September 1991

Friday September 13, Paris

          I’m sitting in my window seat in the 747, reading still by the light of day the novel I bought yesterday, William Boyd’s Stars and Bars. On the cover, it says: ‘How one British chap tried to escape American hospitality.’ When Carole spotted this, she said pointedly, “You don’t want to go, or what?” I’ve just finished an excellent meal with champagne, wine and Armagnac liberally supplied. I feel like a normal (but privileged) human being again, able to take advantage of the trip rather than just undergo it. When the plane touches down it is night and, as it taxies along the runway at Boston Logan, I can see the flashing lights of planes taking off or landing at the rate of one every thirty seconds. I have to call up a van to take me to the hotel in Andover. The man tells me to wait at the “limo stop” where courtesy buses and shuttles of every description jockey for custom. When I’m in the van and strapped in at the back, the driver radios that he has “the Marble party”. Out we go onto the congested highway teeming with immaculate automobiles and trucks with their fat, red brake-lights. There are limos with grey-suited drivers and pickups whose drivers wear their hair long at the back and short at the front with baseball caps on the wrong way round. I experience again the surprise of discovering that America looks just like it’s supposed to look.

          At the Rolling Green Inn in Andover I found my new colleagues sitting around the pool next to a pile of discarded lobster shells and corn cobs. People were getting up and telling jokes and I thought I was going to have to tell one too. Instead, I was pounced on by several colleagues in my group of examiners eager to know which way I was going to vote tomorrow when we have to elect our representative on the governing body. I was slow to realise just quite how much actually hinged on my decision.

Tuesday September 17, Greenwich Village, New York

          I’m in the courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum. People are photographing each other in front of the statues and the fountains. I’m sitting on a bench revelling (a little guiltily) in my leisure. There’s an economic recession here apparently. The surface signs are not there; everything seems so prosperous. But banks and businesses are going bankrupt, workers are getting laid off. And here I am, disgracefully idle – a privileged observer feeling as if all this scenery and all these sights have been created for my benefit alone.

          This morning took the subway up to Central Park West. All the graffiti of seven years ago has gone but, instead, the car was billed with adverts for drug helplines, ‘designer’ teeth braces, learning-to-read programs, Alcoholics Anonymous and Medicare schemes. There were other ads tapping more intimate sources of anxiety: Pregnant? What are your kids doing right now? Acne? Anal fissures and haemorrhoids? Foot pain?

          Walked east across Central Park, past the Shakespeare open-air theatre and the Great Lawn, and dogged joggers pounding their way along the paths in the already clammy heat. The museum is frequented today mostly by Oriental girls in pairs. What I discovered there were the eighteenth and nineteenth-century American paintings: portraits of early settlers whose children have large, moon-like faces, and the romantic eastern landscapes of the Hudson River School celebrating the virgin territory of little more than a hundred years ago. I spent time with the Canalettos, the Rembrandts and the Vermeers and also discovered some British artists I didn’t know like Stephen Barclay, William Roberts and William Orpen whose self-portrait in front of a mirror with whisky bottles is striking indeed.*

          Coming out, flattened by the heat that slammed down on Fifth Avenue, I walked through the Park and through the Zoo in the shade. Then discovered all the banks were already closed. Having spent my last dollars in the Metropolitan, I had to walk another sixty blocks to get back to Fourth Street. The whole way down the Avenue, beggars held out paper cups. At one end of the spectrum were cheerful blacks, quipping as they pass the cup under your nose. They were picking up quarters and dimes just for not making the donor feel either threatened or embarrassed. At the other end, you get homeless Aids sufferers, half-dead, lying propped up against the wall of a building, the cup swaying in a frail hand. I find this very upsetting. There is violence on the street too. Every day people shoot each other for a minor traffic skirmish, or for no reason at all. When I asked Sam, my host, if he worried about it, he told me what he feared most was being stabbed or shot by some nutcase or crack addict just because he didn’t like your face. There’s a lot of racial tension here; you have to be careful how you reply to coloured people if they address you, know how to look at them if they look at you. There’s a lot of paranoia about.

          Sam and I went out and had a hamburger and then met two friends who’d come up from Los Angeles to help organize the NY Film Festival. We had iced coffee together outside on Bleecker Street and MacDougal. They got to telling jokes that I didn’t think very good or very funny. I find myself Americanising my accent, idioms and vocabulary so as not to feel such an archetypal Brit.

*Leading the Life in the West, ca. 1910

Wednesday September 18, Greenwich Village, New York

          Time is going very slowly. It seems like a month ago I gave my first class of the year, not one week. Instead of doing the second class this Wednesday morning, I’ve walked from Waverly Place through Greenwich Village and along Greenwich Street into TriBeCa where most of the old warehouse buildings are closed down and derelict, covered in graffiti. At the north end of TriBeCa, men are still working and there are trucks loading and unloading at the bays. There are some guys sitting at a table in the street vociferously playing cards. The sidewalks are cracked and overgrown with weeds, the cobbled streets dented with big pools of water from smashed fire hydrants. Garbage and rusting, discarded appliances lie everywhere. I’m struck by how much and how loud people are talking.

