29 July 2010

The Victorian celebration of death


Life in Victorian London was drastically shorter than the near-century many in developed countries now enjoy.  With this in mind, and displaying a fondness for theatricality befitting the age, the Victorians put a great deal of effort into their funerals:

Death is ever-present in Victorian times: three out of every 20 babies die before their first birthday, and life expectancy is about 40 years. This is the golden age of the funeral, which can be lavish in the extreme. Coffins are intricately carved and decorated with gilding. Hearses and their horses are adorned with black ostrich plumes. Professional mourners (called 'mutes') walk in the funeral procession, looking melancholy. Lavish refreshments are served after interment. Funerals for children feature white gloves on the mourners, white ostrich plumes on the horses and white coffins.

Highgate Cemetery in north London is one of the best examples of a Victorian cemetery, and it is probably the most famous.  The western cemetery opened for business in 1839, it is still accepting burials today, although most of its tenants arrived in the 19th century.  (The eastern half of the cemetery, which was not part of my tour this time around, was opened in 1856, and boasts Karl Marx’s grave).  Now some parts of Highgate are a semi-wilderness that is slowly being reclaimed from overgrown foliage, and the site is peppered with splendid tall trees and gnarled vines.  A tour of this atmospheric and beautiful cemetery is a must for anyone with an interest in the history of Victorian London and its inhabitants.

A few of the august residents of Highgate stood out during the hour-long meander through the cemetery’s winding trails:

SONY DSC That of menagerist George Wombwell, a prototypical zookeeper who wowed middle-19th century England with his entrepreneurial spirit, is topped with a characterful statue of his favourite lion Nero, snoozing with his mighty head resting on his paws.  Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie toured the country from 1810 and fast developed into a major business empire, boosted in no small terms by Wombwell’s keen sense of showbiz salesmanship:

Wombwell frequented the St Bartholomew's Fair in London and even developed a rivalry with another exhibitor, Atkins. Once when he arrived at the fair, his elephant died and Atkins put up a sign "The Only Live Elephant in the Fair". Wombwell simply put up a scroll with the words "The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair" and explained that seeing a dead elephant was an even a rarer thing than a live one. The public, realising that they could see a living elephant at any time, flocked to see and generally poke the dead one! Throughout the fair Atkins' menagerie was largely deserted, much to his disgust.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Stitched Panorama One of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery is the mausoleum of Julius Beer, which was initially built to honour the memory of his daughter who died at a young age.  The ostentatious opulence of the tomb and its decorations coupled with the sheer height of the spire atop it both serve to remind Victorian society that Beer was an exceedingly wealthy individual.  This was Beer cocking a snook at high society, which shunned him and his family – a German Jew, Beer had made his fortune as a newspaper proprietor and financier, but ‘well-bred’ Londoners never welcomed the Beers into their social circles. 

SONY DSC At the other end of the social spectrum is the tomb of the pugilist Thomas Sayers, a famous bare-knuckle boxer who captured the public’s imagination in the 1850s with his brave fighting style and celebrated stamina.  After his final bout in 1860 against an American challenger, which descended into riotous conditions as the fight dragged on for 37 rounds and 140 minutes, Sayers’ fans raised over £3000 (perhaps £270,000 in today’s money) to persuade him to never fight again.  Sayers died five short years later at the age of 39, and the ensuing public outpouring of sympathy saw a massive ten thousand mourners attend the burial at Highgate.  His tomb is guarded by a statue of his beloved bull mastiff, ‘Lion’, which occupied a key position in the funeral procession as the chief mourner.   

There were two other graves that I didn’t get a photo of.  Only a few years old, the grave of the assassinated Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko is still adorned with a large photo of the man before he was poisoned.  His wife, who still campaigns on his behalf, asks that visitors to the cemetery refrain from photographing the grave. 

Lastly, I’m not sure why I missed getting a picture of the following grave.  But I loved the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti the poet, who in 1862 had a book of his sonnets buried in Highgate as a love token for his wife and muse, the famous artists' model Elizabeth Siddal, who featured in many of the finest pre-Raphaelite paintings including the best known, Ophelia.  Seven years later Rossetti realised the book contained the only copies of his best work so he petitioned the Home Secretary to exhume the Siddal grave and get the book back!  The friend who he sent to retrieve the book handed it over with the report that it was in good condition aside from being somewhat damp (it had rested under her head) and that the corpse was in very good condition with the only noticeable difference being that the hair and nails had grown considerably since burial.

22 July 2010

See wherein his great strength lieth

Last Friday I paid a visit to ‘Firepower’, the Royal Artillery Museum, which is situated by the Thames in Woolwich, south-east London.  Aside from the interesting collections of artillery pieces there was also a selection of items associated with British military campaigns throughout the centuries.  In the section devoted to the Napoleonic Wars there was a pistol that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington and made by Ezekial Baker the gunsmith, although it’s unclear whether it’s a post-war piece or if it was merely gifted to the Arsenal in 1822 and had been carried by the Duke during wartime. 

In the same case sits a small square of glass enclosed in a leather border to keep its contents safe.  Behind the glass there is a small coil of fine brown hair cut from a man’s head.  An ink-inscribed card describes its provenance:

This LOCK of HAIR of NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE was presented to me by Miss Balcomb who herself cut it from the head of the Emperor by his permission. [There follows a signature:] H Wright.  Purser of the Hon EIC’s Ship Winchilsea.

On the reverse a hand-written note adds that the curio was presented to Capt A.F. Becke by C.A. Maberly 17th Lancers (QVO) in 1911, and that it was from the collection of Gen Maberly’s great-grandfather. 



Elsewhere in the collections was a lock of hair sent to an Army widow during the Crimean War by nurse Florence Nightingale, who cut the hair from the head of a sergeant who had died in hospital and send it to his wife as a keepsake. 

These two examples of a long-standing tradition, and the news of the recent auctioning of another lock of Napoleon’s hair in Auckland, got me thinking about the tradition of cutting and preserving locks of hair, whether of well-known individuals or merely as family keepsakes. 

Naturally, one of the the earliest and most widely known stories is the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, in which the seemingly invincible Samson is undone when he confides to the perfidious Delilah that the key to his mighty strength is his luscious, Timotei’d locks, and that without them he would be no stronger than a mere mortal.  Snip snip. 

And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the
valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.

And the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and said unto
her, Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lieth, and by what means we may prevail against him, that we may bind him to afflict him; and we will give thee every one of us eleven hundred pieces of silver (Judges 16:5)

The tradition continued into modern times because locks of hair were ideally suited as particularly personal forms of souvenirs.  The snipping started early: it was long commonplace to keep the remnants of a baby’s first haircut for good luck.  Not only is the loss of a lock of hair from a living subject easily replaced and barely noticeable if cut skilfully, it is also easy to store in a locket or a simple envelope, and in the latter it is easily posted to far-off destinations as a keepsake to a friend or loved one.  And the sense of owning a portion of the actual human tissue of a great individual can be too tempting for some to resist:

The Borgias have become a byword for badness: they are the great dynasty of the debauched and the depraved.  Lucrezia in particular remains an icon of transgressive womanhood.  Lord Byron was obsessed with her – he stole a lock of her hair. 

A 1961 edition of The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, expands on the October 1816 hair filching escapade:

Lord Byron frequented an Italian museum [the Ambrosian library at Milan], enraptured with the love letters of Lucrezia Borgia.  In the case with the letters, resting on a glistening crystal block, was a strand of Lucrezia’s golden hair.  Day after day Byron leaned over the showcase.  Eventually he asked permission to copy some of the letters, but a suspicious librarian refused.  The rejection fired Byron with  a desire for revenge.  He continued to haunt the exhibit, and once when the librarian was out of the room, he filched the hair from the case.

