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.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

New York missive no 18 - Pistachio

After a Lower East Side brunch with Ch and a girlfriend of hers yesterday (welcome back to what’ll hopefully be temporary singledom) I went to two very different museums. First was the Ukrainian Museum, which has grown over the past 30 years or so from small beginnings to a three-storey renovated building at 222 East 6th Street, boosted by accumulating donations from the American Ukrainian community. The building has what’s perhaps the perfect elevator: an enormous one made of steel and a beech-type wood that moves smoothly and quietly and in which for once the “this elevator was donated by x…” sign doesn’t look ridiculous. Yesterday the ground floor was closed in preparation for an exhibition of maps of Ukraine. The first floor had an exhibition of traditional clothes and folk art that had originally been shipped over from Ukraine in 1933 for the Chicago World Fair. The Ukrainian National Women's League of America had decided that for their contribution to the fair they would display a cross section of traditional folk art, which they bought from experts in L'viv for $2,225. The embroidery on the clothes is detailed and immaculate: intricate geometrical patterns in black, red and white sown onto thick white linen. The fact that the costumes are still on display a century since they were made pays homage to the time and care that must have gone into making each one.

In stark contrast, the current exhibitions in the New Museum, which opened its new building in the Bowery on New Year's Day, seemed to me to epitomise the disjointed temporariness of Facebook-land, where interactions are stretched thin over wide distances and people pick and choose the experiences they want to have without really living any of them. They had names like "Tlatelolco and the localized negotiation of future imaginaries", and "The 7 Lights" (with "Lights" crossed out).


Spring has hit New York now and with it a wave of women in colourful dresses, joggers pounding the streets and the clatter of sidewalk chairs, glasses and cutlery. It has confirmed what many people have said – that if I loved this city in Winter I’ll love it even more in Spring. Black coat’s been packed away and has been replaced for now by the bright pistachio green one I got for £6 at a charity shop on Kingsland Road.

Speaking of pistachio, in a Flatiron Irish bar on Ru’s last night in New York, a middle-aged woman with a non-descript man hovering behind her came up to me and said “Are you Pistachio?” (though I didn’t have my coat with me that night). And then, “Are you here for twitters?”. I told her I was neither, and was too flummoxed to probe further and find out what pistachio and the twitters are, leading to much speculation among our group about swingers’ parties and codewords for dubious antics that could have been taking place in the pub basement, further fuelled when a man came up to Ru and asked “Are you Laura?”. By the end of the evening an eclectic gathering of people of different ages had formed at the back of the room – none of whom looked much like the type to be into sexual experimentation but you never know….Pistachio, the twitters and Laura will remain a mystery.

[a mystery no more]


Spent $20 that I didn’t have to spare on “Writing New York” yesterday – a fat chronological anthology. It starts with an extract from “A History of New York From the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty”, written by Washington Irving at the age of 26 (grrr says the envious wannabe writer in me), and narrated by, as the introductory blurb describes him, “an aged, bitter, codger of Dutch extraction, Diedrich Knickerbocker – in short, one of histories ‘loosers’”. And it ends about 100 writers later with an extract from Don DeLillo’s 2007 “Falling man,” among the first novels to deal directly with the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Not that I’ve read anywhere beyond half-way through the first extract yet: I fell asleep with the book on my tummy late last night after drinks at R’s. In the introduction, its editor Phillip Lopate says that “No matter how independent a writer might be, New York has always had a way of seeming stronger, of bending the individual will to its designs and obsessions.” And he goes on to give a rather disconcertingly familiar list of themes that recur throughout the extracts:
  • "the city’s contradictory faces of glamour and squalor;
  • its man-made quality; the gigantic built environment and the relative unimportance of nature;
  • its Mammon-like preoccupation with business and money-making, from the days of the Dutch settlement to the present;
  • its concentration of media and information, leading to the manufacture of celebrity for the few;
  • its offer of anonymity to the many;
  • its uneasy relationship with the rest of America
  • its large, dense population, providing space if not always the warmest of welcomes for the immigrant and the nonconformist;
  • its affable, loquacious working-class populace speaking a streetwise vernacular;
  • its fabled loneliess and alienation;
  • its symbolic importance as the modernist city par excellence;
  • its addictive, temptress quality, which ensnares newcomers and convinces them – no matter how much they may suffer at its hands that no place else will do."

I certainly felt that temptress quality when I returned here from Washington DC on Tuesday, after four days in DC spent running around to fundraising and other meetings with C. I was surprised to feel myself – someone who’s just as happy surrounded by wilderness as in a city – relieved to be back in New York’s pounding urban chaos. DC's so much more spacious, elegant and green than I remembered it, and we’d hit it before the end of cherry blossom season so it was still daubed with pink. Yet there's something staid about the centre, and the areas I was in were strikingly homogenous. Still, it was about time I ventured out of the Manhattan bubble and was wonderful to catch up with H, who I stayed with while I was there.

On Sun afternoon C and I combined our brainstorming for a meeting the following day with a walk down the Mall. We started at the Lincoln memorial where we read the two timeless speeches carved onto the walls around his statue; the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. In the latter, he says that slavery was the root cause of the civil war. Two days later I attended a Senate hearing on the slave-like conditions that some of Florida’s tomato pickers work in. While slavery's long been banned internationally there's no doubt that almost everyone, other than people who know the origins of all the food they eat and all the things they buy, at some point consumes products made by people forced to work, or working in deplorable conditions.

Monday, April 7, 2008

New York missive no 17 - Dead orchids

Last year George Packer wrote a long article for the New Yorker (which New Yorker articles aren't long?) about the experiences of Iraqis who worked as translators for the Americans after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. How their hopes for realising the lives they had long dreamed of were quickly shattered as the country descended into a new chaos and they became fearful for their lives, targeted as traitors by fellow Iraqis and refused US visas despite the fact the US government had been so dependent on them and paid them for their services. A few have been given EU passports and found refuge, of sorts, in Sweden. Packer said that after the article was published the translators’ voices stayed in his mind. Their story needed more telling. So he turned it into a play, “Betrayed”, that’s brought those voices to more audiences in a different, somehow more immediate, way. R and I saw it last week. It must have been a difficult process for Packer to distill months’ worth of interviews and reporting into a 2.5 hour play revolving round the lives of just a few characters. Yet in that way he conveys so much of the insanity of the occupation and the situation that’s emerged from it. Free from statistics, soundbites or an attempt to grasp the full picture, the intense experiences of individual human beings can say so much more about what that situation means, and its meaninglessness.


A quietish weekend, in which one day was Spring-like and the other wintery. I interspersed work with a Writers’ Studio evening of readings by Edward Hirsch (poems that touch nerves by avoiding analogies and cutting straight to the reality of things), Junot Diaz and Cynthia Weiner – in which a common thread, as in much writing, seemed to be illness and death approached with humour and shock – a party at A and St’s at their apartment in Inwood, and a Sunday excursion with M to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to see the Orchid Show. Where the death theme was carried through: it was the last day of the show and many of the orchids were shriveled, except the ones from Singapore.