One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.
Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.
You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.
As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.
I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.
I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.
Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.
A few thoughts on the events of ten years ago.
We all remember where we were. I was at school. Rumours flew, a memo went round instructing teachers to turn off televisions, senior management terrified of traumatising kids. By the end of the day, everyone knew something had happened and no-one knew what that thing was. It was a sensation we were unused to; peace had reigned in Northern Ireland for some time, we were a post-Cold War generation with no real idea of what a threat to our way of life would look like. This changed the moment my brother and I walked through the front door to find our father watching BBC News 24.
Television was how most of the world experienced the events of September 11th 2001, and the subsequent events of the decade since that day. I remember watching the live footage of Baghdad the night of “shock and awe”, the fall of the Saddam statue, Col Tim Collins’ speech (both the original and the subsequent dramatisation). I finally saw United 93 this year, which is as shocking because of the chaos and incoherency of the initial response as it is moving because of the bravery of the people on the plane. Both live and after-the-fact with the gloss of Hollywood applied, the pictures were thrust into our living rooms.
And then there were moments when the shockwaves invaded your real life. I watched the 7/7 London bombings unfold on the news, but two weeks later on the 21st was in London, a 17-year-old work experience kid, when a second set of backpack bombs failed to go off but nonetheless brought the city to a standstill. Panicked phone calls, confusion, loved ones not knowing where we were. I had a tiny taste of the chaos wrought on my capital.
There is a scar on the landscape of Manhattan. Your first view of the skyline is a shock, even years later. My joy at crossing the Queensboro Bridge in a yellow cab from Kennedy airport and seeing Manhattan strung out along the night time horizon was tempered by the knowledge that the far southern tip of that string of lights was not how it used to look, how it looked in pictures or on TV. Three days later I made the pilgrimage that every tourist makes now. By this time, October 2009, there was little to see. Construction proceeds apace.
I haven’t really shown these photos to anyone before, simply because they are not of much photographic or artistic merit. Still, they stand as memories, the moment I went and bore witness to the rebuilding.
SPOILERS: If you haven’t read Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Imperial Bedrooms or Bright Lights, Big City and would like to do so in the future, it’s probably not a great idea to read this. BLBC in particular has an ending quite capable of being spoiled by the heavy quoting that follows.
Like, it seems, many of the critics, I was distinctly unsure what to make of Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel in 5 years and sequel to his scorching, iridescent debut Less Than Zero (both, incidentally, are named after Elvis Costello albums) . In the end it took not a rereading of Less Than Zero, or indeed an evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the company of Ellis and hundreds of his fans, but an encounter with another work of the 1980s “literary brat pack” before I could truly bring it into focus.
Last night I finished Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. I only picked it up because it was £2 in FOPP, and I nearly didn’t do that, only spotting the stack behind the counter once I had picked up a few other thing and gone to pay for them. “Oh, chuck in a copy of that,” I said, gesturing toward the pile of yellow paperbacks behind the cashier. All things considered I’m rather glad I did. I walked a few doors up to my favourite cafe in Nottingham and started to read. (more…)
Photobox, my online digital photo printers of choice, are having a competition to celebrate 10 years in business. It was divided into categories by continent on a theme of Around the World in 80 Days. I submitted a number of my American shots and promptly forgot all about it. Until today.
Four rows down, in the centre.
No idea why they chose this one of all the American stuff I submitted, but I’m sort of glad they did. I can’t see it winning, somehow, as there’s some stiff competition, but it’s nice to be in all the same.
The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with. (more…)
Back in NYC on a whim
Returning to New York was impulsive. Having checked out of my Baltimore B&B, I spent the morning wandering the city, trying and failing to find any internet access; I still had in my mind the idea that I wanted to go to Boston, but in all my searching I had found nowhere to stay. In the end, I gave up and fled back to New York. Nominally, this was because I knew where there was an affordable hotel and plentiful internet, but it was a flight back to familiarity on other levels as well.
