Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New York missive no 36 - Alain de Botton on love

I finally met LF, from whom I’m subletting the apartment while she lives in California. She was as I imagined, feisty, fun and centre of her own universe. In she came like a whirlwind, with her (necessarily, I imagine) calm boyfriend in her wake. She went straight into her bedroom. “Brrrr, winter in New York! Where’s my blue puffa jacket?” Oh-oh. I had never seen a blue puffa jacket in that room but automatically felt guilty. She went through the few coats hanging up in the closet. No blue puffa jacket. I attempted to distract her as she searched by starting a conversation but to no avail. “I know it was here before,” she said. Then a little accusingly, “perhaps your friend A packed it away when he was living here?” Big black sacks were tugged down from on high and rummaged through. Then “Yes! Got it.” Relief, mine as much as hers. Panic over. Now she could say hello.

We chatted by the bookshelves – she ran through my books, lugged over in batches in heavy suitcases from London, and then the ones of hers that I’d pulled out of boxes when I first moved in, to fill up the glaringly empty black Ikea shelf-space. One of hers was Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love”. “Anyone who is ever in a relationship or about to get into one has to read that book,” she said. I didn’t mention that one of her diaries, found up in the boxes along with the books, had also provided some insight on that subject – at least along the lines of reminding me that us 30-something year-old single women share startlingly similar experiences and emotions. It gave me the sense of belonging to a club, albeit a not particularly exclusive one. (Ok I shouldn’t have. But what are diaries for if not to be read by people who don’t have permission to?).

I remembered how GV had interviewed de Botton for the unsubtly-named magazine “SLANT” (tagline “Think Differently”) that we’d produced at journalism school. The first half of her article was skewed with adulation. “He walks into the room, a tall, captivating figure...”… “I gaze into his dark eyes as he considers my questions”…and suchlike. Looking at the picture on the book jacket I couldn’t quite see what she had been getting at. I read the book though, in bed a couple of nights and then on the plane on the way to Switzerland for Christmas. It's essentially a moment-by-moment account of the narrator’s relationship with a woman called Chloe, interspersed with philosophical musings and references that analyse their reactions to each other in microscopic detail. Its voice is very much de Botton's – that of a young (at the time it was published) Cambridge-graduate-confident-he-has-all-the-answers, even if when they constitute new questions. When he mentions in passing that Chloe said one of his problems is thinking too much, I wasn’t surprised. "Relax, Alain (even though yes I know the narrator isn’t meant to be you)…Revel in the moment for what it is! Stop looking for coherent meanings where there’s no such thing to be found", I felt like saying on regular occasions. That said, there are endless observations that ring true. Though the bits I related to were not those that a young LF had underlined in blue biro and annotated in the margins…perhaps our experiences and emotions are not that similar after all. Anyway, a few of the obvious but important remarks I liked were:

“The possibility of an alternative love life is a reminder that the life we are leading is only one of a myriad of possible lives: and it is perhaps the impossibility of leading them all that plunges us into sadness.”

“There is no transcendental point from which we may observe the past, it is always constructed in the present, and changed along with its movements. Nor do we look at the past for its own sake, we do so rather in order to help us explain the present.”

And re wars and relationships: “…an ingredient that might just…save both states and couples from intolerance…[is] a sense of humour.”


In the end neither the former potato-farmer nor the former-marine doula was appointed, because JH’s baby arrived early. Then just a few weeks into his life the baby landed the role of Jesus in the nativity play at Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square (near which, incidentally, I’ve discovered a cosy Belgian bar, Vol de Nuit). Where will he go from Messiah-hood?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New York missive no 35 - Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 60

Today is the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here's a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in drafting the Declaration:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

New York missive no 34 - Reading worlds

How do we read our worlds? On the way back from the paintings of Fulton Fish Market I stopped at the big Borders store on W 34th and 7th (in fact all Borders stores are temptingly, dangerously big. They are brothels of titles, book-jackets and reviewers’ blurbs). I emerged with three books. One was "Up in the Old Hotel", a collection of Joseph Mitchell's writing for the New Yorker. Why? Because the fish market exhibition included a section on him, with photographs of him, articles by him, and articles about him, about his life as a Southerner documenting New York and its people in permanent flux, capturing precious fragments as he went and preserving them for posterity. Another was Michael Pollan’s "Omnivore’s Dilemma", a Natural History of Four Meals. Because when I’d mentioned my own book idea to Si, she recommended it for the way Pollan skilfully serves up the stories behind what’s on our plates. The third was Thoreau’s "Walden". Because one of our Development Director candidates had previously worked at the Thoreau Society and he managed to weave Thoreau’s ideas on the economy into his interview answers – when the book confronted me from its shelf as I headed to the checkout I read that as a message to read it. So people and places I’d encountered had planted signposts in my mind that I unconsciously carried about till I had the opportunity to follow them.

There are layers of reading. From snippets communicating moments, epitomised by Twitter. To the chattering and chewing over news that gathers in the blogosphere and on sites like Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, which offer the service of sifting and framing information for a certain type of reader – for you – creating the illusion of reader-empowerment but in the process moulding you more into that certain type of reader. To “news”, loud and clear but often meaningless, packaged by agendas (today I skim-read a commentary by George Monbiot - discovered while perusing a certain ex’s Facebook page - about the extent to which “news” on climate change is suffused with lies, and about the way in which we choose to read the news we want to be real). To long, investigative articles, an endangered species and all the more noble for it though as a journalist-at-heart I would say that: articles that probe deep, calm, and objectively (yeah right) into a moment, situation or person and by telling it reveal certain universalities though never labelling them as such. To books. Always books. They survive because sometimes we need to be engrossed. We need to be carried along for more than a minute without distraction. Have non-fiction interpret the world for us. Have fiction express it. Last night Ch and I heard Toni Morrison reading from her new book "A Mercy" and answering questions. Listening to her was like hearing a hundred lives in one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New York missive no 33 - Zarela's, and Chelsea art

In New York stories just present themselves, there’s no need to invent them. I arrived at my writing class last Thursday, as always a little late, to find everyone in mid conversation about the teacher’s selection of a Doula (his wife’s due to give birth on the day of our 4 Dec class). Two have made the final shortlist: a 6’1’’ tall former marine, and a Norwegian former potato farmer. What made them decide to become Doulas? What skills from their former professions do they apply in their new one?

Sleeping patterns are a bit skewed this weekend. Mexican food at Zarela’s in midtown East on Friday night with Si and A. The restaurant’s namesake moved to New York with her two young twins after a failed marriage in Texas and opened it with $20,000 of savings to bring good, regional Mexican dishes to Manhattan and beyond – she succeeded. Somehow it was 3am by the time I got to bed, then was up again at 6 to head into the office for our last 2 interviews with candidates for the Dakar-based Francophone Africa post. After a gym work-out to sweat out the sleepiness met S to gallery-hop along W21 and 22 Streets in Chelsea where every second building’s been converted into an airy space for contemporary art, and the buildings in-between into apartments only crazy people can afford or shops like Comme des Garcons, that only crazy people can afford. Then girly natter over beer and broccoli soup at La Graine cafe. S has moved out of her Weehawken Street box room now (to move in with her soon-to-be-husband, which makes sense), but the others are still hanging on in there…ok yes I was just a bit crazy to have moved out when I did. Then homewards for what I thought would be a nap before a Saturday night out but turned out to be an epic 13 hour slumber…

This morning made progress buying an amusing collection of items that Ra wants me to send to Chennai (he'd forgotten to put the order in before I left for India). A certain variety of Old Spice High Endurance Deodorant; a Mr Clean magic eraser (?!); Paul Mitchell's Instant Moisture Daily Shampoo to, apparently, zap the damage done by the Tamil Nadu humidity. And now heading to South Street Seaport. Given the Fulton fish market's no longer there, we're going to get a taste for it vicariously through the rosy prism of a reminiscent art exhibition.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New York missive no 32 - Obamapolitains

This weekend marked a year since I moved to NYC. On Saturday night I found myself sipping pink and lethal Obamapolitains at an Obama victory party, hosted by a Columbia professor in her spacious apartment overlooking Central Park. The apartment, which had taken 14 years of moving and shaking to get hold of, inspired almost as much conversation as the election. Though not quite. The sitting room was packed with campaigners and supporters, old and young. Some had quit their jobs and spent the past six months working twenty-hour days rallying support for Obama in Republican corners of Pennsylvania. When I asked one of them whether he’d be going back to his former job with a small veterans' non-profit he said no, he feels with this experience he can take on something bigger (and better paid!) now. There were kids for whom politics suddenly meant more than talking heads on TV. There were a couple of English girls fresh from university who’d come over to help out, figuring it would be more fun than frittering away their money in London bars while looking for jobs. There were a few guests who quietly confessed to “only” having voted. My trip to the Philly suburbs on election day to help get out the vote just about qualified me for my first, if not my second, Obamapolitain.

I felt it was late enough by then not to be accused, rightly, of foreign meddling, got the train down with K and other NY volunteers, and spent the day navigating up to front doors with a Lebanon-born New York psychologist between luminous Halloween decorations (blow-up pumpkins, frankensteins, shiny skeletons) that competed for attention with the Obama-Biden, McCain-Palin signs.

