Tuesday, 20 December 2022 to Thursday, 22 December 2022
Here endeth the lesson

The Victoria and Albert Museum, to look at clothes behind glass, mostly, and then to King’s Road, to do the same. I’d never been to the V&A before, but knew its reputation and was unsurprised to be most interested in the textiles, if a little disappointed to find only one full example of eighteenth century menswear. Fashion for men has not, I think, been bettered since that era, but perhaps that’s just because I flatter myself that I have the calves to carry off a pair of silk stockings. That disappointment is ridiculous, of course, given a moment’s thought about the difficulty of preserving fabric for two and a half centuries. One can understand, too, why they do not provide a replica of knee-britches and silk cravats for modern schoolchildren to try on, but this particular overgrown schoolchild was very happy to have the chance to slip into the couple of reconstructed tunics which were available.

The whole day spent with one eye on the clock, time and tide and Qantas waiting for no man, etc, after a couple of hours admiring the past and myself I walked down to King’s Road and admired items for sale that I could not possibly afford. That’s a working assumption, as I only went into two shops. The first was a Pret A Manger (as I gather it is spelled en anglais), partly because I wanted to eat something while I walked, and partly driven by a recollection of my last visit but one, twenty years earlier, when I had a Granny Smith apple from a Pret which firmly, and indeed crisply and tartly, convinced me that they really are different in England, much better than the insipid variety sold under that name in Australia. Time to try again, I thought, but the collection of apples in the shop I walked into on King’s Road was another disappointment, none too fresh looking and all deep red. I chose a tuna and cucumber baguette, which squirted all over my hand as I ate. After ten paces I returned to the shop, managed by the use of gesticulations alone to communicate that I was after some means of wiping myself clean, got handed a wad of paper napkins thicker than your correspondent and shouldered my way out into the sunshine once more. For sunny it was, a glorious day.

Down the length of the fashionable shopping street, perfectly comfortable now that I did not have to enter any of the jewellery stores. I entered one fashionable boutique, idly checked the price of a basic men’s t-shirt (£80), then carefully checked out several other items of clothing with the aim of fooling no-one in particular that I was perfectly at home in the sort of shop that charges at such rates and that the reason I left empty handed was that I hadn’t seen anything I liked. Which, at least, was also true.

Millennial madness

Then back along the length of the street, that being preferable to working out how the bus system worked for a single journey, and into the Sloane Square tube station headed for the south bank of the Thames, my only real mission to pop into the Tate Modern to pick up a couple of cards to scribble thank you notes to my hosts, one for each generation. No time to look at any art, really, although I wandered through a gallery showing Australian art from 1992, none of which will stick long in the mind.

From there back across the frankly hideous Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s and a nearby café where I bought a coffee, borrowed a pen and scribbled my thanks, then onto the Underground, bound for Maidenhead for the last time. Goodbyes in sequential order to Steven, dashing once again pantomimewards, Louisa and, finally, the United Kingdom, on QF2, first stop Singapore, and a reminder of the global trade bottleneck nature of the Strait of Malacca. I managed to sleep both before and after crossing the equator, something of a minor miracle, and got home to my family where I discovered that none of the clothing I had bought for friends and family was the wrong size, a miracle of rather greater proportions.

Art, History and Illumination

Monday, 19 December 2022

Into London, my only full day so to do. Steven found enough time to join me for a few hours in a schedule filled with attempts to get professional commitments out of the way so that the family could enjoy the Christmas season without such distractions and, of course, dealing with those distractions already, the girls having been off school since the end of the previous week. There’s a performance of the pantomime almost every day, for a start, and while Agnes’s role is confined to one or two evenings as part of the junior class, Stella alternates between the chorus and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, somewhere near the top of the bill. So there’s running around to do aplenty.

A piece of family history, now history

But we have the morning, and so to town, popping up near Charing Cross Road where the bookshop at which Anna worked when she was a Londoner once was. Our destination is the National Gallery, which has a whole-of-life exhibition of Lucian Freud, one of many visual art A-listers about whom I know about two and a half biographical facts, maybe three vaguely remembered images from the Best Of catalogue and precisely fuck all else, not even the perhaps obvious-when-you-think-about-it that the surname is no coincidence, he was Sigmund’s grandson. And, as Steven points out, practically everyone within a seven iron of him on that particular family tree has their own bloody Wikipedia page. Neither the Fryer nor Yeoman families having yet set the intellectual life of Europe afire for three generations in a row, we went in with suitably humble mien.

