Saturday, May 31, 2008


I’ve just spent a delightful few days roaming around in Provence. I usually write a sort of diary when I go away, mainly because when I get home I don’t seem to be able to recall all the little things which happen – the ones which add the light and shade, the texture and the detail to such a jaunt. My nearest and dearest has a slightly different take on this and implies that the local brew may somehow play a part, but that is, of course, a lie and a slur.

This time though, I ran into a problem. I try to take a book away with me which bears some relationship to where I’m going, and this time I picked one up in Waterstones, our local bookshop, called “Narrow Dog to Carcassonne”, by a guy named Terry Darlington. It was the simple story, so the blurb inside said, of a couple “of a certain age” (code for “old, of pensionable age, past it” etc) and their dog (who turns out to be the total star of the book – Lassie reincarnated in a whippet, for Goodness sake) meandering their way on a narrow canal boat from Stone in Staffordshire, across the English Channel, and down through the French waterways to the walled city of Carcassonne in South-West France. For those lacking a geography O level, that’s a bloody long way!

My problem was I found the writing in the book to be absolutely amazing – it grabbed me and enthralled me from Page 1 - the whole thing quite blew me away. As a result, I hit a blast of Writer’s Block. The author was so much better at his craft that I really felt like not bothering. You know the way it is – it’s like when you go to a golf tournament, and watch the professionals playing, and you realise, in an instant, that if you did nothing else but practice constantly for the rest of your life, there is no way you could match what you’d just seen them do. So you give up. They are simply in a different league.

The book is, at different times, hugely informative, gives a scalpel like precision to the ways (good and bad) of “les grenouilles”, hysterically funny and sometimes very moving in a typically English way – simply the best read I’ve had in ages.

One of the ways I judge my own appreciation of anything I read, is the point in the book where I start to get withdrawal symptom’s about finishing it, and never being able to suffer the pleasure I’m currently experiencing again. If it happens at all, it’s usually a few pages from the end. Here, as soon as they turned onto the Burgundy Canal, about halfway through France, they started.

It’s full of the most varied literary allusions, ranging from Speedy Gonzales, Bony Moronie and Great Balls of Fire to The Waste Land, The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queen – all via Gene Roddenberry and St Matthew’s Gospel. Either the guy is a gigantic pseud or a Grande Fromage in his field – (I think the latter). But the result was that I was left with a feeling of something approaching inadequacy by the skilled word-smithing I was enjoying. A bit like Wodehouse, I often found myself re-reading a sentence to take simple pleasure in the way it had been constructed – not that his style is remotely like Wodehouse, as you will find out if you join him on their voyage.

I’m over it a bit now, hence this piece, but it was a very strange feeling for a few days.

I’ve retraced my own steps a little, and rather than writing a “First we did this, then we did that” pile of words as we chomped our way around the sights of Provence, I decided to concentrate on two or three “vignettes” of our visit rather than bore the world to tears with the serial happenings of two old gits swimming around in the middle of a French wine lake.

So here goes………

Watch this space.



Thursday, May 29, 2008


It would be fair to say that I'm not the greatest fan of "Toys Я Us".

I suppose you could say we get not only the Government but the Toy Shops we deserve, and it's really all our own fault. But, ignoring the Government (which is actually quite a good idea in this country, at the moment) for the purposes of this short note, places like Toys Я Us do seem to exploit their position in the way they contribute to the development of the minds of the nation's offspring, and the way they are taught to play.

I'm no statistician, and having visited the place on no more than 6 occasions in my entire life, I can say with absolute certainty that my own views do not form a meaningful sample. But, the impression I have from these 6 visits is that, for all the girls in the world, the only colour existing today in the inhabited Toy Universe is PINK. Not pink, but that PINK which only exists inside the cores of ill-maintained Russian Nuclear Reactors. And is it me or do all the boy's toys on sale aim to progress the destruction of as much of the Human population as quickly as possible?

I am prepared to admit to a soupçon (I've just spent a few days in la Belle France, hence the cedilla) of bias here, but I have to say I find the whole toy shopping experience hugely depressing in such places. My personal "6 visit poll" has found the staff unhelpful and uninterested. And no-one in there seems to smile, an odd situation for a toy shop, where I'd have thought pleasure was one of the main aims of the game.

