Friday, April 29, 2005

Election update – The Sun newspaper has intervened

As the day of the general election approaches, the clamour of political opinions has reached a new level of intensity. The Sun newspaper has intervened by announcing it is supporting the Labour Party and advising its readers to vote Labour. I do not usually read The Sun (not from any ideological objection, but because there simply isn’t time to read everything) but I have added The Sun to the newspapers I buy each day, intending to monitor it until the election.

Owned by News International, The Sun has a circulation of about three and a half million and is the biggest selling tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom. Of all the daily newspapers in the United Kingdom it is one of the most professional and efficient. By professional I mean that it is (or has been until recently) absolutely focussed upon its readers and able to judge their mood and predict their responses.

Overwhelmingly positive in outlook, The Sun is consciously sensational, and seeks to entertain and flatter its readers. A salacious interest in celebrities and a strong emphasis upon sport characterises every issue. Competitions and other forms of reader interaction are a mainstay of the newspaper. The newspaper has also pioneered the treatment of ordinary members of the public as “celebrities” in their own right, co-opting millions of readers into a celebrity culture that is exciting, combustible and, for the participants, ultimately destructive.

Hostile to “foreign” influences internally, and bellicose towards foreign nations externally, the newspaper takes no notice of traditional journalistic campaigning, social issues, or the concept of truth for truth’s sake. There is often a dissonance between the headline and the bodycopy of the articles – this is because the Editorial team writes the headlines after the article has been submitted, always adopting a sensationalist slant. Frequently the Editorial team alters the text of articles arbitrarily, without consulting the journalist concerned (staff relations at the newspaper are characterised by a hire and fire ethos – there is no room for individual journalistic integrity).

Page 3 of The Sun has become an institution, and features photographs of naked or near naked young female models. This format has been refined recently so that the models have become a mouthpiece of the editorial column (literally a mouthpiece – a cartoon bubble emerges from the model’s mouth, carrying the text of an editorial comment). This innovation has been extraordinarily successful, allowing the (often outrageous) editorial comments to acquire the voluptuous gloss of an idealised persona (beautiful and intelligent our subconscious says, therefore they must be speaking the truth – for truth is beauty and beauty is truth, as Keats observed).

The politics of the newspaper (which external commentators object to vehemently) is largely composed of populist opinions that are very simplistic in tone, maintaining that all problems can be solved easily. There is no such thing as a Sun manifesto (in the way that The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph has a definite political programme that they wish to see implemented). The Sun doesn’t lead opinion, it reflects it. It gives articulation to the inarticulate and in this sense performs a democratic function. The Sun is not an evil influence (as some people like to make out) but it does have a weltanschuung that is disturbingly seductive. Reading it these past few days, I realise why I do not buy it regularly – one cannot touch pitch and not be defiled (as Anthony Trollope often wrote).

Readership of The Sun has traditionally been composed of working class men (an anachronistic description but accurate in that it is read by people who see themselves as working class even though they may, in socio-economic terms, be self-employed or affluent middle class professionals). However, this demographic group is aging, and the newspaper is struggling to attract younger readers (in particular, younger female readers). Therefore the decision by The Sun to support the Labour Party has to be watched with interest – it may be a very rare miscalculation by a newspaper that typically gets things right.

An integral part of The Sun’s traditional readers is “White Van Man”. This group is made up of men who, literally, drive white vans in their day-to-day jobs (typically engineers, roofers, builders, electricians, plumbers etc). Formerly courted by the newspaper (for several years The Sun ran a vox populi White Van Man column) the White Van sector appears to be increasingly marginalised as News International seeks to reinvent The Sun to appeal to a younger and more female audience.

The decision by The Sun to support Labour may be an attempt to position itself as relevant to a new readership rather than a true reflection of what the core group of White Van Man is really thinking. In that respect, the influential White Van constituency may be up for grabs.

(Above) Plumber's mate. Would only agree to be photographed if I edited out the spots on his forehead (which I have done very clumsily, using Photoshop).

White Van Man as a demographic group seems to have been overlooked in this general election. The opposition parties seem to be assuming the sector will automatically follow the advice of The Sun newspaper, yet this is very far from certain.

Small businesses that only employ one or two staff complain about recent increases in National Insurance. Posted by Hello

(Above) Self-employed builder.

According to a survey White Van Man is aged 30 to 49. Typically married (10% divorced). Most work within a 50 mile radius of where they live. "Townies" who are territorially minded. Interested in watching most sports (and will often play soccer at the weekends, despite their advancing years). Listens to local radio. Posted by Hello

(Above) Scaffolders (lunchbreak at Tescos).

The description "White Van Man" was first adopted by the BBC Radio 2 presenter Sarah Kennedy in 1997. Originally used as an insult (related to supposed selfish and aggressive driving techniques) the term became adopted as a badge of self-identification, and a definition of the down-to-earth working class man.