I boarded a train in Baltimore, bound for Penn Station, New York, NY; does anyone ever get used to that? The immensity of that destination? Can anywhere, except perhaps Grand Central, be so storied, so laden with myth? Even in its current subterranean concrete-bound incarnation, it comes with excitement and anticipation as standard. (more…)
…was an allusion to a couple of songs, namely Mark Erelli’s wonderful “Baltimore”, and Counting Crows’ “Raining in Baltimore.” Erelli’s song I have alluded to before and is one of the great driving-all-night-to-see-my-girl songs, with the twist that on this occasion the girl in question is going to need a lot of convincing when he gets there. Probably best not to look (or smell) like you’ve just driven all night then, really. The latter is an unsung gem from August and Everything After, a paean to the joys and gut-wrenching impossibility of long-distance love. (more…)
It was a powerful transition, from independent young people to an interdependent family, from mountains to plains, cold to warm, MDT to CST.
Still in “big airport” mode from Heathrow and Kennedy, I arrived at LaGuardia spectacularly early, much to the bemusement of the check-in staff. I was expecting the endless conveyor belts and multi-terminal hell of LHR or JFK and instead got a gentle stroll around the corner to security and leisurely amble to my gate, not an escalator or belt in sight. The flipside, I suppose, is that there was no-one trying to sell me discount perfume, no caviar-and-champagne bar (no bar at all, come to think of it), in fact very little do to at all. Therefore, I spent the next two hours drinking orange juice and watching a car chase on CNN. (more…)
…and so it proved, and not just because I would end it 5 time zones to the west of where I began it.
Even the date is exciting today. It’s been on the horizon for so long I feared it might never arrive. On the 1027 EMT service to St Pancras, travelling First Class; this is the way to do it. A whole other world.
Still here. Technical difficulties. What a day for it! Doing my best not to panic, but contingency plans are forming.
After the initial hiccup, all seems to be well now.
The tone of mild dread apparent in the above was because the train was not moving. It was a farcical scene, passengers stood on the platform wondering when the doors were going to open, then giving up and filing through the single set of doors that did open. Once we’d walked the length of the train to get back to our seats, we waited while 10:27 came and went and nothing happened. Somehow, it wasn’t reassuring; just like your temperamental Windows 95 machine (remember those days!), the answer is to turn it off and turn it back on again. Trains can be rebooted apparently, and eventually this seemed to have the desired effect. (more…)
The following is collated and edited correspondence both with my American friends and with friends and relatives at home, emails hurriedly typed in internet cafes in cities, or on borrowed laptops in friends’ houses, journal entries from the time. I have added commentary with the benefit of hindsight, and intercut some of the photographs I took along the way.
The journal in question was a black leather journal cover embossed with a Frank Lloyd Wright design, a present from my mother a couple of years previous, holding 7×5 refills ordered from Barnes & Noble in the USA because Europe doesn’t do 7×5 notebooks. (more…)
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
I’ve gone to look for America
Paul Simon, America
Assume for a minute that the Michigan in question is the lake rather than the state and these words seem almost prophetic, or at the very least like a paraphrasing of the sort of statement I’ve uttered countless times.
This probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to most of you. Before I progress any further then, I should at least begin some sort of account of my last (and first, if you’ll excuse the jarring nature of putting those two in close proximity; the English language is a strange and wonderful beast!) trip to the United States.
There is, I’m reasonably convinced, nothing in the experience of the average British 18-year-old that prepares you for your first sight of one of the truly great American cities. No amount of photos or guidebook accounts can prepare you for the first time you approach, at ground level, the sheer cliff face of the metropolis, rising out of a morass of suburbia. (more…)
Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
Jack Kerouac, On The Road
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The reader will have to excuse a little time travel, or at the very least time-compression, on the part of the author, as he posts from the past gradually catching up with reality. This, of course, means I will have to accelerate my writing if I wish to remain there and not get overtaken…
It is time to begin.
An essay on the USA? A travelogue? An exploration of the rebuilding exercise, the resuscitation of the American Dream. A diary, a prophecy, a statement of intent. The writings of an outsider with a curious but single-minded fascination. Another young man rattling round inside the great, mysterious, mystical America of his mind, determined to chase a few myths and discover a few more in the process. (more…)