The lock ended up in the possession of a friend of Byron’s, the poet Leigh Hunt (here’s one of his poems read by Not The Nine O’Clock News), who collected other great writers’ hair in a collection that presumably still resides at the University of Texas.

The development of modern forms of forensic analysis has enabled some light to be shed on long-dead historical figures through the use of their hair.  For example, there’s the case of the 1994 auctioning of a lock of the composer Beethoven’s hair, which was later DNA tested and was found to contain abnormally high traces of lead, which indicated that Beethoven may well have suffered the effects of lead poisoning.

For sheer extravagant financial outlay it’s hard to beat the 2002 online auction of ‘a wad of Presley's jet black hair, about the size of a cricket ball’, which returned a staggering $115,120 to its vendors.  Five years later someone paid $119,500 at a Dallas auction for a lock of Che Guevara’s hair.  Indeed, this suggests that modern celebrities should seriously consider banking their hair clippings as a trust fund for their heirs.  But contemporary celeb Lady Gaga might be diluting the market somewhat with her possibly apocryphal 2009 plan to issue deluxe copies of her album The Fame Monster ‘packaged with a lock of the singer's hair’.   

Within the voodoo superstition there is the theory that the possession of any part of a person’s human tissue can afford the bearer power over that individual if the correct rituals are performed.  Although it’s fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent decades, the idea of a voodoo doll wrapped with a victim’s hair was popular in B-movies in the middle of the 20th century.  Indeed, folk memories of voodoo medicine were still relatively widespread when a survey of medical professionals and patients was carried out in Louisiana in 1971, with one patient stating that ‘she knew of people who would “take cuttings from a person’s hair and fingernail clippings and little pieces of clothes to mix with a dried frog”’. 

Lastly, there’s also the strange case of the Hair Museum at Chez Galip in Avanos in Turkey, in which a singular individual has collected thousands of locks of women’s hair and attached them to the cave-like ceiling of his museum.  Each of the clippings is tagged with the name of the contributor and where they’re from.  When my friends and I visited in 2002 my female companions contributed a small lock each for the collection, which as you might imagine is both curious and deeply creepy, particularly the sections with low ceilings, in which the collected tufts of hair dangle down and brush passers-by as they stoop. 

10 July 2010

Pick up the papers and take 'em to Tobermory

I’ve been a Wimbledonian for the past five and a half months.  Initially I thought I’d be staying here considerably longer, due to the many qualities of the area: the train link to Waterloo is excellent, the shops on the high street are plentiful, and the Common with all its Wombles is just up the hill.  My room in the apartment also has an en suite, which I now think is the best invention in the history of inventing things involving bathrooms. 

Sure, there are a few downsides.  The apartment’s on busy Worple Road, but I’ve gotten used to sleeping with earplugs and the double glazing blocks out the worst of the traffic noise.  And I’ll probably never work out how the schoolkids seem to spend their entire day getting to or from school but never actually seem to spend any of their time there.

This is because I’m moving this weekend.  I’m heading closer to the river, to the neighbouring suburb of Putney.  Putney’s probably best known for being the starting place of the Boat Race, and like Wimbledon it has both train and Underground transport options.  It has all the amenities: supermarkets, a good library, a Waterstones bookshop.  (It only lacks Wimbledon’s Uni-Qlo Japanese clothing outlet, which is a drawcard). 

The room I’m moving into is spacious and the flatmates are amiable.  It’s only a two month short-term lease because one of their friends is moving in in September and they need someone to fill the gap.  This suits me fine, because by September I’ll be in a new job (hopefully!) and then I decide if I should stay in Putney or move elsewhere to be closer to work.  Who knows – perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll find another place back in Wimbledon?

09 July 2010



I’ve just finished reading a fantasy novel, and unsurprisingly, Across the Face of the World by Russell Kirkpatrick is the first in a trilogy.  I say ‘unsurprisingly’ because fantasy readers will be well aware of the ubiquity of trilogies in the genre.  It seems that one will never do if three can be published instead.  Of course there’s the famous exemplar of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to hark back to, but sometimes you just wish authors could fit all their ideas into a single novel, just like ‘regular’ writers. 

As it happens, I don’t begrudge Kirkpatrick the second and third volumes in this particular trilogy (big of me, I know).  This is mainly due to the fact that I really enjoyed Across the Face of the World, and when I noted that it was released in 2005 I was pleased, because this meant that the remaining volumes in the series had probably already been published.  (They had, in 2005 and 2006).   

I’ve long had a soft spot for the Belgariad, David Eddings’ fantasy series written from 1982 to 1984, that spawned an ever-expanding avalanche of fantasy series set in the same milieu.  While the Belgariad is no literary masterstroke, on discovering them in high school I found the stories were eminently readable and the characterisation, initially at least, was entertaining.  The plot of Kirkpatrick’s book put me in mind of Eddings – a boy and a handful of compatriots light out on a vast journey across fabled lands in pursuit of an elusive goal (in Kirkpatrick’s case, the boy hero Leith’s parents, who have been kidnapped by sinister warriors from the east).  A tried and true theme, and still interesting if it’s done well.    

Aside from Eddings, the book also put me in mind of the Tolkien trilogy, chiefly in its command of an authentically-realised system of languages and its realistic, almost lyrical connection with the landscape of a fantasy world.  Kirkpatrick’s personal and placenames are all spot-on in their Old Norse, Old English and Anglo-Saxon references, and the rich diversity of the landscape he has imagined and mapped in detail are evident as the Company journeys eastwards.

This is probably Kirkpatrick’s trump card, because he is a professional geographer – he lectures at the University of Waikato – and is an experienced cartographer, having worked on a series of atlas projects.  (I later realised that I own one of them).  His command of the natural landscape of Faltha is impressive and seamless, and the traditional hair-raising adventure story-telling is boosted by the realistic environmental descriptions he offers.  As a lover of interesting maps, of the real world or otherwise, it was the maps in the book’s frontispiece that drew me to read the book in the first place. 

SONY DSC [The 16 Kingdoms of Faltha, map © Russell Kirkpatrick]

Aside from the maps, I was also keen on the excellent night-sky cover illustration that appears above, which was spot on.  I look forward to reading the remaining two volumes in the series.  If you’ve already read them, no spoilers please!     

Amazon: UK US

08 July 2010

Harrier and Jaguar

DSC06623 - DSC06624 - SCUL-Smartblend Alternate title: How To Get Men Into Art Galleries.  Not me, mind – I’m a regular gallery-goer, but Clarkson Man tends not to be.  And Fiona Banner’s installation at the Tate Britain is one sure-fire way of convincing those men to change their ways.  Because Banner has installed two fighter jets in the Tate’s main hall.  An ex-Royal Navy Sea Harrier, which saw active service over Bosnia, is suspended by its tail from the ceiling, with its nosecone hovering just centimetres above the cool marble floor.  And an ex-RAF Jaguar, which served in Desert Storm, has been polished to a reflective sheen and lies prostrate, flipped 270 degrees to rest inelegantly on its tail and right wing.

The Jaguar attracts close attention due to its careful polishing and the racecar-like beauty of its design – I’ve long been a fan since seeing it in modern cartoon updates of the Biggles stories as a kid – and onlookers circle it repeatedly, trying to locate the best angle to admire and take photos.  But the spectacle of the hanging Harrier, which observers have likened to a game bird swinging in a poacher’s kitchen, is the most arresting.  Naturally the innards have been removed and all that remains is the fuselage, but still, this is an enormous object hanging perfectly still in the centre of the Tate.  Of course, you wish you could give it a sneaky prod to see if it swings like a pendulum.  The next best thing is crouching down below and looking back up the length of the aircraft, as if it’s plummeting directly towards you from above. 

