31 December 2007

Vacances par la Mer

After a quiet but enjoyable Christmas Day spent pottering about watching DVDs and Sky whilst house-sitting Steve & Fiona's apartment, I packed my bag on Boxing Day for a quick trip to northern France on the Eurostar. Unlike my last trip under the Channel, this time the train departed from the new St Pancras International terminal near King's Cross, so I took the DLR and Tube up there and quickly filed through Customs. I settled into my seat, and after a high-speed flit through the outskirts of London and through the fields of Kent the Eurostar arrived at Calais-Frethun station, after a journey of 65 minutes. Calais-Frethun is about 10km outside of Calais itself, and here passengers for Calais depart the train in double quick time - it's pehaps a two minute stop before the train roars on to Brussels or Paris.

The station was largely deserted and there were no buses into Calais, so I waited 20 minutes for an almost empty local train service, which rumbled into town in less than 10 minutes for the princely sum of €1.90. It was a kilometre and a half walk to the youth hostel where I was staying, but the night was mild and I couldn't be bothered waiting for a bus, so I just relied on Shank's pony. I was virtually the only person out and about on that dark evening - the rest of Calais was very sensibly indoors. Having found the hostel, I checked in, ate the supplies I'd brought with me from London, and enjoyed tackling the crossword in the Times before bedtime.

It turned out to be a poor night's sleep as I'd left the heater on, so the room was cooking all night. I also managed to wake up with a headcold, but I refused to entertain the notion of missing out on sight-seeing. After breakfast in the hostel dining room (baguettes and jam), I was mildly puzzled to look our the window and notice that it was still dark outside despite the time being 8.45am - and yes, I had set my watch properly after crossing the Channel. It soon lightened up though, and I walked back through town, although little was open at that hour. I was planning to visit the nearby town of St-Omer, but the train wasn't for an hour or so, so I looked around Parc St-Pierre, where this fountain took my fancy:

It's a copy of the Three Graces statue from Versailles. The park also contains an ugly concrete bunker complex that the Germans installed during the WW2 occupation for use as a military command post. Now it houses the Museum de Guerre, but unfortunately it was closed for the winter months. Across the road in front of the imposing Hotel de Ville (town hall) stands the famous 'Burghers of Calais' bronze by Auguste Rodin (1895), which illustrates the six Calaisiens who offered themselves to the town's besieger, Edward III of England in August 1347, in the hope of saving the lives of the remaining inhabitants. This heroism earned the six men their lives, but the town remained in English hands until 1558. I'd seen a full-scale copy of the famous bronze in Canberra, but it was good to see the original (pic); however, the Christmas funfair rollercoaster ride in the nearby carpark detracted from the air of solemnity somewhat.

It was a 25 minute trip inland to St-Omer, and the double-decker train was again almost entirely empty. The sleepy country town boasts the ruins of the formerly enormous Abbey of St Bertin. I say 'formerly enormous' because only the vestiges of the 14th century Abbey remain, but the extent of the foundations is marked out and the dimensions were substantial. The other main sight in the town is St-Omer's impressive basilica, which lies in the centre of town. An inquisitive black cat tried to sneak inside the doors when I entered, but he wouldn't've liked it, because it was deathly cold inside, and like the local trains, there was hardly anyone around. In one transept, the workings of a massive ancient clock over the main doors emitted a stately heartbeat, while nearby candles flickered over the rough-hewn stone coffin of St Erskembode, an 8th century Irish monk. A row of tiny shoes atop the coffin are the offerings of believers praying for relief for their crippled children.

There wasn't much else to do in St-Omer other than admire the little River Aa, which is only known for its alphabetical hierarchy. So I took the train back to Calais (cue really exciting video link)...

...and girded my loins for a visit to the town's contemporary nexus, the reason most of its millions of visitors pass through: the hypermarkets. A 15 minute bus ride away on the outskirts of town, Cite Europe is a gargantuan palace of consumerism. While I didn't bother with the enormous Carrefour supermarche, and the hundred or more shops weren't particularly special, you have to be impressed with a mall that has its own snow-races for kiddy toboggan rides, and even a fake ice floe for kids to try out ice-fishing. The only downside of the trip to the mall was the bus journey back - the penchant of French kids to play tinny techno really really loudly on their mobile phones is even more obnoxious than that of their English brethren. (Hey, I'm in my thirties, so I'm allowed to be crotchety about young'uns).

The next day I took another train down the coast half an hour to investigate Boulogne, or Boulogne-sur-Mer to give it its full title. Up on the hill the old town sits within its imposing medieval walls, which still follow the outline of the walls erected by the Romans in the 2nd century. Outside the main gate into the old town there's a rather incongruous full-size Egyptian Nile riverboat on poles (pic), to commemorate the exploits of local hero Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist who founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Inside the walls there's a massive basilica (pic) and the citadel, which was liberated by Canadian troops in September 1944 when they were led by a townsman through secret tunnels in order to surprise the German garrison of 200 soldiers.

Down in the main part of town the cold sea breeze was making a nuisance of itself, so after a quick look around I was pleased to find a branch of the same traiteur we enjoyed at lunchtime in Armentieres six weeks before. Being a creature of habit, I ordered the same traditional repast: a ham and emmental baguette, a slice of chocolate cake and an Orangina to go. Parfait!

Later, back in Calais I went for a walk near the hostel on Plage Bleriot to see the ferries leaving port (pic). Plage Bleriot is known for at least two well-remembered events: in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb arrived here after successfully completing the first cross Channel swim, and in 1909 the superbly-moustached Louis Bleriot departed from here in his 25hp monoplane to achieve the first aerial crossing of the English Channel. As the sun set I strolled back through the town, admiring the Christmas lights adorning the Theatre...

...and avoiding the buzzing scooter riders swarming amongst the Friday night shoppers. Soon enough it was time to retire though, so I took the free navette micro-bus (a glass box on wheels) back through town and turned in for the night, before my 9am Eurostar back to Angleterre.

22 December 2007

Confessions of an occasional runner

It’s been a busy time at work lately, with little time for venturing far afield, and the decline in temperatures in London has meant my morning starts have been augmented first with a warm hat, and recently with gloves to keep the blood flowing. I’ve switched to the Tube for my morning trip to work, although I still take the train home from Waterloo. It’s generally dark and misty when I leave for work, but the eight or so minutes it takes to walk briskly down the hill to Southfields station is a good way to warm up. I usually get a seat at some stage along the journey, which almost never happens on the mainline trains from Putney.

The only journey outside London since we got back from France was a day trip with my former boss from the BOA, Anne, and her husband Bob. I travelled to north London to meet them and we drove in their car to Cambridgeshire to visit the Imperial War Museum Duxford, which is on the site of the former RAF Duxford, a major airfield used in the defence of London airspace during the Blitz. Now it’s a massive aeronautical museum, with a huge collection of aircraft stabled in several broad hangars. In the two most modern hangars the aircraft both perch at ground level and hang from the ceiling, so the air is literally full of the most superb aircraft, old and new. A slender Daimler-built RE8 biplane built in 1918 hangs nearby a hulking Sunderland seaplane, while a Harrier jump-jet looms above. The hangar is dominated by the powerful delta-wing swoop of the menacing Vulcan nuclear bomber in the centre, while at the far end a graceful Concorde lives out its days in airconditioned comfort. Braving the blustery weather, we visited the other hangars too, and one highlight was the American wing. Here there was the chance to see a B-52 bomber close up, and the even rarer SR-71 Blackbird, all menacing jet intakes and sci-fi angles.