The work was, of course, remarkable and affecting, but I will leave the reader to search for a suitable opportunity to experience the works (or reproductions) and find for herself what appreciation she may. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the morning for me was the opportunity, never before found, to explore a visual artist with a fellow appreciator with the time and patience to speak to me of the experience as a person with fully functioning colour vision. And Freud is an artist with whom to do so (as are, no doubt, many others). Where the explanatory paragraph spoke of swirling colours, but I saw monochrome, I could ask, and know that I had an interlocutor who understood, and would take the time to lend me his eyes. Where the planes and angles of a face were brought into existence by the use of what to me seemed like kaleidoscopic hyperreality, I could ask, and colour my own experience with the words of another. It was as affecting as the works themselves. I do not, never, ever, think of myself as disabled. I think about my colour vision deficiency perhaps twice a year, as a curiosity, with no tincture of regret or self-pity. It is a fact as quotidian as the rising of the sun and it is in the forefront of my consciousness about as often. But here, in the realm of the visual arts, I know that my experience is not as that of others, and am always, save today, guideless.

I will refer here to only one work, and that for purposes other than art criticism. My hosts, perhaps drawing on reserves of self-assurance not given to us all, and certainly not to me, have installed quite an ornate full length, and breadth, mirror in the en suite bathroom adjacent my bed, right beside the shower. Getting out of the shower presents no psychological hazard, as on these winter days a temporary sheen of fog usually obscures at least the top two thirds, leaving one to face nothing more dispiriting than one’s knobbly kneecaps. But the moment before one steps under the hot water must be handled carefully, and the moment I saw Painter Working, Reflection (1993) in the National Gallery I was transported back across the hours to that morning’s ablutions. Now, a reasonable immediate response to that work is to note that the artist was in fact in reasonable shape, for a man in his early seventies, but such a thought is little comfort to a man in his early fifties, especially when contemplating those features that might fairly suffer from comparison. Still, with proper lighting and a sympathetic interpreter, perhaps I, too, could carry off an outfit consisting only of shoes and a palette knife with the same panache.

Covent Garden next, for the real mission of the trip, professionalism be damned. Anna wants a ring, and I have failed in New York, partly due to covid. Partly also because I am paralysed at the prospect of entering a jeweller anywhere, perfectly convinced that I will point at something, suffer through five minutes of blather, finally summon the courage to ask how much and be so brainsnotted by the answer that I will slither from the shop on my belly. Here, though, I have another guide in Louisa, who has, the night before, googled with me and found some boutiques of the niche that still supplies oxygen for the use of peasants and even a style or two to get me started. Armed with the links thus supplied, it only takes an hour shuttling between two venues in the Seven Dials to discover that the piece I (and Steven) decided was elegant and understated was not available in Anna’s size, at least not within the timeframe within which I’m working, and thus to settle on a second piece of a more organic feel (and thus, very possibly, a better fit for the recipient). It having been purchased, the dread of having to shop for the thing is replaced immediately by the dread of having chosen poorly, but I am getting better, in my middle age, at not being nagged at by the things I cannot change.

By now, Steven has headed homewards, so unaccompanied I do the one thing I knew I wanted to do as soon as I knew that I would be in London again, and went to the British Museum to go back in time, and to touch for a moment the minds of people whose lives were done before English was a language, even before Roman was an alphabet. To people, in some cases, for whom Julius Caesar was as far in the future as AD 6000 is as I type, but who wrought with skill, and for beauty’s sake alone, such works as are worth a millennium’s fame, or six.

Rain is hard to photograph

Back to my temporary lodgings on the new Elizabeth line, now running all the way to Reading, and then out for an evening in Windsor Great Park of lights and fairies and magic and drizzle. Solid, soaking drizzle that saturates the trousers, but the light display is very pretty, similar to (though, dare I say, less impressive than) the Illuminate Adelaide event we attended in the Botanic Gardens during the last festival season, the venison burger enjoyably fattening and the carousel a delight for the daughter of my hosts for whom it, and, one suspects, everything else, cannot go fast enough.