A large proportion of white vans belong to small businesses (usually sole traders) who typically complain of tax and government regulation. A provision in the 2003 Budget means that employees who use their vans privately (ie in the evenings) will see a big increase in tax from 2007. Posted by Hello

Thursday, April 28, 2005

It preys upon the anxieties people have

High Street optician chain Specsavers has been running for many months a series of television commercials based around the tagline “Should’ve gone to Specsavers”. The campaign (which must represent a considerable advertising budget) features a series of realistic drama situations, very well scripted and acted, and related to modern life. The campaign has been extremely successful (leading to almost 9% increase in sales) and has won industry awards.

Example: a young woman appears on a TV personal makeover show denouncing her boyfriend for wearing the wrong kind of glasses. The makeover professionals get to work, the boyfriend is equipped with Specsavers glasses, and the couple are reconciled. The TV audience applauds wildly (the boyfriend gives a limp little wave, as if acknowledging the legitimate verdict of the populace).

Example: a middle management executive (be-suited, balding, completely lacking in charisma) pauses as he walks through a general office, and in a laborious effort at bonhomie tells his subordinates that if they want stylish spectacles at an affordable price they should go to Specsavers. The staff respond by telling him they already have. The manager, looking foolish and out-of-touch, retires to his glass inner sanctum and stares out resentfully through the slats of Venetian blinds.

Example: a couple are on their yacht, the wind blowing, the sea a bit choppy. The wife has special two-in-one spectacles, the husband has two different sorts of glasses and is to switching between the two. The husband momentarily puts down one of his pairs of glasses and a lurch of the boat tips them into the sea (the wife smiles to herself at his incompetence).

These mini-dramas are some of the best work currently to be seen on television. They are all the more accomplished in that the screen time is so short (writing advertisements has been compared to writing poetry – a large package of meaning has to be condensed into a very small space). The marketing team at Specsavers does not use an agency to produce this work, but relies on a large in-house team at their headquarters in Guernsey.

The advertising is effective because it preys upon the anxieties people have about their appearance. The implication is that the wrong choice of glasses could lead to rejection, humiliation and contempt. Specsavers are very wrong to use this angle – all the more in the wrong because the advertising has been produced so superbly well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Lying on the grass!"

Day out in Yorkshire yesterday. We had lunch at a village pub near Wentworth. In one of the bars the television was on, showing the lunchtime news. The news station was reporting the defection of Brian Sedgemore, Member of Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch, from the Labour Party to the Liberal Democrats. They showed film of Brian Sedgemore - a heavy-set jowelly man with a grey suit that complemented his grey comb-over hair. Despite his shambolic appearance he looked quite distinguished.

"Give Tony Blair a bloody nose" Mr Sedgemore declaimed, referring to the general election next week.

"Mr Sedgemore once listed Lying on the grass among his hobbies in Who's Who" said the female television presenter.

"Lying on the grass!" said a Yorkshire woman in the bar, in a tone of amazement.

The next clip on the television showed the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"And his hobby is lying on the television" said a Yorkshire man in the bar.

Everybody laughed.
Posted by Hello

Monday, April 25, 2005

Election update – interview on the Today Programme

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme John Humphries interviewed the Home Secretary Jack Straw about the legality of the war against Iraq. It was a remarkable interview and, to my mind, set new standards for forensic questioning. The Home Secretary, an experienced and wily politician, tried all the usual techniques of avoiding awkward questions and wresting control of the interview (trying to answer a different question to the one that had been asked, trying to muddy the waters with verbose long-winded and irrelevant history, trying to bully the interviewer etc etc etc). At every stage John Humphries brought the Home Secretary back to the question he had been asked, and with merciless persistence refused to let him off the hook.

Normally when I am early getting to work I go straight into the office. This morning I felt compelled to sit in the car and listen to the end of the interview. I felt so happy that someone AT LAST had asked these questions.

“He died playing cricket”

Last Saturday was St George’s Day. It is not accompanied by an official holiday in the United Kingdom, mainly because of the centralised nature of the state – if England were to be on holiday, the Celtic countries (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) would also come to a halt. The feeling in Whitehall is that it would be chauvinistic to impose the English national day on areas that were not Anglo-Saxon (this accords with the general view that overt displays of nationalism are un-English).

Although there were no national celebrations, on a local level there was a fete on the school playing field. Infants (aged 4 to 7) from the village school had made their own St George out of plastic flowerpots sprayed with silver paint, complete with a cardboard and papier mache dragon. When the tableau was unveiled the school headmistress (stout, grey-haired, wearing black thick-soled sensible shoes that are popularly known as “beetle crushers”) led a procession of children singing Fight The Good Fight (it is a Church of England school, so there was no political correctness. The watching parents quietly applauded. There was a cool wind, but the sun was shining and the rain-clouds held off).