A week later flatmate Deb and I held our first official flat party, with good attendances from both sets of pals, despite the chilly night and the distance across town that some had to travel. Steve was most impressed with Deb’s mate’s new iPhone, and I have to admit, they’re certainly very stylish. Now if they weren’t only so expensive to buy and run…

During the following week I met Steve and Helen in Greenwich (Helen standing in for Fiona, who was busy getting her hair done in preparation for a TV cooking show appearance the next day), and we enjoyed a radio recording of a series of standup comedy acts for a new Radio 4 series called 4 Stands Up. Hosted by the genial Michael Macintyre, the two programmes featured about half a dozen acts, most of whom were top notch entertainment. But the highlight was definitely Macintyre himself: unassuming, resolutely non-cutting edge, he excels in simple observational humour and everyday material. And no Estuary vowels for him; his public school elocution is a point of distinction with most other British comedians. Yet he is no toff: his Canadian father and Hungarian mother put him in a flash school for the sake of his education, before removing him after a few years when they worried he was becoming just a little bit too posh to survive in the big city. Macintyre’s material is typified by the simple familiarity of his routine about commuting via public transport (‘Londoners must be the only people who can look like they’re standing clear of the doors to let the passengers off the train while at the same time always moving forwards into the carriage’). A great free night out. Here's a decent clip featuring some of his material from the Comedy Store:

I went to another Radio 4 recording a few days later at BBC Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus – the first recordings in the new series of Clare In The Community, the sitcom based on the control freak social worker character featuring in the long-running Guardian cartoon strip. Clare was played by the talented Sally Phillips, best known for being one of the three female comedians in sketch show Smack The Pony, and for her supporting role as Shazza in the Bridget Jones movies. It was all fairly low-tech and fast paced: the cast of eight sat in a row of chairs along the stage, and each jumped up to the microphone for their scenes, sometimes waiting for the sound effects man to play the background noise to establish the location. The writing was quality old-school situation comedy in the best sense, and the performances were both enjoyable and professional. And I should point out that while the comedy revolves around the life of a social worker, it’s refreshing that there are no cheap jabs at the profession: the writers seem to know their stuff. Of the supporting actors, Alex Lowe is versatile as Clare’s long suffering boyfriend Brian, while comedy ventriloquist Nina Conti (daughter of Tom) is perky and sweetly naïve as Megan, a Pollyanna-like Scottish social worker: Clare just can’t understand why clients always give Megan gifts, even when they’re Clare’s own clients.

A few weekends ago I ventured to Canada Water to the Decathlon sports store and purchased some rather cheap trainers and an equally cheap red wind-cheater, with a view to starting a (semi-)regular jogging routine. And as luck would have it, they had just the thing I was looking for. The shoes aisle was organised into serious runner, regular casual runner, and ‘occasional runner’. You can guess which one I chose. So, for 20 quid I bought the cheapest pair of shoes that didn’t look absolutely revolting, and to my surprise they’re actually quite comfortable. I’ve been for two runs so far at the weekend, venturing out from Southfields to Tibbett’s Corner (the former haunt of a notorious highwayman), then along the fringes of Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common to the genteel surrounds of Wimbledon Village, where I promptly hop on a bus that brings me right back home. Baby steps, you know.

Last week I met up with Raewyn and Mike and a few of her pals for Raewyn’s birthday dinner at Fish In A Tie in Clapham. Raewyn and Mike had recently spent two weeks in America, and were soon heading back to Paris. At the table it turned out we had no less than four current or former Competition Commission employees!

One inner-city expedition last weekend was my visit to the George Inn just off Borough High Street, a short step from the heaving Borough Markets. The George is the last surviving gabled inn in London. Shakespeare used to drink in an earlier George Inn on the same site; Dickens used to drink in the current inn building and mentioned it in Little Dorrit. The present building with its louche sagging balconies dates from 1677.

And as for my media consumption of late:

Movies: Knocked Up, Talk To Me, The Golden Compass

TV: The Genius of Photography, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Cranford, The Mighty Boosh

Books: Ice Cold In Alex, Moll Flanders, The Ocean Railway

It's minus one outside tonight and the apartment buildings are all wreathed in mist. Good thing I've got a hot water bottle.

Next major report will be on my quick trip to Calais and Boulogne after Christmas.


11 December 2007

The Western Front

Whose graves are known only to god

On the weekend of Armistice Day I went with some pals for a quick Eurostar visit to some of the sites associated with the Western Front in the First World War. Travelling with Steve and Fiona and their friend Helen, we took one of the last Eurostar trains out of Waterloo on the Friday morning, buzzing through the southeastern suburbs of London and then skimming across the open fields of Kent. In about an hour and a half we had sped through the Channel Tunnel and arrived at Lille in northern France, where we collected our rental car. We decided to upgrade to a Prius, which only cost a little more and had three things going for it: it was more spacious, it was cheaper to fuel, and it had a whizzy talking satnav console in the dashboard, which would make navigating easier. As soon as we worked it out, that is.

In no time we were driving north from Lille through the broad flat plains of northern France, a collection of wealthy farms punctuated by little old rural towns, each with a town square and a war memorial. Then almost without noticing, we passed from France into Belgium. We entered a roundabout in France and emerged from it in Belgium, with a small roadside sign and a helpful exclamation from the sat-nav voice a minute later: “you have just crossed a border”. Belgium looks the same as France, unsurprisingly.

We found our motel on the outskirts of Ypres (otherwise known as Ieper), dumped our gear, and spun into the town centre for a look. Despite being pummelled to pieces by the massed artillery of both sides of the First World War, the centre of Ypres is a picture of prosperity and stylishly reconstructed architecture. Its sweeping rectangular market square is ringed with grand buildings filled with restaurants, cafes and hotels. The whole scene is presided over by the imperiously ostentatious Cloth Hall, originally constructed in the 13th century, which is Europe’s largest secular medieval building. That’s if you don’t count the fact that it was rebuilt from smithereens after the war. Inside, the wealthy merchants of northern Europe used to gather to barter and haggle, conducting business in the purpose-built double-seated alcoves arrayed along the axis of the hall in a playful counterpoint to the ever-present imposing naves and cloisters of dozens of cathedrals across Europe. Here in Ypres the cathedral was located behind the Cloth Hall, hidden from view from the market square, showing that in this city at least, the pursuit of money was a higher concern than spirituality. Atop the many pinnacles of the Hall stand proud gold statues of burghers bearing cats, in honour of the town’s feline festival (the Kattenstoet), in which locals gather to catch stuffed toy cats flung by a jester from the Cloth Hall’s belfry.

Before sunset we returned to the car and drove a short way north of town to the sloping fields now known as Tyne Cot, which act as a memorial to the many thousands of soldiers who lost their lives at nearby Passchendaele during the war. During the war Tyne Cot was a field of blood – the remains of stern German machinegun bunkers punctuate the cemetery walls. Now the fields perform the solemn deed of commemoration.

Some 35,000 lives are honoured at the memorial, rank upon rank of white stone grave markers surrounding a lone cross bearing the inscription ‘Their names liveth for evermore’. As we approached, the pale sun struggled to breach the rolling walls of thick grey clouds over the memorial, casting firm shafts of light through gaps here and there. There was a hint of hail in the icy breeze whipping amongst the gravestones. But the graves are not why I’m visiting Tyne Cot. Walking past the graves and the solemn cross, the back of the site is marked by two sweeping curved walls, each ten feet high. The surface of the walls is peppered with name after name, neatly engraved and densely packed. These are the names of the men who were never found, the men who died in the mud and fear of the Battle of Passchendaele, in what now is a peaceful rural scene skirted by wheatfields and small cottages.

In the very centre of this wall there is a section devoted to the New Zealand dead. A centrepiece proclaims:

‘Here are recorded the names of officers and men of NEW ZEALAND who fell in the battle of Broodseinde and the first battle of Passchendaele, October 1917, and whose graves are known only to god’

There are many of our names here, because these battles were the most ruinous to ever afflict our country: far worse than the misery of Gallipoli. On a single day, 12 October 1917, the New Zealand Division suffered more than 2800 casualties. This crippling loss was doubly cruel, both in that it had a massive impact on a country with a population of barely one million, but also in that the losses were incurred for no useful military success; at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 the terrible slaughter achieved nothing other than destroying much of the youth of a faraway island nation.

And that day held a certain importance for me. On the last panel of the New Zealand section, in the area reserved for the unfound casualties of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, amidst the Rosses, Pearces, Smiths and Tattersalls, there is one engraved name in particular:


Rifleman Eric Claude Tucker, my grandfather’s uncle, was born in Clive, Hawkes Bay. It’s halfway between Napier and Hastings on the main road; few stop there now except to buy an icecream en route to bigger and better places. One of the few sights in the tiny rundown town is its little war memorial by the bridge. The Tucker clan was plentiful here – there is even a street named after us. But there are many Tucker names on the war memorial too, so perhaps that’s why no-one calls Clive ‘Tuckertown’ like they used to back in the day.

Eric would have grown up in tough times, simply because everyone did in those days. He served with D Company in the Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, until the first day of the futile Passchendaele offensive. Then he met his end, and his body was never found. He was only 28. My grandfather, who had already been named Claude after his uncle, was less than a year old at the time, and had probably never met the man. Such was the impact of the death, the family named a second Tucker boy after Eric Claude: my grandfather’s younger brother Eric, born in 1920.