The Greatest Naptime Ever Played

Sunday, 18 December 2022
Wings over Berkshire

The main problem with the New York to London hop is that it’s too short. One is no sooner asleep than it’s breakfast time. Also, breakfast managed to be a disappointment in that it was entirely what I expected, the problem being that dinner had actually been good – rare steak, served in an appropriate amount (is steak the only food for which airline quantities are the right quantities?), with decently not-overcooked accompanying vegetation and in a flavoursome reduction, or jus, or whatever we’re calling privately educated gravy these days.

Terrific descent into England, visually speaking. It always is, somehow. England is exactly the right sized country to see from the air, if the weather’s clear – you can see enough of it to get that minor thrill of seeing a page of the atlas in real life (the satellite pictures are correct!). And if, as today, the cloud cover obscures some of the view, if you time it right, you can get a lovely view of sunrise over a countryside still lit with the lights of any industrialised country as it waits for a dawn that you can see but they can’t, quite yet.

Down and into a taxi, where I was shamelessly ripped off by the driver, with whom I argued much of the way, but the alternative was being dumped into a freezing morning (snow everywhere) just after said dawn, with too much luggage and not enough sleep, so I submitted, and arrived at Steven and Louisa’s in time for a breakfast I didn’t need, but what a welcome sight. The kitchen had swapped rooms since I was last in the house five years earlier, and they both kept apologising for piles of partially constructed Christmas on various surfaces, but the house is beautiful and snug and welcoming as always. Steven was nearly unchanged (why my friends insist upon ageing slightly between visits when I still look like a twenty-year-old is beyond me), Louisa, if anything, more elegant than ever – she has the advantage of several years over (under?) her husband and your correspondent, but (very) early middle age suits her well. The girls, though, were my chief interest. Five years, for that is how long it had been between visits, is a long time when you’re three and five. Now eight and ten, they are superstars, literally in that both were on stage that afternoon, but both are clearly also fearsomely bright and delightfully different in character – Stella thoughtful and calm, Agnes knowing no speed but full – but both perfectly happy to belt out a show tune audible throughout the house.

Just in time to be washed away by the rain before Christmas

Too tired to do anything, so a short stroll around the village with Steven and Axel, a miniature schnauzer and the latest addition to the family, was all I could manage. Axel, poor little brillo pad, has been quite seriously sick, and is on pills that make him listless and incontinent. I was far too indulgent of him and became quite the favourite, which he demonstrated by constantly trying either to climb into my lap or shag my lower leg senseless. And I do mean shag – no heavy petting this, his excitement so obvious even through the fabric of my trousers that I was almost minded to let him take it all the way, the poor wee thing so clearly not finding much enjoyment in any other aspect of life, just at the moment. My one task for the day was to stay awake for the World Cup final, Argentina v France. I was a little sceptical of its ability to enthral, having no fondness for either team, but the history books will tell you that it was an extraordinary match, and my chin only hit my chest twice, I believe, and only for a moment each time. The true miracle, though, is that I lasted until about 10pm local time, before horizontality became completely unavoidable.

Flight to the Old World

Saturday, 17 December 2022
Walking the line

Half a day left in New York, some more walking to accomplish, along the High Line, a former elevated rail line now turned into a linear park. Probably best seen in spring, at a guess, when it likely blooms with colour. In the depths of winter, the greenery is sparse, but the views of some of the city’s more architecturally interesting residential blocks make it still worth a visit. Always nice to be reminded of what the future looked like, at different points in the past. Nice views, too, along the length of the streets one is walking over.

The way it was going to be

And not much time for anything else. My taxi driver for the trip to JFK and my flight to London, once a Haitian but now for decades a New Yorker (and, no doubt, still very much a Haitian in this country in which one great-grandparent born in Cork is enough for someone to assert Irishness as a central component of their identity), exchanged snippets of his life story, while I did the same. While discussing how long he had called Gotham home, he glanced at me and confidently asserted that we were about the same age, guessing, it turned out, that I was older than I actually am. That is not a common error, but I was not offended nor he, clearly, embarrassed. “If you are my age,” I said, “then you grew up under the Duvaliers,” wondering what it must have been like to live under their often brutal rule. He had indeed, he responded cheerfully, and reminisced about the glory of Haiti then, “the pearl of the islands,” and decried its subsequent decline. “Now, there are no politicians, only those who would sell their souls for a dollar.” I wondered, but not out loud, whether any of the modern disappointments would have been improved in his eyes if they, like the elder Duvalier, were to declare themselves gods and keep the head of a vanquished opponent in a cupboard.