(Above) the flowerpot St George under construction the week before the fete. Posted by Hello

(Above) the cardboard dragon (variation on a paper tiger I suppose). Posted by Hello
A more conventional (and very sad) image of St George is portrayed in a nearby church. It commemorates the son of a local squire (a baronet with a three story red brick mansion and a thousand acres of sandy brecks). The elderly farmworker who let me into the church watched me photograph the memorial and then told me Samuel Roberts had been a friend of his father’s.

(Above) the Samuel Roberts memorial. Posted by Hello
“He died playing cricket” the elderly man told me, indicating the black marble memorial. “Our village was playing the team from Dunham. The day was extremely hot and at teatime this lad sat down on a bale of straw, drank a cup of water, and fell over and died. Just like that. He was a nice lad, so my father said. Everyone liked him.”

A further significance is in the date – 1928. Ten years after the Great War. One can imagine the relief of the parents that their son had been too young to go to war, and this relief turning to despair when he had died, in a harmless game, on a hot summer’s day.

In the memorial they have chosen to portray their eighteen-year-old son as a martial saint, with a golden halo and a strong neck, his right hand holding a sword.

I was reminded of this story when I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and saw the Alma-Tadema painting 94º in the shade. It shows an Edwardian boy in what looks like cricketing clothes, reading in a cornfield. It’s how I imagine Samuel Roberts.

(Above) the Alma-Tadema painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It is very unlike most of Alma-Tadema's work. Note: this is a photograph of a postcard, since I want all images (and text) on this site to be original. Posted by Hello

Friday, April 22, 2005

Last Day in New York… the last few hours

Leaving the apartment for the last time, I went in a cab to Fifth Avenue where I left my luggage at the office of a friend of Robert Leiper’s. Then Robert and I went to the apartment of another friend of his on 45th Avenue / 11th Street. This friend (very amiable, always smiling when he talked) had a collection of “Outsider” art which he showed us round – mostly done by black artists, including some very good portraits painted with Alabama mud (the artist being too poor to afford conventional oil paints). The apartment building was locally famous as Judge Crator, one of the residents in the 1920s, “disappeared” there (he had links with the mafia).

We took Robert’s friend to lunch, and met up with yet another friend at Café Florian in the Meat Packing District. This was described to me alternatively as a typical New York diner and “a hang-out for Downtown hipsters”. It was very crowded, and every table seemed taken, but the waiter knew one of Robert’s friends, and found us a table in a corner. I just had an omelette and a cup of coffee.

After lunch Robert and I took the Subway, emerging near the main New York Post Office (Robert scornful of the inscription on the outside of the building: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds). To the New York Public Library, a vast white neo-classical building designed by Carrére and Hastings, the place where Robert does most of his research (it is one of the great libraries of America). We went up to the main reading room where hundreds of desks were lined in rows, all of them occupied. “This is a great place to pick up girls” Robert told me.

Last hour and a half in New York was spent in The Village, in 13th Street near a universty that had been founded by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Because I was a little tired of coffee all the time we went to Thé Adore, a place that sold only tea. It was so small that we had to wait for twenty minutes sat at a table on the sidewalk until a table became available inside. As we waited I looked down the street to the left, to where a cream coloured art deco block stood over the next intersection of streets. There was something about the cream coloured building against the pale blue sky that seemed very impressive (unfortunately I had packed my camera, so wasn’t able to take a picture).

Eventually a Chinese waiter in a white coat and white baseball cap showed us inside and upstairs to a vacant table. The floors and stairs were just bare boards. The room was crammed with eight small, very distressed, tables – all of them occupied. Our table was in the window. The cups of tea cost about four dollars each, and you choose what kind of tea you want from a menu of about fifteen choices (I ordered Darjeeling).

On the three tables near us (so close we were almost elbow to elbow) were two middle-aged women discussing yoga (whenever the Chinese waiter did anything for them they told each other how cute he was), a Japanese girl in white designer clothes, talking into a cellphone and daintily eating a pastry (“How do you know she’s Japanese and not Chinese?” I asked Robert. “Trust me. I know Japanese girls” he said), and on the last table a teenage boy (aged eighteen or nineteen) in jeans and a pink Lacoste polo shirt, sitting with a older woman who was obviously his mother. The teenage boy was very confident, talked very loudly, and seemed to have an opinion on everything.

“Spanish wine is the same as French wine, only cheaper” said the teenager.

“New York brat” said Robert, not bothering to lower his voice. The teenager and his mother took no notice.

“I like to read, but I don’t like to read literature” said the teenager. “The next book I’m going to read is Bellow’s Herzog.”