Now Eric Claude Tucker’s name sits alongside the names of hundreds of other New Zealanders, a testament to the willingness of young men from a callow but brave nation to circle the globe to fight in a war of others’ making. The other New Zealand memorials of the Western Front all bear the same epitaph, as befitting the loss of those who came so far only to perish, the tyranny of distance having afforded them no protection:

From the uttermost ends of the earth

We drove from Tyne Cot a short distance to another cemetery at Polygon Wood, where more New Zealanders were commemorated. A small farm paddock bordered the site, and a solitary donkey patrolled the fence line in the hope of a friendly pat or a stray carrot. (We offered the first, but lacked the second). Across the road was the much larger cemetery of 5 Australian Division – a hilltop obelisk overlooking a field of white gravestones below.

In the early evening we returned to Ypres for the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate, where buglers have played the Last Post every night since 1928, apart from a few years during the Second World War. Hundreds had turned out for the occasion, and lined the interior of the Gate, which is engraved with thousands of names of casualties. The town’s brass band marched up the main street to the Gate accompanied by a small parade a platoon of British Army cadets, and a brace of skirling bagpipers. After the solemn Last Post and a wreath-laying ceremony in the Gate, the crowd dispersed and we went off for dinner in a nearby café. Soon it was time to return to our motel and crash for the night.

Their name liveth for evermore

The next morning we enjoyed the superb breakfast on offer at the motel and then visited Ypres to look at the Saturday market in the square and visit a museum. While the air was chilly, the market was appealing, with many locals emerging to get their weekly produce shopping. If the number of displays was anything to go buy, the locals purchase an inordinately large number of socks. We bucked the trend, making repeated visits to the stand selling boxes of Belgian chocolates for a mere €1. Then we ventured inside the Cloth Hall, which now hosts the In Flanders Fields Museum dedicated to remembering the hardship and heroism of the First World War. Each visitor to the museum is given a ticket with the details of a real participant in the war, male or female, and as you proceed through the museum you learn a little more of their story. Mine was a 19 year old artilleryman named Lancelot from Tasmania, who lost his life near Messines Ridge in 1917. There were also some interesting stories from the participants:

Captain James Dunn, Medical Officer of 2 Royal Welch Fusiliers, described an encounter between an officer and a member of the Fiji Labour Company, all volunteers without pay and all over 6 feet tall. The officer said ‘good morning’ to a man “with a great mop of hair, clad in a loin cloth, scrubbing a dixie. The savage replied, ‘good morning’, and spoke pure English. Asked to account for it, he said he was a Cambridge graduate, a barrister, and a member of Lincoln’s Inn”

Taking our leave of Ypres, we drove a short distance south to visit the New Zealand memorial at Messines Ridge. Here at 3.10am on 7 June 1917, a German salient was destroyed and 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in a moment, when 19 mines comprising 600 tons of explosives were detonated beneath their position. The night before, the British commander of the mining action, Gen Herbert Plumer, remarked to his staff officers:

Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.

The mighty explosion was heard as far away as Dublin (680km away). Afterwards, the New Zealand Division was one of the nine divisions in Plumer’s Second Army, that advanced to take its objectives and push back the front line 2000 yards.

Driving further south, we stopped in the centre of busy little Armentieres and enjoyed a fabulous lunch from a small patisserie, including superb baguettes and delicious chocolate cake, washed down with the traditional Orangina (even if Coca Cola does own it now).

We took a detour up to Vimy Ridge to take in the views and admire the solemn Canadian memorial atop it. The summit of Vimy Ridge is still pockmarked with shell craters and collapsed trenches, which are now covered with a dense forest of tall pines that have grown since the Armistice. Large areas of the trenches remain roped off with warning signs, as unexploded ordnance still remains beneath the surface. The monument on Vimy Ridge is visible for many kilometres, a great stone tusk piercing the grey sky, honouring the memory of the 65,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war.

Next we visited two cemeteries containing New Zealand casualties: Longueval and Caterpillar Valley. Longueval is a tiny patch of immaculate grass fringed by an arc of tall pines, the only distinguishing feature in the middle of vast farm pastures. Caterpillar Valley is larger, and its roll of missing soldiers includes one of the dozen ex-All Blacks who died in the First World War.

As the light faded, we drove to our accommodation for the night in the town of Cambrai. We were staying on the outskirts of town in a Formule 1 budget hotel, a likeable French institution known for its bright primary colours, communal showers and cheap prices (our rooms cost only €29 each). We finished the day with a café meal, and while the service was relatively slow, my ice cream sundae for dessert was absolutely superb.

A town that holds New Zealand dear

In the morning we breakfasted in the bright red hotel lobby, and then drove into Cambrai for a brief wander around the largely deserted town streets. We enjoyed the sturdy medieval gatehouse built in 1390, the 11th-century cathedral with its spire almost invisible beneath a bird’s nest of scaffolding, and an ostentatious Jesuit chapel across the road, dating from the late 17th century. Pausing only to stock up with pastries for later from a busy patisserie, we then pointed the Prius eastwards towards our next stop, Le Quesnoy, pausing en route only twice. First, for a quick bathroom stop in a village tabac – from which Steve and Helen emerged holding their noses to ward off the ever-present tobacco smoke, and Steve was mildly scandalised by his encounter with a genuine French pissoire, which exhibit somewhat lower standards of privacy than we Anglo-Saxons are generally used to. Second, we paused in another small village while a few dozen locals staged their Armistice Day march with band playing and tricoleurs flying.

Our destination for Armistice Day was the lovely little town of Le Quesnoy, which is famed for its immaculately preserved fortifications, and for its strong bond with New Zealand, for it was New Zealand soldiers that liberated the town from German occupation in 1918 and saved its walls from the usual battering reserved for occupied fortifications. But if you want to read all about that and see a few pictures, the best way to do that is in the article I wrote about the day for Scoop.

After our highly enjoyable visit to Le Quesnoy, all that remained was to drive the 68km back to Lille. We parked in a central underground carpark and hit the streets to explore, admiring the spacious town square fringed with elegant buildings, sifting through old French newspapers and maps in a market, and casting an eye at a bustling ski expo in an impressive hall.

Before long it was time to return our trusty rental car. This proved to be harder than we’d expected, because the usually peerless satnav couldn’t direct us through the complicated motorway interchanges near the Lille railway station, and once we did manage to get the car in the right place and pointing in the right direction, we managed to park it in the wrong parking building (which was adjacent to, similarly named and completely identical to the right one).

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and trundled ourselves on foot back into the restaurant district of Lille, where we enjoyed our last meal on French soil and discussed our enjoyable weekend away. The Eurostar awaited, and all that remained was a quick UK customs and security process before we boarded the train. It turned out that the English woman on the desk used the same line on all of us when she saw our passport visas: ‘Highly Skilled, eh? So what are you highly skilled in, then?’ Well, that’s a rather subjective question, I would’ve thought, but she let us all back in, so I guess we must’ve given the right answer somehow.

Trip photos (Facebook)

04 November 2007

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Okay, so it's been eight weeks since my expedition to America – so has anything happened back in the real world since then?

Well, I did move flats, that's one thing. After seeing a rather suspect residence in Clapham, I decided that I didn't really want to share an ex-council flat without a living room with two Romanian truckdrivers. But a few days later I found the advert for a flat in Southfields (yes, sarf of the river) and I soon ended up moving into the spare room in a 2-bedroom flat belonging to Debbie, a nice South African lady around my own age. The flat's modern inside, and while the building and the estate it's on couldn't be described as aesthetically pleasing, the place gets plenty of sunshine and there's a bus-stop to Putney right outside. In the mornings I’m generally up and out of the house before Debbie gets up, so there's no problem with bathroom queueing. The commute to work involves a quick bus ride down to Putney station – the buses come thick and fast – then a train to Waterloo, followed by a bus over Waterloo Bridge and past the theatres and BBC Bush House in Aldwych, straight to work at Bloomsbury Square near Holborn. And at the weekend the super shops of Wimbledon are close at hand too.

Another good thing about the flat is that now I can use my Hauppauge USB Freeview TV card to watch about 35 TV channels on my laptop – the reception was no good out in Sanderstead. I particularly enjoy watching Flight of the Conchords on BBC4, and the new Peter Serafinowicz Show on BBC2 is funny too (click on the link for 'Bang! Bang! Bang!', and have a look at this clip for the Butterfield Karaoke Bar). Now all they need to do is put new series of Mock The Week and That Mitchell & Webb Look back on and then everything will be hunky dory.

I'm becoming a bit of an unlikely clothes-horse lately, what with all the tempting gear on sale around town. It's not as if I'm going mad in a credit fuelled frenzy or anything, but it's a long way from my New Zealand aversion to clothes shopping anywhere other than Dressmart Onehunga, and even then only when pressed. A particular favourite is the TK Maxx outlet amongst the megastores on Purley Way near Croydon, where I scored my lovely Penguin jacket, which will hopefully see me through many winters to come. Now all I need is to set myself up with a snappy suit for work, and I’ll be sorted.

