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I like the jumble of things in Lisbon. Nothing really matches. The old and the new sit adjacent; ornate tiles are juxtoposed with scrawled grafitti, dark winding alleys are half lit by sunlight, and totally different areas sit side by side, impatiently resisting easy navigability with map-defying, cascading hills. Even in the smallest spaces the contrasts are evident; record shops which sell books and jewellery; little clothes boutiques selling two-euro, pint-sized cocktails, and arty cafes are filled with mismatched furniture. It’s a city of real informality – people look great but their outfits look instinctive not considered. On Liberation Eve, one of the biggest nights out of the year, we saw precisely one party dress.
In Bica, we stumbled into a tiny whole-food shop and cafe, A Vizinha, still open at 10pm on a Thursday night. A few chairs and tables were assembled at the front of the store, where little groups sat chatting over bottles of wine. We mooched in and ordered small beers, unfolding local freesheets and collapsing onto a little sofa which looked out over our fellow drinkers. The mood could not have been more inviting or welcoming, yet everyone talked quietly, undemonstratively, drinking slowly, taking their time. It was as intimate as any English pub and at the same time utterly different. We sat with our drinks, with the walls lined with tins of sardine pâté, gluten free pasta and tofu. It being only 10.30, no-one was really out yet, so our drink was peaceful and quick – it was perhaps the gentlest, most comfortable thirty minutes of our week away.
There are a million lovely places in Lisbon, so recommending one over another is almost counter-productive; but if you’re in Lisbon and fancy a sit-down, this place is lovely.
A Vizinha, Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, nº14, Lisbon, Portugal
A classic independent record shop in the heart of Chiado, Louie Louie is an old school, vinyl-heavy record shop. It reminds me of indie shops in London during the 1990s, before the craze for recommendations, listening posts and detailed categories kicked in. Louie Louie stocks plenty of decent contemporary vinyl from the UK and USA, but it’s notable for a decent stock of portuguese indie and traditional fado, as well as bins of soul, world and latin releases.
We stumbled in late on Thursday afternoon and I immediately began planning purchases, fingering my much-diminished envelope of euros. I’ve yet to to tire of discovering record shops; their importance to me throughout my life has been such a reassuring constant that I quickly feel at home whenever there are records to leaf through – writing this I can hear the dull thud of cardboard sleeves thudding against each other as I browse, or the light click-clack of plastic hitting plastic as I flick through shelves of CDs. Posters on the wall, free magazines on the sides, and the high counter, usually pock-marked with stickers. Louie Louie fits exactly into my mental vision of what a record shop represents, and as such I recommend it highly, should you get the chance to go.
(For more esoteric and expermintal music, try MateriaPrima, on Rua Da Rosa, or for a picturesque and old-fashioned traditional fado store in the Baixa, try Discoteca Amália on Rua Áurea – both of which I’ll blog about presently).
Louie Louie, Chiado, Lisbon
Rua Nova da Trindade – 8-A (ao Chiado)
Lisbon, Lisbon Portugal
The quite beautiful Fabrica de Pasteis de Belém is justly famous as the most picturesque dining destination in the busy, imperial suburb of Belém, just a few kilometres west of Lisbon. It’s impossible to visit the town – which was the launching post for Vasco de Gama when he made the first sea-voyage from Europe to India back in 1497 – without noticing, amongst the open spaces, modern art galleries and intricate palaces, this ornate, bustling little bakery and cafeteria. But it’s also hard not to wonder if, somewhere down the line, this achingly authentic establishment (which is famous for it’s delicious, sweet pastries) lost its purpose, and began to exclusively serve the tourist community rather than the locals. When we arrived, on a cloudy weekday afternoon in late-April, the queue stretched down the road and spoke in many languages.