Leaving Manhattan

Onto British Airways flight 176 to London, where I was ably stewarded by Jacquie, who took in good spirits my gentle ribbing of her deeply ingrained habit of starting every interaction with an apology, usually for interrupting whatever I was doing, which was always nothing at all. We agreed that it was a profoundly English thing to do, and by an hour into the flight we were both giggling when she caught herself apologising and, inevitably, apologised for doing so. I promised thereafter to be the best behaved passenger on the plane, which I may have managed, as I promptly fell deeply asleep for the remainder of the flight.


Friday, 16 December 2022

All professional duties discharged, I took my last full day in New York for myself. Walking aimlessly for a while, I found myself in the lower west side, somewhere down near the bottom of Eighth Avenue, or possibly Ninth. It was another drizzly day, the sky made of slate and the ground slick with rain. Chelsea, which I think is where I was, is not, or at least not there, a rich neighbourhood. I ignored the beggars, until one insistent chap, a skinny, white guy with a beard, not particularly unkempt, refused to take nothing for an answer. “Huh?” I said, with elegance and panache. “I’m not a creep, I’m a veteran,” he repeated. “I beat liver cancer.” He started to roll up his sleeve to show his wrist, which did indeed appear to bear a plastic hospital ID bracelet. “Do you have two bucks for a vape? I’m not going to buy drugs. I beat cancer,” he said again. Worried that he might start displaying his abdominal scars, I fumbled a $10 note out of my wallet, handed it to him and crossed the road.

A block further on, another mendicant mumbled something that I didn’t catch. My new friend was neither skinny, nor white, not by a long shot in either particular. He followed me a short way while I continued to pretend that he didn’t exist. He was not particularly threatening – I felt confident I could beat him in a sprint without particularly trying – but I didn’t need to. A police car, containing a single, female officer, also Black, slowed near the curb and the local arm of the law stared at the guy with an expression that I have no doubt brings her own sons to heel, quick smart and no backtalk, yes ma’am. No words were exchanged, but Big Dude backed right off, and the cop pulled away.

Ten paces further on, Dude was back, but this time keeping a respectful distance. He just wanted to say one thing. “I meant you no harm,” said the Dude, who could have fit all of me into each trouser leg and worn a third one of me as a scarf, no problem. He sounded like a grade six kid who just got told off by a teacher he liked for something the other kids had done. Having protested his innocence, he turned away. Just then, I saw my cancer-beating veteran. “It’s alright,” I said to the Dude, moved to explain myself for reasons I can’t explain to myself. “It’s just this guy touched me for ten bucks only a few minutes ago.” “He did what?” said Mr Dude, and I saw suddenly the potential for misunderstanding. “I mean, he just… I just… I gave…” I spluttered, and fled into the nearest coffee shop at the same time as Mr Veteran spotted me and hailed in a loud, cheery voice, “Hey, man, thanks for the ten bucks!” I decided to have my coffee in the store.

Diagnosing that further aimless wandering without a native guide was not indicated, I decided to make a plan, and recalling the discovery of the USS Intrepid earlier in the week, booked myself a ticket to visit an aircraft carrier. A short while later, the street outside clear of men of any size and colour, I headed for Twelfth Avenue and a peep inside a bloody great big warship. Twelfth Avenue was showing signs of congestion, the reason becoming clear as a sign hove into view providing what seemed more detail than was strictly necessary for the information requirements of those wondering why traffic had slowed so. Still, nice to know everyone was ok.

And so to the big ship. Not as big as a modern carrier, perhaps, but still large enough to be going on with. The Intrepid had (I learned) a complement when commissioned of about 3,000. That commissioning took place in 1943, in time for her to do duty in the Second World War. I strolled the flight deck, snapping shots of a few planes, including a Mig-21, a fighter that I’d had a model of as a kid, and might still do, somewhere. At the stern of the ship is built a hangar she never had in real life, containing the only space shuttle I will ever likely see, albeit one that never flew in space, the Enterprise. I remember her test flights, and the maiden flight of Columbia, the nearly identical ship that did make the first shuttle orbital flight. What a long time ago that all seems now.