At the end of September I finally saw my mate Emma in person for the first time since my last visit to London in 2002. She was paying a quick visit to the UK after moving back to Auckland with her English husband, and we caught up (along with her pal Nick) in a pub off Oxford Street, sheltering from the teeming rain outside.

I've been to a few comedy programme recordings lately too. The first was a Radio 4 panel game pilot episode called Shuttleworth Pops The Question – a ramshackle attempt at a celeb panel game hosted by a Northern comedy character playing a cheesy Yamaha organ intentionally poorly. Rent-a-guests Toyah (Willcox) and Paul Gambaccini tried their utmost to make it work, but it was telling that what was meant to be a 30 minute pilot took 100 minutes to record. Fun, but a bit too amateurish to have broad appeal. Then a few nights later I went with Raewyn and Mike to BBC TV Centre in White City (which is on the market if you’re interested) for the recording of the TV sitcom Lab Rats. It turned out to be a bit of a mission, as the recording dragged on until 11pm, and we’d not had a chance to eat beforehand! The comedy itself was enjoyable, with a good youthful cast of misfits, but it proved to be a buggy performance, with a great many re-takes required. The big bonus of the evening was the comedian hired to keep the audience entertained during the recording. Lucy Porter, the beatific butter-supposedly-wouldn’t-melt pint-sized comedy nymph put on a great show, including her fond reminiscences of overheard conversations between white middle-class teenagers talking ‘Jafaican’ i.e. faux Jamaican: “ah caught me breddren smoken me erb in me conservatory”. Most recently, on Friday night I went out with Felix and Gavin to Teddington studios in deepest suburbia to watch the recording of Adrian Edmondson’s new sitcom Teenage Kicks, about a newly-divorced dad who moves in with his student children. I hadn’t realised it was an ITV comedy, which is normally the kiss of death – but while the material was edgeless middle of the road fare, it was still entertaining to watch. And the cast was considerably more rehearsed than the BBC Lab Rats folk. The ITV continuity comedian, a silver-haired old school comedian, was appealing too, if only because the well-worn gags he peddled were so harmless that they eventually became amusing despite themselves. (His one good joke was that he’d asked his long-suffering wife to dress up as a nurse for his birthday treat, to which she replied, “I’m a bit old for that now. But I will dress up as a Health Visitor”)

There’s also been a few day-trips to keep me busy. One day I went out to Windsor and Eton for a first look, strolling around the college amidst the suited-up junior toffs and checking out the castle. I decided to return another day, because the castle’s St George’s Chapel is closed on Sundays, and that’s where Charles I is buried. A week later I visited Kew Gardens near Richmond with Steve and Fiona to amble through the kempt surrounds and steamy hothouses, and admire several dozen Henry Moore sculptures on display. The next day I took a train to Colchester in Essex where I met up with former Top Shelf netball team mate Fiona Macnab, who moved to live with her brother in Norwich a few months ago. We had a pub lunch and explored both the town and the impressive castle, which had excellent exhibits on the town’s pre-historic, Roman and medieval history.

Autumn leaves at Kew Gardens

Colchester Castle, Essex

Next on the agenda: a trip on the Eurostar this Friday morning with Steve and Fiona plus their pal Helen, for a three day visit to Ypres and surrounds. It will be one of the last Eurostar services to depart from Waterloo, as a day or two after we return all services will shift to the faster (but less convenient for me, how rude!) St Pancras route, which will cut the travel time to Paris to 2 ¼ hours. Now that’s what I call civilised.


18 October 2007

Eastern Promises

Photos from last night's premiere red carpet outside the Leicester Square Odeon, for the new David Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises.  Viggo Mortensen wasn't around, but Naomi Watts was there looking fairly fabulous.  Also in attendance, film director and former Python Terry Gilliam, former supermodel Elle Macpherson and Martin Freeman from The Office and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. 
It was fairly dark, so the pictures are a little blurry - my little camera can't cope with the dim light and long ranges.  Colin Firth was there too, but didn't linger for pictures... sorry ladies.

14 October 2007

USA part 3

Sunday 2 September – They’ve all come to look for America

In the morning we drove by Whole Foods to gather some breakfast and supplies for my coach ride to New York that afternoon. Then R & P dropped me at the downtown Greyhound station in DC, and I had to say goodbye. It was certainly sad to bid them farewell after such an enjoyable visit. What legendary hosts and prime examples of traditional American hospitality.

I hopped the non-stop Peter Pan coach to New York, which may have left 45 minutes late, but at least I got a window seat this time. During the four hour drive there was an ‘in-flight’ movie: Will Smith’s passable The Pursuit of Happyness (sic.) – passable in that it was commendable as a rags-to-riches real life success story, but rather grim in that the film focused entirely on the gloomy hard times. Obviously you can tell where the story’s going, and you know Smith’s character will be the one unpaid intern who wins the coveted stockbroker job at the end of the movie. But this begs the question: what about the other 19 people who completed the internship, only to be designated a ‘failure’? Well, for a start they didn’t get movies made about them.

Soon enough the coach passed Newark Airport and weaved its way through the New Jersey traffic, with long lines of cars returning to the city at the end of the weekend. Then out the right-hand window the tall buildings were framed by exponentially taller buildings on the horizon, and as I craned my neck to get a better view between the cars and trucks, I realised that I was finally seeing the magnificent Manhattan skyline after all these years of waiting.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America…
(‘America’, Simon & Garfunkel, 1968)

Entering New York by the Lincoln Tunnel, the coach quickly slid into the basement of the Port Authority bus depot, and spat out its passengers into the low-ceilinged diesel fume-ridden underground garage. Donning my pack and clutching my daypack closely like generations of new visitors to unfamiliar cities, I followed the stream of travellers to the adjoining 8th Street subway station, a rambling mess of interconnecting tunnels and stairways like some contemporary vision of an M.C.Escher drawing, clogged with hundreds of New Yorkers, each taking their own personal speed-walking tangent through the confusion. Having eyed up a ticket machine, I purchased a US$24 Metro card, which gave me the liberty of the city’s public transport network for a full seven days. (The same ticket in London costs me ₤43, about three-and-a-half times as much). Naturally I conducted the electronic transaction with one firm hand on my wallet and a wary eye on all within a 20 metre radius, knowing full well that in the movies it’s always the green newcomers who are sized up for a robbery by the canny New York swells. Proper New Yorkers probably laugh at people like me, because they know that New York is actually very safe, with a relatively low crime rate.

Having had the coach ride to prepare myself, I knew where I was going, and once I’d obtained the Metro card I made my way purposely through the subway network across Manhattan and a few stops southwards to East 27th Street. My steely gaze must have radiated an impression of helpful knowledgeability, because within minutes of taking a seat on a New York subway train for the first time, I had already been asked for directions. (More on the subway later).

A couple of blocks from the subway station I found my hostel for the first three nights of my stay in New York – the funky Gershwin Hostel, all decked out in bright primary colours and Warhol-esque pop art. The downstairs common area features a ballroom painted bright red, adorned with beach loungers and neon palm trees. The Gershwin’s owners have a canny promotional sense: the website advertises its normal dorms, and then there’s a separate category of dorms for aspiring models. (A brightly painted fire door bore a gold-etched warning: ‘Occupancy by more than 100 models is illegal and too beautiful’). Not that I noticed anyone particularly stunning in the hostel, mind. My six-bed dorm had its own bathroom and a booming air conditioning unit next to my bed. Trusty earplugs to the rescue yet again.

Quickly dropping my bags, I headed out to get my bearings. It turned out to be a great location: while midtown is not the most exciting part of town, it’s handy for everywhere. And there’s a certain luxurious cachet in being able to hang a right up Fifth Ave, admire the Empire State Building four blocks to the north, then stroll west along 42nd Street to the buzzing outdoor cafes in Bryant Park. A crowd of people were congregating on a closed-off section of Sixth Ave for a Brazilian Festival – ticket-holders only, sadly. Yellow football jerseys were everywhere, and samba beats rolled over the throngs.

Every few blocks I was reminded that New York is the centre of the world’s fashion scene, not because I know anything about fashion, but because I kept spotting improbably beautiful women who must’ve been models; they possessed that rare skill of being far too skinny but not actually appearing anorexic. Some sort of conjuring trick, presumably. One rail-thin six foot tall pouting goddess waiting to cross the road had the look of someone whose (tasteful, expensive, minimalist) clothes just happened to occupy the same space as her, as if the body and the cloth had wound up together purely by accident.

