Category: London and New York

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

Hard times in the city

In my previous blog about the twin metropolitan giants, London and New York, I mentioned an essay by E.B. White called ‘Here is New York’. I imagine quite a few readers scratched their heads going E.B. who? Well, if you don’t recognise the name you may recognise the books. He wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and if you haven’t read the books, I’m guessing you know the films.

White’s essay, written in 1949, is a love letter to his beloved New York (albeit one that carries warnings), which is written in the elegant, effortless prose style, that writers from that era perfected in columns for the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The article surfaced again after 9/11 because of a resonant paragraph towards the end of the piece about how vulnerable New York is to destruction. He says: ‘A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers and cremate the millions.’

While White could never have imagined the damage wrought by passenger planes used as weapons of war, he knew then as we know now that London and New York have a certain terrorist priority. He writes: ‘In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm’.

On that terrible day I was at work in London, doing my job, which as improbable as it sounds, is to train people how to deal with crises. My wife, working on a national newspaper, texted me that a plane had flown into a building in New York. When I told the people in the room, they initially thought it was part of the training.

Thereafter, I remember walking home and watching television for hours trying to make sense of what was playing out live in front of our eyes. We saw the buildings come down and the crowds running from the swirling clouds of dust, ash and smoke; it was gripping and depressing in equal measure.

My birthday falls in September and that year (2001) my wife, had very kindly bought airline flights to New York as my present. Immediately after 9/11 all flights were cancelled, and passengers received a refund. Our tickets were dated about a week after the event and by then airlines, possibly feeling the pinch, said there were to be no more refunds. Do we go, or do we stay?

We discussed the pros and cons, and while, in the short term, the likelihood of another attack was vanishingly small, the thought of going on holiday to a place that had suffered so much death and destruction did seem a little odd. Frankly, I knew pretty quickly that we would go, but what I couldn’t have predicted was the reception we received.

After an uneventful flight (I like them that way) we checked into The W Hotel in Midtown. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by someone on reception when trying to check into a hotel. Although we hadn’t cancelled our booking there was a clear expectation that we would never show up. Locals seemed to think that tourists would never return, but there we were, being celebrated by New York’s hard bitten finest.

But of course, there were very few tourists, the city was eerily quiet. We paid a brief, respectful visit to the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers and walked for miles through deserted streets, occasionally coming upon small parks with pictures posted everywhere of the missing.

Two nights into our stay, Broadway opened its doors and of course we went to see a show. Later that evening we joined friends at a piano bar in Greenwich Village where we all belted out songs from Broadway shows. Drink was taken, the singing may have been terrible and some of the songs ridiculous, but it seemed like a small, splendid act of defiance.

The daughter of a family friend was studying in New York when the catastrophe happened, and her parents asked us to find her. We made contact and I remember seeing her sitting out front of her boarding house looking very small. She had been helping look after those who had been rescued and at 18 years old had found the experience overwhelming. We sought shelter in the best kind of New York sanctuary, a diner, where we ate eggs over easy with hash browns.

Then it was our turn. On the morning of 7th July 2005, exactly thirteen years ago today, terrorists struck London. Four suicide bombers with rucksacks packed with explosives travelled from Leeds to wreak havoc on the capital. Just before 9am three bombs exploded on the London Underground and a little later a fourth was detonated on a red London bus at Tavistock Square. Fifty-two people died, and more than 700 were injured.

Sitting at the desk I’m sitting at right now, I heard the news on the radio. My mobile and landline phone promptly stopped working but I managed to get an email through to my wife and received a reply to say she was OK. All emails then went down.

Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London at the time. To many he is now a somewhat discredited figure, but his rallying call to Londoners and his message to terrorists in the heat of the moment, was pitch perfect.

‘I know that you personally don’t fear giving your own life so you can take others, that’s why you are so dangerous. But I know what you do fear is that you will fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society.
‘And I can show you why you will fail in days that follow. You will see. Look at our airports look at our railway stations look at our seaports and even after your cowardly attack you will see people from Britain, people from around the world, will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.
‘They chose to come to London like so many have come before, because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. And nothing you do, no matter how many you kill will stop that flight, to our cities where freedom reigns.’

Perhaps you think that overly romantic, just political hyperbole, because I’m not blind to the fact that even on a good day London can seem brutal, daunting, even frightening. But Livingstone was right, people come here from all over the world to fulfil their dreams: the musician from a little village in Northampton, which he can’t stand a moment longer, the artist from Poland, who seeks a broader canvas and the builder from Romania desperate to send money home to his family.

In towns and villages all over Britain, all over the world, people right this instant are planning to come to London to make a go of their life, to accept the capital’s tough love. Now there’s something.

Want to be welcomed as a local in a Suffolk village? It might take two generations to find acceptance. Want to be a Londoner? Great, then be one, right now, immediately. Say it out loud: ‘I’m a Londoner’. And if that doesn’t give you a little chill, then perhaps this town isn’t for you.

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (1)

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (1)

I love New York almost as much as I love London. Here’s the start of an occasional series reflecting on both cities.

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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.

New York SublimePrior 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.