Lower Manhattan from the Empire State

          Farther south, nearer the World Trade Center, a few buildings have been restored and there are just a few restaurants and offices; the process of gentrification has started. From here, I went to the end of Greenwich Street and out to the new area of ‘fill-in’ west of the Twin Towers: Battery Park City. There are four towers housing Merrill Lynch and American Express that look as if they are made of cardboard. With reflecting windows flush with the shell, the towers are bland and unremarkable in appearance although there has been some attempt at innovation in their form. Along the shore, the beginnings of a park that is described on the notice as ‘an interim lawn’. On the patio overlooking one of the old docks, I had a hefty chicken sandwich and a Rolling Rock beer for $13. The new area looks like a Thames bankside development. But what they have done in this new part of Manhattan is make the riverside accessible to the public. You can smell the sea – a rare thing in New York. All along the riverside there are benches and on just about all these benches at lunchtime people are eating and having animated conversations. I’m again struck by how much and how loud people are talking.

          I made my way over to Broadway, went and had a look in Saint Paul’s Chapel and then sat in the churchyard and looked at the simple gravestones, most of them no more than three feet from the ground. Then I looked up to the top of the World Trade Center towers casting their shadows over the burial ground. All this in just three lifetimes! In Canal Street and parts of Soho, where the buildings are blackened and rusty and crumbling, you get the impression of a city in terminal decay, making the fervent desire here for conservation seem absurd. Cast iron? More like rusty old iron. Why not scrap it and sanitize this dirty, infested city? New York appears to me not only an old city but an out-of-date city clinging to the past. Here, in Canal Street – and in many other places – it looks like the city of the Third World that some say it’s fast becoming.

          Sam, who was at his parents place in New Jersey to celebrate Yom Kippur, gets back earlier than expected. He walks me around Greenwich Village pointing out the sights, the idiosyncratic and anachronistic features. He shows me small, wood-slatted country houses with gardens, a gas station converted into a diner, a private court with 100-year-old trees towering above the buildings, and the bar on Hudson Street where Dylan Thomas is supposed to have finished himself off.

          We ate in the Café Florent* on Gansevoort Street in the meat-packing district over by the Hudson. The streets are still cobbled but there’s not much meat-packing left – just one big company (the workers active on the loading bays even at this late hour). I ate meatloaf and drank Chilean wine. The place was full of desirable girls in their twenties. They dress provocatively and they look at the men. This is hard to reconcile with the danger there is out on the streets. Sam says they are asserting their rights and that, by being bold and assertive, you are more likely to deter than to become a victim. We went to a bar by Sheridan Square called ‘The Lion’s Head’** and he made a good job of convincing me that old New York should be preserved, restored and put to new use; that renovation was capable of bringing in people and businesses and raising it from its ashes.

          It is extremely hot and humid. I sleep with the fan on next to the bed and the window open to the sounds of Waverly Place and of nearby Sixth Avenue: voices, traffic, and the thud of rap from passing convertibles.

*then the most fashionable of downtown diners. **legendary bar of the 1960s.

Sunday September 29, Paris

          Despite the extra hour of sleep due to changing to winter time, I didn’t get up until 9 a.m.* As I lay there thinking about getting up, I was saddened by my lack of determination; I mean, I could have been up writing since six. Had I done this for the last three months, I might have something to show for it. I’ve been thinking about the novel every day. I think I know how to start it again but there’s still a big leap to make. I like to think it’ll be like the leap from being a smoker to a non-smoker; for years you think about it, and then suddenly, one day, there you are: the same person, but living under a new regime.

          Morbid reading tastes today; the sordid details of Miles Davies’s physical disintegration published in Libération [he died in Santa Monica the day before] and Daniel Defoe’s accounts of the disposal of corpses in Journal of the Plague Year. Many of the victims who fled London died in the fields in outlying villages. They would be buried by the villagers but no one would come near the bodies. What they did was to dig a hole some way from the body and then draw or push the corpse towards it using long branches or poles. Then they would throw in the earth from as far away as possible. It struck me that such ‘plague behaviour’ would, in the era of Aids, make a topical, but gruesome subject for a film.

          To change register, I turned to the book reviews in The Sunday Times only to read about what a shit George Bernard Shaw was (Michael Holroyd’s fastidious biography) and other assorted hatchet jobs on lesser mortals. If the biographers and reviewers are to be believed, most talented people, whether artists, musicians, writers, or politicians were execrable human beings with few saving graces. The object of the biography-reviewing exercise (at least, as far as The Sunday Times sees it) seems to be to prove that those we so admired were, more accurately, worthy only of our contempt. This may well be what some of us want to hear because it makes us – poor, untalented readers – feel nobler or, at least, morally superior.

            If Pepys were alive today, I thought, he’d have appeared on numerous radio and television chat shows to satisfy the curiosity of his fans. He’d know the answers to their questions off pat. What’s more, the popular press would have the low-down on some of the shadier commercial transactions he’s been involved in – not to mention this womanising he’s cagey about in the diary. Yes, he’d be under a good deal of pressure to come clean – or lie his head off.

*Before 1996, the return to winter time was at the end of September.

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