Soon enough I was meandering through the hectic nexus that is Times Square, bright lights burning and flickering in storm of neon and flashbulbs. Walking on London’s Oxford Street is all about avoiding the slow-moving tourists staring at the shops or gawping at their fold-out maps, but exploring Times Square, particularly at night-time, is all about avoiding everyone who’s looking up – which is just about everyone. Everything is lit up. There’s the obvious neon advertising signs like Coca Cola, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Corona beer, plenty of theatres staging shows like A Chorus Line (still!), Wicked, and even Legally Blonde. Then there’s bright neon for concerns you’d not expect: Ernst & Young (a massive 20-storey name in lights); the police station; the Army recruiting office. (Hey kids! See a Broadway show, and then why not sign up for a tour in Iraq?). The lights are remarkable when seen in person, and no amount of TV and film visits can afford the same spectacle. Piccadilly Circus is a mere stripling by comparison. I suspect you’d need to visit Tokyo for a fair comparison with this gaudy radiance.

Before it got too late I walked back south down 7th Ave, admiring a bright neon sign in a shop window advertising ‘Psychic Tarot readings’. A psychic tarot reading must be at least twice as good as a regular tarot reading, right? In looping back to E 27th Street I passed street vendors selling Orthodox Jewish religious texts, Lebanese falafel trolleys, and even a movie director’s New York stereotype: ten young black guys gambling by throwing dice against a brick wall, with the winners executing a victory jig on the sidewalk.

Before I got back to the hostel I’d already been asked for directions a second time. This purposeful striding thing must have been working out.

Monday 3 September – Labor Day

Having been fully air conditioned overnight, I got up around eight for a bagel at the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. While enjoying this and reading a free copy of the local printed edition of The Onion (what a city!) I was sure I heard a guy at the counter ask for a coffee that was “really sweet, y’know, like 12 sugars in there”. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for him to just buy a cup of sugar?

Collecting my camera, I walked westwards along 42nd Street to western Manhattan. At Pier 83 I took the 9.30am Circle Line ferry tour that circumnavigates the whole of Manhattan Island in three hours – an ideal way to get your bearings and see most of the city’s best known sights. The ferry’s tour guide was the sort of loquacious chap who would’ve fitted in on the Love Boat, but there was no trace of insincerity or blandness – he was just a guy with the gift of the gab and a deep collection of Big Apple stories. (Although no-one in New York actually calls the city ‘the Big Apple’, much like no-one in San Francisco calls it ‘Frisco’).

Motoring anti-clockwise around Manhattan, the ferry swung out into the Hudson River and soon passed the site of Ground Zero, then swung out into the channel to pass Ellis Island and Liberty Islands (more on both of which later). Then we swung back towards Lower Manhattan and took in the stunning views of the world’s capital city: our host intoned “take it all in folks, you’ll never see the likes of this again”, and yes it was corny, but yes he was right too. The sight that inspired generations of immigrants entering the harbour to begin their lives in a new land is still a stirring prospect – the sheer dense verticality of it takes the breath away.

Then the ferry cruised up the East River, passing under the famous trio of bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge. On the midtown shore of Manhattan we passed the Kubrick monolith that is the United Nations, all austere and jutting. We skirted the Brooklyn shore on the right, and heard about the old tram cars that used to cause the locals to jump and dodge out of their way, thus bestowing the name of the famed Brooklyn Dodgers. But in a bittersweet reminder that sports in America is foremost about hard cash, Brooklynites still rue the dark day in 1957 when the Dodgers were bought out and jetted off to Los Angeles to reside in treasonous sunshine. Then on the right, the sliver of Roosevelt Island, which is crossed but not served by the 59th Street Bridge – the one referred to in Simon & Garfunkel’s '59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)'. Until 1969 when the subway finally arrived, the island’s residents had to commute to Manhattan by aerial gondola.

Further north past the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem the East River narrows and narrows again, and the domain of the Yankees looms on the right. Yankee Stadium, ‘The House That Ruth Built’ (i.e. Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat) is a focal point for the Bronx, but it’s soon to be demolished, to be replaced by an even bigger stadium. Baseball fans are missing the old stadium and its multitude of legends already. As the river became more of a shipping canal, the ferry passed the occasional fisherman trying his luck in the murky waters. One black guy was fishing from the passenger seat of his car, letting the rod do the work; when the ferry swept past and took his hook with it the Korean guy fishing 50 metres along the canal shouted “Thank you! Thank you!” to the ferry captain for seeing off his rival while he slapped his knees and just about killed himself laughing.

Ambling back down the Hudson to the pier, the stunning views of the tall tree-clad cliffs of the New Jersey shore are known as the Palisades. They appear today pretty much as they did when Henry Hudson first explored the river in 1609 – but only because a gang of mega-rich New Yorkers including John D Rockefeller decided to club together and buy the entire view to prevent it ever being developed.

Back on dry land, I used a shiny New York payphone to call cousin Winnie in Brooklyn to arrange to catch up that evening. In the meantime I did some more exploring, including spotting Liberty Re-chained on Broadway (pic), and grabbed a cream cheese bagel from a 7/11 to keep me going. I loitered in Madison Square Park to watch a bit of the US Open tennis from Flushing in the New York suburbs, while New Yorkers sunbathed on the grass amidst the skyscrapers. I took a quick detour to photograph the iconic Flatiron Building too – my guidebook quoted Katherine Hepburn as saying in an old TV interview that she hoped she’d be admired as much as that grand old building. While Hepburn isn’t around anymore, the Flatiron is still there – bookend thin and full of elegance.

Next I hopped back onto the subway and grabbed an ‘F’ train out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where cousin Winnie lives with her husband Bjorn and their two children, Ruby and Max. (Good New York kid names, those). I’d not seen Winnie since she showed me around Wellington during my first visit there in the mid-90s, so there was a lot of catching up to do. We went for a walk in the vast open spaces of Prospect Park a few blocks from their apartment, enjoying the sweeping views and the happy buzz of people enjoying a late summer afternoon on their day off. Didn’t manage to see a chipmunk though. There were plenty of squirrels around to compensate, and you can never have too many squirrel sightings, particularly if they’re in a hurry, because the bobbing tails are hilarious. There’s extra points if you see one mid-meal too.

Bjorn and I went to collect dinner from a nearby Italian joint, and Bjorn discreetly pointed out that one of the diners at the small restaurant was Morgan Spurlock, the writer and director of Super Size Me. Back at the apartment we enjoyed a nice bottle of Californian rosé and a superb tiramisu. There’s no better way to round off a pleasant evening of good company.

Tuesday 4 September – Bright lights, big city

I devoted Tuesday to well and truly pounding the pavements of Lower Manhattan to get a better idea of the architecture and the history. Starting off at City Hall, I swung past the airy gothic bulk of the Woolworth Building (1913) and paid a brief visit to the site of Ground Zero, although I didn’t linger because there’s little to see: tall barricades hide the vast construction site where the twisted glass shard of the Freedom Tower will stand, but at the moment there’s little to show.

There was time for a short detour through New York retail institution Century 21, a department store where I tried on a US$1100 jacket to see how the other half live. Next, I perused the 18th and 19th century gravestones in the yard of the Trinity Church, dwarfed by a palisade of tall buildings. There I admired a memorial to the prisoners of the British during the Revolutionary War. A middle-aged local man approached and asked to see if my Lonely Planet described the British cruelty to prisoners during the war – they were locked up in prison hulks in the harbour and many died of virulent contagious diseases. I think he’d decided to hang around the churchyard in case any Britishers (or look-alikes) ventured in. Despite this, he was perfectly polite. I guess he just didn’t have anything better to do.

Leaving the churchyard, I walked down narrow Wall Street (the site of the 17th century New Amsterdam fort wall) to see the heavily guarded New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall across the street, which is built on the site of New York’s original town hall, where Washington took his oath of office in April 1789. Heading towards the southern tip of the island, I enjoyed exploring leafy Battery Park, full of memorials to early settlers, the punctured chrome sphere from the plaza of the World Trade Center, and collections of chancers painted green and dressed as Statue of Liberty, on the lookout for tourist dollars.

A quick subway ride to midtown later, I checked out Washington Square Park, where a trio of busking musicians played complex free-jazz rhythms, despite no-one asking them to. Then it was up to Grand Central Station to admire the huge vaulted ceiling and solid neoclassical stonework, and hop across Lexington Ave to peer inside the opulent art deco foyer of the Chrysler Building (1930), its ceiling decorated with a stylish mural of Depression-era high technology, including the Ford Tri-Motor aeroplane.