Even the name irritates me – the nation's ability to spell is under enough threat already without a responsible retailer calling itself something that reads as if they are teaching us the basics of Cyrillic Texting. Perhaps I've missed the plot completely, and it's actually educational, but I don't think so.

Anyway, just to support my point, here is a picture taken outside one of their stores the other day. It purports to explain their Opening Hours to the public at large.

If it makes sense to you, you're a better man than me. Or again, maybe, it's an early adoption of some new EEC based Flexible Working Initiative.

You decide.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The bug has bitten again and I'm off on my travels again – this time to Provence in the South of France. The family have been here several times, with the last time being, rather frighteningly, around 20 years ago. I'm here this time with my Brother in Law, and we're spending 4 days in a small town called Vaison-la-Romaine, which is about 30 kilometres from Avignon.

It sits dead in the centre of the Cotes de Rhone Wine region, and for those drunkards who can recite the names of the 17 or so villages which qualify for the Cotes de Rhone Villages Appellation in Wine Making, most of them are only a few minutes drive from Vaison.

Vaison has one of the the largest set of Roman Ruins in Europe, but they were discovered under the edge of the town, so the ability to excavate the full remains is limited by the need to flatten a large part of the current town sitting on top of them, which the locals are, perhaps understandably, finding difficult to come to terms with.

Anyway, we drove to Birmingham Airport, and got on an Air France Canadair jet. This was operated by a company called Brit Air, which seemed to indicate the possibility of yer actual cooperation between a French and a British Airline. Now this is something which struck me as a complete No-No. Remember Agincourt, and all that. But on searching around, it seems that Brit Air is actually a French company – very odd.

Lyon was reached early thanks to a bit of a tail wind, and we drove down the Autoroute du Soleil (why don't we name our Motorways) – towards Avignon, and branched off for the last few kilometres of the journey. Vaison was reached at the rather sociable time of 5pm, and we booked into the hotel. We had reserved the "Apartement" which was at the very top of the hotel, and reached after climbing four flights of stairs (no lift) with no rhyme or reason to the directions they randomly went off in. The good thing was it led onto a private balcony which overlooked the square in the centre of the town, which is great because you feel really in the middle of things, which actually you are!

The best word I can think of to describe the place is "Bohemian". Really off the wall art on the walls, which are painted in very distinctive colours, none of which seem to match. And a new thing for me - my bed is made of Wicker, and looks a bit like a gondola, except I don't think it would float for too long!

My ploy is always to chat up the receptionist, who thawed a bit when she heard my distinctive and rather individual approach to the French Language. We had been given half a ham roll on the plane, and apart from this, lunch seemed to bypass us, so we were on the gannetty side of ravenous by about 7 o'clock. Mademoiselle Receptioniste advised us of a decent restaurant near the river, and off we set to talk them into giving us a meal without having made a reservation.

A small degree of smiling and my idiosyncratic French aimed at the girl who seemed to be Head Cook and Bottlewasher there, secured us a place, whereupon the scale of our achievement was immediately made clear by her turning away the next couple who came in asking the same question we had. One up to us.

We ended up having the best overall meal I'd had in quite a while – Thyme smoked Duck on Balsamic Salad leaves, perfect Veal Fillet with wild mushrooms in a really zingy reduction, and a local goats cheese called Picodon, which is served with Peppercorns in a light peppery olive oil.

The wine list went on for a few pages, and none of them, apart from the Champagnes, were produced further than 20 miles away from where we were sitting. That's the way to support your local industry.

Back home to bed, except we seemed to end up in a café outside the hotel, drinking a couple of beers until just before midnight, when the hotel shut the door. The temperature was 17 degrees, the whole place still had a buzz about it and was sitting around just chatting to friends, and it all felt really rather pleasant.

Tomorrow is Market Day in Vaison, and Provencale markets are a bit special. I decided to get up early, and be on the streets before the market people arrived in the town, so I could photograph the build up, as well as the market in full swing. That meant being out of the door around 6am, which given we'd just arrived today from England, was actually 5am.

Ho Hum – we'll see.



Friday, May 16, 2008


It’s really quite amazing what difference a few hours can make in the way you look at the world. A week or so ago, I was sitting on the edge of the Hudson River taking pictures of New York’s skyline as the sun went down. If you failed to be awestruck by what I was watching that night, then I simply don’t think you have a soul. Yes, I know all about the carbon footprint and the emissions and… and… and… but it was simply one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen in my life.