“No”, said his mother “you ought to read Ravelstein.”

“When he’s read Herzog he’ll be unbearable” Robert told the mother.

“Have you read Herzog?” I asked Robert, wanting to deflect any confrontation.


“Was that the moment when you became unbearable?”

Fifth Day in New York… the Atlantic Ocean

I said to Robert Leiper that I wanted to see a little of the country outside New York during my holiday. His neighbour (the apartment next door) suggested going to Rhode Island, a small state that is typical of New England. So early in the morning I left the apartment and walked down to the Chase Bank to take out some dollars using my credit card. Back to the apartment for breakfast. Then Robert Leiper and I walked round to a Dominican neighbourhood where we hired a car (which I paid for). The weather was sunny but fresh, temperatures about 45º F.

We left New York and drove northwards a hundred and seventy miles along the coast (we didn’t see the coast at all – we were always a couple of miles inland, the passing scenery uninteresting). Through Connecticut, eventually we arrived in Rhode Island, and crossed a bridge into Newport.

(Above) American Gothic - the bridge into Newport had an impressive gothic arch. Posted by Hello
We drove first to a small shopping mall, then round the centre of Newport (a very small town) and parked the car. We then walked for some time along the rocky coast. The atmosphere, after being in the city, felt exhilarating. The sun was shining, and it was fairly warm, although occasionally a cold wind blew. The Atlantic Ocean washed against the shore in a continuous succession of big waves. The smell of ozone was all-pervasive and particularly sweet.

Along that stretch of coast were many large white mansions, built by American millionaires in the early years of the twentieth century. Some of these houses (about ten or so) are now owned by the Newport Preservation Society and are open to the public. We went into one called The Breakers, paying about ten dollars to get in. It was a huge mausoleum of a house – grand, cold and uncomfortable. It was formerly the home of the Vanderbilt family, and the author Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, which was made into a film with Gillian Anderson) had been a regular house guest. Although the architecture of the house was intimidating (the rooms were like a series of ornate caves carved from a mountain of marble) the coastal views from the garden were spectacular, and always there was the sound of breakers crashing against the rocks.

(Above) The Breakers.  Posted by Hello
A short way further down the coast was another house called Rosecliffe. After the experience of The Breakers we had decided not to go in any of the other houses, but we made an exception for Rosecliffe as it was an attractive building (designed by Stanford White), and interesting because it was the location where the films High Society and The Great Gatsby had been made. It was a mistake however to have gone inside – once again we were wandering around a mournful marble sepulchre. It was the sense of waste that was acutely striking. These mansions had cost millions of dollars to construct, had been lived in for about twenty or thirty years, and then had been abandoned, their contents mostly sold off (except for items too large or impractical to be moved elsewhere).

(Above) view of the coast from the garden of Rosecliffe. The sea seemed bluer than off the coast of England. Posted by Hello
More walking along the coast. All the day Robert Leiper had seemed preoccupied, and when it got to about four o’clock in the afternoon he suggested going back to New York. I thought this was a bit precipitate considering how long it had taken us to get there, but he said if we left that moment we would get back in time to go to a theatre production on Broadway.

(Above) we left the rocky Rhode Island coast and headed back to Manhattan. Posted by Hello
Then followed a hectic drive back to New York, Robert Leiper regularly breaking the speed limit and swearing aggressively at other drivers who got in his way. I was puzzled as to why he suddenly wanted to get back – he had known how far Newport was, and that we were likely to be gone all day.

The traffic was very light, even during the New York rush hour, and we arrived back in Manhattan shortly before seven, driving along the west side of the island and then into the Downtown area, finding a parking space without any trouble. A walk several blocks (I refused to run) to the Hirschfeld Theatre on 45th Street. We arrived just in time to buy a drink before pushing our way through the crowd in the foyer and into the theatre. Robert Leiper already had tickets for the production, which was the opening night on Broadway of the musical Sweet Charity (I suspected that he had bought the tickets intending to take “CW”, then forgot about them after they had broken up, then suddenly decided during the afternoon that he would go anyway, just in case she turned up. She didn’t of course).

We had good seats, and the show was very well performed. I was familiar with the music (originally a popular musical of the 1960s, the score from Sweet Charity has been so over-performed that it has become background music in supermarkets and hotel lobbies). The audience was almost as interesting as the show, and mostly seemed to be made up of drama students including many who were obviously young (undiscovered) actresses. Also in the audience were a number of couples in their sixties who probably remembered the show when it was first performed on Broadway forty years ago.