Happily, we’d already been tipped off that a visit to the nearby Pasteleria Chique de Belém would be just as fruitful – the Pastel de Nata they sell are not served in such picturesque surroundings, but they’re every bit as fresh and had a determinedly sugar-agnostic diner like me marvelling over the complimentary textures; the warm, sweet custard filling and the incredibly light, flaky crust. Really amazing – if you get the chance to visit Belém, be advised that you’d be stupid not to try some. (Not being me, of course, with my quaint reluctance to eat chocolate, cake, pastries or ice-cream, not trying a Pastel de Nata in the town that invented them, would probably never occur to you. Anyway.)
Pasteleria Chique de Belém, Rua Junqueira 524, Belém. (Right by the Belém tram stop – get the 15 Tram from central Libson)
A quick aside for the visually curious; I have a huge affection for hand-drawn maps, and this illustrated, easy to navigate map of Reykjavik is absolutely lovely. As if I didn’t want to go to Iceland’s capital city enough! This is a lovely bit of illustration. Do click through.
This Sunday afternoon, I sat outside the lovely Berthom bar, in central Strasbourg, with my friends Vic, Alec, Ant, Anne-Sophie and Rich. We actually stumbled upon the bar about eight months ago and immediately fell in love with it; the stylish font on the sign, the dazzling menu of beers, the dark alcoves and friendly waiting staff. This time, barely recovered from clambering breathlessly up hundreds of steps (and 66 metres) to the viewing platform of Strasbourg Cathedral, we collapsed gratefully into our seats and ordered:
A Maredsous 6 Blonde and a Bel Pils, for me. The former a very refreshing Belgian beer, slightly sweet and dry, with a nice, burnt, orange colour, the latter a plain but hugely drinkable pilsener from the Duvel stable.
A Faro Lindemans and another Maredsous 6 Blonde for Vic, who (rightly) found the former – a Belgian Lambic beer – unbearably syrupy, although it also had a counterbalancing (but not very pleasant) sourness, too. The latter, as mentioned above, made up for the ordering faux-pas.
A couple of strong beers for Ant; I forget what the first was, but it was a heavy, dark, bitter concoction (and very nice for it). The second was the dark variety of the first beer I had – a Maredsous 8 Brune which was lovely – malty, thick, and laced with something spicy. Both these beers were 8% ABV and upwards. Brills.
A very sweet, light, fruity Pêcheresse for Anne-Sophie, which came – like all the beers at Berthom – with a really beautiful label. And I can’t recall exactly which beers Alec and Rich had, but I recall a very pale Vedett Extra White sat on the table, and also another brune, so thick and dry it was essentially stout. There may have been more.
Given false confidence by all this booze, we took these (very transparent) photographs of a guy we liked the look of. He totally knew.
Here, Ian Leslie quotes Krystal D’Costa, an anthropologist who has posited some fascinating insights into “behaviour in public places, where ‘ownership’ of space is temporary and easily challenged by others”, and uses the example of the feverish way we queue at airport boarding gates – despite being guaranteed a seat.
Leslie acknowledges the hurried queuing is necessary for budget flights (where securing that tiny bit of overhead storage, or a seat away from the barking kids, is pretty important) but I identify with D’Costa’s description, even when waiting for international flights where I have a seat number. But when I travel I tend to operate somewhere between irrational urgency and a more common sense approach.
I sit like a coiled spring in the departure lounge waiting for the gate announcement, and then dart through as fast as I can, keen not to be stuck in a long queue, but then when the actual boarding begins, I belatedly cotton on to the absurdity of everyone pushing and shoving to be at the front, and sit back allowing other passengers to scramble through. Despite having been an enthusiastic, anxious participant in the earlier scrum I recapture my logic.
I think, then, that the key for me is I want to get to the end of the process; I don’t like the uncertainty of not having everything checked off and completed – check-in, passport control, customs, book-buying, arriving at the gate. It’s not that I’m queuing to ensure my place at the front, the best seat, the first through. It’s rather that I’m hurrying in order to get the process over with. Once the most stressful elements have been negotiated, and I’m pretty sure that nothing will go wrong, that’s when I’m able to sit back and relax.
That’s how I instinctively rationalise my behavior at airports. But my interest has been piqued by another contention of the piece – that we behave the way we do because others do; that the pyschology of crowds is a major factor. Ian writes:
When our mind is on other things (like worries about the flight) we tend to outsource some of our immediate decision-making to others, and just do what they do.