Fast forward a couple of days, and I’m on a beach, in the sunshine, on England’s North Norfolk coast. I’m with my wife, and our 2 dogs ..... and basically no-one else. The beach goes on for ever. And as far as the eye can see in each direction, there is just, well … nothing.





For the cinema buffs among you, if you’ve ever seen the Gwyneth Paltrow “Shakespeare in Love” film, the sequence at the end where she walks up an unending beach in America to start her new life there, was actually filmed on the sands where we were walking.

Talk about a contrast – the most vibrant city on earth to simple rural tranquility in a few hours.

Thank Goodness we invented the aeroplane.



Living in the wilds of Shropshire, I’m probably the last person in the Western World to pick up on this. But, being English, it’s the taking part, and not the winning, that’s important. I am indebted, as they say, to good friend Bob, a gentleman whom you would be well advised to include in your “Pub Quiz” team, for pointing me in the direction of this little gem of English (the language) wordery.


Response from Yorkshireman, following offer of Extra Strong Mint from backward African Prime Minister – (1,2,3,6)

Answers on a PostCard.

Please note that the ability to understand this clue is probably in inverse proportion to the distance you live away from Huddersfield or Batley. Anyone interested enough in the answer who is not lucky enough to be English, or, to stretch a point, British, can claim diplomatic immunity, and ask for further help, which, in the interests of International Co-operation will be fulsomely given.



Wednesday, May 14, 2008


On my journey to work this morning, I slipped gently down the slip road off the M6 Motorway at Spaghetti Junction, in the centre of Birmingham. Greeting me at the roundabout at the end of the slip-road was one of those delightful yellow metal signs which gave advanced warning of impending Road Works. It said that as from May 23rd, Roadworks would gum the place up (funnily enough, they didn't use those words) for the next 71 weeks. 71 weeks – that's a year and a half.

What, in heaven's name, can they possibly do that will take 71 weeks. They've just built a brand new shopping centre costing around £200 million, in the centre of Birmingham, during which it was the biggest building site, using the largest number of cranes, in the whole of Europe, and that didn't take 71 weeks. And all this is, is a pesky roundabout.

And anyway, the idea of anyone being able to say that, whatever it is they are going to do, will take 71 weeks simply beggars belief. The precision is astounding. However, the one thing you can absolutely guarantee is that it will not take 71 weeks – it may be 56 or 93, but it won't be 71. As a sop to spurious accuracy, this is a World Class example, presumably designed to make you think they know what they’re doing. Prime numbers (apart from 1, and I seem to recall, through a glass, very darkly, that 1 isn't actually a prime number anyway) play no part in roadwork durations.

All we need now is the Cones Telephone Hot-line number to appear (has anyone ever actually rung it?), and another notice advising us that there may be "Delays Possible". Of course there "may well" be delays possible – they're stopping the use of the roundabout on the most used exit on the most used motorway in Europe. Do they think we're cretins or something?

And I was quite enjoying my drive into Birmingham up until that point.


Sunday, May 11, 2008


I’d never really thought of myself as an arrogant git – I leave that to others. But when you’ve done something for a decent length of time, you tend to reach a point where, if you’re not careful, you know it all. Of course, you don’t know it all – you just think you do. Which makes it infinitely worse.

So, one of the things I’ve tried to impose on myself as life flows along, is as much as possible, to see things with an open mind. I specifically and deliberately exclude Rap Music from this, on the basis that every rule must have an exception.

But, take Photography. Now, I know a little bit about it, not an enormous amount, but quite a lot more than Mr Average. Over the last twenty years, I have had more “religious” (in a non God like way) experiences with a camera in my hand, than at any other time. I take predominantly landscape images, and the utter beauty of being the only one within eye-shot of a glorious sunrise, or a menacing storm-cloud, can make me feel that time has stopped, and all I see in front of me is being produced by some power just to make my life perfect for a few minutes.

But even here, I like to think I’ve developed a personal “style”, which is ME. I like it when people point at a picture, among a selection in front of them, and say “That’s one of yours, isn’t it?” I can’t see the point of it all, if all you do is emulate other people’s work.