The installation will be in place until 3 January 2011, and is free of charge.       


[Top: Sea Harrier profile and from beneath.  Bottom: (L) Jaguar, (R) Jaguar tail with David Hockney’s ‘My Parents’, 1977.

07 July 2010

Inside Aldwych Tube

Stitched PanoramaTFL is currently allowing visitors into the ticket hall of the disused Aldwych Tube station just off the Strand in Surrey Street, and has taken the opportunity to set out a small exhibition of its plans for the future development of the London Underground.  The main drawcard is of course the opportunity to see inside a station that’s usually closed to the public.  While it doesn’t contain the intriguing remnants of old London like the recently discovered tunnel at Notting Hill Gate station liberally papered in vintage posters from the 1950s, it’s still a good opportunity for Tube buffs to take a peek behind the scenes.

Aldwych operated from 1907 until 1994, with a gap when it was closed during World War II, and worked as a feeder service, shuttling passengers from the eastern end of the Strand up to the Piccadilly and Central lines at Holborn station.  More recently it’s served as a useful film set, with probably its most famous use being in the Prodigy’s Firestarter video.  

Outside, the facade is grand but inviting, its warm red tones and gleaming tiles complementing the college buildings further down the street.  Inside, the ticket windows are still guarded by a row of wooden telephone cubicles, and the walls are still beautified by shining green and cream coloured tiles.  Large lift carriages (‘maximum load 45 people’) still wait to ferry non-existent passengers down to the platforms, which are unfortunately but understandably not part of the open day.  (You can get a good look around with this photo-tour).  Only a short visit is required to take in the interior, but it’s definitely worth ten minutes of your day if you happen to be passing, particularly if you have an interest in the history of the Underground.  But you’ll need to hurry – the exhibition closes on Friday 9 July.


06 July 2010

More on Tibbet’s Corner

Following my short post last year on the history of Tibbet’s Corner near Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath, I’ve since moved back to the area and rejoined the local libraries.  Aside from perusing the local history section, which is usually excellent in English libraries, I also picked up an interesting history booklet at the village fair a few weeks ago.  So here’s a little more detail on Tibbet’s Corner and its pesky highwayman problem.

According to historian Richard Milward, in his 1996 book Wimbledon Two Hundred Years Ago, the name is close but spelt incorrectly:

The name ‘Tibbet’s Corner’ still appears on detailed maps of London at the junction of Parkside and the A3 Kingston Road.  Before the underpass was made, there used to be a roundabout here, with a large sign showing a masked highwayman and the name Tibbet underneath.  Unfortunately, Tibbet is a misspelling and the real highwayman was Jerry Abershawe.

The correct name should be ‘Tebbutt’s Corner’.  Robert Tebbutt was one of Earl Spencer’s lodge-keepers.  In the early 1800s he and his wife looked after the lodge at the main entrance to the park from the London road.  Little is known of them except that Robert’s salary was twenty-eight pounds a year and that Countess Spencer did not think much of him.

Writing to her husband in 1801, [Countess] Lavinia said she liked his ‘new arrangements in the park’.  She added ‘I think Tebbutt’s lodge a remarkably pretty habitation, if the poor dirty inhabitants make the best of it’ (p.115)

Milward also discusses the problem of the highwayman Jerry Abershawe, who lurked in the area around the same time as Tebbutt resided at the lodge.

In the 1780s and early 1790s the danger returned.  Almost every year there were reports of ‘robberies on Wimbledon Common’.  The culprits were a small band of highwaymen, led by a young man from Kingston, Jerry Abershawe.  Their headquarters was an isolated inn, The Bald-Faced Stag (in Putney Vale, or Kingston Bottom as it was then known) and for several years they eluded even the Bow Street Runners, sent from London to capture them. 

Their attacks became so frequent that in 1795 a special Patrol Guard was set up in Wimbledon by public subscription to give local travellers some protection.  That July, however, Abershawe was at last cornered by the Runners at a pub in Southwark.  He tried to shoot his way out, but was arrested, tried at the Surrey Assizes and sentenced to death.  He was hung on Kennington Common.  Then his body was brought to a mound (still known as Jerry’s Hill) on the Common by the side of the Portsmouth road and hung encased in chains until it rotted.  The spectacle, according to a contemporary newspaper, ‘attracted the visits of many thousands of Sunday loungers’ and was long remembered. (p.15-16)

Abershawe’s body was the last highwayman’s corpse to be displayed as a public warning. 

In 1795 the area must have been less densely wooded than today, because Jerry’s Hill is now submerged in a swathe of trees and undergrowth, set back from the busy Kingston Road.  The gibbet must have been an eerie sight on a hilltop in the middle distance for travellers – not so close that it would startle the ladies in passing coaches, but a strong reminder nonetheless. 

SONY DSC [Jerry’s Hill, Wimbledon Common]

A reprint of the excellent A History of Wimbledon & Putney Commons (ed. Norman Plastow) from 1986 sets out the idea that ‘perhaps the name Tibbet suggested a corruption of the word gibbet’, and this seems entirely plausible, given the similarities between the words gibbet and Tebbutt, and the closeness of Jerry’s Hill to Tibbet’s Corner (about 900 metres separate the two).

So perhaps the presence of Abershawe’s gibbet and the enduring fame it attracted, merged with the surname of the lodge-keeper on the Earl’s estate nearby to give us the present placename with a colourful slice of local London history underpinning its origins.

04 July 2010

Feel like letting my freak flag fly

While other Londoners made a beeline for an unusually sunny Glastonbury last weekend, music fans who stayed closer to home took advantage of the massive series of gigs organised under the Hard Rock Calling banner.  Held in the same Hyde Park location in which I saw Morrissey and Beck in 2008, the HRC gigs have the advantage of being well organised and being close to the all-important Tube – no camping out and getting muddy!

The first two nights of HRC had been headlined by Pearl Jam and Stevie Wonder respectively.  I had been strolling nearby the concert venue on the first night and had noted the ease with which the performances could be heard outside the tall wooden fences surrounding the site.  Given my relatively constrained finances at the moment, I considered bringing a picnic and sitting outside to enjoy a little of the third day’s line-up.

And what an appealing line-up for fans of classic rock.  ‘Dadrock’, as Alastair accurately observed; perhaps even with a little one-upmanship I could proffer ‘grandad rock’, given the age of some of the participants:

  • Sir Paul McCartney (68)
  • Crosby Stills & Nash (average age 67)
  • Crowded House (average age 50)
  • Elvis Costello (55)
  • Joshua Radin (36)

Hip and current, I guess not – although Crowded House’s new album Intriguer is only a few months old, even if the reviews are, so far, mixed.  But the line-up on offer was exactly the sort of show to pique my interest – not only would I get to see a living legend and former Beatle perform as the headliner, but I’d also get the chance to see two acts I’ve always wanted to see live: CSN and Elvis Costello.  And my Finn fandom is long-established, so I was keen to add a fourth Crowded House gig to my third here in London a few years ago.  And Joshua Radin?  Never heard of him.  

Of course, there was one small problem.  The tickets were expensive: £68 is a lot of money when you’re trying to watch your pennies.  So in the lead-up to the concert I decided, somewhat ruefully, not to go.  Perhaps the eavesdropping picnic option wouldn’t be so bad after all.  And I presumed the tickets would be sold out anyway.

But then I saw an article pointing out that tickets were still available.  And I reasoned that while the ticket price was expensive, there were four artists on the bill that I would pay to see individually, so really I should just take the combination lock off my wallet and stump up the cash.