That’s probably true. I’m looking forward to the next opportunity I have to observe my own behaviour, and that of others around me, in this context.
Nothing in Marseille was a disappointment, in that the city was everything I expected and a bit more – a bit more relaxed, a bit friendlier, a bit hipper, a bit more beautiful. But I did expect something from the daily market – held down at Vieux Port each morning – which it didn’t quite deliver. But it was nothing more than size; and the fact that it was smaller than anticipated – just a row of perhaps ten stalls set against the waterside – didn’t in any way reduce the amount of colour or life. Indeed, with most stalls stocking a still-wriggling haul, life was in no shortage.
The fish themselves were a wonderful variety of colours, and magnificently ugly. We seem to be obsessed with eating beautiful fish in the UK – Waitrose’s fish counter is a measured display of smooth, silver scaled treats. Here in Marseille, I discovered, they draw little distinction between the perfect, shimmering form of a sardine and a wonderful series of red, blotchy, lumpy, out of proportion little fellers – heads bigger than their bodies, fins apparently replaced with malformed little wings, twisted at the edges like loose leaves of lollo rosso.
The nicest sight of all was the fisherman, unloading fresh catches and untangling nets. The most compelling the fish surgery; heads getting roughly seperated from bodies on blood-stained plastic trays. Seagulls – lacking the rude manners of Brighton’s flock – waited patiently for the remains to be discarded into the water.
Cours Julien is a wonderful artisan quarter in the 6th arrondissement of Marseilles; a bustling square full of cafes, bars and boutiques backed by a series of graffiti-covered streets which boast a treasure trove of bric-a-brac shops, record stores, and a sequence of restaurants specializing in just about cuisine you could name. I’ve tons of photos to share, but in the meantime this video speaks volumes for the spirit of the place. Set up in the middle of the square, on Saturday afternoon, amidst dozens of happy hipsters, trendy dads and insouciant teens, was a guy with portable piano. At one point, two kids stepped up and shyly took a microphone each – and summoned up the following collaboration.
“You know”, I said to Lyndsey on Saturday afternoon, sat on the beach at Catalans, just along the coast from central Marseilles, “if I miraculously earn myself a decent pay rise at some point in the next few years, I’m not going to spend a penny of it on improving my day-to-day life. No upscaling the flat and paying more rent. No wardrobe renovation. No splurges at Resident Records. I’m not going to change a thing EXCEPT that I’ll use whatever the raise brings in to fund a sequence of citybreaks through the year”.
Could there be a better way of spending that money, after all? I think we all spend far too much of our time weighed down by domestic concerns, and where once I could put emotional distance between a week and a weekend, too often now I find one bleeding into another. A weekend away does wonders. Not just geographical distance but pyschological space.
We decided to go away for two nights quite late last week, and I’m very glad we did.
And glad we chose Marseilles, too. One doesn’t automatically equate the month of March with Mediterranean sun, so although the forecast was good I hesitated before plumping for a weekend in France’s southernmost city. But actually the weather was great, and Marseilles – so often characterised as Paris’s unruly, chaotic little brother – was simultaneously sumptuously beautiful and thrillingly edgy.
Our plane touched down around midday on Friday; and Marseilles airport is a funny little place. It’s not exactly tinpot, for it’s a major hub, but it’s all exposed wires and undecorated walls; steel barriers and customs sheds. The bus into the city immediately demonstrated that for all that Marseilles is a Mediterranean city, Southern France is a great deal more verdant than Spain or Portugal.
Yet the city itself is resplendently decked out in the colours of the Med; eggshell white, olive, mustard, cornflower and terracotta. It is immediately rather scruffier than Paris, and walking down from the Gare Saint-Charles it was hard not to notice – with not the least bit of discomfort – how few pink-white faces there were. Outside coffee shops and tea-houses groups of men sat pulling at cigarettes and tiny coffees, dressed in the uniforms of arab Marseilles; a moustache and a Fez for those over 40, a tracksuit for younger generations.