The end of this year has also finally brought some kind of closure to the Tigger-Eeyore pendulum that had continued swinging in my mind a little too long. That analogy's a bit unfair. Eeyore had (has!) plenty of dynamism that escapes in unexpected ways. And Tigger wasn't (isn't!) immune to melancholy. Anyway, time spent in Chennai with the T and a short phone conversation with the E in which much I'd planned to say wasn't said, plus a failed attempt at purging feelings by writing a short story about them (never a good idea - long live healthy detachment from creative subjects) have stilled that pendulum. What remarkably remains are two treasured friendships. Onwards...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

New York missive no 31 - Obama wins

Well there’s a lot to say about the past four weeks, during which I’ve found myself in London, Kyiv, Delhi, Chennai, Madurai, Kochi, New York, Connecticut, Philadelphia and Washington DC. Just a bit to be absorbed and described. I’ll start with Tuesday, the event shared with millions of others.

During the Democratic primaries one of the comments that used to annoy me was people saying they were going to vote for Clinton because “America’s not ready for Barack Obama”. And is America not ready because you’re not? I felt like asking (and sometimes did). Well, America was ready.

In a previous entry I said it can be dangerous to focus on “America” as a whole, projecting a single idea of what the country represents and in doing so brushing aside the experiences of those who don’t share the same idea. Yet in the last few days that sense of shared purpose has worked in an overwhelmingly positive way. Because, I guess, the idea of "America" that the majority chose to revive is one where every individual counts, regardless of background and beliefs.

Race didn’t feature as much as it might in the minute-to-minute struggle of the campaign. It’s now that the enormity of having a black President of the United States is sinking in. Beyond that message though, there’s the change Obama will bring in his approach to politics: listening carefully to all voices and through to the common purpose, and hopefully solutions, that lie beneath them; remaining calm, consistent and level-headed in the midst of tumultuous events; and strengthening the political process by bringing people back in.

Now off to see Man on Wire about Philippe Petit who tightrope-walked between the twin towers. "Nothing is impossible," says one of the people interviewed in the trailer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

London interlude (brief)

Though more NYC-related than London. When rumaging in the attic among boxes in search of an India guide book (found, eventually, at the bottom of the eighth box, eureka!) I came across "The Collected Dorothy Parker". I'll lend it to Dad (hardly lending when it's been encased in a box in his own house for several months), because for some reason he was talking about her the other day. On page 215 is this rather melancholy poem of the kind that pops up from time to time among her glitter. It's called Interior:

Her mind lives in a quiet room,
A narrow room, and tall,
With pretty lamps to quench the gloom
And mottoes on the wall.

There all the things are waxen neat
And set in decorous lines,
And there are posies, round and sweet,
And little, straightened vines.

Her mind lives tidily, apart
From cold and noise and pain,
And bolts the door against her heart,
Out wailing in the rain.

I'd say that unlike Dorothy I don't bolt my heart out of an ordered, tidy mind but rather drown it out with a cluttered one. What I like are the occasional times I let the two intermingle, through writing or other things.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

New York missive no 30 - Carnival of the animals

At a bookshop in Newark airport yesterday I picked up a fat paperback compendium of Arthur Schlesinger’s memoirs. Then looking at the subjects he covered – Bay of Pigs, missile crisis, Vietnam, Watergate, first gulf war – I couldn’t help but think that while no doubt it was full of the perceptive insights of a wise advisor nestled close to power in times of crisis (“today, over breakfast with Kissinger…”) those insights applied to a world so different from today’s. So I decided not to buy it.

(Instead I went for “The Best American Short Stories 2008", edited this year by Salman Rushdie and prefaced by both him and the series editor deliberating over what constitutes “Best”, “American”, and “Short”).

Once on the plane and as it taxied up to the runway for a couple of hours (Newark on a Friday night clearly no better than JFK) I engrossed myself in this week’s New Yorker, leaning over the empty seat to my left and holding the magazine’s small print up close to my eyes, as my overhead light wasn’t working. (That and several other details on the Continental Airlines flight reinforced my belief that Virgin rocks, and I’m not usually one for brand loyalty). The magazine, a bumper “politics issue” included an article by Nicholas Lemann, “Worlds Apart – Obama, McCain, and the future of foreign policy”. It describes the candidates’ starkly different “new” and “old” foreign policy approaches.

Lemann says Obama’s is echoed in and influenced by a report published last year by the Phoenix Initiative: “'This report,’ [Susan E] Rice writes in her preface, 'breaks away from such traditional concepts as containment, engagement, and enlargement and rejects standard dichotomies of realist power politics versus liberal idealism.’…The reports lists five top ‘strategic priorities’ for the United States. The first three are issues that governments, or even international organizations, can’t handle on their own: counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and, taken together, climate change and oil dependence. The other two are regional: the Middle East and East Asia. The report barely mentions great-power diplomacy, the traditional core concept of statecraft. It is not just post-Cold War but post-war on terror and, arguably, post-American hegemony.”

McCain’s world view is certainly not post-American hegemony. As Lemann says, “McCain is far more oriented to countries than to transnational forces, and far more apt to stress that America must remain the world’s most powerful nation than to lay out a cooperative, collaborative plan for the world’s future. 'I am committed to working with other nations that share our values,' McCain said [in an interview with Lemman in Grand Rapids, Michigan], 'but somebody has to lead. Somebody must lead. America has to lead. Look at the challenges we have faced after September 11th. American led, in coordination with our allied in one case – Afghanistan – and in one case without: Iraq. Somalia was a failure because we did not lead [ah, so does that logic make Iraq a success then?]. We have to lead.' McCain was in his animated mode now. His eyes were open wide, his face upturned, his arms raised. 'I believe in American exceptionalism. I do. And I can prove it by reviewing our history. I want the twenty-first century to be the American century.'"

Schlesinger apparently says the following about McCain in a 1998 entry in his memoirs: "McCain is a loose cannon . . . capable of bizarre behavior...This plus his reputedly wayward sex life will sure destroy his evident presidential aspirations."

Last weekend, a New York weekend if ever there was one, with bits of culture, work, exercise, partying and unpredictable moments mixed in. Friday night L, D and I saw the film “Four nights with Anna” by the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski at the Ziegfeld on W 54th street, as part of the New York film festival. It’s the first film he’s made in seventeen years. Skolimowski, with bright white hair, dark glasses, and a thick-set frame clad in a dark suit, spoke before and after the film. The moderator beforehand asked him why the long break. “My last film was mediocre,” he said. “I don’t like doing mediocre.” The film is about a crematorium worker in a small town in Poland ("Why did you set this film in your home country?" “You think I could have made a film like this in Hollywood?”), who witness a rape, is charged with the rape, and then on his release from prison finds himself living opposite the victim, Anna. He becomes obsessed with her, first watching her through binoculars from his window and then eventually climbing into her room as she’s asleep to be close to her…he potters about, sewing back on a button that’s coming of her shirt, cleaning up the aftermath of her 30th birthday celebrations while she’s passed out drunk, and never touching her, though coming close when once he gently tops up the red nail polish on her toes. The camera revels in the spying and creeping about. It’s a dark, slow and bizarre film and I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But when I went out half-way through to go the bathroom, walking up the aisle of the operatic cinema with its high ceilings, red velvet chairs and gold decoration, passed the shadowy bodies and flurouescent flickering faces of the audience, through a corridor and a lobby where ushers were chatting quietly and into the over-opulent bathroom, I was acutely aware I’d been immersed in a brilliant work of film-making. I watched the water pouring out of the brass tap as I washed my hands and it seemed to move in slow motion. Everything I could see was enhanced.

After the film D confirmed she’d had a similar experience when she too went out to the bathroom, so it wasn’t that I’d had a drink spiked beforehand.


On Saturday had many hours of much-needed sleep; then sat in a café having late breakfast and planning Ukraine and India meetings; worked out at the gym to a mixed accompaniment of CNN bulletins and a Mexican concert involving ballading mariachis with sequined shirts only half-buttoned to reveal hairy chests, curvaceous songstresses in long tight dresses, and screaming fans; and bought two pairs of boots, having realised that all my winter shoes have holes in, from a shop run by two Malians who introduced me to the music of Salif Keita. Then met with M for a long, fun West Village evening. First stop, the Other Room on Perry Street. We drank wine sitting on tall chairs by the open window – a cluster of people outside the bar in front of us fed themselves and their dog tidbits of takeaway pizza, while behind us the room got progressively fuller and darker as lights were switched off to be replaced by little candles on the wooden tables. Wine-fuelled we headed for Malatesta Trattoria on Washington and Christopher. Being so close to old territory though, I couldn’t help take a detour via Weehawken Street. Realising I still had my keys we surprised my room replacement D who was watching TV when I bounced in to give M a guided tour of the apartment and the rooftop. Then Pear salad, pasta, and more wine at Malatesta (can't believe I hadn't been there before, it's scrummy), followed by a ten-piece set crammed into Small’s jazz bar, among them an old yet animated xylophone player and a youthfull alto saxophonist. Actually there were only nine, I guess the clarinettist got waylaid.