I belong to a local Photographic Society, where several times a year visiting lecturers gives talks on his or her speciality. Most times I can admire, but what they say or show doesn’t affect me greatly. Just occasionally, however, an hour there can set your mind racing off in directions you were not expecting.

Two or three years ago, a young lady (she must have been all of 30) arrived with the most ancient of manual SLR cameras, and a single fixed 50mm lens, to give a talk on Taking pictures of Flowers. We all looked down our noses rather snootily at her camera, and thought the worst – we were in for a boring evening.

I was absolutely transfixed. Her pictures of flowers were like nothing I’d seen before. They were almost abstract, impressionistic, colour washed images with an ethereal beauty which suited their subject perfectly. A million miles away from the sterile “everything in focus” way Club photography tends to approach such a subject. I was hooked – I’d never bothered to take pictures of flowers before, but I certainly did after looking at this lady’s work. Well done her, and she probably never knew about the conversion she had made.

I’ve also never been into portraiture or people pictures. It always struck me that it was a bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics. Here, if I understand it correctly, the position or the momentum of an atomic particle is changed by the act of locating it, so you can never know both accurately. In photography, when you point a camera at someone to catch a mood, or a look, the act of pointing the camera at them changes the look to something different – which is exactly what you don’t want. So setting someone up for a portrait would not give you a “real” picture of who they were – what you would get is the picture of who they wanted you to see – a very different animal indeed. Rather like someone presenting themselves at an interview, and we all know how false that can be.

So getting a natural picture was almost impossible, and I didn’t bother. Until a Dutch ex-newspaper photographer came along and showed how he took real candid pictures, with the predictable results that I, and a few other like minded individuals said, “Now they’re the sort of pictures I want to take”. They were unforced, they showed life as it actually was, rather than as the participants wanted you to see it, and another convert was made.

Recently in New York, I tried it all out, and was tolerably pleased with the results. You get a lot of failures, but it’s the ones which aren’t failures which make it worthwhile.

So this may sound like an e-sermon, which, given it’s Sunday over here, is reasonably appropriate, but this is Proof Positive, to me at least, that if you keep listening and watching other people at work or play, sooner or later, you’ll learn something important.

Now, I’m off to ask one of my offspring to borrow a Rap CD.


Saturday, May 10, 2008


It’s so easy to get dispirited by what you read in the newspapers - the unending saga of the unravelling of Gordon Brown (didn’t Blair SO get his timing right?), the whole economic situation, the impending demise of the planet due to my inability to remember, when in a supermarket, to use the plastic bags I’ve once again left in the car, Andrew Flintoff getting out twice in five balls the other day (although I bet they pick him for the Test next week), and we’ve now got to endure Cherie Blair’s memoirs being remorselessly serialised all next week in the Times.

It’s easy to get really wound up about all these things, and wonder where the world’s going. Except, I’ve just come back from a short trip into Holt in Norfolk, and driven through one of those things which seriously makes you glad to be alive – the next village from where we are staying, is putting on - you'd better believe it - a Scarecrow Festival.

Outside the houses, the pubs, and the guest houses, life size scarecrows have been planted – at least I’m assuming they didn’t get there on their own. Who knows – we are in a very rural part of the country – it could be Norfolk’s answer to the “Wicker Man”.

They (the scarecrows) are sailing on the village pond, chatting over the garden wall, mending their cars (as one does) and generally loafing around doing not a lot - apart from presumably Scaring a few Crows. They look brilliantly zany, and are just what England needs just at the moment – a touch of utterly pointless, but charming, silliness.

In typically English fashion, you watch a good proportion of the tourists driving through the village, eyes facing forward, and completely missing the whole thing. Quite odd. They don’t know what they’re missing.

I’ve put a few pictures below, and there’s more, which I’ll include in Episode 2 in a couple of days.









You’d never get this in Manhattan! It makes you proud to be English.



Friday, May 09, 2008


Guess what the weather was doing when I looked out of the window this morning. Yup, you got it, it was raining, not hard, but that insistent fine rain the Scots call a "har". Rats!

But before I went out, a bit of boring Admin first - Pack and check out. I left my stuff in the hotel, and went out present hunting for the family, complete with all my camera gear in a rucksack on my back, looking decidedly like Quasimodo. I decided to try one of the big Department stores just to see what they're like, and went off to Macys.