Turning down to Vieux-Port, all begins to change – the buildings smarten up and more and more white faces appear – but the general feel of Marseilles is integrated rather than segregated; it’s a lively city, ethnically, with huge numbers of Italians, Armenians, Algerians and Tunisians. Like most ports, it feels like a working city (despite the fact that it boasts the country’s highest unemployment), and we spent three days pretty much without hearing another English accent. The odd surly waitor aside – of course – I found the whole place exceptionally welcoming; blunter, warmer and a great deal more laidback than Paris.
Having traversed the Port, with its fleet of lovely white-sailed fishing boats, and wandered up into the stunningly picturesque streets of Le Panier – the historic district North of the harbour which Hitler dynamited, having declared it “a mass of criminals, under-humans and saboteurs” – we sat out on the balcony at La Caravelle (34 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseilles), a small bar at Hôtel de Ville: one of the few buildings in the area which – happily – Hitler spared. I knocked back a couple of small, strong lagers and nibbled on delicious olives while Lyndsey merrily embarked on a run of mohitos which would eventually take us from bar to bar and decimate our plans for an early start to our Saturday.
In Bar Marengo (21 Rue Saint Saëns, 13001 Marseille), an unadorned bar where little distraction is provided from the serious business of drinking, we topped up our glasses and tried out our French on the incredibly friendly barman. Lyndsey started each sentence hesitantly (“Bonsoir. Je voudrais une pression et un mohito”) before transitioning seamlessly into flirtatious Spanish.
Around the corner, in Polikarpov (24 Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, 13001 Marseilles) the bar-staff forgot to charge us for cocktails and danced heedlessly around to the Talking Heads (“realisant mon espoir / je me lance, vers la gloire”) while we held our empty glasses out towards them, pleadingly. Somewhere along the way we had decided it was too late to eat and simply resolved to order more cocktails.
I’m back in Brighton after a couple of pretty wonderful days in Marseilles; me and my girlfriend decided a last minute city break was in order, both as a celebration of my having resolved a precarious job situation, and in order to recharge our batteries with a bit of sun. Sun in March is, of course, hard to secure – but Marseilles, a fantastically vibrant city on the edge on France’s Mediterranean coast, provided it in spades; so we spent two days walking, eating, drinking, and basking as the Mistral – a cool wind which rushes down from the Southern Alps – met the heat at Vieux Port, a gloriously serene harbour which is right at the centre of the city.
There was plenty more than just the port, of course – but for now here it is; as nice a focal point for a city as any I’ve yet encountered.
Kids wander round these campuses barely looking at the mountains surrounding them. I guess they get so used to them. I can’t. I nearly bumped into about four people walking round the campuses, head (almost literally) in the clouds. If it wasn’t so cold here, I might refuse to leave.
Posted 13 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan Category Music, Travel
Salt Lake seems to have a really friendly music scene. On Sunday afternoon I sat in a cafe downtown -adjoined to the quite wonderful Sam Weller Books – and logged on to the internet, wondering if I’d find a local indie record shop. My hopes weren’t especially high – I remember trying the same thing without success in both Atlanta and San Jose – but I swiftly located Slowtrain Records, which looked pretty cool and which was, conveniently, just round the corner from where I was sitting.
Downtown areas in the US often seem to me to be rather peculiar places: they share with British city centers a concentration of hotels, banks, restaurants and conference centers. But shops are hard to find, often cast out to shopping malls outside the Downtown area, or else located where you’d least expect them. Despite it’s Downtown location, Slowtrain is sat right at the end of a thoroughly suburban seeming parade of stores off to the right of the city centre. If I hadn’t known it was there, I would have stopped walking and turned back. But it was there, of course – and what a find.
Slowtrain has operated out of SLC since 2006 and little wonder it’s a success – it’s a classic independent record shop, with a great section for staff recommendations, a bunch of featured local acts (and an in-house record label) and a sizable selection of decent indie vinyl (with a nice line in heavyweight reissues). Having looked around for a few minutes, I approached the girl behind the counter and asked if she had any tips for local gigs and bars. She was really helpful, highlighting at least a show a night for every day that I’m in the city, plus a couple of good places to get a beer. What’s more, she suggested I come back that same evening for an instore and album release party by a local band, The American Shakes.