Afterwards we couldn’t find anywhere in the area to eat, despite New York’s reputation for being a city that doesn’t sleep. Eventually we got into a restaurant called Café des Artistes just before it closed (some German women came in a quarter of an hour after us and managed to get a table by threatening to cause a scene). The restaurant was a bit grand and ponderous for what we wanted, and as the other diners departed we were eventually left on our own, attended by a large number of staff (the German women were round a corner, making a lot of noise). Smoked salmon (prepared in five different ways), steak béarnaise, and a dessert called financier.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Always we seemed to end up on this particular stretch of Fifth Avenue

(Above) Typical scene on Fifth Avenue. Always we seemed to end up on this particular stretch of Fifth Avenue, with Robert Leiper suggesting we walk north a couple of blocks and have a quick look around the Frick Collection. Posted by Hello

Fourth day in New York (evening)… life imitating art imitating life

From Poughkeepsie I caught a train back to Grand Central Station in New York (associations with Elizabeth Smart and her novel By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept). In one of the shops I bought a cheap throwaway Kodak camera. On the Subway I caught a 6 train downtown, and got off at Bleaker Street, walking through Washington Square (associations with Henry James and his novel Washington Square). It was late afternoon, but still very hot (temperatures reaching 70º).

(Above) the arch in Washington Square. The author Henry James lived in a house on the square - his house has now been pulled down, but the houses that can be seen through the arch would have been familiar to him. This photo was taken on a disposable Kodak camera, so apologies for the quality. Posted by Hello
From Washington Square I walked through to McDougall Street and the Café Reggio (dark, bohemian, filled with eccentric bric-a-brac). In the alcove at the back of the café (where Jack Kerouac used to sit) Robert Leiper was waiting. Being in the Café Reggio was one of those circular moments – it was the association with Jack Kerouac that made the Egyptian-Jewish writer André Aciman visit the café, and it was reading André Aciman’s book False Papers (where he mentions the Café Reggio) that finally made up my mind to accept Robert Leiper’s invitation and visit New York. Life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life.

From Café Reggio we walked to Pastis on 9th Avenue. Pastis is a recreation in New York of an authentic Parisian bistro – the owner has achieved this by importing all the fixtures and fittings (zinc topped bars, ornate mirrors, china and glass) from France. The restaurant was crowded and we hadn’t booked, but managed to get a table at the back. Our waiter was Chinese American, a little camp in manner (giggling and gushing). When I gave my order he must have detected my accent and asked where I was from. When I said London, he produced a very disrespectful cartoon about the Royal Wedding, laughed helplessly, then said he really liked Camilla and had watched the wedding on television. Robert Leiper looked sternly at him, and gave his order completely poker-faced, not responding to the waiter’s familiarity.

Robert Leiper had chosen Pastis as it features in the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda which we were going to see later. Life imitating art imitating life. I had a starter that included bacon, a main course of trout almondeé with Vichy carrots and spinach (with a very good Sancerre), followed by Crepes Suzette (with a half-bottle of Chateau Peyraguey – a sauternes that features in the novel Brideshead Revisited).

To the Loews cinema on 19th Street. In front of us were a group of five people, aged in their early-twenties. They didn’t know what to see, and were asking the ticket seller which film he would recommend. Melinda and Melinda was a complex film, very typical of Woody Allen. Didn’t follow all it coherently (I’d had a lot of wine), but the set piece scenes and the dialogue were enjoyable. Robert Leiper told me it was the first Woody Allen that featured a black actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays the character Ellis).

Fourth day in New York (morning and afternoon)… the aura of President Roosevelt was still preserved

While I was in New York I wanted to visit Hyde Park, home of Franklin Roosevelt (American President 1933 – 1945). No-one else wanted to go (the typical reaction was “I’m not a great fan of FDR”) and Robert Leiper tried to talk me out of going, saying that it would be a long journey, and that the property was administered by the National Park Service, which had a reputation for making places dull and lifeless. I was determined to go however, and set off early in the morning, taking the Subway north to Marble Hill in the Bronx.

I had to change trains at Marble Hill, and there was about an hour’s wait. At a local grocery store I bought a copy of the New York Times to read (had to throw half of it away as the weight was unmanageable), and sat down on the wooden platform, in the warm sunshine, to wait for the train. Opposite was a bank of earth and stone about fifty feet high, leading up to the road. The bank was strewn with rubbish, and covered with scrubby bushes. Living in holes on this bank were several feral cats, and it was interesting to watch them lying in the sun, attempting to catch pigeons (unsuccessfully) and mock-fighting with each other.