Finally, another walk around a chilly, drizzly Manhattan evening for the last time, the sky precisely that you would want if you had to project a giant bat symbol against it to summon superheroic help. Fortunately, I had no need, the NYPD being clearly up to the job.

The Calibre of a Carol

Thursday, 15 December 2022

Another day working through the fog, the substance of which I couldn’t report here even if I could think of a way to make several hours of witness testimony on banking records fizz, which I probably could, being a freakin’ comedic genius, but let it pass. Professional discretion’s gain is literature’s loss. Suffice to say that I spent the day in my role as forensic accountant and litigator, a part I play in order to bolster whatever faith in humanity remains to my bank manager and as a tactical component of my overall strategy to convince my wife not to leave me for someone nicer but broke.

Ducked out once during business hours to obtain necessary sustenance, all masked and gloved and keeping the adoring throng at a distance. Amused once, too, as I watched the fortyish woman who was after me in the coffee shop, expensively dressed and carrying a pocket dog of revoltingly primped appearance, get told that she couldn’t bring the animal into the shop. The creature was about the size of a rat and, had she put it down for two seconds, would probably have been immediately eaten by one. “Oh,” she said (definitely a local, slumming it here in midtown), “but, they said…” and then faltered, because there obviously was no “they” who could possibly have offered any encouragement, she having walked in off the street moments earlier. But then, inspiration. “It’s a service animal,” she piffled. “Oh,” said the minimum wage staffer, presumably used to being lied to by entitled uselessness, and equally probably having now completed the ritual ceremony required under local health ordnances, and the fungus was allowed to remain. I left, and only my imagination supplies the scene of Ms Useless feeding it artfully torn chunks of pâtisserie and pouring almond mochaccino into a saucer for it to spray across the tabletop for the staff to clean up later. I am, of course, being wholly unfair to the dog, who for all I know would have been as disgusted as any sensitive animal had it understood a word of what was being said.

After work, and still trying to see something of the city without killing anyone in it, I went for another walk. Amused again, as the afternoon light just started to dip, by a restaurant which had put a lot of work into convincing any literate passer-by that, in the eyes of the proprietor, all ancient empires of whatever epoch and landmass were one and the same.

Or whatever
So good they named it a million times

My feet took me north and westwards for the first time, to Columbus Circle and, outrageously, into a glitzy indoor mall because the alternative was arrest for public urination, which would have needlessly risked the health of the hardworking public servants of the NYPD. I neither bought anything nor saw (through the shop windows) anything I wanted to. Sometime later, I did find a shop in whose window Seb, via videocall, identified the perfect gift for his friend (and the sister of Raf’s girlfriend), a “collectible” figure representing a character in some manga or anime. There I did breach quarantine, being as quick and as distant as I could. For the rest, I ambled, trying to stay dry as the drizzle persisted, and to stay sane as the aspects of New York dedicated to fleecing tourists went on around me. I know of no other city so enamoured of its own manufactured image. The tat shops practically fall over one other in their profusion, and every one has wall after wall of clothing and other merchandise, most bearing little more than the name of the city, or just its initials. I dare venture that this is the Mecca for anyone seeking a hat with the letters N and Y stuck on the front. Frankly, you’d be a fool to try anywhere else.

Whether whatever sentience abides at the end of this last human century will have any sympathy for those of us who witnessed its formative years is presumably an open question, though an easy one to answer, given only patience. Whether it should have any such feeling is a much harder one. After all, the same species that invented fascism, genital mutilation and Jingle Bell Rock also provided their victims, if not, or not exclusively, in their same persons. I am merely an amateur moral philosopher, and that sounds like one for the professionals, but the case for an international treaty banning the use of Christmas songs against a civilian population is surely made.

For many years, Jingle Bell Rock held a unique place in my heart as an expression of human creativity, as I managed to spend a blessed decade or so of my early adulthood without ever once being reminded of Last Christmas, now seemingly ever more commonly deployed at this time of year. Either of them would, I contend, be very close to the top of any ranking of endeavour by nausea to effort ratio. Building a nuclear weapon takes years of dedication, skill and logistical management. George Michael probably banged out Last Christmas in an afternoon before going on to an evening of much more elevated and noble pursuits, such as cottaging.