I returned at seven, to find a charmingly decked-out basement below the shop with a little stage and three rows of classroom chairs, and a bunch of locals milling around, laughing and talking.
The American Shakes are the project of singer-songwriter Brent Dreiling, with friends and other SLC scene luminaries backing him up (aren’t you always disappointed when bands turn out to be projects, rather than real bands?), something occasionally apparent when he dictates tempo to his bandmates rather than leaving it to the drummer. But their sound is integrated and full, not the weak complimentary backup that band-leaders often seem to either insist on or end up with.
Musically, they were pretty great, their sound a combination of countrified indie, bar-band rock and, most interestingly – if subtly – 60s psych, recalling at times a double-denim twist on The Zombies or the more melodic end of Nuggets-era garage. Bassist Jake Fish’ instinctive, melodic playing and some terrific pedal steel guitar playing prove real highlights.
The least convincing aspect of their performance, counter-intuitively, is Dreiling’s occasionally weak vocal projection. His voice isn’t without it’s charms – far from it – particularly on the more measured numbers, but lifting it above the fray sometimes proves difficult.
Nevertheless, it’s a show that I greatly enjoy, and I’m left with the impression that Salt Lake is probably a pretty great place to be in a band – it’s on the national circuit (Kate Nash, Ghostface Killah and The Hold Steady all play the city this week), centered round a cool record store, and seemingly pretty friendly and self-supporting, too. I’ve not, sadly, found time for another show since I’ve been here, but with luck I’ll manage one more before the weekend.
You can listen to – and buy – The American Shakes’ debut LP, Begin, here, and follow Slowtrain on twitter here should you wish to be plugged in to what’s happening in SLC.
Here’s a recording I made of the band – hope they won’t mind me sharing. This song’s called ‘Tucson, AZ’.
[nb - a few days later I picked up a copy of their LP (on limited vinyl with a free CD) and it's great. Hope these guys make it over to England at some point.]
I like arriving in cities in darkness. My plane touched down in Salt Lake City on Saturday evening, too late to see anything from the aeroplane window bar the anonymous smattering of lights that designate homes, roads, hotels; lights that could belong to any city in the world. In my taxi, the driver was at pains to reassure me, as we travelled the few short miles from SLC International to downtown, that I needn’t worry about the city’s conservative, Mormon background. A lot has changed round here lately, he says – it’s a modern, liberal city. (Later, I’ll discover that to cross a road in Salt Lake, you have to pluck an orange flag from a bucket on the sidewalk and charge out, waving it).
All around you, in the morning, he said, you’ll see the mountains. If I’d arrived a day later, actually, he’d have been wrong, so shrouded was the city at the start of the week with mist and snow, but on the morning after my arrival, Sunday, I sprang out of bed towards the window, and swept the heavy curtains back to see a sight that couldn’t be further removed from the gentle slope of the Sussex Downs I see from my bedroom window back in Brighton.
Salt Lake is not a big city. Like a lot of places in the US, it’s sprawling – wide and flat (but for the hotels, which rise up in the horizon, formulaic and ugly) – but it’s open and navigable, and necessarily limited in size by the mountains that surround it. It’s sat in a basin, around 4500 ft up – really high in the scheme of things and easily enough to feel more out of breath than normal after running to catch a tram – and squashed between two ranges. The Wasatch on the right hand side; a jagged run of enormous slate grey peaks, capped with snow, and the Oquirrh mountains on the left; lower, flatter, earth-brown. To see them towering over the city is really quite a sight.
There’s nothing conventionally beautiful about the Downtown area itself. Built by the Mormons, back when they saw it as the future epicentre of what would eventually be an all-conquering faith, it’s designed on a rigid grid system radiating out from the temple, with the roads so wide they seem to occupy roughly 50% of the surface area of the city. Most of the buildings are functional rather than extravagant, with many tipping over into the straightforwardly ugly.