As luck would have it, the Sunday of the event turned out to be the hottest day of the year in London, with bright sunshine and a high of 31 degrees.  The advantage of the northern climes, unlike New Zealand and Australia, is that this sort of weather doesn’t burn you to a crisp, unless you’re actively courting a singeing.  I trooped up and purchased my ticket.  Does anyone else worry about misplacing valuable tickets, even when they’ve only got 50 metres to walk with them?

Inside the security fences, which are designed for revenue protection rather than to ward off savage Hyde Park predators, thousands of concert-goers were wandering around the fields looking for an ideal vantage.  For those further back from the stage a giant remote video screen had been erected directly in front of the stage, with the reasoning that from that distance you might as well be watching a screen as seeing tiny figures on a stage a couple of hundred metres away.  Two other huge screens flanked either side of the stage.  (The central screen would later show the England v Germany 4-1 evisceration on mute to concert-goers who couldn’t bear to miss the match even though they’d paid loads to see a rock concert.  Every so often you’d hear them groan when Germany scored yet another goal).

It’s a great venue for a rock concert, as long as you’re not too short – the angles from crowd to stage aren’t huge, and if you’re a little closer to the ground than your fellow concert-goers you’re likely to find your view of the stage obstructed by a strategically-placed head.  Still, that’s what the screens are for, and it’s not hard to move to get a better vantage, at least before the headline act comes on.  I was struck again by the peculiar habits of some concert-goers who shell out large sums of money to see bands play and then talk loudly to each other while said bands are performing.  Perhaps they’re only interested in the headline act, but surely simple courtesy indicates that if you’re not interested in the performance then you should remember that other people are interested.  I moved spots several times to escape yapping buffoons, either English middle-class male bores or gabbling Brazilian narcissists.  And what is it with people who join a crowded concert crush near the stage and decide that’s a perfect time to smoke a cigarette?  Attention: you smell.  The sweat of tens of thousands of concert-goers is bad enough without adding the aroma of tobacco to it!     

Right.  Mini-rant over.  After examining the plentiful food and merchandise vendors it was time to settle down an watch the acts.

Joshua Radin turned out to be quietly impressive in the jangle-pop singer-songwriter category, showing pleasing similarities to the melodic and well-thought-out tunesmithery of fellow American performer Michael Penn.  He only had a 20 minute set in which to make an impact, but was delighted to be able to rev the audience up for the next act, whom he had long admired.

Elvis Costello, clad in a natty suit and hat, emerged with his rootin’ tootin’ honky tonk band, the Sugarcanes, and performed a 50 minute set that highlighted the rootsy musical direction he’s pursued for over a decade.  His half-broken croon seems ideally suited to the Nashville-tinged sound, and in the Sugarcanes Costello seems to have found ideal companions.  The tone worked perfectly on a slowed-down torch-song version of the pop hit Every Day I Write The Book, giving the lyrics a new sense of gravitas.  He also performed two appealing medleys, joining New Amsterdam with the Beatles’ You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and closing with his classic Alison augmented by the other Elvis’ Suspicious Minds.  And it just so happens that the last time I’d seen a performance with an accordion player was probably David Vujanic and his sister rocking the Manukau Intermediate school assembly back in 1985.  So there’s a novelty angle too.

DSC05041 Crowded House didn’t suffer at all from playing during the England v Germany match, but they did joke that there was no precedent for performing a rock gig in direct competition to a football match.  This was my fourth Crowded House gig, after seeing them at the Auckland Town Hall in 1992, supporting REM at Western Springs in 1995, and in London in 2007, but it was the first time I’d seen Neil Finn with what can only be described as the filthiest of moustaches.  Each to their own, and I suppose it’s preferable to the usual mid-life crisis gambit of buying a Harley Davidson and forgetting that you need to actually put your feet on the ground when you come to a halt at intersections. 

British audiences are still fond of Crowded House despite the fact that the breakthrough Woodface album came out nearly 20 years ago.  The setlist was dominated by crowd-pleasing sing-along options, with three numbers from the new album Intriguer thrown in (Saturday Sun, Archer’s Arrows and Either Side of the World), and closing with a stomping cover of Road To Nowhere.  Early on Neil and bassist Nick Seymour lamented the absence of what they called an ‘ego ramp’ – apparently the last time they played Hyde Park in 2007 they shared a billing with Aerosmith and Steven Tyler had a ramp installed to run out into his adoring crowd, so he could soak up the adulation.  Noticeably, Crowded House were the last act in the running order to exhort the crowd to be excited for the upcoming acts and say how happy they were to be playing on the same billing.  Make of that what you will.

Crosby Stills and Nash were one of the leading acts at Woodstock in 1969, even though it was, famously, ‘only their second gig, man’.  A folk-rock supergroup, with its members ex- Byrds, Buffalo Springfielders and Hollies, CSN are known for their immaculate three-part harmonies and hippie sensibility.  A surfeit of drugs and fractious relations with their sometime fourth band member Neil Young meant that their commercial success ebbed following their late ‘60s and early ‘70s creative peak.  Still, you only have to listen to the Fleet Foxes to hear CSN’s influences still percolate through popular music today.  And for my part, one of the first records I ever remember hearing was the insidiously catchy electric sitar of Marrakesh Express – the irony of a tot bopping to a jaunty psychedelic anthem not being lost on the older self: ‘blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth’ indeed, Mr Nash?  (Here’s a nice acoustic version from back in the day with plentiful facial hair).

Their 2010 set still boasts impressive harmonies, although naturally not as taut or soaring as in their youthful prime.  Stephen Stills, one of the most highly regarded guitarists of the ‘60s (he played with Hendrix, you know) plays deft guitar solos in many of the songs, impressing the indie kids in the crowd.  Highlights of the gig were their hippie magnum opus, Almost Cut My Hair (‘feel like letting my freak flag fly’), and the post-apocalyptic anthem Wooden Ships.  CSN also performed a couple of well-chosen covers: The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes and the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday.

Paul McCartney, the headline act, deserved the big build-up and the palpable sense of anticipation that swept the huge crowd, which entertained itself by singing the ‘na-na’ bits of Hey Jude while they waited for the ex-Beatle to emerge.  And emerge he finally did, to a rapturous response, and after the scene-setting Wings opener of Venus & Mars / Rock Show, he crashed into the jubilant pop blasts of Jet and All My Loving.  Dressed in a sharp-looking Nehru / Beatle jacket and sporting a luxuriant carpet of the finest vat-grown mullet, McCartney looked in great shape for a billionaire 68-year-old.  And the band he brought with him is a top-notch team of elite mercenary musos; not only were they experts in stitching together a slew of Beatles and McCartney classics on stage, but they also genuinely seemed to enjoy the experience. 

The impressive setlist shows that McCartney definitely gives his audiences value for money – he played from 7.45pm until 10.30pm with only the briefest of encore breaks.  I was expecting an intermission at his age!  There was even a brief detour from what was no doubt a meticulously planned running order, when a momentary jam evolved into a seemingly impromptu rendition of The Champs’ Tequila.  But it was the combination of peerless Beatles numbers with a selection of the better Wings and solo McCartney tracks that carried the show.  Given the length of the performance McCartney was able to include a great many tracks that I didn’t see in his Western Springs gig in 1993.  The exuberant Let Me Roll It from Band On The Run is a surefire rock classic (and the B-side of the Jet single), and here segued into Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.  Another Band On The Run track, Mrs Vandebilt, hadn’t appeared in McCartney’s setlists before a 2008 concert in Kiev, when it was a wildly popular request and later became a regular part of his show.  There was also the ukelele performance of George Harrison’s beautiful Something, which has proved so likeable since it was featured in the 2002 Concert For George

There was also the now-traditional extravagant use of stage pyros and fireworks to kick Live And Let Die into the stratosphere:


The show-stopping encore performances closed the gig with major hits, which McCartney is hardly short of.  The first, a dream run of Daytripper, Lady Madonna and Get Back, soon led to the second and final encore: Yesterday, Helter Skelter and closing with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise) / The End.  Because as you all know, the love you take is equal to the love you make.  Whatever that means.     