(Above) view from the station platform. This was the only time I was in the Bronx. Although I had to wait an hour for a train I wasn't bored - I watched the feral cats. Posted by Hello
Eventually the train arrived and I set off along the side of the Hudson River valley (very scenic, sunlight on the water, rocky landscapes). After a couple of hours the train reached the end of the line – the small town of Poughkeepsie. At the front of the station I got a taxi out to Hyde Park. The black driver talked about his life, how he was originally in New York but his brother had moved out to Poughkeepsie, and then his mother had followed, and finally he had made the move. His mother had died, and he had stayed on with his brother ever since. He pointed out various landmarks as we drove through Poughkeepsie, and kept referring to “the CIA” as the town’s biggest employer. Thousands of people visit Poughkeepsie every year to go to the CIA headquarters, providing good business for the taxi cabs. He pointed to young people in the streets (“those are CIA… those are CIA… them too…”). I began to think I had arrived at the central nexus of American national intelligence. Eventually we passed a big complex of buildings with the sign: Culinary Institute of America.

(Above) Eleanor Roosevelt once said: "No-one can make you feel inferior without your permission". Posted by Hello
The Franklin D Roosevelt Museum and Memorial Library was outside the town, set well back from the road. Into the Visitors’ Centre where I joined a small group being taken round (you couldn’t just walk round on your own). Past the Rose Garden where President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried. Past the Memorial Library where the papers relating to the Roosevelt presidency are kept. The house itself was an impressive residence, large and symmetrical, but still keeping a domestic proportion. Inside the house the institutional atmosphere, which had characterised the site so far, faded and I felt that the aura of President Roosevelt was still preserved in the rooms, and clung to the personal objects he used (his clothes, the bed he slept in, his wheelchair). The guide who took us round was very informative, and described how Winston Churchill and King George VI had stayed at the house at various times.

(Above) Inside one of the downstairs rooms. Posted by Hello
The view from the back of the house was very spectacular, looking down into a wooded valley. Unfortunately it was at this point that my digital camera battery ran out. I also had to watch the time, since I had arranged for the taxi to come back at two o’clock. Leaving the house I walked back to the Visitors’ Centre, stopping at the Rose Garden to look at the graves. The sun was high in the sky, and it was very warm. No-one else was in the Rose Garden. Standing by the graves was very moving, sixty years after the ending of the Second World War. President Roosevelt was a good friend to the United Kingdom, and helped us when it would have been easier to look the other way and pretend the war in Europe was nothing to do with America.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Third day in New York… after a while you begin to feel that you can’t look at any more paintings

The night was very warm – during my stay temperatures in New York had been exceeding 60º Fahrenheit, with sunny days and mild nights, and I usually slept with the window open. I was woken on the morning of the third day by a man singing hymns, very off key, at the top of his voice. He must have been sat on the bench on the island at the corner intersection faced by the front of the building (my bedroom window faced onto a side well, but the singing was so loud it reached into the room). After about twenty minutes the singer (who was probably drunk or under the influence of some kind of substance) fixed on one particular hymn and sang it again and again, the repetition being incredibly annoying. Even after I had closed the window the singing penetrated the room. Eventually I heard residents from the apartment blocks around the intersection shouting down at the singer, who just increased the volume of his singing, until he was bellowing out the words. More shouting from the residents, and then the singer abruptly stopped (Robert Leiper told me several eggs had been thrown with devastating effect).

I slept late to compensate for the disturbance, and later I joined Robert Leiper among the joggers circling the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir in Central Park, so there was no time to do any work during the morning.

(Above) View of the Manhattan skyline across the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir. Posted by Hello
Someone said last night that the party was like being inside an Alex Katz painting. I asked Robert Leiper what this meant, and he suggested going to look at the Alex Katz paintings in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). As several of the big New York galleries are located in the same area, he suggested doing them all at one go, which is how we spent the afternoon.

First to the Guggenheim Museum, up the spiral walkway and into a gallery to see a painting by Chagall. Robert Leiper looked about, then trailed off into some of the other galleries, his distracted manner suggesting that he was looking for “CW” among the visitors rather than looking at the artworks on the walls.

Next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is an enormous building, and is a sort of combination of the National Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum. After a while you begin to feel that you can’t look at any more paintings or statues, and that all you want is to sit down and have a drink. The Hopper section was probably the gallery that most impressed me.

(Above) This 1899 painting of The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent is one of the places where Robert Leiper and "CW" would meet. I wanted to wait for the tourists to move, but Robert said take the photo anyway. There is a clue in the painting to the identity of "CW". Posted by Hello
Next we went to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). It was crowded, and we were looking at paintings over the backs of peoples’ heads. Robert Leiper asked one of the guards (a young black woman) if she knew where the paintings by Alex Katz were. She led us up to another guard (a young blonde woman) who in turn led us to a more elderly guard. He told us we might find a painting by Alex Katz on the next floor up, right by the lift. “It’s of a social scene in Southampton” he said. We went up to the next floor, but couldn’t see anything by Alex Katz.