But it’s evocative of a kind of America with which I feel somehow familiar, despite having never been anywhere like it before. It’s simultaneously the America of the Mountain West, on the edge of the Rockies, and a kind of window into everytown America, the America of the middle. It feels resolutely typical, ordinary, lacking the bustle and pace of places in the US I’ve been before. A look at the films shot here is quite instructive – mainstream, suburban stuff like Dumb and Dumber, High School Musical, the Halloween sequels. It’s not metropolitan, urbane, well-off. But nor is it rural, down-at-heel or impoverished. It’s everyday America, and a million miles from Europe.
Perhaps if I lived here I’d find it maddening, the closed-off-ness, the scale, but as a visitor, as someone who can’t help getting excited about his travels and the weird, amazing, wonderful differences from place to place – I absolutely love it here.
Here are some shots taken downtown, just off to the right of all the ugly hotel buildings.
It’s funny, I’d never dream of walking around Brighton taking photographs of graffiti, much less post the results here, but whenever I’m away I’m transfixed by paintings, doodles and blocks of colour on walls and doorways. I have a very vivid memory of going on holiday to Lisbon when I was young, with my parents and our family friends, John and Wendy, and spending an entire afternoon dashing enthusiastically around the city taking photographs of the walls – communist graffiti and ripped Whitesnake posters.
I spotted this downtown in Salt Lake City; not even sure what the caption means, in all honesty.
Wow, on my last night in New York City I did something I’ve meant to do for some time but never quite got round to, mainly because I’ve never quite known where to start, wanting to take in some proper NY jazz, but not wanting to do it in some aneasthetised tourist spot, paying an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Once or twice I’ve nearly gone to some heavily advertised jazz club, but never felt it was the right option. On Friday, having gone for a couple of drinks in the Village after work, I set off back towards my hotel at about eight o’clock, intent on giving up my last night for some well deserved rest – an early night.
Walking back towards where I thought the subway station was, I passed under a delapidated red awning. Glancing up I read the venue’s name. ‘The Village Vanguard’. It was a name I vaguely recognised, but I thought nothing more of it and kept walking. I must have walked another couple of hundred yards before I realised I was headed in the wrong direction. I turned around and retraced my steps. This time, as I passed the venue, I glanced absent-mindedly towards the doorway, and a sign stopped me in my tracks. Hand written in marker pen on a piece of white paper: Lou Donaldson.
I’m a long way from being a jazz specialist, but I know that name well. Donaldson is one of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. A student of Charlie Parker’s, his soulful, populist Blue Note jazz puts him up amongst the absolute masters of his art, even if fashion moved away from him (the good humoured octagenarian cheerfully derides ‘fusion and con-fusion’ from the stage). The opportunity to see him live, in exactly the sort of small, run-down, bohemian venue I always imagined hearing jazz was obviously too good to miss.
I opened the doors and went in, clambering down the stairway to a small, bustling room, carpeted in red with photos of jazz heroes covering the walls. Tickets were $30. I held out three notes and smiled excitedly at the guy on the door.
“Do you have a ticket?”, he asked. I shook my head. He shook his head. Damn.
But not all hope was lost; if I headed up to the awning, he explained, there was a reserve queue. If I waited there, they’d let me in in an hour if the place wasn’t full. Ugh. I headed upstairs. There were already eight or nine people stood at the awning. I weighed up my options, and stretched my fingers experimentally in the cold Manhatten air. It might be a long wait. I decided to stick it out.
About 40 minutes later, starving, very cold and desperate for the loo, I began feeling a bit negative about things – not least because a steady stream of people, clutching tickets, were heading through the door. The reserve queue was up to about 15 people. Suddenly, a man – broad shouldered and shaven-headed – veered towards me. I stepped back, hoping to avoid an exchange. He said something about a ticket. I wasn’t sure if I heard right. Happily, he repeated it.
“You want a free ticket buddy?”, he asked.