The following morning we checked out the sculptures built by children outside the vast, gothic St John the Divine cathedral round the corner from the apartment. There, we encountered a peacock, preening itself on a stone wall outside the church. And then another, a white one. And then a woman by a stand promoting the rights of pigeons. Somehow we found ourselves buying badges with their logo (pigeon on a crucifix) and sucker me signed up for their email updates – though despite visions of being inundated with pigeon emancipation bumph I’ve yet to hear from them. There was definitely an animal theme going on. Along the edge of the cathedral there were round pens strewn with hay yet eerily empty and a cluster of bird-less poles with chains, labelled “eagle”, “hawk”, “peregrine falcon”. At the front of the church, a crowd had gathered. I asked a woman what was going on. Matter-of-factly she informed me the animals would be coming out soon. Curiouser and Curiouser. Our hangover fuzz just made the whole thing more surreal. We climbed the steps of the church and were just in time to watch the procession emerge – we were at the “Blessing of the Animals” to mark St Francis of Assisi day. Priests and attendants of all ethnicities carried/led a veritable menagerie from the alter to the church door: there was the eagle (with its enormous wings boastfully outstretched), the peregrine and the hawk, a giant tortoise being pulled along on a trolley (too slow to walk), a scraggy sheep, a dog, a goat, and towards the end, a magnificent camel. They gathered on the cathedral steps for a Buñuel wedding-esque photoshoot.

The weekend rounded off in Soho. Mi and I nattered over a strong coffee then strolled around the shops. In one, selling stunning bright Indian fabrics and clothes, water started dripping and then pouring through the ceiling, throwing the woman who ran the place into an understandable tizz and a tirade against her landlords who keep upping the rent without fixing things. Then some hair of dog drinks in Café Feliz with La and co where the Brazilian music was pumping and the crowd dancing, squeezing the last drops of time out of the weekend…we stayed awhile then de-camped to the quieter Café Noir around the corner. Heading homewards I passed the IFC and decided to end the weekend as it began, with a film, this time The Pleasure of Being Robbed (more about the Pleasure of Robbing).

Monday, September 29, 2008

New York missive no 29 - Bohemians, theatre, street festivals, a soup kitchen

Oh to have been a Greenwich Village bohemian in the early 20th Century. I’ve been reading "Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village – the American bohemia 1910 – 1960” (with an emphasis on the 10s and 20s), by the Village Voice journalist Ross Wetzsteon. He died in 1998, two years before the book was published. He reveals the intimate and extrovert existences of a place that became a cauldron of interaction between artists, playwrights, rebels, social activists, feminists and the occasional philanthropist. They were fuelled by a potent mix of narrow self-promotion and broad dreams of social change (some of which were realised). There was Edna St Vincent Millay, the red-headed poet who everyone fell in love with, Mabel Dodge the salon-host, Jig Cook who determindly kept the Provincetown Players running till eventually he ran out of steam and retreated to Greece, Max Eastman the editor of the Masses, Jack Reed the dashing young journalist, the whispy playwright Eugene O'Neill...Between them they formed and dissolved movements, established magazines and watched them combust, and slept with one another. The lesson that it's easy to practice free love onself but hard to accept it in one's partners was repeatedly learnt and unlearnt.


Monday and Tuesday nights last week, two events on wooden stages with different subjects but posing the same resounding question: what is a government for? The first, a reading at Joe’s Public Theatre of JS’s play (written jointly with two others) about Hurricane Katrina, The Breach. The play switches to and fro between three stories. Of a family stuck on their rooftop as the waters rise around them. Of a bar tender wheel-chair-bound by multiple sclerosis who just survives the storm to learn shortly after that his son has been killed in action in Iraq. And of a young, earnest white New York journalist pursuing the “truth” of black New Orleans. At first the journalist attempts to dissect fact from rumours (primarily rumours about the levees having been purposely exploded to direct the force of the damage towards the poor and predominantly black ninth ward), then realising that a chunk of truth lies in the origins of rumour, whether or not they can be substantiated.

The second, a PEN event “Reading Burma” at Cooper Union involving writers and exiled monks who were involved in the Saffron revolution a year ago. At one point Kiran Desai and Orhan Pamuk were on stage. She read testimonies from victims of Cyclone Nargis, including a woman who went into labour as it struck. In-between the testimonies, Pamuk read excerpts from the government’s mouthpiece “New Light of Myanmar” trying not to wretch as he released its words. The excerpts poured scorn on international relief efforts. Surely, the paper said, the people living near the Irawaddy were resilient enough to find wild frogs to eat.

Whatever the sins of the Bush administration I’m not going to start comparing it to the Burmese regime. But both Katrina and Nargis exposed government neglect for all the world to see. Has that changed anything?


On X’s last Sunday in New York we went to China Town for the Mid-Autumn festival. It turned out there were various other festivals going on around China Town at the same time. A pickle festival on Orchard Street (lots of tents with lots of pickles and lots of crowds sweltering in oppressive heat). A farmers’ market. And the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, involving ice cream-stands, temporary restaurant terrazzas and fairground rides with booming music manned by grumpy women in tight t-shirts. We met Mi and co for iced tea to cool down in a nearby café, ambled on to a dumpling bar for a $11 Chinese feast, bought mooncakes to take home then wandered over to West Village via the concrete Picasso statue of a woman’s face that I’d never noticed before in the midst of the NYU student housing off Bleeker Street.


“What motivates you?” is what the now 96-year-old Louise Bourgeois asks of young artists who attend the weekly salons at her townhouse in Chelsea. Her scrutiny, no doubt, can be transformational or devastating. She’s someone who speaks her mind, and her mind is forceful, permanently unpredictable and renewed. She’s also someone whose life and art are one and the same. When P was in New York we watched the documentary about her, “The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine”. Then a few weeks later Sa, Lu and I, energized by a huge brunch at Kitchenette and walk through Central Park, went to her exhibition at the Guggenheim. There we saw one of her enormous metal spiders (representing her mother’s spindly resilience and calm), several variations of “cumuli” – clusters of mound-shapes in marble or wood apparently evoking either penises or breasts though they looked much more like the former to me – and her “cells”, rooms that you can glimpse into through cracks and gaps in the walls to see organised-disorganised objects like spools of red and blue ribbon, a child’s train running over a red bed, a pillow embroidered with “je t’aime”, a mirror propped up against a wall, and dresses hanging on bone coat-hangers, as if you’d been given permission to watch someone’s subconscious and experience laid out together on a vivisection table. The spiral of the Guggenheim worked perfectly for her art which is full of spirals itself, inspired partially by the twisting of cloth at her parents’ tapestry restoration business in France when she was a child.


The stretch of Broadway between the express 2 and 3 subway stop at 96th Street and 109th Street where I live is a Manhattan microcosm. On the sidewalk, the rich from Riverside Drive penthouses rub shoulders with the poor from the projects on Amsterdam, and at any given time there will be haitians, jews, southerners, dominican republicans, native New Yorkers, old, young, students and shopkeepers. When I walk home at night there are always people on the street corners asking for money. Yet last week on the night after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt suddenly it seemed like they’d doubled – at least three on every corner. That must have been a coincidence, but the atmosphere everywhere is one of economic fragility and current or pending struggle. In the elevator the next morning a man and woman were talking about a mutual friend who’d found a job. When the woman said the job was in the postroom the man sounded disappointed. “Well at least it’s a job,” she replied.

Every other morning a queue of people, most without jobs or homes, forms outside St Bartholomew’s Church on Park Ave and E 50th. Inside, breakfast is served with military efficiency. Enter, hand over voucher, pick up tray with cereal, hot stew, sandwich and banana, find a space at one of the trestle tables, eat, call out for whatever you want more off “Juice! Cereal! Stew!”, eat, tip the rubbish in the bin and exit as another enters, hands over voucher, picks up tray...At 10am the room has to be emptied of the last breakfasters. “Time to go home,” called one of the volunteer organizers on a Sunday morning when I was there. Her colleague laughed and corrected her, “Well, time to go…”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

New York missive no 28 - Rooftop films

In the New York summer, movies appear on rooftops, by rivers, in parks and in emptied swimming pools. A couple of Fridays ago Ch and I saw La Fronterra Infinita on the roof of El Museo del Barrio in Spanish Harlem. It’s a documentary about the determined journey made by migrants through Central America to the US, or to as close to the US as they can get. Sometimes that might be a border town in Mexico, sometimes a detention centre, sometimes a rehabilitation facility for those who loose limbs in their attempt to jump onto moving trains. One man, in his late teens or early twenties, had lost an arm and a leg. He sat on a chair looking straight into the camera with bright optimism – I’m going to try again, of course. I’m going to get there, or as close as I can, find some work. Find some work.

Watching that desperate voyage while sitting on a roof in the very city the migrants were trying to reach - with planes coming and going overhead - was intense. The filming was un-intrusive. It didn’t attempt to narrate or analyse. The camera accompanied people on their journey letting their actions and conversations report for themselves. The simple explanation that many of them gave, “I’m looking for a better life,” made complete sense. “Porque le interesa los inmigrantes?” asks one of the women in the film of the camera, which doesn’t respond of course. Then she adds, “Todos somos inmigrantes”. Yes everyone is a migrant but some have an easier journey than others.