For the next few weeks you can watch edited highlights of the Paul McCartney set on Youtube, so you can get a glimpse of how good it was!

Paul McCartney at Hard Rock Calling (71 mins edited highlights)

01 July 2010

Once upon a time in New York

Stitched Panorama

I began, in my second Chelsea spring, to take a vague sauntering interest in my neighbourhood, where the morning sun hung over the Masonic headquarters on Sixth Avenue with such brilliance that one’s eyes were focused downward into a scrutiny of the sidewalk, itself grained brightly as beach sand and spotted with glossy discs of flattened chewing gum.  The blind people were now ubiquitous.  Muscular gay strollers were abroad in numbers, and the women of New York, saluting taxis in the middle of the street, reacquired their air of intelligent libidinousness.  Vagrants were free to leave their shelters and, tugging shopping trolleys loaded with junk – including, in the case of one symbolically minded old boy, a battered door – to camp out on warmed concrete […]  The residents of the Hotel Chelsea also stirred.  The angel, hitherto trapped indoors by the cold, went out and about in new wings and created a mildly christophanous sensation.  March Madness lurched to its climax: the betting activities of the hotel staff assumed fresh vigour and complexity.

This passage from Joseph O’Neill’s excellent New York novel Netherland, goes some way to capturing the spirit of the city, certainly far better than I ever could, with its multitude of cultures, barely constrained chaos, and its capacity to surprise even the most jaded of its residents. 

I’ve been to New York once before - the best part of a week in September 2007 – and right away I knew that however much time I spent visiting and sightseeing, I would definitely have to return.  And so once I spotted a cheap return fare for early June before the temperatures scalded the Manhattan streets and made the subway platforms a soupy miasma, I knew I had to revisit New York. Particularly since I’d bought a new camera since my last visit!

DSC05630 The departure day finally came, but first there was some traditional British bureaucracy to endure.  The uniformed guard at the Heathrow departure gate tried to stop me from taking a picture of the plane out the gate window.  Dumbfounded, I resisted the temptation to point out that Boeing 777s were rather large shiny metal objects that flew in the sky, so it was hard to see what threat to airport security could result from my harmless snap.  Instead, I advised him that the rule, if it indeed existed and wasn’t just being made up on the spot, was a ridiculous one.  And then I just waited five minutes until the gate was busy and took my picture when he wasn’t looking.  It wasn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it’s the principle of the thing, right?

It was a seven hour American Airlines flight to JFK.  There was definitely a step down in service quality from the usual Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines standards I’m used to.  For a flight departing at 11.55am I certainly expected lunch earlier than 2pm – I was starving by the time they finally got around to dishing it out.  A glass of wine wasn’t complimentary, either – not that I’m a souse or anything.  And the in-flight entertainment pickings were as thin as Calista Flockhart on an H2O Diet.  While I enjoyed a few episodes of 30 Rock and The Office (US), and was pleasantly surprised by Me And Orson Welles (the Orson Welles aspect – Christian McKay is fantastic as Welles – not so much the Zac Ephron element), the rest of the offerings were dire and you couldn’t even pause or restart the programming.  Grumbles out of the way, I should reiterate that I was pleased with the fare, and as the flight wasn’t that long the service issues weren’t a big deal.

So to arrival at JFK, where it seemed that the US is still working on the whole airport experience concept, torn between the desire to be vigilant for a multitude of transgressions and a general bureaucratic malaise that seems to affect certain people when they don a government official’s uniform.  Not to be outdone by the legendary surliness of LAX staff, one of the first encounters passengers from my flight had was with an irritated-sounding border officer in the arrival hall, batting away passengers without a mandatory form by shouting ‘Back of the room!  Back of the line!’ at them.  Welcome to America, folks.  (I had the right form, but many other people didn’t).  After the agreeably speedy processing by the actual border official, it was the turn of the baggage dudes to snarl things up – the entire flight had to wait 45 minutes for the bags to emerge.  How hard can it be? 

SONY DSCEventually I emerged into the warm New York dusk, where I boarded the A train, not for Harlem but for the bright lights of Times Square.  It took about an hour to rumble through the suburbs, skirting Ozone Park, rumbling under Fulton St past Bedford-Stuy, kinking through Brooklyn Heights and then under the East River to Manhattan, past the greenback towers of the Financial District and Lower Manhattan to West 4th St Washington Sq.  There I switched lines, to the B or the F or the V or the T, and some random consonant in a bright orange circle whisked me up the island from 4th to 42nd St in four quick stops.  Emerging into the fragrant evening air at Bryant Park just opposite the International Center for Photography, with towering skyscrapers all around, I was truly back in Manhattan once more.

  It was only a two block walk to my hostel, where I would spend my first four nights of the trip.  The Big Apple Hostel is fairly small, but it has the preeminent advantage of being a mere half a minute’s walk from Times Square.  And sure, Times Square is a mess of gawping tourists, hawkers and corporate retail chains, but you know what?  When I’m in Times Square, I’m quite happy to be a gawping tourist too.  But for now I merely found something to eat and went to bed early, hoping to sleep off the jetlag and recharge my batteries for a busy week ahead.


It proved to be a sleepless night.  It wasn’t traffic noise, often a problem in Manhattan.  Rather, the early-20s chaps in the room were the carousing sort, and returned to the dorm at 2 o’clock keen on staying up chatting to each other and playing on their laptops.  A basic breach of dormitory etiquette, naturally.  Hard to avoid these days though.  If only I could afford Manhattan hotel prices!

In the morning I headed out on foot to reacquaint myself with the heart of Manhattan, Central Park.  Which gives me the opportunity of repeating an old Paul Merton joke: old in that it was doubtless fairly ancient when he re-told it:

On my first day in New York a guy asked me if I knew where Central Park was.  When I told him I didn’t he said, ‘Do you mind if I mug you here?’

Of course there was nothing of the sort going on as I entered the park.  Long queues of hired horse-and-carriages waited for paying punters to shell out for a trot through the leafy park streets.  A six-foot tall granny in a leotard, out for her morning run, displayed a frankly alarming set of six-pack abs.  And the park squirrels busily scampered from nut to burrow, bobbing in and out of the luxuriant grass. 

In a broad stroll through the southern half of the park I came across an excellent trio performing Hot Club-style jazz, plenty of skaters, cyclists and a single roller-skier, and plenty of Manhattanites walking their beloved dogs.  (For a cramped city, it’s astonishing how many people have dogs; it must be a complete nuisance in apartments.  I suppose now that people know it’s an ideal ice-breaker, like smoking following the ban, part of the reason is the primeval urge to find a mate).


Then following the purchase of a weekly Metro Card ($27) I sped down the island to the tip of Lower Manhattan.  Well, I sped after a long wait for a 6 train.  So long that a girl, who was presumably running late, asked me for the time and I was delighted when she replied with a very New Yorkish exclamation of ‘Oy…’ after I had told her. 

SONY DSCWhen I finally made it to Battery Park there were plenty of people out enjoying the warm weather.  After a stroll through the gardens I paid a visit to the nearby branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is housed in a beautiful building originally constructed for the US Customs Service.  Most of the museum was closed, and the parts of it that were open weren’t fascinating, particularly the rooms of the art collection, which were dominated by deeply pretentious post-modern pieces.  But the real treat was the building itself, which was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century.  Its spiral staircases and the superb oval hall at the heart of the ground floor, which boasted a grand domed ceiling covered in nautical paintings.