This trip, however, has brought another such fingernail down the seasonal blackboard to mental prominence. Blasted from every pedal rickshaw plying the streets of the city, Feliz Navidad has completed for me (please, merciful Jesus) the trinity of Christmas songs, true appreciation for which could only really be expressed by the use of artillery. Such a response would, I contend, not merely be artistic criticism but would itself be art, at least at the first time of deployment. Thereafter, it would be merely pest control.

Cabin Fever

Wednesday, 14 December 2022
Still fascinated with royalty

A day of work, executed remotely, confined for the second day to my hotel room. A day trying to concentrate with a brain made of snot. A horrible day, albeit that by evening I was feeling a little more human. But confined for a second whole day in The Greatest City in the World that Never Sleeps (TM) I could not remain. In blatant defiance of current public health recommendations, when work finished at around 4pm (a bare hour before sunset in these winter days), I could take it no more, and I masked, and gloved, and went out, just out, anywhere. I kept my distance, New York, I promise you. I went in no shops. I walked.

Handy in an argument

All the way down 48th Street to Twelfth Avenue and my first view of the Hudson, and the USS Intrepid. Nobody told me that New York keeps an aircraft carrier moored there, in case New Jersey gets uppity, presumably. Tickets are $30 a pop. I must go back, when I am fit for company. Saturday, perhaps. Then back towards the heartland, social distancing complicated by the increasing crowds. I was asked for directions again, and explained that I was delighted to be so, as it hadn’t happened for a couple of days, but I was not a New Yorker and therefore could not assist. They explained that they were New Yorkers but that wasn’t helping them much either.

Finally to Fifth Avenue, again, and a real challenge to keep my distance, so I didn’t stick around. Also, a screen advised that it was 36 degrees, which I think means about 2 degrees to those of us born since the French Revolution, and my fingers were starting to go numb, even in the leather gloves. A videochat with Anna as I browsed a street stall selling headwear led to the purchase of a baseball cap for her, blazoned with the city’s initials, and a warmer hat for me, spelling the whole city’s name out in bright letters against a navy background. It thoroughly marked me as a tourist, but at least my ears would survive the evening.

The chill, though, continued to bite, and my newest problem was that carrying Anna’s cap meant that I could not keep both hands in my coat pockets, necessary despite the gloves. The solution hit upon was to put the cap on, and the beanie over the top, meaning that I now wore not one but two items of ludicrous souvenir headwear. I felt that I could not possibly look more like a tourist if I were wearing a snorkel and speedos and carrying a sign reading “clueless foreign doink”. Within 50 metres I got asked for directions, which should be the punchline but is not. The punchline is that I could actually provide the requested assistance.

QNYE1: Alright, already, I actually took a photo of the Empire State Building this time. Incidentally, I have never heard anyone say “alright, already” or any of the dozens of clichéd sayings attributed to N’Yorkers. I have also not yet been honked at by an impatient driver (though they certainly do that to each other) or shot. I’m beginning to think that film and television may not provide a wholly reliable guide to the realities of living in a diverse city of more than 10 million people.

QNYE2: Ate a taco from a food truck. OK, I’m not sure how New York that experience is, but it’s definitely Western Hemisphere, which will Have to Do. It was, incidentally, delicious, the salad filling fresh and crisp and containing a surprising amount of radish. Pulled chicken, wedge of lime, spicy salsa. Should have bought three and skipped the next bit.

QNYE3: Ate a pretzel. It’s salty, chewy, lukewarm bread. Actually, I ate two bites and threw it away. A sign I saw later suggested that I should probably have bought a bucket of cheesy fat to dunk the salt in, thus ensuring the presence of both major food groups.

À la Recherche du Taste Perdu

Monday, 12 December 2022

‘Twas a day meant to be at work and it was, mostly, although professional plans this week were slightly stirred by the news that one of our legal team was home with a case of this decade’s most talked about respiratory infection. What that means for the work scheduled for this week and my itinerary for the rest of the trip is unclear. I spent the morning clearing my work inbox and had a sushi lunch with another of the lawyers, a thirtyish Mainer, which provided me with my first opportunity to ask the consuming question of the trip – what does an intelligent and educated citizen of this country and observer of its national politics feel in his bowels when he contemplates the stability of its constitutional order? My colleague seems, indeed describes himself as, cautiously optimistic, which is some way short of the reflexive rejection of the notion of any real threat to democracy that many of us have taken for granted all of our lives, but perhaps it will have to do. My impression is that my interlocutor is, like his adoptive city, sensitive, engaged and fairly solidly Democratic, and he notes the solid response of even this Supreme Court to the legal challenges to the last election. One prays, or does whatever it is one does when one has no one to pray to, that he is right, of course, but then the last election was not close, and the real challenge in a future close one may not be, or may not exclusively be, brought by lawyers in courtrooms. It was from Masha Gessen that I first heard the phrase “your institutions will not save you”, although I doubt the thought was original to them.