There's one thing you can say about it. It's big. They claim it's the biggest Department Store in the World, and they may well be right. I have to say though, it didn't impress me as much as I had expected. Selfridges in London, for instance, is much better, And it looks as if a lick of paint and a bit of TLC wouldn't have gone amiss. It's got a really weird layout. In effect it's two shops, one for Men separated from the other which is for Women. Odd!

Anyway, presents having been bought, I had about 4 hours left before picking my belongings up at the hotel and heading towards JFK. I wanted to have a look at Chelsea Village, which is about 15 blocks to the South. The rain had just about stopped now, so I decided to walk. I noticed before when walking down 5th Avenue that the stratospherically posh bit stopped around 35th Street, and the further you walked South, the more, well, either real world or tatty are the words that comes to mind, it became. Now I was over on the West side, the same impression forced itself on me. The buildings get lower, and less grand, there are more general purpose shops, and the gloss seems less glossy.

That's not to be critical, it just changes. As you walk, the nature of the surroundings take on different styles. You pass through a district which has a collection of Flower Shops, one after the other. It's called, not surprisingly, the Flower District – at least it's not FLODI. Predictably, the flower shops are bigger than any at home with much more produce on sale. The area is a really bustling, and rather charming little bit of the City. The flowers, trees and ornamental bamboos and grasses spill out onto the street, and you find yourself walking through an avenue of green – like a 100 yard long Garden Centre.

You can feel the scale of everything reducing as you keep walking, and 10 blocks further on you reach Chelsea Village, which has a bit of a yuppy, slightly Bohemian feel to it. It's much more residential now, and the shops show a more individual, arty crafty side which you don't get at the top of 5th Avenue. I headed for a place called Chelsea Market, which is one of those old warehouses very trendily turned into artisan shops.

One was a rather good Wine shop where the balance of wines is very different from what you'd find in the UK. It had a huge stock of rather pretentious looking American wines, almost all of which were foreign to me (I've just realised how stupid that last phrase is). A large range of Italian wines dwarfed the French section, and they had a good collection of German wines – a dying breed in England. I asked the guy there where he recommended to eat and he pointed me to an Italian place located in what looked like a 5th scale tryout of the FlatIron Building. So, in we went to feed the inner man. The comparison with the Italian Pizza place yesterday was comical. This was smooth, suave American Italian, rather than Italian Italian. But it looked good, so in we went.

It was full of people who seemed to want to be seen – heaven knows what they made of a damp, black cagoule covered individual with a large rucksack on his back. I chomped my way through baked Asparagus, Crab, Salmon and Sea-Bass cake in a brioche, and two rather delightful home made sorbets – Poached Pear and Blood Orange. It was really rather good, and at $45 (£25) was not expensive.

And that was about that. I found my way back to the hotel, picked up my bags, and got on the subway to JFK Airport. They've built one of those little Overhead trains which runs the last bit, but it does seem odd, that from the centre of Manhattan, there is no direct route to get to the City's major Airport. That's the way we Brits would have done it!

Back on the last plane out at night, we had the pleasure of a 45 minute hold-up on take-off because they'd had an emergency when one plane's brakes had overheated on the runway, and 42 aircraft were sitting in a rather dismal traffic jam.

Still, we got going, and the pilot had clearly decided to try and get as much of the delay back as possible, so he put his foot down a bit.

I managed to get the two English hooligans behind me. As a race (or is it a tribe?), we do let ourselves down sometimes. They were from Liverpool (they always are in my experience), and they managed to drink far more than was sensible very quickly, and the arguments at 2 in the morning UK time increased to the point where I thought we were going to have one of those "Come outside and let's sort it Out" moments. That might have been a very satisfactory solution from my view point. But the stewardess, by threatening them rather forcibly with potential legal proceedings, managed to defuse the situation. And then, bless her, taking pity on poor little me, she suggested I move forward to spend the rest of the flight in the posh end of the plane, with miles of leg room.

Excellent. And when we arrived in London, what did we meet?

Rain - by the bucket-load.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Regular readers to this site will be aware that I’ve just spent a few days in New York, wandering around, eating myself silly, and taking a pile of photographs. As close to Paradise as I can get on my own.

Before I went, I decided to lash out and buy a new camera. Which in turn got me thinking about the real issues which decided me on one brand rather than another.

