” In Paris, the numbers of down-and-outs grow every day, be-scarfed eastern European women huddled near the Notre Dame, handmade signs in basic French asking for food and change, the placards held in shivering fingers, the metro stations at night becoming unsanctioned dormitories for the homeless, the people stretched across the bucket chairs under dirty blankets and torn sleeping bags.
In all this, you would think fripperies and fringe things would either drop out of the market or start to cost less. Not a chance. One of my favourite things to do, when I’m in phoren, is to walk into stationery stores. Most often, I walk in with strict instructions to myself not to buy yet more seductive but unnecessary items, writing implements, paper, clips and fridge magnets, a bit like an alcoholic (with a full bar at home) walking into a booze shop. I walk in, I look, I lift and I feel, and then I walk out. Occasionally, I buy a single felt pen as a sop to my addiction. This time I notice that the one item I’ve rarely purchased is being displayed more proudly and with the originally outrageous price having gone up: this year there are more brands of the fancy little hard-cover notebooks and diaries than ever.
Now, I too used to keep a diary when I was younger. The passing years have convinced me a) that it’s best not to record those of my activities that are not at all interesting, b) that my other ‘jottings’ are not worth writing down and c) that I can always make notes on my phone and computer and thus save reams of paper. There are others I know, people who will put down an account of each day, stuff they can pull out and refer to years later, correcting you on such things like “no, we met at that other restaurant and what we ate was not what you mis-remember but…” Then there are others who can tell you every book they’ve read and every movie they’ve seen over the last twenty years, which, admittedly, is quite useful in countering chaotic memory-banks. There are yet others who will write stuff down, quotes, passages from writers, bits of poems they’ve read, in pens of different colour, with sticky notes to adorn the pages. Many of these people, especially the desis among them, will usually use your bog-standard diary or notebook that you can pick up in any local lala’s shop.
A few years ago, I was baffled by the appearance of something called the M___ Diary. These were basically small, black, hard-cover notebooks with an elastic band to keep them shut tight and a string to mark the page you were currently bothering with your scrawl. Apparently, without this specific brand of diary we would have had no Ernest Hemingway or Bruce Chatwin since both these writers, separated by decades, used these diaries (clearly like ammo magazines in a sub-machinegun) to write down every thought and observation, only later turning these into the books we love. Apparently, many great artists also used only this particular brand, carrying these little devils for their sketches and notes. “Hmm”, I thought to myself, “all this might have been true in 1935 or 1978 but surely now, at this crazy price, these things are just a marketing throw of the dice? Yup, these are fashion accessories and will disappear by next year.” I couldn’t have been more off the mark. By the next year, the pesky things were still there and in force: I now noticed you had brightly coloured bands of paper around the middle denoting the paper inside, blank, with widely spaced blue lines, with a square grid, for appointments, for addresses, with envelopes for storing flowers and whatnot, etc, etc, etc…. The year after that, the diaries came in different sizes. The year following, there was a serious competitor in the market, same concept except German and called something heavy with ‘cth’ in the middle, with a different colour scheme, grey and brown instead of the M’s black. About four years after I first saw the things, I finally bought one in Rome, black, ‘original’, with the square grids.
What did I fill it with? Very little. Some doodles, some sketches, notes, odd sentences. After three years, a lot of that notebook is still blank but I still carry it with me wherever I go. Recently, in Tokyo, I walked into heaven, a stationery store five floors high, one floor devoted entirely to these little diaries from competing brands. There I saw another little diary that I fell in love with: small, square-ish, with a green leather cover. “Ah, the Japanese!” I thought, “They always improve on what these Europeans come up with, look at the beauty of this thing, the elastic going across the width instead of the length, the rounded corners. Must have it!” I bought it and brought it back to my room. Opening it and reading the fine print inside the cover I realized it was made in Italy, the home country of the M Diaries.Clearly, the Japanese were also suckers for this craze.
Now, walking around in wintertime Europa, I wonder who buys these expensive notebooks and what exactly they fill them with, because, clearly, there are a lot of people of fairly ordinary means who spend the extra pounds or euros to buy this item quite regularly. Do they use them to keep accounts? Do the Europeans and British have… more thoughts than us? Do they value these thoughts more than we do ours, therefore bedding and encasing them in these mille-feuille biscuits of, (no doubt, archival) paper?
Having now been in London and Paris for a month, I find myself carrying not one but two notebooks, the earlier classic, now frayed, the elastic snapped, and its new companion, the new, green leather beauty. My grandchildren, should any ever come into existence, will not glean much from perusing these pages except perhaps that Dadaji was a stationary-fetishist who carried around with him lots of pens and mostly blank notebooks for the making of which precious trees were slaughtered.
Bumping along in the Paris metro we stop at a station. Three youths get into our carriage, sweatshirts, hoods, gangster pants, dirty sneakers. One of the guys is trundling what looks like a huge speaker on a trolley. It is exactly that. As soon as the train starts the fellow switches on the speaker, which is attached to some MP3 player and the sound of French rap starts pumping through the carriage. One of the other boys grabs two of the carriage poles and does a couple of quick somersaults. The third guy begins to rap, loudly, as tunefully as rap allows, and with humour. In the confines of the bogey, the three of them conduct a mini-celebration of modern music, singing, calling out, dancing, doing the flips. Some passengers respond, watch, clap. Others pretend this fun circus is just not happening and keep their heads in their books or their phones. In this crowd, I see one woman looking at the action and scribbling something in a little notebook. “Ah, a current or future French novelist”, I think. As one of the boys comes around with a paper cup, I reach for the change in my wallet. My own diaries remain in my bag.