Sunday, January 27, 2008

London missive - Paxman on M&S underwear

My week in London was punctuated by English eccentricity. When I went round to meet the tenants in the Mare Street flat, they were in the middle of watching a BBC2 documentary called “Wonderland: the man who eats badgers”. It profiled the lives of men (mainly men) who live in the wilds of Bodmin moor, including a retired civil servant whose fridge is full of frozen roadkill: not just the badger of the title, but also squirrel, rabbit, and a ghostly white barn owl. The documentary popped up again when I overheard two people talking about it at the Heathrow departure gate, then again in a New Statesman review I read on the plane. News-wise, Jeremy Paxman had unleashed a great debate by complaining that M&S underwear is not what it used to be. He provoked a flurry of letters agreeing that M&S knicker standards have slipped, and a heartfelt defence by CEO Stuart Rose. And on my birthday, saw a wonderful production at the Haymarket of Edward Bond’s The Sea, a quintessentially English farce – though with philosophical under-currents – in a quintessentially English theatre. Eileen Atkins played the role of Mrs Rafi, clinging by her fingertips to tradition and social mores while the East Anglian town where she lives teeters on the brink of chaos in the wake of a storm.

New York missive no 9 - MOMA and orange

I walk into the Picasso room in MOMA and there – kerpow! – slap bang splayed in the middle of the wall is the Demoiselles D’Avignon. There’s something breathtaking about seeking a painting as powerful as that, which you’ve seen reproduced over and over in art books, in the flesh. Literally. I stand looking at it for a long time. At one point, a man crouches down by the bottom right corner of the painting, peering, it seems, right up at one of the women’s crotches. Guess he’s studying the paint strokes but it seems otherwise. He’s told to move along by a security guard. “Where would I be without the colour red?” says Matisse next to one of his paintings, in another room. Everything Matisse paints is in isolation, hanging in its surroundings in the lonely yet dependent way we all do. My colour of the moment’s orange, not red. Recent purchases (perhaps have caught the NYC shopping bug after all) have included a bright orange bag from Multipazz (favourite shop) when back in London last week, a stripy orange top for sleeping in and a black cardigan with bright orange flowers. 

Sunday, January 6, 2008

New York missive no 8 - xmas shenanigans

Well, alongside the Obama phenomenon my own tales of Sex in the City Tours and champagne brunches seem somewhat frivolous, to say the least. But this is the place for recording them. Had a wonderful week over Christmas and New Year with H, Em, Me and Ch: exploring parts of the city I didn’t yet know with them, and showing them places I do know. It involved a lot of food and drink, colds – which everyone else was suffering from badly yet I managed to get off with lightly – and quite a bit of navel-gazing: I was surprised to find that all of the others are having therapy of some kind, whether Freudian analysis, relationship counselling...I thought that was a New York thing not a London thing? And am I just too stable for not needing or wanting a shrink? Maybe I should seek professional advice on that.

Christmas eve Em and I picked up H, Me and Ch from J’s apartment on West 10th street, where they were staying. The building – one of those elegant red brick townhouses that I salivate over living in once I’ve made my fortunes writing children’s books about wizards (or flying tigers) – must have won the prize for the most ostentatious external Christmas decorations on the street, maybe in Manhattan. The building was adorned in fairy lights, wreaths, ornamental cabbages (bit of a fad for them in the West Village flowerbeds at the moment) and purple ribbons. A Barbie doll clad in a purple dress perched in one of the windowboxes. And no, J was nothing to do with it, though could well have been.

Brunch in Bleeker street was followed by some Magnolia Bakery cupcakes which we ate in a touristy way sitting in the middle of the pavement. V’s right that they’re nothing special despite the long queues outside. They’re fluffy, and chock full of sugar. We strolled through West Village up to Chelsea market to buy food for Christmas brunch the next day, getting waylaid along the way in the Diane Von Furstenberg shop where Me managed to buy three designer dresses, and where Em made a dramatic appearance from the changing rooms wearing an expensive blue floaty thing with her scruffy green converse trainers sticking out the bottom.