Back home I told X about the film. She said a woman on her LLM at Notre Dame had won a prize for her photography of women who were raped on their journey from Central America to the US. Their story hadn’t made it into La Fronterra Infinita – but it was there behind the scenes through shots of vulnerable-looking girls. “Me siento sóla,” one of them had said.

A week later, a series of short non-fiction films about New York City. It should have been on the roof of New Design High school on Grand Street in the Lower East Side but given rain it was held inside, in an old-school old school hall with greek figures painted in alcoves labelled “art”, “science”, “knowledge” etc. The films about people’s stories worked better than those that panned the city vaguely in search of arty images. Like Bird Strikes about a man who trains Peregrine falcons to clear the runways at JFK of migratory bird flocks and P Star's Redemption about an eleven year old rap star fulfilling the dreams her Dad originally had for himself, but putting her tough confidence to the test in the process. One of the more abstract ones that did work beautifully was Native New Yorker, that tracks in black and white cine-film a native American’s journey from the northern to southern tips of Manhattan. He clambers over rocks in Inwood, descends from the elevated to the tunnel-wrapped tracks of the 1 train in Harlem, stares at the “Imagine” memorial to Lennon in Strawberry Fields, sees the twin towers fall in a cloud of smoke (9/11 happened while the film was being made) and watches contortionists entertain crowds of tourists near the ferry piers.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Belize interlude

Belize, a small country where people have arrived by force or fancy and made themselves at home. They include, at various points in time: British pirates who set about stripping the forests of their wood – the saying goes that Belize City is built on foundations of mahogany logs and empty rum bottles; African slaves; Mayans fleeing wars with the Spanish and now poverty in Guatemala and Honduras; Mennonites; Chinese shopkeepers; North Americans and Europeans in search of their corner of Caribbean paradise; Garífuna who were shipped from St Vincent to Honduras by the British in 1797.

P and I spent a week on holiday there in August. For the first four nights we stayed in Hopkins, two thirds down the coast. For a tiny town that’s essentially a road running along the sea with buildings on either side of it, Hopkins is home to a surprisingly diverse cast of characters. They live in relative harmony with one another yet the village dynamics are being churned and tested by the fast growth of tourism. Not long ago the majority of the villagers were subsistence farmers living off plots of land between Hopkins and the Southern Highway. Now only a few of the subsistence plots remain. And income from the banana plantations nearby has been drained by competition after the region's trade preferences were lifted. The stretches of beach to the North and South of Hopkins are now strung with expensive resorts run by foreigners (mainly South African), that at first did their best to prevent guests from venturing into the village in an attempt to keep tourism dollars within their confines. And at the Western Union in the nearby town of Dangriga winding weekend queues of people waiting for remittances from the US increase the temptation to emmigrate.

We hopped off the bus from Belize City on the Southern Highway turnoff to Hopkins at dusk and were readying ourselves for a long walk to the village when a woman pulled up in her car and offered us a lift. She was called Shona. She was excited to learn I work for a human rights organization. “Me too,” she said. She works with the Human Rights Commission of Belize on indigenous rights, land issues and awareness-raising, and said she was eagerly waiting for materials to arrive from contacts in Geneva to use for the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration. Shona has lived for periods in New York but its city-madness doesn’t appeal anymore. “It’s fun when you’re young,” she said.

We stayed in Hopkins Inn, run by an Alaskan, Greg, and his wife Rita (who wasn’t around while we were there). It consists of four cabañas in the middle of the village, on the beach-side of the street. Greg was among the first Westerners to move there. He negotiated the right to his patch of land with the village authorities by promising he’d be running accommodation only – his guests would patronise the local businesses and he didn’t want to wrinkle the fabric of the community. Greg is nostalgic for how Hopkins used to be and is even considering moving on somewhere new, somewhere that hasn’t been overrun by tourism. While his cabañas are low-impact and integrated into the village, it’s hard not to argue he was the first to push the door open for tourists and it was inevitable that crowds would follow.

Not that there were big crowds while P and I were there. It was rainy season. And hurricane season too, though we weren’t there for one, and amazingly there was only one daytime rainfall during the week of our stay. On the first morning we hired rickety bikes with back-pedal breaking from a grandmother who lived in one of the wooden houses up the road from Hopkins Inn. Her grandchildren were still on their summer break and pattered in and out of the house with friends to be served up the food she had going on a stove in the corner. I’m tired but yes it’s fun having them around, she said. We rode the bikes Northwards along a red-earth road to Sittee River village, a little inland. Bumping over the potholes, sweating from the hot sun but energised by the breeze – that kind of exercise beats a treadmill in a Manhattan gym, but the fun would no doubt diminish if that's how I journeyed to work each day. The appeal of what’s different. In Sittee Village we rented a couple of kayaks from a very stoned woman and set off down the jungle-lined river, pausing to watch turtles, iguanas and herons on the banks. The one animal we haven’t seen, I said as we paddled our way back after a couple of hours, is a crocodile. And perhaps that’s no bad thing. Just then there was a swoosh as the scaly back of a big croc rose out of the water next to us as it swam upstream. For the rest of the kayak we paddled faster, our hearts pumping with the sensation of very-dangerous-animal-somewhere-nearby-unseen. It was with a mixture of relief and disappointment that we later learnt from a man who served us cold Belikin beers (the only beer to be found in most of Belize) at an empty riverside bar near the kayak place that the Sittee River crocodiles have never been known to attack a human.

P and I being P and I we did less sitting still and relaxing than we’d planned. But there was plenty to slow my mind down and relax, including a peaceful morning I spent while P went diving, sitting on a wooden chair under a palm-leaf roof near the cabañas and not moving other than to swim in the sea. I spent the morning engrossed in tales of Greenwich Village exploits in the early 20th Century as recounted in the fabulous “Republic of Dreams” (about which more later), daydreaming, and sleepily observing. A lizard strolled over a wooden beam above me, doing a few press ups each time it paused. A group of kids came and played in the sea for a while, the big ones throwing the little ones over their heads to land with a splash. A couple of orange buoys hung like a pair of saggy breasts from a palm tree. The ground was scattered with broken coconut shells, flotsam and jetsam.

Two evenings there we ate un-beautiful but scrumptious southern Indian food cooked by a woman from Bangalore who ran a restaurant by the beach. We never learned when and why she’d come to Belize. She got the special ingredients from Belize City, imported via the States. We drank beers and checked email (just once!) at Oliver and Pam’s place – he’s a German who moved there to set up a bar and windsurf, she’s his beautiful young Belizean wife who’s apparently gone from shy to strong and assertive since taking up her new life with him. Each morning Margarita, from Honduras, slowly and methodically cleaned our cabaña, sweating profusely. Only two of the cabañas were occupied, so it was fine she took her time. We bought snacks and random essentials like flipflops from the two Hopkins stores, both run by Chinese families. Apparently one is friendlier to the locals than the other.

Next stop was Mama Noots’ “jungle resort” about forty minutes drive inland from Hopkins. Its owner, Nan, spends a lot of the summer months away so we were lucky she was there and happy to have us to stay – Greg had called her up the day before. There were no other guests. Mama Noots is a huge clearing in the rainforest turned into a tropical botanical garden with a few cabañas dotted around for guests and a square restaurant in the middle, with transparent mosquito-net walls. Nan’s family founded the second-largest rum company in Belize. After a period living in the US and working as a nurse, Nan decided to realize her dream of establishing a botanical garden and renewable energy centre in Belize that would attract people from around the world as a "sustainable living" showcase. Her Dad told her about a place surrounded by waterfalls and inaccessible by road where he and his friends used to go hunting. She bought it, built a road, and set about creating her garden. Since then, the land all around hers has been designated a national park (though Nan has concerns that illegal logging may be going on further into the jungle – why else so much more flooding every time it rains?). But the dreams have proven to be just beyond Nan’s reach. She separated from her partner a while ago and now tries to keep Mama Noots going on her own – though with help for a few months at a time from her two daughters and of a few people she employees to look after the buildings and land. But although she taps some of the waterfalls for energy, there hasn’t been the money to turn it into the internationally-recognized eco-project she had forseen. She's now looking for a wealthy environmentally-minded buyer.

We went on two walks that day, swimming at the top of each one in a cold natural pool and having a shower, Jacuzzi and pummelling massage all in one under tumbling cascades. At the first waterfall there was no-one else. At the second, there was a couple. The guy had stripped down into his trunks for a swim. The girl was sitting in her trousers, t-shirt and walking boots sulking. Perhaps she was ill from the climb up. We suggested that we leave them alone for a while and come back later but the guy told us it was fine to stay. We probably annoyed the sulky girl no end by climbing right in and swimming about enjoying ourselves. The guy tried to undo her shoelaces. She did them up again. She put her head down on her hunched knees. Eventually, somehow, he enticed her. She swam around, carefully, but looking much better.

Then back for dinner with Nan who entertained us with her stories. For example that of her second cousin, who has made a fortune selling rum to Travellers. He is setting up a rum museum in Dangriga and approached Nan’s first cousin asking to buy the huge copper drum that their grandfather had used for distilling and that they had used as a swimming pool when they were kids. Nan heard of the proposition just in time, she said. She intervened by insisting the drum is “priceless” and that 2nd cousin should pay the 1st cousin several thousand more dollars than he had offered. No doubt he will agree.