As the sun crept lower I headed back to City Hall where I’d started the day, and set out to walk the pedestrian footpath on the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), to admire both sides of the East River in the lowering light. The sun dodged in and out of the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan as I walked across, casting dramatic shadows and throwing the intricate suspension wires of the bridge into soft relief as the homeward-bound traffic rumbled below.

After photographing to my heart’s content, I zipped across town to Times Square for a quick meal and a gawp at the Ferris wheel inside the Toys R Us store, and then ended the day back at the Gershwin sorting through the day’s pictures.

Wednesday 5 September – The business they call show

When I was planning my visit to New York a month before I’d decided to stay in two hostels, to get a feel for different parts of the city. So after an early breakfast at a small McDonalds (where the counter guy couldn’t understand a single word I said) I packed up my stuff and checked out, storing my bag for later that day. I reached Battery Park in time for the 9.30am ferry to Liberty Island. The main objective of the morning was to visit Ellis Island, but the ferry stops at Liberty first, so visitors might as well take in the statue, despite the security nuisance of frequent queuing, pat-down searches and chemical sniffers.

I spent an hour or so on Liberty, taking a quick look at the museum that explained its construction in Paris and looking around the base of the statue and enjoying the morning sunshine. But most of my time on the island was spent trying to extract my daypack from the electronic lockers that the security restrictions insist you use. Assuming my passcode would allow me to access the locker, I’d quickly forgotten the actual locker number. There were 64 to choose from. After 10 minutes the attendants freed my bag and I scampered off, vowing never to return (rather than vowing to improve my memory or be better prepared next time, of course).

The ferry soon took me to Ellis Island, which for decades was the gateway for the steerage passengers arriving to populate the rapidly expanding American cities and chase the dream of a better way of life for their families. Now a museum to the millions of new Americans who passed through its halls, Ellis Island is a fascinating focal point for the immigrant heritage of the nation. The displays and audio guides stress the more humane approach taken at Ellis in the 20th century, while give scant mention to the corruption that was rife in the 19th century, but overall it’s a fascinating place. The multitude of stories and voices of immigrants was particularly rewarding:

“They asked us questions. ‘How much is two and one? How much is two and two?’ But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her, ‘How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?’ She says, ‘I don’t go to America to wash stairs!’”
(Pauline Notkoff, a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985)

After returning to Manhattan, I had burritos for lunch (in honour of the DC Cobra girls) on Pier 17 overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, and then hurried to the half price ticket booth to get a ticket for a Broadway show for that evening. I ended up with a seat at a new musical comedy called Curtains, starring David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles in ‘Frasier’.

In the afternoon I collected my bag from the Gershwin and took the subway north to the Jazz on the Park hostel on the Upper West Side, half a block from Central Park. I wondered what I’d landed myself with, because the two-bunk dorm I was placed in was absolutely tiny. Oh well. I consoled myself with a long walk through the quiet winding forest paths of northern Central Park, taking in the pretty lakes (pic) and avoiding the super-fit joggers and cyclists.

Back in Times Square to eat before the show, the cashier greeted the lady in front of me in the queue with a rather familiar “what you havin’, sexy?”, although in the interests of accuracy I can confirm that he was being rather hyperbolic. Times Square was buzzing outside. A street cop paused to consult his black notebook with all the three-numbered police codes in it, as if to say “a 312? What the hang is a 312 again?” Over by the brightest lights of 42nd Street a coupe had knocked a pedestrian down and she lay quietly on the pavement while the cops questioned the driver and the thousands of tourists and New Yorkers parted on either side of the incident as if nothing was out of place.

Eight o’clock soon arrived, and I filed into the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, on West 45th Street, for the performance. The story: a Boston musical theatre company is performing a Western show, but one by one the performers and management of the show are being murdered; Hyde Pierce’s stage-loving detective lieutenant arrives to lock down the theatre, find the killer, sweep the ingénue off her feet, sashay his way through a few dance numbers, and rewrite the Western play to knock the socks off old Broadway. Some of the jokes were a little thin at times, but there was no faulting the talent of the actors, the lavish sets and the choreography. The writers had added deft touches too, such as the opening scene in which the off-key diva is poisoned, which the audience views from ‘behind’ with the actors facing the imaginary audience at stage rear, or the introduction to Act Two, which as a small surprise was sung by the orchestra conductor after he’d finished leading the overture. Hyde Pierce was unsurprisingly likeable as the Kennedy-vowelled gumshoe, having demonstrated his comedic talents for years on Frasier. His big starry-eyed dance number with the belle of the show was an expert impersonation of someone completely incapable of dancing footing it with one of the best.

Thursday 6 September – A little culture

The Jazz afforded a lousy night’s sleep, with a smokers’ courtyard just below the dormitory window, with excitable Europeans yammering their jetlag away until 4am, including one German girl with a piercing laugh that smote my eardrums through the windowpane and my firmly embedded earplugs. I took off from the hostel as soon as I’d grabbed a bagel for breakfast, and walked east across the width of Central Park to reach the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after it opened for the morning. Sure, US$20 is expensive for a museum, but the collections are truly overwhelming in scope and quality: gallery upon gallery of ancient statues, the cream of the world’s art both old and new, venerable swords and armour, suites of entire rooms from Renaissance dwellings, and complete Egyptian tombs uplifted from the Aswan floodwaters and rebuilt. There were too many treats to list them all, but some highlights included:

• Paintings of garlands from the wall of a Roman villa, circa 50BC
• A beautiful hammered gold Colombian funerary mask from the first millennium BC
• Hans Holbein the Younger’s amazingly sharp portrait of an Englishman from the Wedigh family, with his steely stare and well-kempt bangs peeking out from under his silk cap
• Pieter van Laer’s 17th-century self-portrait as a necromancer, caught summoning the devil through eldritch rites – his face is a study in terror as he looks to his left where the wickedly barbed claws of the devil himself can be seen reaching into view (pic)
• A completely intact suit of cavalryman’s clothes from a thousand year old burial in the Caucasus
• A collection of round flat stones from Israel with artistically incised parallel lines… from the 7th millennium BC

Taking it all in took five hours. New Yorkers are lucky to have the Met on their doorstep – well, the New Yorkers with twenty bucks to spare, anyway.

I crossed the park again, happening upon the twin of London’s Cleopatra’s Needle, with the plaque recording its journeys through the centuries, to the point at which it rests now, a rendezvous for joggers and a few curious tourists:

This obelisk was erected first at Heliopolis, Egypt, in 1600BC. It was removed to Alexandria in 12BC by the Romans. Presented by the Khedive of Egypt to the City of New York it was erected here on February 22, 1881, through the generosity of William H Vanderbilt

Taking the subway downtown to Sixth and 43rd, I visited the International Center of Photography to enjoy the selection of exhibits, including a portrait gallery of black political and cultural leaders, a photo montage of the rise and demise of pioneering American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and some strangely affecting on-the-road pictures from the 1970s – backwater motels, truck stop breakfasts, rundown strip malls and abandoned cars, all bathed in an eerie fluro glare.

Next stop: the Top of the Rock. The Rockefeller Center, that is, the skyscraper soaring above Rockefeller Plaza, next to Radio City Music Hall. You pay your money, step in the lift, and in 45 seconds you’re whisked to the 67th floor. If you’re holding onto the walls you can even risk a glance at the transparent roof of the lift, where each of the floors has a blue neon light – they stretch on up into a vertigo-inducing eternity. The rapid change in altitude threw my inner ear into turmoil, but in a few minutes I got used to it, and proceeded to explore the Manhattan skyline. Visitors to the Top of the Rock are treated to an easy progression of viewing options, from completely indoors, to outdoor viewing with sturdy railings and nine-foot solid glass panels, to the topmost floor where it’s just railings. Don’t worry though: the top level is smaller than the others, so there’s nowhere to fall except the viewing deck one floor below. It’s an odd sensation to be 70-odd floors up above New York with the wind in your hair and the faint traces of traffic noise filtering up through the canyons of commerce. Of course, the 360 degree bird’s eye views are tremendous. Central Park dominates the northern prospect, while the architectural glories of boom times rule over lower Manhattan like graceful giants.

The trip up to the Top of the Rock improves on that more popular tourist option, the trip up the Empire State Building, in two ways. First, there are almost no crowds to worry about, and no queues. Second, when you’re up the Empire State, you can’t take pictures of the Empire State!