As the guy placed a ticket in my hand, explaining that someone he’d been supposed to be bringing had dropped out, I grinned and thanked him. To my right, someone said – in a tone of voice which suggested they weren’t entirely pleased for me – “you got lucky”.
I certainly did. Five minutes later I was sat downstairs watching Lou Donaldson and his band take to the strange. Donaldson is relatively frail, as one might expect of his advanced years, but his playing is just magnificent, and his range, tone and power is completely undiminished. He’s also a born entertainer, whipping the crowd up with jokes and anecdotes, every inch the performer. He brought a physical, crowd-pleasing quality to jazz which I don’t think I knew existed – this wasn’t cerebral, although it was undoubtedly complex. This paradox is, I think, what I get out of jazz. Compared to many of his peers, Donaldson is conservative by nature – he even has a pop at Miles Davis for ‘stopping playing jazz’ at one point, but it’s truly remarkable that within his populist boundaries he still creates sounds so dazzlingly inventive and unorthadox. On several occasions his playing reduced the audience to open-mouthed expressions of wonder. The applause he received after each solo was as warm as it was awed.
At the best moments, I think I captured something of the experience of jazz which I was craving – something rich, physical, incredibly harmonious and welcoming. Thank god I was given that ticket. On a few occasions I glanced over to the bar, where I spotted my benefactor. Of every person in the club, he seemed the most enthusiastic; dancing ecstatically on his bar stool and hollaring his approval. THANKS.
Here’s the last three or four minutes or so of Donaldson’s set – a nice rich recording too; my Zoom H1 always picks up brass instruments really well.
I’m writing this in a pub in the West Village, not far from the Hudson. I arrived in New York on Tuesday, and since then I’ve noticed one disturbing but inevitable thing. Each time I come here – this is my fourth trip – it feels less like a wonderful holiday, where I socialise a little with my American colleagues, and more like a work trip, where I temper a concentrated burst of quite testing work with moments of reprieve in the city. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying myself, but it’s a pity of sorts to discover that New York is not a playground, after all.
It’s autumnal here, but not so dramatic, in the New England sense. The trees are dipping towards the colours of rust though, inevitably. Tomorrow I’m going to head up to Central Park, which is invariably the part of my trip I never plan for, but often enjoy the most. Other things – watching the skyline from Dumbo, shopping in Tribeca, I may have to leave ‘til next time. Thus far I’ve not really engaged with the city’s wider spaces, so it’s been a few days of packed delicatessens in SoHo, busy bookshops, bustling storefronts in Chinatown. I’ve sought refuge, to an extent, in the fact that I now know this city relatively well, so I can head straight to places which are reliably lovely – the Housing Works Bookstore, Shakespeare and Co and McNally Jackson for books, Other Music for records. Here – the White Horse on Hudson St – for an end-of-work drink.
The abiding memory of this trip, I think, will be the election. It’s not my job, as a liberal outsider, to weigh into these matters, but it’s hard not to conclude that America is making an incredible mistake jettisoning the spirit of optimism that came with Obama’s election. I’m prepared to accept that he has not been the revolutionary leader people were looking for, but it’s such a failure of the imagination to elect someone on the basis that they might deliver change, then judge them so early, when its seems so obvious that change of the nature that Obama promised would take so many years. As is so often the case, self-interest guides the electorate – it does in England, too.
I watched the election results come in – some of them – in a bookshop in SoHo. New York, like California, I bet, feels pretty weird at the moment. The coasts must wonder at the middle, must feel so separate. At work my boss wearily complained ‘I’ve decided to become a Republican – it’s so much easier’.
Yesterday, before I headed up to the University of Columbia, I checked in to the Strand Bookstore off Union Square to get some books, and spotted this graffiti on the walk up from Astor Place. I guess this guy – a lonely conservative in liberal NY – feels like his fellow New Yorkers do, when they check the Midterm results.
I hear the name twice, in the airport lounge, before I look up, not stirring because it is not my name.
A man is stood in front of me and the look he gives me as he says the name again is uncertain, although I do not know if that is because he doubts my identity or can not fathom why I won’t acknowledge it.