When I got into photography too many years ago for me to want to remember, I had read all the magazines, and reviews, and had come to the conclusion that what I really, really needed was a Canon EOS 5, a new camera which had just been launched onto the market. In the English vernacular, it was the “Bees’ Knees”. And I wanted one, badly.

I went to a Camera Fair to touch and play with one, just to confirm my conclusions, and it was with bated breath that I got to the Canon stand, and started handling, possibly even fondling one. To my huge disappointment, I was slightly underwhelmed, and reluctantly put it down.

I wandered round the rest of the show, picked up a Nikon F90, and within 10 seconds was completely converted. It was solid, sat in my hand beautifully, almost as if it had been designed just for me, and felt so right. I read the specification which said that the shutter had been designed for 180,000 exposures – that’s nearly 100 years at the rate I used to take pictures, and that convinced me. It exuded quality, and I bought one on the spot. Never have I made a better purchase.

This put me straight into the Nikon family, and it was followed by a D100 a few years later – another great camera. There I stayed for almost a decade, until the spectre of the Digital demon came over us all.

Now, it’s fair to say that Canon, for reasons I still don’t totally understand, have probably had the technical drop on Nikon in the Digital field of Professional/Serious Amateur cameras for quite a few years now, although I still stayed loyal to Nikon when their D70 came out in around 2004.

In reality, the cost of change is not just the camera, it’s the ancillary bits and pieces, the lenses and the flashguns, and just as importantly, knowing almost instinctively the way the camera works, which keeps you in the family. The Nikons I’ve owned were particularly intuitive. If you didn’t know how something worked on them, the odds were that if you took a guess at it, you would more often be right. When you want to do something in a hurry, that’s a very comforting feeling.

And Nikon were not daft – they kept as much of their operating methodology for a new camera as similar as possible to the last product, on the basis that “If it isn’t broken, don’t change it”. They maintain a lens mount which allows you to fit and use almost any lens they have produced in the last 50 years. So anyone who was versed in the Nikon style, and who picked up a brand new Nikon, could easily start taking decent pictures almost immediately.

I don’t change my camera each time the manufacturer brings out a new model, but recently, I started to look rather enviously at their newest offering, the D300, and its larger sibling, the D3. Apart from the D3 being 3 times the price of its smaller brother, it also weighed a ton, and I couldn’t convince myself that I needed such a beast. But the D300, well that was another story. As soon as I handled it, it murmured to me “Buy me, buy me, I’m the one that you want”, and I gave in immediately.

Wandering around New York, I took around 1000 pictures with it, without having had almost any time to familiarise myself properly with it. It just works. It’s blazingly fast, very intuitive, and seems to be able to do anything I want from a camera. The LCD panel on the back is quite superb, much better than on any other camera you can buy, and this means you can check the focus almost immediately rather than having to press the zoom button umpteen times as I had to do on all the other cameras I’ve owned. Simple, obvious and effective.

But the thing which unexpectedly astounded me about it, was its performance at high ASAs. On everything I’ve owned before, when you get much above 400ASA, the noise performance starts to deteriorate markedly. And if you want an image in low light, the noise is just something you have to live with. On this D300, I reckon you can get an almost noiseless image up to around 1000 ASA, which means you can take decent candids, in almost any light available.

This is something I simply hadn’t expected, and greatly expanded the envelope within which I could take pictures that pleased me. It really is a technical tour de force, and if you flick back to the title of this piece, which is the strap-line of a marvellous Honda TV car advert, you can put this lovely machine in the same category.

I probably don’t use the camera at its extremes, but I’ve sat and thought about it a lot – to try and think what I would improve on it. I read somewhere that the difference between the Canon and Nikon design philosophy was that Canons are designed by Engineers, and Nikons are designed by Photographers. This may sound a bit of a silly statement, but I can feel what it means quite clearly when I play with my new toy. It feels almost part of you.

Quite what Nikon are going to do when they set about developing the D400, I have no idea.



Got up to find it wasn’t raining like yesterday. It was absolutely bucketing down. How truly wonderful.

So, following the Billy Connolly dictum, that “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”, I put on my Designer Bin Liner cagoule, nicked a Hotel umbrella, and waded out for breakfast.