Our third and last stop in Belize was Millers Landing on the Placencia peninsula in the South, run by Annie and Gary Miller. Annie’s from Texas and first came across the peninsula when she was sailing around the Caribbean in the seventies. Gary was in the navy (just old enough to have been a Viet vet?). They met somewhere in the Pacific. They are trying to perpetuate an idyllic hippy-seventies existence at their resort but it’s tarnished by alcohol – Gary knocks back neat liquor all day long and Annie almost keeps up with her beers. Their beloved Alsatian, “Brandy”, helps keep the fragile peace. The resort, which they built themselves, has elements of creative beauty – whether the wild flowers that fill the garden, the pathways marked out by pebbles, the colourful paintings on the walls of the rooms – and elements of bedraggled abandon. Gary explained as a thinly disguised apology that there’s no point in doing annual fixing and renovations until just before the busy winter season begins, in case a hurricane comes and wreaks its havoc. That was no doubt a good reason, even if not the only one. A few years ago Hurricane Iris flattened some of the nearby resorts, including Turtle Inn that had just been bought by Francis Ford Coppola. Apparently Coppola wasn’t too fussed – the resort’s former décor was funky but tacky by his tastes and the hurricane made it easier for him to start from scratch, giving it the impeccably elegant style it has now (one evening we went in to savour a cocktail among dining honeymooners, to the sound cidadas and a Mayan band). Iris swept through Millers Landing too of course. Floodwater filled the house to the ceiling. But it remained standing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

New York missive no 27- Country first

“Country First”, “Drill Now! Drill Now!” said the placards festooning the arena at the Republican National Convention last week. I was on the cross-trainer at the gym and when I switched on the TV thought perhaps the channel was showing a spoof show, a parody extrapolating the aggressive rhetoric, war-mongering and insularity to an extreme. But no, that was the real Mitt Romney on the stage. “We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington — throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain!” Hello? Ah the administration of the past eight years must have been liberal then. “Did you hear any Democrats talk last week about the threat from radical, violent Jihad? Republicans believe that there is good and evil in the world.” It could be funny if it wasn’t so scary.

You could feel a fired-up fear of change among the delegates, who were apparently a few degrees more homogenous than previous years. They were clinging (oops mustn't say that) to the comfort of each other and of unity in the face of a threat. Never mind the precise form of the threat, just that it’s dangerous. Huckabee was up next. Midway through his speech he also suggested that Americans do want change. “When gasoline costs $4 a gallon…You want something to change.” The crowd prickled. Change? Ok it’s bad that gas costs $4 a gallon, but change? Isn’t that a dirty word? There was a trickle of hesitant applause. “If you're a flight attendant or a baggage-handler, and you're asked to take the pay cut to keep your job, you want something to change." Nervous clap-clap. "If you're a young couple losing your house, your credit rating, and your piece of the American dream, you want something to change.” Hesitant agreement. “But let me say there are some things we don't want to change.” Phew. A palpable wave of relief through the delegates. “Freedom, security, and the opportunity to prosper.” A tremendous cheer, as Huckabee proclaimed those powerful familiar values.

What wasn’t asked of course, was freedom, security and opportunity for whom, and at what cost for the rest? In what way does the legacy of the Bush administration – which would be perpetuated by McCain – represent freedom, security and opportunity?

Huckabee told the story of a schoolteacher who one day emptied her classroom of desks. She told the students they could have their desks back when they told her how they should earn them. None of them guessed "right". Eventually 20 veterans in uniform carried the desks in and the teacher said, "You don't have to earn your desk, because these guys, they already did." Recognition of the sacrifice by veterans, fine. Perhaps it would be good to think about ways in which that sacrifice won’t have to be necessary in the future. But instead the implication of that annecdote and of so many other remarks made throughout the convention was that this is a country whose freedom – even the education of its children – owes its very existence to the defeat of adversaries in warfare. Is that what the founding fathers had in mind, even if implicitly, when for example Jefferson concluded the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming that "for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." For all the superficiality and razzmatazz of the national conventions – both of them – they are fascinating in the way they strip naked the American ideal, posing questions about what exactly it is and how it can be achieved. And they expose the contradiction between a single national identity and ideal founded on values (epitomized by the “Country First” slogan), yet one that rests on the primacy of the individual. Obama, despite the disappointing compromises he’s been making in the crucial effort to win, seems first and foremost to be about reconciling that contradiction. In his acceptance speech he articulated clearer than ever the “common purpose" that runs through his politics. He recognizes that the individual is at the heart of politics and that in a country / a world in which different values, beliefs and ideals are permanently jostling against one another the solution is not to push them all to subscribe to one value system but to find ways to make them work together. The question is how to convince them to work together. And how to make working together go far enough, when some interests wield so much more weight than others.

I’d been on the cross-trainer for an hour, feeling physically weary from the exercise and mentally weary from the addictive pantomime on the screen. And I needed to get a shower before the gym closed at 11. But I wanted to catch Sarah Palin’s speech too, so on I pounded through Giuliani’s snide jokes about Obama (he spoke in front of a projection of the New York City skyline of course, driving home the permanent threat of terrorism and his own heroic response to September 11 - not necessarily in that order). "Barack Obama has never led anything, nothing, nada… He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked — I said — I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer.” Raucous laughter from the delegates. The Obama campaign couldn’t let that one go. “Let’s clarify something for them right now," it responded. Community organization is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

New York missive no 26

When K and H were looking for a place for the three of us to live in Camberwell I gave them various prerequisites, including wooden floors and yellow walls (they were tasked with finding a place while I was on holiday). I was only half joking. So when I discovered that 173 Elmington Road had wooden floors (at least, in the kitchen) and yellow walls, I was happy. 

 Now here I am at my new home, 211 W 109th Street, with wooden floors and yellow walls. A good omen. And there’s air conditioning! Luxury. Though I’m going to ration it to keep the bills down. Have just done a slightly lazy job of putting some wooden shelves into their frame, screwing in just one bracket per shelf on each side. Touch wood they’re holding up. 

So this morning was farewell to Weehawken Street. I packed quickly, in a slightly sleepy and hungover fuzz. Post-packing J and I sat on the roof watching a storm rolling in over the Hudson. Heavy black clouds, lightening and grumbling thunder announced a much-needed downpour. When it subsided we ambled out through the West Village streets in search of Eggs Benedict (not a difficult quest), passing a cast of Saturday morning characters. There was someone J saw but I didn’t hence I’m not sure they were male or female, sneaking out of an apartment where they hadn’t expected to spend the night and clad in someone else’s pyjamas; a woman in very short shorts and a sleeveless top (on the way to a sexy yoga class? About to go for a jog? Just posing?); an old bearded man on a tiny foot-push shooter he kept stumbling off. Mission was accomplished at Extra Virgin – not just the Eggs Benedict but Bloody Marys, black coffee and orange juice too. We inspected vintage sports cars at the Cooper Classics show-room on Perry Street on the way back and, yes, it wasn’t hard to be seduced by sleek lines of the open-top Merc, painted green, gleaming, and whispering “take me for a drive, you know you want to.” 

 Back at Weehawken Street people were soon added to the piles of suitcases and boxes with duvets stuffing out of them – the two young Colombians, Mau’s cousin and his girlfriend, who’ve descended for a few days, and Ch who was helping with the move. I’d booked a man with a van, recommended by S. He turned out to be more a boy with a van - K, a striking-despite-the-pimples southerner with long floppy dark hair and a rickety van brimming with the remnants of previous moves and parties. While we were loading the van he was quiet and surly. But as soon as we crammed in he revved up, wound down the window, lit a roly and it was like something had plugged him in - off he went describing how much he adores his other work as a sound guy at National Undergound - the bar on Houston with Allen where I’d seem M’s boyfriend playing a while back. And how he’s not doing that much driving now because, “Like I know the city inside out and it’s nothing new any more.” And how last time he and a friend had done a driving job, they unloaded the full van into the wrong storage unit, having to return the next day and shift everything into another one two units along.

It’s been an apartment-themed week. Thursday night was last Writers Studio’s class for this season. Went out for a meal afterwards when JH filled in a few more details about his apartment – a sprawling place with high ceilings, huge round windows and lots of plants in it on the corner of Bleeker and Broadway. He’s lived there since 1975 and hopes to be there for a long time having finally won a court battle with the landlord. In late 70s when he had double the number of rooms, a guru and his 12 followers lived in half the apartment. He’s still in touch with the guru, who has now retired on the basis that guru-ing wore him out (no doubt there was more to it than that – including the fact that gurus of that kind are less in demand these days). 

 Then on Friday found myself in a massive Tribeca loft, apparently underneath one owned by a Beastie Boy. Actually it’s not officially Tribeca, nor West Village, as it’s in an un-defined pocket South of Houston but North of Canal, sometimes referred to as “West SoHo” for want of a better name and which no doubt will be christened with a new acronym by real estate agents before long. NoTriBeCa?. SoWeVi? Unlikely, as both too-defined by the more glamorous neighbours to the South and North. The couple who live there, friends of R’s, had recently bought the next door loft as well – their Friday dinner party was to celebrate the descent of the wall between the two, traces of which you could see running through the middle of the room. The woman proudly showed us the view from the fire escape. I didn’t mention that their outlook over the UPS loading bay roof and with a gap through some buildings that gave them half a view’s-worth of river wasn’t a patch on the Weehawken Street roof panorama. 