For some reason I find it hard to know what to say. Peter is my father’s name. “No”, I say at last, aware this is unsatisfactory, that it sounds more like a denial than a statement of fact.
He apologises for his mistake, backing away flustered, but I can see from his face that he is confused, and I know then that I have a doppelgänger.
Posted 21 Jun 2010 — by Jonathan Category Photos, Share
There’s something about my enthusiasm for Anthony Gormley that isn’t intellectual or aesthetic at all – it’s a learned feeling which I think I must have developed as a teenager, visiting the North East; the the birthplace of my parents. Gormley’s Angel of the North arrived at the right time for me; a work of art I instinctively got; something big and impressive – meaningful, political and wistful simultaneously. My dad explained how it was important that it paid tribute to the industrial heritage of the North East, but most of all it felt important – at a time when it was particularly fashionable to decry modern art – that the people of Gateshead and Newcastle so enthusiastically welcomed it. Geordies know the value of local pride and the value of loyalty, so they quickly wrapped the Angel in an Alan Shearer shirt.
So I’ve always had time for Gormley – the same way I do for Newcastle United. I want him/them to do well. And he does good work consistently – even if he’s repeated himself and pursued a vision so doggedly it’s become over-familiar, I think he understands public art better than most, and instinctively makes art human, which is innately valuable. Event Horizon, a touring exhibit made up of life-size, cast iron and fibreglass models of his own body, is a brilliant example of what he does best. Having missed it in London, and never seen the comparable Another Place in Merseyside, I was really excited about seeing the figures – placed discreetly or imposingly, high or low – in Madison Square when I visited New York last month.
So I wasn’t surprised at the extent to which I loved the piece. Although they are wonderfully still, the statues inspire constant interaction, whether in a tactile sense at ground level, or, most excitingly up high, where one must strain one’s vision, scan the horizon in search of them. At first, I sought them out keenly, searching the tall buildings for the figures, and then began, in a more leisurely way, to slowly examine the skyline, to see parts of the city I’d otherwise surely ignore. The men themselves – they seem far more real than statues – are startling. Grounded, they are like silent sentries, motionless amongst the hubbub of the city. They attract people to them, who stop and stare. They reach for their cameras, or reach out a hand to cup an iron shoulder blade or, inevitably, laughing, the moulded genitalia.
Raised from street level, their stillness, and their proximity to the edge at such grand heights, is nerve-wracking. They seem poised to jump, and no amount of reasoning entirely dispels the frisson of concern their positioning provokes. It’s funny how hard it is to unlearn the lessons we’ve all been taught. Stand back from the edge. With each sighting I felt a ripple of unease. But the unease is tempered by excitement at seeing a new relationship of sorts between a city and a human form. From what I could tell, others seemed to feel the same way. Gormley has created a really fascinating, involving, thought provoking work. I hope it moves on somewhere where it can alter another familiar landscape is another, unfamiliar, way.
All being well – in other words, assuming that the signs are tomorrow morning that there’s a fair to middling chance of flights restarting – tonight may be my last night in New York, and that fact didn’t really sink into ’til about 7 o’clock tonight when, gazing out of my hotel window, I realised I had perhaps an hour of light to get out and about in. Pretty much by a process of prior elimination (I’ve now ‘done’ – in the most elementary a fashion – most of NY), I picked a place I’ve never been and piled out of my hotel and onto the Subway.
The place I picked was Dumbo, the contained, art-loft dominated enclave just over the East River (the acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an area I plumped for because I dimly remembered it being a lively place for graffiti. As it happened, I didn’t see any, largely because as soon as I arrived I saw the enormous darkk buildings of Manhattan looming over the river and knew I had to rush North to take some photos of the skyline before the light went. I headed to the to the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, on the river bank.
It was truly magical – this small patch of green space takes you right down to the water’s edge, and I sat there, silently, listening to the trains buzzing past on the bridge above, and to the gentle pulse of the river washing up against the shore.
"Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right."
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green