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).