Stitched Panorama 

I walked uptown and paid a visit to my favourite New York shop, Strand Books, where I enjoyed browsing the aisles and dodging the gigantic industrial-strength electric fans dotted around the shelves to keep the air moving on hot New York days.  There I picked up a nifty little history of the early 16th century Magellan circumnavigation expedition.  If you ever get a pub quiz question asking the name of the first person to circumnavigate the globe, be sure to be a clever-dick and point out that it wasn’t Magellan – he was killed in the Philippines and never made it back to Spain – but rather Magellan’s slave and interpreter Enrique, who had been with the expedition since it left Seville but was originally from the South China Sea and therefore completed the first circumnavigation when the expedition made it to the Spice Islands.    

It was another relatively early night for me, but I did stay up long enough to take some night-time pictures in Times Square, and night-time is naturally the best time to enjoy the atmosphere, with the flickering lights blazing and the touts shouting out their wares to the visiting hordes.



SONY DSC On my second morning I started by walking eastward several blocks to pay a visit to Grand Central station, a suitably impressive feat of architecture with a rich sense of history attached.  Soldiers in desert fatigues augmented the usual police patrols, reminding you that threat perceptions in New York are higher than in most cities.  Far above the bustling pedestrian traffic in the main concourse, several forlorn balloons bobbed helplessly against the domed ceiling. 

Then I retraced my steps and headed westwards to the Hudson shore to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.  The USS Intrepid is hard to miss: after all, it’s a 27,100-ton aircraft carrier that’s been moored on the Hudson and forms the core of the museum.  Alongside the aircraft carrier, the USS Growler nuclear missile submarine is parked in a pretend state of full alert, missile ramps raised and loaded with (fake) Regulus nuclear missiles.  And at the end of the pier, there’s a British Airways Concorde to explore too.  Impressive!


SONY DSC I tackled the sub first, working out that its narrow corridors would get crowded once the tourist hordes descended later in the morning.  Growler was only in service from 1958 to 1964, because it was soon rendered obsolete by the development of ICBMs, which could be launched underwater.  This was clearly superior to Growler’s method, which involved surfacing to fire its short-range Regulus missiles, which had a trifling range of only 926km.  Crew accommodation was cramped but by no means inhumane; crews of nuclear missile submarines have always had more space to stretch out in than crews of the smaller attack submarines.  Growler’s crew particularly enjoyed watching the 1943 western, The Outlaw – mainly due to their interest in the famous scenes with the ‘well-proportioned’ film star Jane Russell.

SONY DSC The BA Concorde only required a quick visit, and I had already seen inside one at Duxford.  The interior passenger cabins remind you how slender the aircraft really is, with a 2+2 seating layout and a total passenger complement of only 120, which is less than that of a modern 737. 

Then it was on to the main attraction: the Intrepid itself.  It’s hard to grasp how huge the ship really is.  For starters, its full crew complement when it was in service was 2600.  Starting on the 266-metre-long flight deck, I admired the large collection of jet fighters on display, the highlight of which was probably the rare Lockheed A-12 Blackbird, which was an earlier version of the more well-known SR-71 Blackbird.  Its daringly swept-back profile and brooding black fuselage still have the air of the distant future about them, even though the A-12 was first flown back in 1962.


[Pics clockwise from top left: A-12 Blackbird; MiG-21; UH-1 Iroquois & AH-1 Cobra; F-14 Tomcat]

SONY DSC One floor down inside the hangar deck there were several more aircraft, including a trusty Skyhawk familiar to many New Zealand aviation buffs.  There were also plenty of displays illustrating the carrier’s long career in WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam, and a mock-up of a space capsule to commemorate the Intrepid’s role as the principal recovery ship for astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Mercury 7 splashdown in 1962.  Further into the belly of the massive ship the aircrews’ flight briefing room has been preserved almost exactly as it was in the ship’s active service, with flight gear strewn on hooks along all the walls and a projector standing ready to show flickering films of targets to be bombed to smithereens.

Following my Intrepid visit I paused briefly to pick up a tasty blueberry bagel from a popular local bakery, and then I headed eastwards across town to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, for the traditional walk across the East River to admire both the bridge itself and the city skyline.  The narrow wooden walkway was divided in two by a painted line, with pedestrians meant to keep to one half and speeding cyclists to the other.  I enjoyed the greeting shouted by one irate Brooklynite to a couple of blithe German tourist dudes who strayed onto the wrong side as the cyclist hurtled down the slope to Manhattan: not ‘Hey, excuse me’, but rather the traditional Brooklyn salutation, ‘'Hello!  Douchebags!’ 


SONY DSCOn the Brooklyn side I ambled through the now-trendy streets of Dumbo, which stands for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.  At a riverside park I snapped some pictures of both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, which are quite close together and soar overhead, plunging their traffic into the depths of Brooklyn.  The park was evidently popular with wedding photographers, because several newly-wed couples were there having their pictures taken.  One Jewish couple, with the wife decked out in an explosion of silk and big hair, were being photographed and videoed at the same time and as it was a reasonably small park it was almost impossible to avoid them as they pretended to saunter idly down the winding paths. 

Stitched Panorama[Brooklyn Bridge (L) and Manhattan Bridge (R)] 

Later I met up with Anne and Cecil, my friends from Auckland who happened to be holidaying in NYC at the same time as me, and we visited the studenty Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (What?  Not ‘theater’?) for one of its excellent $5 comedy gigs.  Two young comedy troupes put on a series of sketch-based acts.  The first, Gorilla Gorilla, performed a number of sketches about the state fair visiting a hick town, the highlight of which was the daftly OTT chanteuse Doris Macgruder song medley dedicated to trains.  Then came the polished performers of Stone Cold Fox, whose Youtube satire (‘Drunk-Ass Betsy Falls Over’) and Skinny TV body-fascist lampoon were right on the mark. 

I walked back to my hostel through the theatre district, where many of the shows were approaching their big finales.  Outside one such theatre I witnessed a first; Perhaps it’s a New York thing.  I’d never seen a backpacker in a cocktail dress before.  (And we’re talking a full backpack, here).  Now that’s one classy backpacker chick.


The next morning I headed northwards again, towards Central Park.  On the way I had another rare sighting.  Yes, loyal readers, I actually saw a middle-aged woman with grey hair in New York.  Never thought I’d see the day! 

After pausing to stock up on a box of Tim Horton’s Timbits (delicious doughnut-based junk food) I ambled through the park to the Upper East Side, where I revisited the tremendous Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In 2007 I had spent nearly six hours here, and for my second encounter I spent almost five hours, with the Timbits sustaining me in a frankly unhealthy pact with the forces of concentrated sugar.  The medieval collections are on a par with any of the finest European galleries, and when coupled with the superb collection of modern and historic paintings, a smattering of complete rooms from sumptuous European palaces, a vigorously polished arms and armour collection that’s particularly strong on plate armour, and a wide-ranging selection of artworks from classical antiquity, the Met truly excels.  The only challenge is maintaining sufficient stamina to do it justice, which is where the Timbits came in handy.


[Pics clockwise from top left: The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer by Degas; 11th century ivory casket from Italy; Etruscan bronze chariot from the 6th century BC; French palace suite]

I ended my visit to the Met with an elevator ride to its roof terrace, which had been taken over by a peculiar and interesting art installation – a tightly-woven forest of bamboo shoots knitted into a maze-like forest, with a sinuous ramp winding its way through the shoots into the sky.  Luckily there was still plenty of space to enjoy the unrivalled views of Central Park and Lower Manhattan from the south side of the terrace.     