After American politics, a short conversation on Australian ditto offered the perfect opportunity, immediately spurned, to keep my promise to myself that I will not, on this trip, offer any comments that might be construed as a comparison between the nations. I mentioned the beneficial effect, as I see it, of compulsory voting, in driving the political contest, and rhetoric, away from the extremes. We ruminated together on what a turnout of less than 50% says about the political health of any democracy.

After lunch, some more bits and professional pieces until I stole the last hour of the business day by nicking off to the Museum of Modern Art, as good a place as any to contemplate the end of the world. Not enough time, but no amount could be, and after a short stint behaving like every art gallery attendee ever – strolling at a leisurely pace between the various works, pausing at times to broadcast a suitable air of contemplation – I responded to the obvious absurdity of trying to take in the contents of a six storey display of challenging, at times radical, creativity by plonking myself down in front of a single piece, almost at random, and seeing what might be gained by ignoring the rest of the world for a while. The Charnel House by Picasso, as it happened, an artist I have not previously connected with, much. I chose well. Requiring no essay on its coded allegories or a detailed understanding of an alien time, place and social context with which the work might be in conversation (there being, in Paris in 1944/5, only one context worth a damn, the very edge and end of life and civilisation), I could contemplate the work as a work of visual art, consider its form, its bulk and mass, the naturalism hiding in its twisted figures, the depiction of the peace of death as well as its grotesqueness. Brutality contains its own end, for what is more peaceful than a graveyard? I was aided, too, no doubt, by its nearly monotone palette, comforted that I was (challenged as I am in that regard) not missing any subtlety of colour or message sought to be conveyed thereby. I sat for twenty minutes and left refreshed.

And went to scratch an itch. Enough flavourless sausages and bland Chinese. Either the United States has performed a miracle by accepting immigrants from every culinary tradition in the world and made the melting pot the lowest of common denominators or, surely far more likely, I had just made some completely crap decisions about where to eat so far. Tang must be out there and it would be found, and when desperate, one turns to the trustiest and most familiar of tools. I would find a curry and I would murder it. And I did. And it was delicious. I got tips from the youngsters at the neighbouring table about tipping appropriately, ate two enormous courses and walked out into the night, only a slight tickle in my throat as I breathed the cold air to mar a general feeling of goodwill towards the universe.

Gained in Translation

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Kept awake half the night by circadian shenanigans and some inconsiderate neighbours, who weren’t even doing anything interestingly amorous, just talking too loud, I decided to sleep in, which I managed until after noon. Then went to do some laundry, the only notable part of which was that, at 34th Street, I stopped and looked west and knowingly saw the Empire State Building, so tick. Didn’t take a photo. You know what it looks like. So it was fairly late in the day by the time I thought about doing anything interesting at all. Well, I have only so many days and it would have been ridiculous to see only one borough of the city in that time, so it was onto the subway headed for Brooklyn. But only just. This, my third subway trip, was the first in which I had to fight my way onto the train and spend the first leg of the journey being pressed against a door that I knew from previous experience bore a sign, now roughly located in the small of my back, that says “don’t lean on this door”. Fortunately, one stop was enough to relieve most of the pressure and the remaining few, to Borough Hall Station, were much less socially undistanced.

The Land of Oz

Off the train and into drizzle, the promised rain having arrived. It never got quite heavy enough for me to buy one of the million or so cheap umbrellas I would pass during the day, but it was heavy enough for someone determined to walk in it for hours to make that a mistake, repeated one million times. I slowly, over the course, got very damp indeed.

