Wednesday, March 7, 2018

NY missive no 155: Daniel Libeskind's "Breaking Ground"

For my birthday C gave me “Never Built New York”, on grand architectural projects that for one reason or another never saw the light of day. It has an introduction by Daniel Libeskind, the architect who designed the winning plans for the World Trade Center site – some, but not all of which came into being as he had envisioned, given that money-politics inevitably intervened (it’s a long story).

By coincidence, the day after reading that intro, I spotted Libeskind’s autobiography “Breaking Ground” among the books stacked up in boxes outside the second hand store on Astoria’s Broadway between 40th and 41st streets. I was on my way to spend some treasured birthday weekend hours alone at Museum of the City of New York and Central Park, so bought it for a couple of dollars and started reading on the subway. He intersperses stories of his life, as the son of Polish survivors of the Gulags, who found success late in his life as an architect, with those of the buildings he designed.

They include the Jewish Museum in Berlin (a hell of a process getting that one done), and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. The budget of the latter was cut drastically part way through. The team had to make changes to the materials and way the museum was built, but it was still a great success. "The moral of this story," Libeskind writes, "is that reduced budgets can sometimes be the impetus to greater creativity."

It’s one of those books that’s arrived in my life at a serendipitous time, delivering an outsized dose of meaning because of the time when I’m reading it. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about buildings, who builds them, and how those decisions and people define the lives of the rest of us. “A great building – like great literature – or poetry or music – can tell the story of the human soul,” Libeskind writes.

I carried on reading for a while after the museum (exhibit of photos of MLK in NYC), on some of those ancient schist rocks that crop up throughout Central Park. I mean really ancient – Manhattan’s bedrock ranges from 1.1 billion to 190 million years old - and they seem it, emitting age and stability while the people who walk across them come and go, and come and go. It’s a reminder of how fleetingly we are here, yet how each of us also is just a continuation of those who have come before us. Mum and I had walked across those same rocks when she visited for a fall weekend when I had just become pregnant with JNH.

Libeskind writes about the material that architects use. “Painters have their colors, musicians their sounds, writers their words – thousands of them. Although we can design buildings in our heads or on paper, the tools of architects are less easy to assemble.

“These are my tools: stone, steel, concrete, wood, glass. And the challenge before me is to design expressive buildings – buildings that tell human stories – with these mute substances. Like a dancer, I am acutely conscious of gravity, and I find it remarkable that these materials come from the earth. What is concrete? It’s the earth. Architecture, I realize, is about assembling various components from the earth into visibility.”

I walked back down through the park to 59th Street, around the Jackie Onassis reservoir which glistened with sun bouncing off the ice that had just started to melt in patches. The reservoir was dotted with thousands of sea-birds who rose and fell, creating patterns. I first discovered the reservoir soon after moving to NYC, walking up through the park as dusk was falling and feeling like I was racing nightfall.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

New York Missive no 154 - The spaces in-between

Many years ago I wrote a very bad poem, about the raw materials of a city separating into their constituent parts and being sucked up into a swirling mass of metals, sand, woodchips and water drops above the land, before falling back down into place again exactly as they were before. Exactly as they were – walls, windows, buildings, streets – yet changed from the experience: is this the same city as before, or a new one? I wonder where that image came from? The idea was more powerful in my mind than I could convey it in words. We are also particles in that swirling mass and that’s where our energy comes from, yet all the beauty and meaning in our existence comes from the ways in which the particles are placed in relation to each other. Shapes, boundaries, beginnings and endings, arrivals and departures that create meaning and narrative from nothing, like language.

This reminds me of a story I remember from childhood. After he retired, my Great Uncle Arthur taught reading and writing to kids who needed extra help with it. There was one child who just didn’t seem to get it. He struggled and struggled over the words and never retained how to read them. Finally, Uncle Arthur realized what the problem was. The child was looking at the spaces between the words, instead of focusing on the black lines on the page. Along with that memory comes, of course, the place where he told me that story: their quiet dining room in their flat in Connaught Square where Arthur would add slabs of butter to his toast, and where they usually served sweetcorn with the salad for lunch.

We can look at the substance of things and people but there’s also meaning to be explored and discovered (however difficult!) in the spaces in-between.

Italo Calvino talks about spaces in-between, in Invisible Cities:

“I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window….”

Saturday, January 6, 2018

NY missive no 153 - Thoughts on open toes at a funeral

I’ve started reading Edwidge Dandicat’s “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story”. Dandicat says she wishes that she had talked to her mother about what she wanted said at her funeral. “I suppose she might have mentioned something on her cassette if had been that important to her,” she writes, referring to a cassette her mother recorded soon before she died. “After all, she told me what kind of shoes I should wear to her wake. (No open toes).”

Aaghh! No open toes! That set off a whole spiral of thoughts on my subway commute. I wore open toes to Mum’s funeral! I remember on the day considering if that was ok. Not least because I have terrible toes (from Dad), and because bare toes meant bare legs too, and Mum would often comment when she saw us on Skype in Summer in sleeveless tops or a sleeveless dress – her in London and us in sweltering NYC - “it must be very hot there today”, with a hint of disapproval at the display of flesh, or was that disapproval only in my mind, drawing on memories of body-conscious-teenagerhood? But! She would have loved the orange nail polish I had on. The New York daughter standing up there at the funeral, with the New York-painted toe nails. No, just, daughter. The black shoes I had would look weird with tights underneath, and it was a hot day, and she would, we knew, have wanted colors whenever the time came, certainly not everyone in black.