So things that I’ll miss (or not miss, depending on mood) about West Village. Sights such the man and his dog queuing for coffee outside the orange “Mud” truck on the corner of 7th and Christopher the other morning: the man wore an open-necked expensive shirt revealing a semi-hairy chest; the dog had a Louis Vuitton handbag round its neck and protectively rested his front paws on it. The black transvestites hanging out on the Christopher Street corners. Yes, despite the recent rather sinister “clean up our neighbourhood” campaign in the Villager I like them, they’re part of what makes West Village what it is. Drinking coffee, eating overpriced (but delicious) yoghurt and berries and granola in Mojo at breakfast time, while reading the paper, watching the procession of well-groomed dogs and well-groomed mothers with their babies and getting into conversations with local divorcees. Whisky-drinking in the White Horse (though more of a Winter thing). The new pier at the end of Christopher that’s a surrogate garden for all and sundry in Summer-time. The higgledy piggledy streets lined with beautiful buildings to dream about owning.

But the new ‘hood's got plenty going for it too, like salsa-rhythmic barbeques on the pavements, wide roads, lots of trees and a big sky, food of all nations within a 10 block radius, booky vibes from Columbia and the buzz of not-yet-totally-gentrified Harlem just up the road.

Café Tacci’s changed venue – ostensibly while the Waverley Place location's renovated, though according to the word from the regulars the shift’s for a dangerously undefined period of time. A bunch of us went last Friday. Thankfully the atmosphere’s still the same, even though the new place - Papillon on E. 54th - “is French”, Leopoldo the Italian matire-d confessed to me with more than a trace of shame.

Friday, July 18, 2008

New York missive no 25 - Abyssinian House in Harlem

No rushing in NYC at the moment. It’s too hot. This weekend everyone’s been longing for a thunderstorm that hasn’t yet come. In the meantime the heat is building, building, pushing into people’s heads and making them oh so slow and sleepy. Of course that doesn’t stop them doing things, just makes them do them at a more considered pace.

I spent yesterday morning with kids from Abyssinian House, a transitional shelter on 138th Street in Harlem. It has brightly coloured murals that soften the blows of tough times, a bit. Sh, who organized the morning, had planned an Olympics theme – reading about the Games in the air-conditioned library nearby, then going to the park to for a mini Olympics and medal ceremony. We cut out the park part though because it was just too hot to be running around.

There was J, whose Mum came too. She’s Scicilian-Irish-American. His Dad’s Jamaican and was deported to Jamaica a few years ago so now it’s just the two of them. His Mum missed watching the Tour de France this year as she hasn’t had access to cable. She used to watch it with J’s Dad who’s a passionate cyclist, and she had endless stories about the trials and tribulations of previous races – I realised how a long-distance bike ride can in fact be exciting. J is beautiful from inheriting all the best features of his mixed parentage and grandparentage. He’s a voracious reader. Mum described how once, while she was working with PSEG when they were remediating sites in New Jersey, J, then seven, got into conversation with the geologists, jaw-dropping them with his smart words and questions.

There were the mischievous girl twins with near-identical names. I tried teaching one of them to write the word MARATHON, which proved ambitiously long. We got there though – albeit in a muddled two-letter-per-line pattern filling the page, with some of the characters lopsided.


There was C the funky puertorriqueño who slipped effortlessly from Spanish to English. Back in Abyssinian House and after our lunch of cheese and ham sandwiches, chocolate cookies and watermelon, he wrote a story about his trip to the dentist. He’d called the dentist rabbit woman because of her buck teeth, had got scared when she started treating him and ran away, “through the rainforest." But rabbit woman ran after and gave him a toothbrush to take away. Moral of the story, he announced, “don’t judge people by appearances.” And there was born-to-act M who had seemed shy all morning then had us in stitches with his “shower dancing” sketch about a boy who loved dancing to MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This and Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the shower, to the annoyance of his family members queuing at the door.

Then back to Weehawken Street for a rooftop barbeque, a swan-song as Sa described it because in a fortnight’s time I’m moving to Morningside Heights. Lots of beers, burgers, too much salad that didn’t get eaten, then a sweaty boogie at Cielo. And now time for a long sleep – up really early tomorrow to interview the first four of our Ukraine candidates.


A July Friday night in the meatpacking district: to be witnessed, enjoyed, and not taken seriously. I found myself on the Soho House roof again – S had been invited by someone through work. More than the previous time the roof oozed attitude. Women still in their bikinis from the afternoon’s poolside sizzling purred beside men in jackets and chinos. The air was zig-zagged by gazes hunting out someone better to talk too. We downed our Margaritas then explored the rest of the building. In the 6th floor lounge, we had a second extravagant Margarita. A girl and three guys discussed the plots of crime shorts on the cluster of velvety sofas next to ours. One of their girlfriends sat beautifully and bored on a chair behind them, gazing out of the window, sipping a glass of red wine, glancing from time to time at a book on her lap and at her phone for messages. A few floors further down we snuck into the cinema and rather randomly watched Hancock, the new Will Smith film.

Then we escaped. Perched on the concrete slabs positioned for posing in the middle of the cobble Gansevoort-9th Ave intersection we watched a procession of open-roof sports cars rev by, got chatting to a physiotherapist and his patient who were on a date of some kind, and a pair of fabulous fifty-year old women down from Westchester Country with their well maintained manes and trim figures (one’s a personal trainer), glowing with the energy of a night on the tiles. Their eyes widened when we told them where we’d just been. S had the bright idea of giving them our pass. Say you’re A and S and friends of Charles blah-de-blah, and you’ll be in. The next thing we knew they were texting us from the rooftop, their night out made.

Tom Wolfe’s article in New York about its former editor, Clay Felker, who died the previous week, described a man obsessed by status. Does status still seduce in New York? In places like Soho House perhaps yes, where a combination of connections and cash (or in the case of S’s guy, more dubious means, he implied) is what gets you a membership. But status seems to be loosing its lustre. Not that I can talk from experience. People can’t resist aspiring to it but on arrival, mirage-like, it’s disappointingly empty, easy and fragile, quite capable of disappearing overnight with a quiver in the market, a negative headline, the discovery of an infidelity. And for most people in the city there’s no time to think about it. Instead there's ambition, whether to get a pay rise, find a better apartment, fall in love, make a bigger profit, write a bestseller, be content.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

New York missive no 24 - Gay pride

Last Sunday the tighter, brighter and more minimal the attire the better for Gay Pride. A day when heterosexuals are a minority. I didn’t see the parade itself but caught its before and aftermath. The previous night, slender male bikinied bodies erected white screens on the brick wall at the corner of Weehawken Street where they projected florescent visuals. The next morning, expectant mixed-age crowds lined the length of Christopher Street, penned in to an extent by police barriers. Old women perched on deckchairs, selling rainbow flags for waving. Then on the way back later that night the street heaved with a headiness enhanced by the torrential storm that had drenched the procession at around 5 in the afternoon. Coming down through Chelsea I passed a many-kiloed man whose T-shirt, stretched over his rolls, said “fat and sexy”. It was true. It’s a day when everything and everyone is sexy. A pair of black transvestites in skimpy floaty things swung up the drunken street making everyone else’s get-ups look tame. A group of friends sitting on a West Village stoop – usually the territory of the occasional pampered pooch or heeled and handbagged Jessica Parker aspirant – dialled a friend on a cellphone then shouted down it in unison “Happy priiiiiiide”. When I reached my doorstep, standing on it was a giant of a man wearing nothing but a red G-string.


“Where’s the pattrain?” the young Indian guy asked me as I turned into Christopher Street from 7th on my way back from the gym one evening. I didn’t catch what he said.

“The train, the subway station? It’s just here,” I took a guess.

“No, the pattrain. The pat.”

I thought a moment. “Oh, the Paaaath train.” His eyes widened with a mix of relief and surprise and I suddenly felt very conscious of my long a’d English accent just as I’d been conscious of not understanding his. Here were two people in New York but definitely not yet New Yorkers finding a way to communicate with each other.

I told him it’s a few blocks down on the right. We walked along the road next to each other, half-talking half-staying separate like strangers as we weaved in and out of the huddles that are always on the pavements outside the bars. I imagined him having just emerged in New York off a plane from India, heading through New York to New Jersey to be met by relatives, experiencing that giddying sensation of arriving in a city you’ve built such clear pictures of and which on arrival presents bits of those pictures but tricks you with how utterly different it is to them, so much closer. “You just arrived in New York?” I asked.


“Where from?”


I went into a corner shop to buy a banana and pointed him to the Path stop that was just half a block further down. When I came out of the shop, he was waiting outside looking agitated. “I can’t find it.”

I was beginning to wonder if in fact the Path stop had suddenly disappeared overnight. But no, there it was, the old stone doorway and stairwell leading down to the trains. Off he went.