We had a Christmas eve dinner in Fanelli’s on Prince Street. It’s apparently the 2nd oldest restaurant in Manhattan (not sure what the oldest is, should check that out), part French-tabac with its long zinc bar, part café with red and white checked table clothes, part comfort-food pub, serving things like delicious shepherd’s pie and blackened catfish. Then midnight mass on West 10th street. We got there in the middle of a musical prelude that we hadn’t realised started at 11, so crept into one of the side aisles. When the service started we were ushered into the central pews crowded with well turned out, oldish, predominantly white Greenwich Villagers, probably because they were keen to put some young(ish!) things on display in their midst.

Christmas morning everyone came round to Weehawken Street for croissants, berries and yoghurt, bagels & cream cheese, and several bottles of champagne. We drank the first glass up on the roof, accompanied by the cold winter wind, a clear Christmassy sky, the glinting Hudson, whirr of the West Highway traffic, and phone calls to family and friends back in the UK. We eventually emerged from the apartment at 2ish, for a stroll in Central Park. We’d thought of going ice-skating, picturing ourselves with rosy cheeks and scarves flying out behind us, à la cheesy New York movie. But hundreds of others had the same idea, and we weren’t so enthusiastic that we were prepared to wait in the endless queue (multiple Magnolia-bakery length). Instead we headed up to Ch’s apartment on Upper West side, where we flopped on the floor in snoozy heaps drinking herbal tea. Apparently it used to be where Marlon Brando lived. Sceptic me presumed that was a tale spun by the real estate agent to the young Australian recently arrived in Manhattan, but no, apparently Ch only found that out after she’d moved in, from a woman who’s lived in the building for many tenants-worth of time. It’s got all the features of a desirable Upper West Side one-bed apartment: shiny wooden floors, big windows, exposed brick walls, and walking distance from Central Park. And of course, it’s double the rent I’m paying. For now I’m very happy in Weekhawken Street with J, S and S, the dinosaurs, and Murray the cat.

We had our Christmas dinner, unconventionally, in a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen: Ch and I had margaritas with our meal which was the perfect wake-up drink. B joined us for the last part of the meal, and ended up staying up till 3ish back at the apartment having meandering small-hour conversations. A perfect Christmas day.

There are many more things I could be writing about here but sleepiness and some work to do will cut this entry short. Among those things, was the sex in the city tour that I was kicking myself for having succumbed to paying $75 for but then loved, and which means I can now walk around Manhattan knowing where to find Carries’ stoop, Samantha’s transvestite-disrupted apartment in the Meatpacking district, the pleasure chest, Big and Aidan’s bar and the tiny church where Samantha targeted "Friar Fuck" to no avail. There was a long and lovely walk with Em through China town, over Manhattan bridge and back over Brooklyn bridge; a visit to the fascinating Tenement museum on Lower East Side, steak sandwiches at the NY-epitomizing Katz diner where Me got into conversation with the Iraq vets who were working there, a whizz around the 20th century art floor of MOMA, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met (which, built as part of the Lincoln Centre built in the 1960s, is a stunningly perfect combination of simplicity and the opulence that opera asks for), and lots of dancing (making me a very happy creature in the way that dancing does) at Nublu on New Years Eve.

New York missive no 7 - O's Iowa speech

I’d just got home on Thursday evening and gone to bed when I heard the TV on in the sitting room. J was watching Obama’s Iowa victory speech live. I rushed out to join him. Politics is suddenly alive again. In some ways the speech reminded me how bad things have got, because the hope he expresses seems almost unreal. But it’s there sure enough. It’s been kindled, and is now spurring to catch on throughout the country. Yes the power-per-se politics of cynicism and point scoring will try to douse the flames but I’ve got a feeling that now more than ever people here are ready for change. The crucial thing over the next few months will be for people to believe. Still you hear everywhere comments like “I can’t see it happening”, "America's not ready to vote for a black man", and people doubting whether they should vote for him for fear that not enough others will, hence opening the door to another Republican administration. It’s precisely those doubts which could jepoardise this unique opportunity. If all those doubters believe in the America they want to see rather than the America they see now, things will change. As Obama said in Iowa, his victory was an affirmation of the “most American of ideas – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.”

I’ve just moved here and of course can't vote but the sense of possibility is electrifying: I want to be in the thick of it, be part of it in whatever way I can.

This 31 December New York Times editorial – and the mass of letters it inspired – sums up the damage that’s been done to America in the past few years and the battering that belief has taken. And this opinion piece by Bob Herbert four days later captures the smiling relief that of course change is possible: it's all of our responsibilities to make it happen.