Monday, January 1, 2018

NY missive no 152 - The desk

I’m writing this at a very solid wooden desk that my great grandfather had built for my grandfather when he went off to Cambridge University. After my grandfather died, Mum used it as her desk in her little study overlooking their garden – the garden where my sister P and I had played from the ages of 6 and 4, where the enormous oak next door had crashed down unexpectedly one day, and where she loved seeing JNH and CMH playing on our visits to the UK, stocking up on paddling pools and bat-and-ball games in advance.

Mum was organized about what was in each of the desk’s eight drawers. It was there, after retirement, that she’d do her work as chair of the governors for a school, receive and respond to emails from P and I from our various corners of the globe, and keep people connected in the neighborhood and among our family in lovely and specific ways.

I included the desk in a message to her cousins after she died, “distributing” family furniture among relatives. Her cousin C replied that she didn’t want to take the desk, but she had happy memories of it. She remembered it in my grandparent’s house, in a room that was part study and part “cosy space for scrambled egg Saturday night suppers.” When her daughter was born, she stayed in their house for a few weeks and would use the knee-hole space between the drawers as a convenient place to pop the baby in her carry cot when lots of visitors came round.

I pondered the desk on my subway commutes. On one commute I decided that it was ridiculous not to bring it here to New York, for me to use, and for JNH to write at when I’m gone, whenever that may be. (If this year’s taught me anything, it’s that that could be anytime).

So here it is, with me sitting at it.


P helped Dad pack up their house for his move, and so she was there when the guys came to pick up the desk. In the knee-hole space she included a box full of other things – some paintings, and folders of my “stuff” that Mum had kept.

Among them was a baby book and a list, written in her familiar blue ink writing, of my “general progress” from birth. Five weeks saw “first smile,” and “discovered feet”. 20 weeks saw “positive attempts to crawl.” 8 ½ weeks said “Broke leg” (I’d rolled off a changing table), but luckily it seemed to cause only a minor pause in progress, as 9 months 1 week said: “Back to where we were before leg broke.”

One of the paintings I shipped is an old Punch cartoon of four sloths. Three are hanging comfortably upside down from the branches, and one is on top of a branch clinging on with an intense expression. “For heaven’s sake Roger, relax” reads the caption. Roger was my grandfather’s name. I’ve hung it up near the desk as a reminder.


Nothing has felt quite right this Christmas. A “Charlie Brown” local children’s play was pretty rubbish. The “ginger kick” cocktail I introduced Dad to in one of our local bars “The Shady Lady” was way too spicy even for him (laced with jalapenos), so he had to order a different one. CMH decided to have a couple of wild tantrums. Mum wasn’t with us.

She wasn’t, yet in all kinds of ways she was, and that’s what I need to hold on to.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

New York missive no 151 - Alliums

When I shared some photos of alliums in Battery Park on Facebook a friend wrote that they are “improbable.”

That’s absolutely right. They are large balls of thousands of purple flowers, like fireworks frozen at their moment of maximum burst. They balance stably – improbably - on a tall stem that doesn’t wobble.

Often before work I walk around Battery Park. During the weeks after Mum died the alliums were out in bloom, clustered like sentinels alongside the pathways. In a lovely cross-continental connection, when I arrived at their house in London, there was an allium in a vase in the middle of the kitchen table.

Each of those flowers say so many things. “Stop, and marvel”, being one. And “anything’s possible.”

I have planted six allium bulbs in our garden. They’re currently lying out of sight beneath the ground (and today, beneath a layer of snow too). Let’s see if they emerge in the Spring. I’ve tried tulips, hyacinth and crocus too; hedging my bets.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

New York missive no 150 - death through children's eyes

There’s a certain ruthlessness with the way that children talk about and apparently accept death. On the day that Mum died, I went over in my head what it would be like to tell the kids when we brought them back from school (we had managed to walk them to school just after I heard the news, as I needed the day to start absorbing it myself first). I imagined something like a grown up reaction; of us all sitting on the step at the back of the house, and both of them starting to cry, and holding them close. Instead, JNH said “I knew you were upset about something like that this morning.” CMH stayed quiet. Then they went back to playing.

A bit later, they said that “Gaggie and Popo’s house will just be Popo’s house now.” And when we all arrived there together the week of the funeral they went bounding into the house and out to the garden just like on our Summer visits, as if nothing was different, as if there wasn’t a glaring absence.

But it’s only “apparently accept” of course. Instead, they just have their own ways of responding, ways that are uniquely those of a child and that keep us surprised. One evening Dad was babysitting for them with my friend G. Apparently CMH came downstairs in his pajamas, took a framed photograph of all us from back in January, the last time Mum came to visit us in NYC. He sat silently at the table looking at it for a while, before going back upstairs. This weekend, we rode the Roosevelt Island cable car for the first time, and as we soared up above East River exclaiming at the view, CMH said: “There’s just one thing missing: Gaggie.”

Mum died just nine days after her Seventieth birthday, so for a while in their house there were birthday cards and big helium “70” balloons alongside a rapidly growing sea of condolence cards. When we all arrived as a family – that time the kids bounded into the garden – Dad decided it was time we got rid of the balloons, but we didn’t want to burst them. So we let them off into the sky. All three of them floated fast up to the right of the house. JMH said: “They are going to see Gaggie.”

Monday, June 5, 2017

New York missive no 149 - It sounds like a peacock whistling

"It sounds like a peacock whistling."

So said CMH about a sound. It would take you a long, long time to guess which sound - you probably never would.

It was the sound of one of those "fidget spinner" toys set on the ground and spun right next to a sheet of bubble wrap, which it rubbed to make a rustling whir.