Stitched Panorama

I returned to Midtown near Bryant Park, where I had emerged from the subway on Saturday, to visit the International Center of Photography.  Like my last visit in ‘07, I enjoyed the Center, but couldn’t help feeling that the air of pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies the art of photography could do with being dialled down a bit.  The curators seem to approach every subject with a deeply serious bent.  Their exhibitions also stray into multimedia a little too often for my liking.  Given the relatively small size and prestigious nature of the exhibition space, perhaps it would be best if the Center concentrated on showing interesting photos.  Even its main exhibition on the American black civil rights struggle lost its focus on photography and showcased film and TV clips, adverts and toys displaying shamefully outdated racial stereotyping.  Certainly, these all help to tell the story of the black struggle for equal rights, but it’s meant to be a photo exhibition.  Oh well, at least the museum gift shop was as much fun to browse as I remember: I could easily spend hundreds in there on photo geekery. 

Re-entering the subway to continue my journey, I noted the terse and very New York-style instructions given by the Metro turnstiles.  Not ‘welcome’ or ‘enjoy your journey’.  Just ‘GO’.  The displays have plenty of room for a longer message, but I suppose they wanted to keep it simple.  It just struck me as a barked order from a sergeant major rather than a friendly hello. 

SONY DSC My next stop was the Bowery, where I was hoping to score a ticket for that evening’s gig at the famous Bowery Ballroom.  UK band the Futureheads were playing, supported by Californian girls The Like, which was formed by three daughters of eminent producers, including Charlotte, daughter of Mitchell Froom, the producer of Crowded House’s first three albums.  Unfortunately there didn’t appear to be a ticket office and I didn’t have easy access to the internet, so I missed out on that one.  Instead I wandered back to Midtown and spent some time trying to improve on my previous shots of the lovely Flatiron Building as the sun set slowly over the Manhattan skyline.

Returning to the hostel through Times Square I noted that the enormous Britney Spears billboard (tiny pink hotpants and bikini top) that marked my turnoff into West 45th St had been replaced by a swimsuit advert (tiny bikini).  I was unused to the clothing choices in America – never before had I seen short shorts in such numbers as were on display in New York.  They seemed a virtual uniform for the majority of young and some not-so-young women.  Of course, this is a country in which Tina Fey could be described as ‘average-looking’ (probably because she wears glasses), so there may be a few ‘issues’ to work through there… 


I had enjoyed my stay at the Big Apple, particularly on my last night there, when my three roommates had all checked out and I had the dorm to myself for a blissfully uninterrupted night’s rest.  For the remainder of my stay in New York I’d booked to return to the dorm rooms at Gershwin, which was my favourite stop on my last trip.  It wasn’t quite so likeable this time around though – when I tried to check in mid-morning I was told this wasn’t possible because the room hadn’t been cleaned yet.  I explained that I didn’t care that it hadn’t been cleaned; I simply wanted to leave my backpack in there and claim a bed for the night.  (Beds are unassigned and if you arrive later in the day you’re bound to end up with the hated top bunk).  No dice, so I had to store my pack and return later; when I came back at 3pm the room still wasn’t ready so I had to wait another hour.  Hurry up – time’s a-wastin’.

SONY DSC After leaving my pack I shot uptown on the subway to 77th St on the Upper West Side to meet Anne and Cecil.  We rode the subway together a few stops further north to the neighbourhood of Harlem for a self-guided walking tour from my Lonely Planet.  First though we had to store up some energy for the walk, so we paid a visit to Amy Ruth’s cafe for brunch.  I enjoyed a tasty batch of waffles with strawberries, Anne had waffles without the berries, and Cecil went all out with massive industrial-sized hunks of meat slathered in what looked like engine oil, with a side of grits – basically so we could all see what grits actually are.  Whatever they are, they didn’t taste particularly good, so I’m glad I had the waffles!

We spent an hour or so on the walking tour, and while it was pleasant to see the Apollo Theater, where James Brown performed a famous October 1962 gig that was released as an album, Live at the Apollo, I have to say the streets of Harlem weren’t particularly fascinating from a sight-seeing perspective.  I admit that despite the LP map we couldn’t find the Cotton Club, but aside from that there didn’t seem to be that much to take in.  The most noteworthy event was the sighting of a note taped inside the back window of a parked and empty yellow schoolbus, indicating that the bus had been ‘checked for sleeping children’.  You can bet the New York school bus service has been on the receiving end of lawsuits resulting from the life-threatening trauma caused to little angels who’ve been accidentally left in buses while their pals go off on a school trip.  

Bidding farewell to Anne and Cecil, I returned to Midtown to pay a visit to the New York Public Library.  Unfortunately the grand facade with its impressive statues was completely veiled for refurbishment, but the interior was as impressive as I’d hoped, all marble and vast sweeping corridors.  There was also an intriguing free exhibition on the history of mapping New York’s shoreline – it was as if they’d known I was visiting! 

As the afternoon turned to evening the one bout of poor weather during my week in New York hit the city.  A substantial downpour turned the gutters into troughs and made me regret the untimely death of my feeble umbrella a few weeks earlier.  Avoiding torrents, I ducked from cover to cover, making my way back to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre for the first New York stand-up performance by British TV comedian Simon Amstell, best known for his stint hosting the popular Never Mind The Buzzcocks music quiz on BBC2, the highlight of which was his legendary Courtney Love joke that even managed to shock his jaded panellists. 

Amstell’s material delves into his deepest insecurities and is knowingly self-mocking, while avoiding the obvious temptation to name-drop celebrity gossip from his show-biz life.  While some of the angst was perhaps a too dialled-up for my taste, and some of the ribald gay humour sent me a little bit prudish, ultimately Amstell has a solid reserve of nimble wit to fall back on.  I particularly enjoyed his deprecating tales of growing up in backwater Essex and his seemingly off-the-cuff but no doubt well choreographed announcement halfway through, “Oh, I’m a Jew, by the way.  It was my manager’s idea”, which struck me as a sure-fire winner in a New York comedy club. 

SONY DSC En route back to the hostel I paused in a doorway to snap an archetypal Manhattan picture: the Empire State wreathed in ghostly mist.  On returning to the Gershwin dorm, I opened the door to a surprise: the bed I had made up had an Italian perched upon it.  He claimed that he had claimed it earlier – a claim somewhat unsupported by a lack of evidence, given that there were no bags on the bed when I selected it, and he hadn’t made it up.  To prevent an international incident I offered to make up the last remaining dorm bed for him to shift onto.  Here endeth today’s lesson in the joys of hostelling.


By the next morning my decision to retain my bunk bed had proved to be foolish.  It was near both the main door from the corridor and the bathroom door, and the late-night transients were noisy all night.  Luckily I had a low-intensity morning planned.  I made my way to the Port Authority bus terminal and booked a daytrip on the Greyhound to Philadelphia, which would allow me a couple of hours to snooze on the way down.  Aside from a mildly inspiring view of West Manhattan from the Jersey shore at the beginning of the journey, most of the scenery was highway-related.  I certainly saw a lot of franchise-based retail along the way, much of which was afforded its own highway information signs: 'Best Western, 1.5 miles; Arbees, 3.0 miles’. 

W.C. Fields famously said ‘I once spent a year in Philadelphia.  I think it was on a Sunday’.  Luckily I only had half a day to test the veracity of his views.  I started in the historic core of Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American Revolution, which is a few blocks from the bus depot, and boasts a range of historic buildings associated with the early days of the Republic.  Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated, was full up with school parties, but there was plenty else to visit. 

SONY DSC Carpenters Hall, a guild headquarters that hosted the First Continental Congress, still has the original chairs to which the delegates entrusted their revolutionary posteriors, and a ceremonial banner from 1788.  Nearby, the National Portrait Gallery is a small collection based on a fee-based private gallery of worthies, with fine busts of Washington and Franklin.  The latter gent was also commemorated at his nearby former residence; although the house no longer exists, the site is dedicated to his memory and the print shop and post office on the streetfront remind us of his other trades aside from statesmanship.


