I love New York almost as much as I love London. Here’s the start of an occasional series reflecting on both cities.
The twin capitals of the world are London and New York and yes, I know New York isn’t a capital of anything. Not the capital city of America or even the capital of the state that bears its name. But when you emerge feeling slightly grubby from Manhattan’s rotten, jangling subway or from London’s slightly superior tube you know these are no ordinary towns.
I’ve lived in London for most of my life. I came here when I was 23 and aside from an eight year debouch to Asia I have been here ever since. Visitors often say: ‘London, fine to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’. Personally, I don’t want to live anywhere else, except perhaps New York. I often feel I have more in common with residents of the Big Apple than I do with most inhabitants of the UK who live outside the capital.
I first visited New York when I was 21. I’d met a girl at university whose home was on Long Island and we planned a trip. I was living with my parents in a minute village just outside Northampton and I remember just trying to get a US visa was a challenge back then. The first time I applied, my visa was refused. I then got our local vicar to endorse my application and it went through. The power of prayer I guess.
My girlfriend met me at JFK in her parents’ big, burgundy coloured Mercedes. The heat was burning up the tarmac. I got in, rolled down a window to get some air and was quickly told to roll it back up as there was air conditioning. It may seem odd now, but I’d never experienced a/c before. The year was 1975.
Prior to heading to Long Island, we took a trip into the city. I can remember gliding in over the Queensboro Bridge as if it was yesterday. Everything seemed utterly familiar because I’d seen the Manhattan skyline in movies, but also utterly new and thrilling. I took my 14-year-old daughter on the same trip last year and it still is.
I visited many times during the late 70s and early 80s when Ed Koch was Mayor. Back then the city was going through a pretty rough time. I remember a cop telling me on no account to walk down one of the streets leading from Times Square as it was ruled by drug dealers and muggers. It’s cleaner now and healthier but I’d be hard pressed to say it was better.
Back then, there were many compensations: all the tiny Italian restaurants in Little Italy and Greenwich Village and there was one big bonus that I perhaps didn’t appreciate enough at the time. I’d been brought up listening to jazz, my dad was a big fan, and I was able to catch a last look at some of the greats from the Modern Jazz era. I saw, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. All ghosts now, but then just a few feet away on stage in some downtown jazz dungeon.
Walking through London can sometimes feel like walking through Manhattan, both are great walking cities. Soho often feels like SoHo and there are parts of Battersea Park, behind the lakes around the big rocks, which feel uncannily like Central Park.
In some ways though, the two metropolitan giants differ wildly. In London rich and poor rub shoulders, alright not so much in Mayfair, but on our street in Vauxhall there is a wide mix of upper (we have a couple of Lords and Ladies), middle and working-class residents. This is largely the result of Nazi bombs and the post war drive to build council accommodation on bombsites. Over in Pimlico there’s a council block that has balconies facing the Thames. I wonder what they fetch now?
Inevitably, many of the prime local authority houses have been sold off, but there remains, on our street at least, a healthy mix of plumbers, doctors and those who dress in Ermine to go to the office.
Manhattan has largely become a dormitory for the wealthy, but there rich and poor never lived cheek by jowl. The Quality lived around the park or in Midtown while the Poor frequented the Lower East side. Now it’s all upscale, but then again so are many parts of London.
But I don’t want to appear too dewy-eyed; London certainly has its problems. Four years ago, when we returned from living in Asia, one of the first things we noticed was just how angry people were; Londoners operate on a pretty short fuse.
I was riding my bike up a side street, with cars parked on either side of the road. This prevented a car from overtaking me and though I couldn’t have held up the driver for more than 10 seconds, my goodness was I screamed at. Cut up a car driver and you can expect the full force of gammon-faced apoplexy, not to mention the horn treatment. People behave this way largely, I suspect, because they feel protected in their car, they can quickly lock the doors, and so feel confident that they can say and do things they never would if they were face to face with another citizen. They operate with the safe anonymity of a Twitter user with CAP MODE PERMANENTLY LOCKED, YOU F***ING IDIOT.
In Asia, you soon learn that if you scream and shout, you are immediately judged a fool and the person to whom you are directing the insults will just shut down and have nothing more to do with you. So, if you’re in a bank or hotel and are screaming and shouting because you didn’t get the service or the room you wanted you will quickly be left to your own devices and no one will think about helping you.
It bothers me slightly that I now don’t notice the London anger as much as I used to, but not getting angry at the drop of a hat is one of the great lessons learnt from living in the Far East. Persistence is fine, anger not so much.
In 1949, around thirty years before I first set foot on Manhattan, E.B. White wrote a seminal article called Here is New York (And I will be returning to Mr White in my next New York/London blog) and he talks about the latent anger he sensed, saw and felt in New York all those years ago.
‘The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified – a single run of a cross town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustrations and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that always changes an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the questions asked at the wrong moment.’
But ultimately both London and New York are tolerant, liberal societies because they have to be. We are tolerant out of necessity; if we weren’t both cities would explode in anger, hate and bigotry and let’s face it, sometimes it comes close.
But let’s close on a positive note and leave the last word to E.B. White who though he was talking about the New York of almost 70 years ago, could just as easily be talking about London right now.
‘The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin – the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.’ Amen to that.
Next time I’m going to look at a trip I made to New York two weeks after 9/11.