Sailing last Saturday. This time with Dutchman Mic rather than with B, who was having the day off to play softball – and with J and D from the previous week. In the morning there was a steady wind and bright sunshine. (I got burnt, lobster style. Attempted to tone down the red traffic light effect with some makeup that evening when I went to M’s leaving do in Hell’s Kitchen – she’s been re-located back to Seattle. I decided, however, just to rely on the darkness of the bar to disguise the large bruises on both my knees from bumping around in boats).

By the afternoon the strong tidal currents had picked up and the wind had died. Not a good combination. We drifted steadily Northwards and found ourselves having to paddle some of the way back, dragging ourselves up the Western edge of the river. Then lots of boat-towing and manoeuvring as NYCSA is shifting the Solings over to some moorings round the corner from the marina because it’s cheaper. There’s something melancholic about the fact that that the Solings – that people actually sail – are being shunted out to make way for yet more fibreglass monsters of motorboats that never move because their owners, having splashed out on a boat, don’t take it anywhere either because they can’t afford the astronomical fuel costs or they’re too afraid of damaging it. Then, when we were in the bay tying up the Solings, a torrential thunderstorm. The kind that soaks you to the skin in seconds. Exhilarating. To top it, a perfect rainbow arched its way over the whole of Manhattan. The illusory pots of gold were at the Northern and Southern tips of the island.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

New York missive no 23 - Two rivers and Soho House

Three scenes: Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo, Soho House and sailing on the Hudson.

A few weeks ago I went with a bunch of kids from Daniel Hale Williams School in DUMBO and other volunteers to dig up weeds and plant seedlings in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The new park’s much loved but attracts latte-sipping white parents and their kids from the swish new riverside apartments more than it does the predominantly black kids from local projects. The idea was to say hey, this park is your park too, and hopefully inspire the children to bring their parents back to see the fruits of their labour.

First, we listened to an introduction by one of the park wardens. She explained how the East River is part salt, part fresh water, as the sea gets sucked upstream on the incoming tide. A while ago some conservationists drew nets out over the river bed and pulled them up to the park to see what lives down there. They found a seahorse, among other things. “Does anyone know what a seahorse is?” she asked. On cue, one of the girls said, “Yes, I have one!”, and plucked a purple plastic seahorse from her pocket. No further explanation needed.

Then, the weeding. We were shown which plants to dig up, which ones to leave, and got to work with our trowels: much delight as the first weeds were unearthed, pulling up roots as long as the plant itself. I relished as much as the kids did that feeling of mucky hands, tugging at leaves and earth stuck beneath nails. Enthusiasm waned a bit by the time we got to planting and the kids' attention switched to new things like the pizza they’d been promised for afterwards, at Front Street Pizza round the corner: one was really restless and said she’d like to jump the park fence.

Post-pizza they had a new burst of energy. A reminder that a day for a young person (these kids were 7-9) is like a hundred days, changing and renewed by the hour. They chattered their way back to the school. One recounted how she’d once had a finger bitten – by a polar bear – on a trip to the arctic – and that Santa had given her a new one.

Soho House on a Tuesday night, an altogether different scene where mud beneath nails would definitely be frowned upon. It’s a member’s club and hotel for New York’s Notting Hill set, monied and media/artsy rather than banking/financial, confident on its corner overlooking the meatpacking district with its rooftop terrace swimming pool surrounded by loungers and dining tables. Much disgruntlement though that the Standard’s new hotel under construction to the West of it will steal much of the evening sun. I was much less blonde, much less skinny than the majority of the women there but happy as an observer. And laughed when I remembered the Sex in the City Scene in which Samantha sneaks in by pretending to be an Englishwoman called Annabel: I didn’t need to pretend to be either.

And yesterday, sailing in a Soling on the Hudson. Give me a boat with sails, some sun and wind and I’m happy. Three of us were having a “basic keelboat” lesson (thought I’d start at the beginning to get used to the boats) with the guy who runs the club, BR. He's a non-fiction literary agent who intersperses his teaching on points of sail and how to tie a bowline with historical and geographical anecdotes. How the Hudson used to be called North River, how old schooners couldn’t sail close to the wind, how Los Roques islands off Venezuela have been adopted by Italians and how the Chesapeake’s oysters have all been fished. For thirteen years he’s run the New York Community Sailing Association to provide affordable access to sailing: buying a bunch of 10 sailing sessions as I’ve done for after the course works out at $15 per session unlike other places where it’s more like $150. It’s an ongoing battle though to keep it going. No-one in NYC has a lot of time on their hands to help out maintaining the boats; people who start there go on to buy their own boats (yes, despite providing affordable sailing it’s hardly attracting underprivileged teenagers from the Bronx); the hard-core winter match racers go off cruising in exotic places during the Summer months. If I had a few extra days kicking around each week I’d love to help build it up: help secure the re-location to the Manhattan side of the river (the boats were moved to New Jersey post 9-11), approach foundations for funding for more boats, increase the membership etc. But that’s not the case. So for now I’ll enjoy the sailing and muck in as much as I can.

Monday, May 19, 2008

New York missive no 22

The weather's been inclement. One moment an unblemished sky, the next a rugged storm with broken black umbrellas abandoned in bins on the pavements, looking like dead crows. Right now there's a post-rains fluorescence.


What was amazing about hearing Mahler’s 8th symphony in Carnegie Hall, music aside, was the audience: it's so rare to see a crowd of New Yorkers sitting still, their attention held.

Because this is a city on the move. No wonder there are so few charity collectors on the streets – the chances of someone stopping to chat, let alone give a donation in the midst of their rush from a to b, are minimal. On the subways the announcement “stand clear of the closing doors” begins almost before the doors have opened, instilling a mild panic in the exiting and entering passengers. And Ch and I both had similar first reactions to our separate recent trips to Boston: how everything feels like it is in slow motion. Meanwhile, SJ, at the Boston meeting, said that every time he finds himself on the streets of New York he feels he’s going to be pounded underfoot by a stampeding crowd. He lives in Geneva. Yet in the midst of (because of?) the crush, there is still room for interaction. For unpredictable New York moments like the woman who said to me the other day “geez that boy nearly got run over by a Hassidic skateborder”, as a skull-capped boarder spun passed. Or the man who’d attracted a curious crowd on Christopher street as I walked home in the early hours this morning from a balloon-filled loft party. At first glance it seemed he was recovering from a near-fall down one of the rickety cellar trapdoors that lurk along the pavements. He was straddling it, one hand on the ground. But when I turned to look again I saw he was holding a 5 ft snake, writhing as he dangled it back into its canvas bag.


There’s been a lot of music recently. Starting 2 Fridays ago at Café Tacci with M and D, a restaurant on Waverley place. It's nondescript on the outside yet on Friday and Saturday nights it comes alive on the inside with the sound of opera singers performing on a small stage at one end of the room. They're accompanied by the 80-something year old diminutive pianist, Iya, from Siberia. Leopoldo Mucci's the omnipresent effervescent owner - he must give at least 200 cheek-kisses each night to the diners, many of whom he knows, and the singers, who see him as a father figure. The restaurant brims with laughter and a natural warmth. It becomes increasingly raucous as the night progresses and the singers start performing from all parts of the room. By dessert, you feel as if you’re on stage with them.

That Saturday night was the Frank Weiss quintet in the basement jazz bar Village Vanguard. Frank Weiss is almost as old as Iya. He walks with difficulty even with the aid of his stick, and wheezes when he talks, yet somehow conjours a pounding sound from his saxophone.

At a small reception before the Mahler symphony at Carnegie Hall (I’d found myself there through P, as one of his clients is a sponsor), the hall’s resident historian described how when Andrew Carnegie built the hall it was surrounded by fields. Carnegie had noticed that the buildings of rich Manhattanites were creeping slowly up the island, so had the foresight to realise that one day that location “way up North” on the fringes of the city would soon be slap-bang in the centre of the action. As a wealthy philanthropist I guess he had the freedom to operate on a long time-scale, not needing to make a short-term profit (that, he'd already done through his steel business). Gradually, the kudos of performing at the hall and being able to attract an audience up to its then Northern location grew. To sell out at Carnegie came to be a mark of virtuosity, and after a while musicians were falling over each other for the challenge of performing there. Talking the following evening with M at a very different concert – a bunch of youthful teenage rockbands mostly from California – she said that’s the sign of a true businessman, someone who thinks not five, but fifty years ahead. She should know, working for Bill Gates. It seems now though that the destructive domination of short-termism drowns the efforts of long-term visionaries, or imposes such rigid immediate demands that the impact of their endeavours is minimised. Ideas and arguments for creating a carbon-free economy are out there percolating, but I’m doubtful they’ll be realised and scaled up before our addiction to oil’s got the better of us, for example...

The mostly-if-not-all from Calfornia rockbands (Phantom Planet, the Hush Sound, Motion City Soundtrack and Panic at the Disco – yet we didn’t see Panic as we decided to prioritise eating Mexican food and catching up instead) were performing at the Roseland Ballroom. On the wall in the entrance was a board covered in ticker-tapes with the names of married couples who had met there. I wondered if the hall had considered adding a green dot (or something) next to those that are now divorced, then felt bad for snuffing the romantic magic. There were many tickers from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, then fewer and fewer in more recent decades. Gone are the days when ballroom dancing provided a practical mating ritual. Now people resort to other tactics.