SONY DSCMy last stop in Philadelphia was the Liberty Bell visitor centre.  As an artefact of revolutionary history the bell is revered and mythologised, but up close it’s a rather humble specimen.  And surely any sensible purchaser would have ensured an adequate warranty to deal with problems just like its very famous fracture?  Still, at least it’s nowhere near as impressive a cock-up as the Tsar Bell at the Kremlin in Moscow (the largest bell in the world) – now that’s a career-ender.

Heading back to New York I had to stand in a queue for nearly an hour at the Greyhound depot due to a late arriving bus, and then the journey was marred by being seated next to two excitable sisters who nattered to each other at the top of their voices for the entire journey with only a 90-second gap in which to draw breath.  The only saving grace was that they were talking in Hindi so I didn’t have to follow the conversation involuntarily. 

Later that evening while wandering near Madison Square Park I spotted what seemed to be a new art installation – a lifesize Antony Gormley bronze standing on 5th Ave, starting uptown towards the Empire State.  And when some Manhattanites stopped to stare at the new statue that had seemingly sprouted out of the pavement overnight, I was able to regale them with the name of the sculptor and a potted history of his work in England, giving them the impression that I actually knew about sculpture, when actually all I know came from once reading an article about Gormley.       


SONY DSC On Friday morning I trooped across town to the East River shore for a tour of the United Nations HQ.  Despite distant memories of touring the UN ‘satellite campus’ in Geneva in 1997, I was excited to finally see inside the New York headquarters.  The guide taking our tour group was excellent, pitching his spiel both at the adults in the group and to the children.  There was a session in the main UN chamber, which was full of hundreds of diplomatic representatives, so we couldn’t linger to soak up the atmosphere, but it was a treat to see it first hand.  Apart from the expected figures and details of UN missions around the world, I also learned that the decision to site the UN on Manhattan was about the fourth or fifth choice, and was only decided upon after long and torturous negotiations due to Soviet hardball diplomacy.  And the land on which the UN was built was actually donated by John D Rockefeller Jr, which begs the question – if he hadn’t stumped up the cash would the UN have ended up in Jersey?   

In the early afternoon I had my only celeb sighting.  Whilst strolling up Broadway I passed an expensively-dressed woman in an ‘interesting’ bronze-coloured dress that seemed to be a cross between the Eiffel Tower and a corkscrew.  I thought she looked a little like Victoria Beckham, until I got closed and realised that that was because she was Victoria Beckham.  And that’s all that story consists of!   

SONY DSCLater that day I took my first ride on a New York institution, the Staten Island ferry.  For the princely sum of no US dollars and no US cents passengers can ride on the bright orange double-decker ferries, taking in the views of Manhattan, Jersey, Liberty and Ellis Islands, and the busy maritime traffic of the harbour.  It was a brilliant sunny afternoon, just right to enjoy the fresh air and the scenery.  If only there was something interesting to see when you alight at the other end on Staten Island – but the only sight worth seeing appeared to be the fishtank in the St George ferry terminal.  Oh well, it was lucky that the journey back was as pleasant as the trip out.


It was one of my missions to see a show during my week in New York.  I duly ventured down to the half-price ticket booth at the South St Seaport (the Times Square one being too busy for my liking).  Unfortunately nothing was on that fell into my price range – there were shows I was slightly keen to see but not at an expensive ticket price.  So instead I relied on my trusty copy of Time Out New York, and delved into the Off-Broadway and even the Off-Off-Broadway columns.  My eyes chanced upon an interesting-looking listing, and it was only $15.  Score!

And that, dear readers, is how I came to see the musical comedy My Boyfriend Is A Zombie.  Before you leap to conclusions, perhaps thinking that a cheap ticket means a cheap show, I should point out that it was brilliant fun and the staging of William ‘Electric’ Black’s musical at the Theater For The New City on 1st Ave was excellent.  Set in 1958, ‘Zombie’ is the heart-warming and toe-tappin’ tale of a high-school gal who finds a fairly unlikely date for the school prom in the form of a handsome yet brain-munching member of the undead.  Unable to communicate other than through blood-curdling growls, our heroine Paula Pearlstone names her zombie beau ‘Grrr’ and soon falls in love.  But the prom is spoiled when Grrr is whisked off to Hollywood to star in horror movies, breaking Paula’s heart.  Can there be a happy ending with true love saved and without teenage brains being chewed?  Well, naturally, and there’s some frightfully catchy tunes along the way too.  Aside from Paula and the nimble-toed Grrr, played by Nicole Patullo and Jamaal Kendall, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Erin Salm as the smugly prim class president Zelda and Macah Coates as the strutting, minxish Tina.  Final word goes to Paula:  

Yeah, he knows how to make chicks scream.
He’s kind of shy,
Doesn’t drink or smoke
And always slurs his words.
Who could ask for more
From the creature I adore?
Does that make me somewhat disturbed?


My time in New York was almost at an end.  Luckily there was one final chance to catch up with Anne and Cecil before I departed, and we met for breakfast at the somewhat unimaginatively named Manhattan Diner on the Upper West Side near their hotel.  I wolfed down the pancakes on offer and savoured the atmosphere of a busy New York diner.  Our waitress, who had earlier engaged us in some rather forced bonhomie, carefully reminded us that service was not included, with the understanding that it was strongly recommended! 

SONY DSC After bidding the Armstrongs farewell I strolled back through Central Park, taking in Strawberry Fields near the Dakota Building where John Lennon lived and died.  Then I proceeded to zip through a fairly disjointed day, filling in the gaps of my rough itinerary.  I stopped in briefly to check out the shop at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and spent a short while admiring the rugged old tenements that housed so many poor migrants in the days when New York was filling up with new blood from Eastern Europe and Jewish ghettos. 

SONY DSCThen I paid my first visit to the splendid collections of the Brooklyn Museum, which is off the beaten track for most visitors to New York but is thoroughly worth a visit due to its impressive collections and lack of tidal waves of tourists clogging up the exhibits.  The Egyptian collections were particularly strong.  I also enjoyed the programmed fountain out the front, which was the scene of joyful chaos as loads of local kids leapt in and out of the jetting sprays, cooling down on a hot Brooklyn Saturday. 

SONY DSC[Pic: Princess strumming a lute, Egyptian, c.14th century BC; above, museum internal courtyard being prepared for a dinner function] 

I finished my stay just like I started it, by relaxing in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, resting my weary feet while contented city dwellers ambled through the gardens or enjoyed casual conversations over coffee or a chess game.  I spent a pleasant hour watching the world and drinking in the atmosphere – after all, who knows how long it will be before I’m able to return to New York?  But I certainly concluded that despite all its foreign-ness and the challenges faced by people who make it their home, I would love to live here and experience it as a local rather than as a fleeting tourist.    


Although maybe I wouldn’t fit in there.  Certainly the pressures of big city life were evident on the subway ride back out to JFK.  First there was a 20 minute wait for a subway train on a hot day (and remember, it’s the trains that are air-conditioned, not the station platforms).  Then said train was packed with Puerto Rican football fans whose kids were screaming at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down on the seats.  And finally I had to share the subway train out to the airport with a bunch of would-be hard-man boy rappers who spent the entire journey rapping (badly) along to the rap tunes (also bad) rattling tinnily from their mobiles.  I decided that digging my noise-cancelling headphones out from my bag and wearing them might’ve been considered unwise provocation or at the very least, unwanted musical criticism.  I sat through it.

So, farewell then, New York!  Your suburban youths may be every bit as deluded as London’s, who believe that the world is desperate to hear their adenoidal vocal ramblings in public places.  But I still love ya.