I stayed up at the top admiring the views and taking loads of photos until just after the sun set behind the thick layer of clouds over New Jersey. Then I left by the Radio City Music Hall exit, and as I did I couldn’t help noticing the heaving crowds of onlookers gawping at a red carpet set up across the street for the Fashion Rocks show at the Music Hall. There must’ve been half a dozen camera crews and a dozen or more photographers present, so I assumed it was worth joining the masses to wait to see if any celebrities turned up. They soon did. I snapped away from across the street as Jessica Alba angled her perfect cheekbones to catch the paparazzi flashgun light just so. Then pop-tart Ashlee Simpson showed up, Tommy Hilfiger (okay, someone shouted out his name, otherwise I’d never have known him), Mischa Barton, and comedian-turned-TV star Dennis Leary. Not a bad haul for a quick trip to town.

Friday 7 September – Going underground

After a tolerable night’s sleep, I took my morning bagel up to the bench in Central Park where I’d eaten for the past two mornings, and watched the New Yorkers exercising their dogs in the open lawns. Then it was time to loop around the jogging track that circles the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the largest lake in Central Park. The far shores of the reservoir are fringed with a backdrop of parkland trees with an immediate backdrop of the cliff-like apartment buildings of the Upper East Side. I arrived in time for the opening of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, more commonly known just as the Guggenheim. While the dramatic spiral of the museum’s grand atrium is stunning, unfortunately many of the galleries were closed for refurbishment and the installation of the post-summer exhibitions. Only about a third of the museum was open for business, but on the plus side, at least the entry price was half price. As for the collections, while I’m generally more of a fan of traditionalist artworks, I certainly enjoyed the series of Kandinskys on display.

Next came an abortive detour out to grimy, studenty Williamsburg in Brooklyn, to find a Brooklyn Industries clothes outlet, which turned out to have closed down. But I did enjoy nosing around the tiny stores near the overhead subway tracks running through the middle of the place (pic), including Bencraft Hatters, a shop in which old men can buy old men’s hats. Borsalino, Stetson and Antonelli, they’ve got them all, including a special on a Greek Fisherman number for only $20.

Momentarily thwarted, I returned to Manhattan to walk up the Bowery to check out the intersection of Bowery and Bleecker, the former location of legendary punk and new wave music venue, CBGBs. Closed by developers earlier in the year, the tiny venue that kick-started the careers of the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Blondie and countless other scene-setters is no more, locked up behind rock solid security. Partially bereaved, I sought solace in retail when I found a Brooklyn Industries shop nearby and scored some drainpipe trousers at half price.

My last tourist stop for the day was out at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, where I descended into an out-of-service subway station that now houses the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s New York public transport museum. The old station was taken out of service long ago when subway trains were lengthened and it was discovered that the stations were too close together for trains to stop at the platforms and queue in the tunnels between stations. Now it’s a museum telling the story of the very fine New York subway network, which benefited from the lessons learned from the London Underground experience when it was designed and built in the first decade of the 20th century.

It’s worth mentioning the many qualities of the subway system, particularly when compared to the London Underground. The wisest decision of the New York city fathers was to build the tracks and tunnels on a wider gauge than the narrow London model, so now a New York subway train has wide aisles with plenty of room to strap-hang in, unlike the cramped confines of the Underground. And while the summer heat and smells of the big city are sometimes powerful when passengers wait on the subway station platforms, once on board the swift-moving subway trains the airconditioning is relentlessly powerful, instantly cooling passengers to a comfortable shirtsleeve temperature. New York also dug plenty more tunnels so it can run express trains up the lines, leapfrogging the slower stopping services.

The MTA museum tour was led by an enthusiastic young black guy who admitted to having a model train set in his apartment. Aside from the standard exhibits on the methods of construction used, the real highlight of the museum is the old station platform, where more than a dozen historic subway cars have been restored and exhibited. Most are still used on scenic weekend runs out to Rockaway Beach, even the old wicker-seated vintage carriages from 1913, which are decked out with period advertisements inside, like the pre-female suffrage placard for dish-washing liquid: ‘Every woman will eventually vote – for Gold Dust’. In another more modernist powder blue carriage built in time to run on the 7 Line (Flushing Local) for the World’s Fair, I realised that these very seats would have carried frenetic teenagers out to Shea Stadium for the scream-fest that was the Beatles’ famous 1965 performance. Aside from a few other museum visitors, the most active exhibit was the station cat, a pretty grey girl called Sadie, who leapt around the subway carriage interiors like a subterranean ninja monkey.

A short interlude ensued, as I visited the Borough post office to buy stamps before the staff headed off for the weekend. I ended up in a massive queue in front of Internal Monologue Man, giving voice to his delay-related frustrations – lucky he wasn’t Tourette’s Man I suppose. In front there was a tall young chap from West Africa who decided to call his main squeeze and conduct a lengthy conversation with her with his mobile switched to loudspeaker so everyone else nearby had to listen. To speak, he twisted the phone up to his lips and spoke with an exaggerated lip motion that was quite like a giraffe selecting the juiciest leaf to eat. It'll probably catch on.

Duly armed with stamps, I went up to Prospect Park to write postcards and conduct another futile chipmunk hunt. Then it was time for dinner and a good chat with Winnie & Bjorn, who will soon be packing up their lives and moving to New Zealand.

On their tip-off, I ducked out to a local sporting goods shop and purchased a t-shirt proudly bearing the MTA logo for their neighbourhood: the F Line, 7th Av Park Slope.

Saturday 8 September – The final countdown

The day started with an even earlier breakfast up in the park – 7.30am this time – as I realised there was so much to fit in before my flight back to London that evening. I started with a subway journey a couple of stops south down the line to pay a quick John Lennon-related visit to the Dakota Building and Strawberry Fields (which was thronging with a Quebecois tour party). Having had a look and taken a few pictures, I then sped to the massive Whole Foods organic supermarket on Union Square to buy a hearty lunch, and browsed in the equally massive Strand Books (“18 miles of books”) and purchased some New York themed books, including Rich Cohen’s excellent Sweet and Low, the story of his grandfather’s Brooklyn company that grew into a multinational empire selling Sweet ‘n Low sweetener. The company was riven with corruption, and the family was torn apart by bitter internal rivalries and petty arguments that led to Cohen’s branch of the family being completely disinherited. It's got a great cover too.

Anxious not to miss out on the legendary collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I joined an impressive queue for entry – damn, that’s right, it’s the weekend. Like the Met, entry was US$20, but again it was truly worth it. The amazing collections included van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Leichtenstein, Pollock, Rothko and plenty by somewhat over-rated old Mr Warhol too. There was van Gogh’s The Starry Night from 1889, the one that inspired Don McLean to write 'Starry, Starry Night'. Apart from the superb painting galleries, I also enjoyed the design section, which featured the coolest and grooviest mod cons and luxury designer must-haves of the past century; pride of place was held by a lusciously curved Jaguar E-type. A photography exhibit displayed the crumbling grandeur of Soviet architecture, all abandoned factories and towering rocket launch gantries. And both inside and outside MoMA in the courtyard there were the giant iron vertical wave sculptures of Richard Serra, as if by magic a dozen ocean freighters had been carved up and formed into a rusting maze to delight and confuse the many patrons.

I had a delicious gelato in the sculpture garden (pic), then made tracks to collect my bags. At Pennsylvania Station I had to wait 45 minutes for the supposedly more regular train service out to Newark airport. (Another example of the efficiency of Amtrak?). On the way out I sat next to a young family with three kids, the eldest of whom – about seven or eight – fell asleep and emitted the most remarkable old-man size snoring despite his tender years. The rest of his family giggled at him and searched for their cameras.

After a security search of all my bags by the brusque airport staff at the airside perimeter, I had an hour or two to wait for the Gatwick plane. Finally I boarded and the 777 sprung into the darkening eastern skies, bound for London and a return to the real life of employment, regular shaving and flat hunting. I felt lucky to have had such a tremendous time in America. And I didn’t even get murdered or meet any Republicans. What a superb holiday.

USA part 2

National this, American that

Thursday 30 August – Culture vulture

John F Kennedy once said that Washington DC boasted a unique mix of ‘Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality’. As far as a sense of character goes, DC’s spirit is shrouded in imposing imperial edifices. It’s a city of sweeping architectural significance, with mammoth parks strewn with monuments and statues of impressively-dressed Presidents and stern-jowled war heroes, girding rows upon rows of neo-classical edifices containing the National this, the American that. (The Australians loved the impersonal approach too, and built Canberra along similar lines).

DC is not built for people to live in, although plenty do and many enjoy it; it was built as a testament to the kingly reverence with which the Founding Fathers held George Washington. Later on, it was augmented by the application of the vast wealth of what became the world’s richest nation, to show the rest of the world that the US had gravitas and restrained style on the largest possible scale.