(Above) Inside MOMA. From a distance I saw Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Posted by Hello
After so many galleries I was beginning to feel exhausted and wanted to avoid getting Stendhal’s syndrome. All the time we were in the museums Robert’s eyes were sweeping left to right, checking all the visitors in case he should see someone familiar (either “CW” or one of her friends). We went out into the fresh air and made our way over to the Upper East Side. Past the Seagram building (possibly the most beautiful international style building in the world).

(Above) The Seagram building (possibly the most beautiful international style building in the world). The American flag is at half mast because the Pope had just died. Posted by Hello
On the Upper East Side we went to a famous auction house (where “CW” works – can’t mention the name as that would give the game away). Ignoring the sale rooms, we took the lift up to the roof where there is a smart café called the Sky Terrace. Robert Leiper flirted with the black waitress, asking her what she was doing when she got off duty (she just smiled and said she was going home to rest). We took our sandwiches and drinks out into the open where we could sit in the afternoon sun and look out over Manhattan – almost as far as the East River although you couldn’t actually see the river itself. I asked Robert if he had read The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark (he hadn’t). Robert explained the difference between major and minor league baseball, and how the minor league was often worth following. No-one else was on the Sky Terrace, and they looked as if they were shutting up for the day. On impulse, Robert decided we would do one more gallery and have dinner at the Café Sabarsky.

To Fifth Avenue again, and the Neue Gallery in a building designed by Carrere and Hastings (formerly the residence of Gertrude Cornelius Vanderbilt who founded the museum – as you go upstairs you see a big portrait of Mrs Vanderbilt lying on a couch and looking defiantly out at the world). The collection focuses on Austrian Secessionist and German Expressionist art – not a favourite of mine (I grew rather bored by it all, and went to look around the museum bookshop). When the gallery closed at 6 o’clock we queued up for about twenty minutes to get into Café Sabarsky (actually in the Neue Gallery building, but run as a separate establishment). The restaurant is a recreation of a typical Viennese coffee house, dark panelling, rickety round tables, potted palms. Lots of people seemed to be kissing each other.

I ordered bratwurst, sauerkraut, potatos, with a sort of elderflower drink. Schwarzvaldkirschtorte to follow. I was not surprised when Robert told me the restaurant was a place “CW” liked to go to. “You can overdo all this culture” I told him. “You might do better taking her to see Maroon 5 at Radio City Music Hall.”

Monday, April 18, 2005

Second day in New York... the dark lady of the sonnets

Second day in New York. I worked from 8am until 11am, occasionally stopping to talk to Robert Leiper about how his book is structured (basically it is in three parts) and the ideas which he wants to get across. We also talked about New York – as Robert Leiper is originally from the West Coast he was able to offer an outsider’s perspective: “New Yorkers have a scorn for the rest of America”.

Lunchtime, and we went by the Subway to Bowery and Great New York Noodle Town, a restaurant that is authentically Chinese. The restaurant was in a large square room, plate glass windows facing onto the street. About fifty or sixty small square tables were arranged in straight rows, only narrow aisles in between them. Almost all the tables were occupied by Chinese Americans – I think ours was the only non-Chinese table. The restaurant was furnished in a very basic way, and the floor seemed a little grubby. An unsmiling waiter brought us glass beakers of tea.

We were joined by Michael Kandel, a friend of Robert Leiper’s. Michael Kandel was aged late forties / early fifties, short beard, wearing a fedora, steady gaze from intelligent-looking eyes. A science fiction writer, he is probably most famous for the sci-fi novel Captain Jack Zodiac. Robert Leiper gave him back a manuscript version of his latest work, and they talked about science fiction for a while. To eat we had salt baked fish with rice, noodles, shredded duck. Michael Kandel talked about jury service he had recently completed – the mafia had been involved in the crime, which had made the jurors a little nervous (“You go home at night wondering if you’ve been followed”). Michael Kandel asked me what I thought of New York City, and told me “New York is not part of America”.

(Above) the edge of China Town. Posted by Hello
After the lunch Michael Kandel had gone back to his office. Robert Leiper suggested in an innocent sort of way that we go and look around the Frick Collection, an art gallery on Fifth Avenue. The gallery is in the former home of Henry Clay Frick, a steel magnate from the late-nineteenth / early twentieth century. The building, one of the most elegant in New York, was designed by the architects firm Carrére and Hastings and built in 1914. The frontage runs for one whole block along Fifth Avenue, and featured a terrace garden where magnolias were already in flower.

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Inside there are sixteen large rooms furnished with antique tables and chairs, French porcelain, many fine paintings. However, there were no themes to the way the collection was arranged – the museum was just as much an exhibit to one man’s taste in the Gilded Age as much as a visual commentary on the history of art. The paintings were first rate, and included works by Boucher, Fragonard, Vermeer. It turned out that Robert Leiper had an ulterior motive in wanting to go to the gallery as it was a favoured haunt of his amorata “CW” and he hangs around the place in the hope of running into her (I came to be very familiar with the Frick Gallery over the next few days as Robert was always finding excuses for us to be on that particular stretch of Fifth Avenue, and once we were there, it was axiomatic that we had to dive into the gallery, carry out a quick circuit of the rooms, and emerge again onto the sidewalk, hardly breaking stride).