Brooklyn, or the parts I saw, was on a much more human scale than Manhattan, residential streets with five or six story apartment buildings. The kind staff at Swallow Cafe on the main street (Atlantic Avenue) were prepared to explain by pointing slowly what the hell an 8oz coffee looked like so I could decide whether that would be sufficient (it wouldn’t). Perhaps no city in the world has more experience of dealing with ignorant foreigners. From there, after a minor getting lost of the sort I encourage by not checking the map carefully enough, onto the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which the internet suggested provided excellent views of the Manhattan skyline, the industrial tones of the buildings backlit by brilliant summer blue, and eight months of the year it probably does. On a drizzly day in December, it’s industrial tones all the way, but the view is excellent, nonetheless.

Fifty shades of grey

By now, a handful of days into my attempt to walk as many metres (sorry, feet) of New York pavement as I can manage, I’ve started to go a bit funny, at least to the extent of talking to myself and, I was surprised to notice at one point, singing Pet Shop Boys songs quite loudly as I tramped (“Yesterday, when I was mad…”). Clearly in need of human contact, I seized upon the passing chance afforded by almost the only other people on the rain slicked promenade, a youngish mother with her threeish year old son, whom she was encouraging out of his stroller, clearly wanting him to get his legs moving. Three year olds don’t normally care that you’re a weird stranger with a funny accent, so I challenged the lad to a race to the next rubbish bin, pointing and naming our target. After about three repetitions of the challenge I realised that I didn’t just have a funny voice, I wasn’t even speaking English as the language is recognised here in its global home. “Beat you to the trash can!” I boasted, and we were off. He won. Unfortunately, I couldn’t persuade him to give me a chance to get even, but his mother was, astonishingly to a male stranger who had just literally, and without warning, run off with her child in a public place, effusively grateful for my efforts. As I’ve mentioned once already, New Yorkers are incredibly polite.

At the end of the promenade is the improbably named Dumbo, a chic district of flea markets and little eateries, and from there one can get onto the southern end of the Brooklyn Bridge (whose northern end is just visible on the right in the picture above). The walkway is entirely separated from the traffic, its wooden slats slightly slippery, and the walk is relatively short – probably only five minutes once one is on the bridge proper, although the long lead ramps treble the journey. By now about 5pm, and night already upon us, the views back to Manhattan were, of course, marvellous.

Huddled masses

Most of the way across, a narrow stairway down appeared in the middle of the walkway, promising Chinatown, and my feet and another few hundred metres of pavement made good on the promise. After speaking with Anna, I entered the first restaurant I could find which had no English signs at all in its window, if one ignored the campaign posters for Democratic candidates for “Assemblyman” (they were all women), which I guess probably means the state legislature, as I saw no reference to Congress. Unfortunately, the interior was unimpressive and the food equally so, but then I know by now that the places worth seeking out are already well known to the locals and I could, no doubt, have had a better meal had I been prepared to join any of the queues outside the more happening venues. I was not, certainly without an umbrella, so I made do with a mediocre kung pao chicken. The spring rolls were fresh (my second choice, having been told by the elderly man who took my order in a manner that suggested that I was a boring chore to be got out of the way as quickly as possible, “No egg roll. Spring roll,” repeating the last two words when I failed to grasp the concept quickly enough to satisfy him). The chicken, though, was flavourless, although whether this was because the restaurant wasn’t very good, or American ideas of spicy are calibrated differently, or they just hated me on sight, I don’t know. It had the requisite little pictogram on the menu warning customers that this was a hot dish. At one point I added to my bowl a dash of the provided Tabasco-like bottle of cayenne sauce, about as authentically Chinese as hip hop. Still no kick. In desperation, I thought briefly of drinking the sauce straight from the bottle, contented myself by dashing half a teaspoon or so into a spoon and swallowing it, in a spirit of enquiry. Vinegar, mostly, with a suggestion that it might have been stored near some pepper at some point. I’m starting to think that chilli, or Szechuan pepper, are controlled substances here, reserved for those who know the handshake and have been vouched for personally by the local boss.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

From Chinatown to the East Village, with the vague thought that I might find a bar to get out of the rain for a while, but the mood had left me. Up First Avenue, past the United Nations Building on my right and the homeless sleeping next to piles of garbage on my left, and from there back to the hotel, giving Anna a WhatsApp walking tour for the last few blocks.

QNYE1: Saw my first rat, which ran across my path two metres in front of me near the Brooklyn Bridge.

QNYE2: Saw and grinned at a vegetarian, kosher Chinese restaurant. Probably should have eaten there.

QNYE3: Saw my second rat, darting amongst the refuse on First Avenue.