Then the following Friday, music of a different kind. Em was in town again and I went with her to a Ukrainian folk music concert at the Ukrainian museum (aptly), where Mic's friend JK combined the music with tales of “rough and tumble steppe Barbarians” (liked the sound of them), battles, love affairs and fickle shiftings of allegiances from the 16–18 Centuries. There was an exhibition of maps from that period on the walls, enhancing the sense of borders blurred, bloody and loved. JK was accompanied by two other musicians, one of whom was the bright-eyed IT, whose mini bio in the program described him as a “multi-instrumentalist”. He lived up to that title during the concert when he played everything from a guitar to a tiny mouth-harp to a hurdy-gurdy. Then at the end of the bio was the note, "In his spare time, he researches the genetics of pearl oysters at the American Museum of Natural History." After the concert a bunch of us found ourselves (aptly) in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant – next to and more authentic than Veselka – drinking beers, eating pierogis and listening to the sound of the tango night going on in the ballroom at the back. Mic recounted how he recently attended a Roma wake in California, marking the year's anniversary of the death of a guy called George. In accordance with Roma tradition, apparently, George’s clothes were distributed among the family members, everyone ate his favourite food, and on leaving were presented with things he had enjoyed – or, as a friend of Mic’s who was also there pointed out – the things that killed him: packets of cigarettes and potato chips.


I’ve been reminded on several occasions recently of the impact of the September 11 attacks on the city. When M and D and I got the Circle Line round the island, the commentator referred frequently to the towers, pointing out the gap where they used to stand and talking about events as “before” and “after”. Yesterday, on an exploration of downtown, I walked passed ground zero and went into St Paul's Chapel, now filled with photographs of the dead and stories in words and pictures showing how the chapel became a refuge for rescue workers after their long and horrifying days scouring the rubble and dust: podiatrists working on feet in George Washington’s pew, cots lining the walls for workers to sleep on, volunteer registers for people providing food. Prior to a Ford Foundation meeting, I looked up the bio of the woman J and I were meeting, and learned that she had set up a project to develop models of resistance to fundamentalism, following the death of her mother in the attacks. And when the Writers Studio gang came round for a barbeque last weekend somehow the subject of 9/11 came up and people started describing their very personal experiences of that day and its aftermath. Cl on how she had to deal with the children at her school, where the decision was made not to tell them what had happened yet one had sensed something was wrong and piped up “I’m scared”. Al on how he had seen one of the planes flying low down over Broadway and phoned S to say how crazy, now they’re doing aeroplane tours of Manhattan. T on how she’d found herself pulled into a close-knit circle of transvestites at the bottom of Christopher Street on West Highway for a loud and passionate prayer session, how the highway was lined with people clapping as the relief workers drove passed, how she and G had tried to take blankets down for the injured, responding to the instinctive drive to do something, yet was told there was no need – there were no injured, only alive or dead. How when they drove back into the city after several weeks of living outside (their apartment was below the line marking where people had to be evacuated), with a sense of relief at returning but trepidation of another attack, her heart sunk when she saw a police cordon blocking the road. She asked the police what had happened. They said don’t worry, we’re filming an episode of Law and Order. So yes, the city’s back to normal, the world didn’t end on that day. Didn’t quite end, G added.

That was a tragedy in which people’s grief was exposed for the rest of the world to see and channels of support were wide open, compassion flowing along the shock lines. Unlike the victims of cyclone Nargis in Burma right now, who are being left to die by their own government and who have no way of knowing that the international community is trying to send help.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New York missive no 21 - Change in Weehawken Street

Change is afoot at 11 Weehawken Street. Last night Stephanie and I stuffed the fat cat Murray into a maroon pet carrier. She's taking him to live with a couple of her friends in Idaho. And the age of the purple dinosaurs is coming to an end: the landlord's started ripping them off the green hallway walls to prepare for painting.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New York missive no 20 - Art, branding

Am now in Cambridge, Mass., prior to speaking on a panel at the UN Global Compact US Network tomorrow at Harvard Business School. Spent yesterday late afternoon sitting by the bank of the Charles river in the Spring sunshine, pulling together ideas for my presentation amid that rarefied atmosphere shared by old-university towns: rowers gliding over the water, birds gliding through the air, students gliding on bikes or in running shoes over the grass discussing anything from the boiling points of various liquids to poverty reduction strategies for developing countries.

And am currently in the Cambridge equivalent of S’nice café, "Darwin's", surrounded by others tapping away at laptops, skimming through mountainous Sunday papers and scribbling in journals.


Kicked myself for not making more of a schmoozing and insight-gleaning opportunity, when I Googled the guy whose 50th birthday party H, J and I found ourselves at in Washington DC. My sleepiness, combined perhaps with the fact that an artist there had hung a wall-sized painting caricaturing Clinton and Obama as Warhol and Basquiat in their iconicly photographed boxing-glove pose, and the fact that the guy’s new(ish) young wife used to be McCain’s communications director, meant I superficially presumed most of the people in the room were Republicans who, as I wasn't in inquisitive journalist mode, wouldn’t be that fascinating to get into conversation with. Yet I only registered after the Google search that the birthday boy was Ronald Brownstein, former political editor of the Los Angeles Times and now political director of Atlantic Media Company who published his sixth book in November, called “The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America”. I could have no doubt learned a few things journalism- or election- related had I spoken with him. Having said that, being quizzed by a curious English girl was probably the last thing he wanted to do at his party, and H and I still passed the hour or so that we were there most productively – nattering, tucking into the delicious spread of food and knocking back the pear martinis.


Friday evening went to an art show opening that actually had art in it. Unlike the one that P and I had attempted to attend a couple of Thursdays ago. We had turned up at 11ish at a venue teetering on the edge of Chelsea by West Side Highway expecting to find Sa’s paintings on display - some of which had been festooning the rooves of 11 Weehawken Street - and the after-show party in full swing. There was a party inside, of sorts, but no art. The walls were draped with white sheets. And along one side of the room were a few straight rows of chairs. It turned out that Sa had cancelled her show after one fight too many with the woman directing a production of David Hare’s “The Secret Rapture” with which Sa was supposedly sharing the space (taking the paintings down for the duration of the play, which apparently was long). So the people still hanging around were the cast, their family and friends. We stayed anyway, drinking free champagne, eating blackberries, chatting to the cast a bit and to the gay barman who’d been invited to serve the drinks in return for $20 and enough free alcohol to fire him up for the rest of the night in a club downtown, where a guy he’d been dating was going to be DJ-ing. All very surreal and all very New York.

This Friday though, there was art. It was by R’s Colombian friend J: abstract arial views of cities hung in a SoHo 4th-floor space more like a string of little offices than a gallery. That was followed by a drink at Café Noir and some dancing at an exceptionally cheesy salsa place called Sequoia on South Street Seaport that by the time we arrived had regressed from salsa to reggaeton...


Michael Conroy’s recent book “Branded” describes how the importance of brands to companies is a powerful tool in encouraging them to improve their social and environmental conduct. Branding’s always been crucial for companies. Some, like Coca-Cola, are their brand. It seems that branding is now increasingly important to countries too.

The US is wondering whether brand America can recover from the damage done to its international reputation by the Bush administration. Or whether it will remain forever tarnished in many people’s minds even if the next administration tries to turn things around, just as Nike has had a tough time shaking off its sweatshop image despite the fact it’s now doing more than a lot of apparel companies to reduce labour abuses. Or maybe the appeal and idea of America will survive the reputational damage and people will continue to flock to its shores in pursuit of a better life, in the same way that they continued to buy Nike products despite concerns of child labour in its supply chain: I don’t think the sweatshop allegations made much of a dent in Nike’s bottom line.

Then there’s France: a brand which resonated authenticity, quality and sophistication with a significant splash of arrogance, yet which was beginning to look a little dusty and antiquated. Enter Sarkozy with his re-branding exercise. It's going disastrously wrong, à la expensive management consultancy-overhauls that fall on their face because the consultants are more enamored of their own prestige than the prestige they promise their client.

And brand China. A brash, brave, new-kid on the block brand internationally, unafraid to flaunt its somewhat naughty reputation, using the Olympics as a skys-the-limit coming out party, but now realizing that it too will need to give at least lip service to improving its human rights and environmental record to keep the protestors at bay.

People supposedly grow to look like their pets. Perhaps these national branding efforts say something about the increasingly snug relationship between political and corporate interests, and point to the corporatization of international relations. Or maybe I’m just pulling out a few details to identify a trend that is not really there, all the better to package and sell my argument.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New York missive no 19 - Celestial patterns

In an article in today’s NY Times (need to diversify my sources – not at all good reading the same paper every day), David Brooks finds comfort in an open expanse of sky in a similar way that I did in EWINY 14. But he goes beyond the patterns made by made-made and feathered bodies flying across its surface, to think about patterns made by celestial bodies. Throughout the time he’s been covering the primaries, Brooks has had an essay sitting on his desk, called “C.S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem”, by Michael Ward. “It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God. The medieval universe, Lewis wrote, ‘was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.’” He goes on to describe how C.S. Lewis resuscitated this belief in his writing. That “Writers like C.S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism – to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.”