A walk across Central Park and the Subway back to Washington Heights where Robert Leiper began to make preparations for a party to be held in the apartment that evening. Ostensibly the party was being held in my honour. The big table was moved to the centre of the room and loaded with food and drink (lox, salted beef, black bread etc). The party was due to start at six, and when no-one had arrived by seven Robert Leiper began to get a little edgy. However, at twenty past seven people began to arrive, and within another quarter of an hour the apartment was full.

The guests included several of Robert’s fencing cronies, an interior designer who lived upstairs in the same building, a journalist for the New York Post, his partner (expecting a child) who was an author and had published a biography of Calvin Klein (so popular it had even been translated into Korean), a journalist for a financial magazine, a gossip columnist, several personnel from the Modern Language Association (a sort a American Academy Francais), three museum workers, an archivist, a writer of novels, plus many others associated with designing, writing and publishing. I managed to talk to about half of the people present, including a young Vietnamese woman who described how her parents had fled Vietnam in the 1970s as part of the Boat People, and the tough start they faced once they arrived in America. I also talked to a journalist about whether American power had peaked with the invasion of Iraq (there’s no real way of judging whether it has peaked or not). And an interesting conversation about the rivalry / hostility between New Jersey and New York.

Just as everyone had arrived more or less together, so they left within the same half hour. Although the party had been a great success, Robert Leiper was disconsolate. The party had not really been in my honour at all – he had assembled a gathering of the most interesting and talented people he knew, in the hope that “CW” would accept the invitation and turn up. “CW”, even in her absence, had been the real guest of honour, and I began to realise that like the dark lady of the sonnets, “CW” motivated and suffused everything Robert Leiper did or thought or said.

One of the interesting aspects about my stay in New York, was how much I got to know about black American culture, a subject that had previously been closed to me. It is a culture that ranges from intellectuals such as Ralph Ellison to style leaders such as the R&B/soul singer Usher. Robert Leiper is of mixed race, and moves easily between white and black communities. Like most black Americans, he dresses smartly, and is very fashion conscious. During warm weather (there have been some hot days recently) he wears a fedora. This tends to make his black appearance more tangible so that other black Americans respond in an extemporary way (for instance, on the Subway observations such as "Smooth crimin-alé" and "Yo, what is that nigger wearing!" - these comments were both from strangers).

Robert Leiper wanted me to read The Invisible Man, but although we tried several bookshops on the Upper East Side, none of them had it. "They've got Brett Easton Ellis but not Ralph Ellison" said Robert, disgusted. In the end he gave me his own copy.
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Friday, April 15, 2005

A third reason quickly became apparent

I got up at seven, and sat in my room reading until I heard Robert Leiper get up (a mild breeze blew through the open window carrying with it JoJo singing Get out, right now). Shortly afterwards we had breakfast (omelette, tea, toast – again the tea was made for my benefit). Then, because this was a working holiday, I sat at the table in the living room and worked until noon. The lifestyle and routine of the apartment combined literary application (the transmutation of intellectual ideas into saleable formats) with the American obsession of healthy living – fresh air, cleanliness, exercise.

There had been two aspects that had brought me to New York – first I was there to discuss Robert Leiper’s new book with him, so that he got new insights and perspectives. Second reason was to have a short holiday. A third reason quickly became apparent – Robert Leiper’s current romantic interest with an English girl living in New York (whom I shall call “CW”) had run into trouble, and the relationship had basically gone on the rocks (she was refusing to see him, or even talk to him). Robert was hoping I would give an English perspective to where things might have gone wrong, and possibly act as a go-between.

Midday we went out and Robert Leiper showed me some of Manhattan. The neighbourhood of Washington Heights is an old Jewish community which had subsequently attracted many literary and artistic residents (writers, set designers, musicians etc). Later black people from the south and Hispanics from the Dominican Republic moved in, and they now give the area its main character. From the window of the apartment living room you could see down a hill to the tower of the Yeshiva University. Leaving the apartment we walked northwards and entered an almost rural area of wooded cliffs falling down to the Hudson River – it was a very beautiful landscape, completely at variance with my preconception of New York as a densely-populated urban city state (one of the four capitals of the globalised world, the others being Paris, London and Tokyo). Various plaques informed passers-by that the whole area around the promontory had been the scene of a British victory over the American rebels in 1776.

(Above) Hudson River looking towards Fort Washington Bridge. This part of Manhattan is semi-rural. Posted by Hello