My hostel was less than grand, but it was in a good location, and boasted an odd sort of breakfast (far too many things with sugar in them) for a mere dollar. On the downside, my dorm housed a thirty-something quantity surveyor from Nevada with a god-awful window-rattling snore, and the criminally-overpowered air-conditioning rendered the whole floor icily cold, despite the 30-degree night-time heat outside. I must’ve been the only guy in DC who slept with a jersey on that night!

I set out for a day’s exploring, strolling the kilometre to the fence ringing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a.k.a. the White House (pic). Unless you’re on a tour, it’s definitely a long-distance view from between the railings, all the time eyed up by numerous law enforcement types. The only sign of movement is a change in shift in the special forces snipers on the White House roof – decked out in tan fatigues, rifle-bags slung over their shoulders, pistols strapped to their hips.

As the day warmed up and the temperature rose and rose, I admired the neoclassical architecture of the various federal agencies nearby, including the clean lines of the stone masks guarding the Environmental Protection Agency, and snapped a photo of a stray butterfly feeding on a wavering flower (pic) beside the busy Constitution Avenue thoroughfare that runs along The Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Then I took advantage of Washington’s greatest asset – one of its many free attractions, the National Museum of Natural History. I would’ve loved the dinosaur skeleton exhibits when I was 11! Nowadays I preferred other exhibits like the stunning National Geographic animal photography, and the minerals exhibit including the famous Hope and Tiffany Diamonds.

Next I visited the broad halls of the National Gallery of Art, or at least the west wing of it. It holds a world-class collection of European and American art, but it was certainly odd to see people taking flash photography of Rembrandt self-portraits – this is one of the few art galleries I’ve been to that permits the use of a flash. But I couldn’t bring myself to fire a strobe at a masterpiece, no matter what the rules. So instead I soaked up all the centuries of artworks:

• the beautiful chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, a pre-Christian era cup set in a stunning 12th-century silver mounting
• a detailed wood relief of the Holy Kinship from 15th-century Franconia
• an imposing 16th-century bust of a Knight of Santiago
• a regal bronze of Louis XIV from circa 1700, depicting his luscious locks and swirling cape to good effect
• a stately portrait of Madame Moitessier from 1851 by Ingres, which I had seen in a 1999 exhibition at the National Gallery in London

After lunch I paused briefly at the National Archives to pay a visit to the impressive hall with a high domed ceiling, in which the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are displayed. Off to one side sits a lonely 1297 copy of the Magna Carta. More entertaining are the Archives collections of letters sent to US presidents over the years, like the one seeking Ronald Reagan’s assistance to declare a child’s bedroom a disaster area, or the friendly hand-written missive from a 12-year-old Cuban boy to President Roosevelt introducing himself and requesting a US ten dollar bill in return. The young boy’s name was Fidel Castro.

As the afternoon ebbed into early evening I explored the sculpture gardens, and was most impressed by a bizarre yet seemingly accurate fibreglass model of a typewriter eraser that happened to be five metres high. By then I was feeling peckish, so I detoured up Louisiana Avenue to Union Station for an excellent burger in the long tiled foodcourt.

Friday 31 August – The final frontier

Another sleepless night led me to extract myself from the hostel as soon as possible in the morning. Walking south to the Mall past Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot in April 1865, I crossed the grassy Mall to wait for the opening of the huge National Air & Space Museum – the most visited museum in the world. While the Natural History Museum was interesting, the Air & Space was definitely my sort of place. I ended up spending four hours poring through the many exhibits and ogling the many multitude of aircraft and spacecraft hanging from the roof of the vast building, including Lindberg’s Spirit of St Louis, the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic non-stop, Amelia Earhart’s bright orange Lockheed Vega, the original Wright Flyer from 1903 with its massive 12hp engine, and the pint-sized but epoch-making Apollo 11 Command Module. And the museum featured a selection of material from the closed-for-refurbishment National Museum of American History, including the original R2D2 and C3PO suits from Star Wars, President Lincoln’s top hat, Kermit the Frog, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Lone Ranger’s mask from the 1950s TV series, and Seinfeld’s ‘puffy shirt’ (pic) from a well-known 1993 TV episode. This section displayed a section of a cafeteria counter and four stools: these were the famous seats in which four black youths staged a sit-in at a “whites only” Woolworth’s café lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which later sparked similar sit-ins all across the segregated South.

Having taken my fill of wonderful aircraft, I then partook of more lofty entertainment by visiting the east wing of the Museum of Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei, the chap who would later erect the stylish glass pyramid in the central court of the Louvre. I particularly enjoyed the Museum’s modern art displays of some of the world’s most celebrated artists: Mark Rothko’s bright swathes of colour (pic), Jackson Pollock’s wild outburst of chaotic splatters, Jasper Johns’ stylised American flags, Piet Mondrian’s angular abstracts, Roy Liechtenstein, Picasso, and more. I also went a bit mad photographing the sweeping steel walls of the museum underpass, which took my fancy.

Taking a spell in the powerful afternoon sunshine, I wandered behind the Capitol Building to see the imposing Supreme Court Building, and explored the ornate interior of the old Library of Congress Building (pic). Then I took the Metro westwards to Foggy Bottom and walked down to see the Lincoln Memorial and admire the view along the length of the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building, about 3.6 kilometres away. I walked back eastwards the length of the Mall, taking in the solemn black marble Vietnam Memorial (pic) carved with all the names of the US dead, the circular WW2 Memorial with its jetting fountains, and the towering spectacle of the Washington Monument, the 169 metre marble obelisk that dominates the city skyline.

At the conclusion of the day’s epic trek I staggered back up to the hostel, footsore and weary, to write my postcards and plan my next excursions.

Saturday 1 September – Rockin’ the Galaxy

I was able to get a decent night’s sleep because the snoring guy must’ve fled back to his evil lair, so it was a slightly later start. I booked a place for the Capitol tour in the early afternoon, then went to the nearby Postal Museum to pass an hour or so before lunch. It would be stretching the truth to describe the museum as exciting, but at least there was only a relatively small section devoted to stamps. Most of the collection was designed to tell the story of the US Postal Service, which is actually kind of interesting given the history and the scale of the operation. I particularly enjoyed the sections of the museum that showed how the postal service helped knit together the young country, and the story of the Pony Express, which lasted less than two years but still left an indelible mark on the American psyche. The museum also displays the keys from the Titanic’s mailbags.

The Capitol tour was led by a keen young chap called Trip (or was it Chip? or Biff?), who rattled through the potted history of the grand rotunda, the old Senate chamber (now littered with umpteen statues of politicians donated by the states – including the Vermont war hero Ethan Allen, and the Louisiana payola hero Huey Long), the old Supreme Court room in which the first ever telegram was sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, and the crypt designed to hold the tomb of George Washington. Unfortunately the spot is empty because Washington died in Virginia and the state refused to allow his remains to leave the state!

The afternoon sunshine was even more punishing than usual – even the sliver of shade afforded by a slender lamppost at a pedestrian crossing was worthwhile. I slunk into the cool domain of the National Portrait Gallery, which has more than its fair share of paintings of wealthy middle-aged white men from the 19th century. More interesting were the photographs of the wedding of Tom Thumb to a similarly minuscule lady during the Civil War in 1863 (apparently it set off a media frenzy at the time).

In the early evening I met up with Ruth and Phil and Ruth’s sister Adair, with the plan of seeing their friends’ bands play later that night. We went for a nice glass of wine in trendy Adams-Morgan, and followed it up with an Ethiopian dinner in a nearby eatery. Then we took our places in the indie-scene local music venue the Galaxy Hut, where the star attractions of the evening were Ruth & Phil’s friends in Victor/Victoria, supported by band-within-a-band Cobra In A Cash Register (which is a Simpsons reference). The support act consisted of two spunky Tegan and Sara fans on keys and lead guitar, sporting big chords and sweet singing, and gracing the performance with their signature tune, (Do You Like) Burritos? Then the Cobra girls were joined by a funky drummer, an Amazonian girl bassist, an elegant cellist and the star of the show, Victor herself. The band wore tuxedo t-shirts, and the lead singer… well, it’s not every day you see a drag act dressed as Amy Winehouse. Quite convincing it was too, although the faux-English accent might’ve been a little fishy. The 80s covers that Victor/Victoria jammed on were top notch, attaining a peak of authentic excitement in their cover of Sisters of Mercy’s 'More', in which the relentless cello refrain instilled a frantic sense of immediacy and drama. Victor’s lead vocals impressed too, reminding me of Brian Molko from Placebo.

After the gig finished and a bit of chatting in the bar, we retired to Ruth & Phil’s friends’ place in nearby Clarendon, and I managed to get to bed by 1.45am, ears still buzzing from the lively gig.