Being a few yards from Wall Street, this place is littered with Delis, where the earnest Financial wizards grab something on the way to their toils. And they are earnest – looking resolutely forward as they stride on (they don’t walk), phone in one hand, talking very loudly as they go, coffee and a bag of breakfast goodies in the other hand, and somehow they’ve got the laptop and other paraphernalia in yet another one.

There is a slight guilty pleasure, which actually I don’t find all that shameful, in walking past them with a guidebook in my pocket, an umbrella in my hand and mentally rehearsing the Gene Kelly impression I am about to unleash on the unsuspecting public.

The Deli chosen to receive my custom this morning is called “Au bon Pain”, so the possibility of a decent croissant wafts naughtily into my mind. These places continue to amaze me – you can get just about anything food-wise in them. But the locals don’t like some gitoid who doesn’t know his way around, who can’t navigate the menus in a flash, and frankly can’t make his mind up about what to eat. Especially, as he’s still wearing this black plastic bag, and looks as if he’s from another planet, let alone another country.They want to be in, shout an order, fling the money across the counter, and get out.

The food looks enticing, so it’s an egg and bacon and Bagel, Fresh Orange Juice, a decent looking croissant and a Small (ie enormous) Coffee. 6 out of 10 for the food – falling to 3 if you only mark the croissant. As far as the croissant was concerned, the “pain” was anything but “bon”. It looked perfect, but didn’t taste of much at all.

Being Monday and raining, restricted the possibilities a little. My plan to go up the Empire State Building fell at the First. With a Mist Ceiling of around 300 feet (estimated by counting the number of floors I could see on a convenient Skyscraper), the idea of standing on an Observation Platform staring down into 900 feet of absolutely nothing didn’t turn me on. So an Inside Day beckoned, but you need to navigate the opening times of the Museums a bit carefully, as Mondays and Tuesdays are closing days. I decided on MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) as we New Yorkers call it.

They’ve got a passion to shorten the names of all these things. Even the names of the Manhattan districts contain a fair number of truncations. SoHo is not like London, it’s South of Houston. And to make it worse, here Houston is pronounced House-ton, not Hoose-ton. Tribeca (what a stupid name) is Triangle Below Canal, Nolita is North of Little Italy, DUMBO (I kid you not) is Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and so on. It’s the lack of history, you see. The gorgeous Pastry shop in Little Italy, Ferrara’s, claims to be the oldest in America – and that dates only from 1892. I considered suggesting to them that if they want an old coffee shop they should try Mrs Miggins one on London – but I don’t think their minds are ready for it.

So, back into the carwash, and onto the subway, taking an Uptown 6 to 51st and Lexington, and swimming the rest of the way. In spite of my cagoule, I got soaked. Of course, if I’d bothered to think just a little bit about it, I would have realised that the other million tourists in the city had thought through their day in the same way I had (or more accurately hadn’t), and come to the same inevitable conclusion. I went to the entrance of the Museum, and was pointed very politely to The Queue. Which I walked along. I then turned right at the end of the block, and carried on walking to the end of that block, and turned right again, and halfway along, finally reaching the end. Don’t you sometimes want to hit those smug bastards near the front of the line, who leer knowingly at you as you trudge past – the ones who know something you don’t.

Anyway, the bouncy young MOMA Attendant doing the “Gid-em-up, Move ‘em out” bit at the back of the queue told us we had a 40 minute wait. So I waited for 25 minutes, and found myself inside the Museum. That’s not so bad.

On the outside it’s nothing – a dull, square, black façade with not a lot to recommend it. Inside, it’s something else. It’s laid out on 6 floors , and in summary I spent 5 utterly fascinating hours wandering round. There’s a large outside sculpture park, and each floor has a theme, Media, Drawings, Architecture and Design, Photography (the swines had closed that today – they must have known I was coming), and two floors dedicated to Modern Paintings and smaller sculpture. The top floor is reserved for special exhibitions.

The place is designed around a large Central atrium, with each floor being a series of connected rooms, all different sizes and shapes, giving a large range of canvasses to show off the works. It’s a light and airy place, with masses of space, much better suited to the job of showing pictures than the Guggenheim, whose quirkiness is actually quite restricting. And here, I didn’t have to spend the whole time leaning slightly to the left.

There’s some very serious money at play in this Museum. Many of the rooms have names, like the Ethel J Cheeseburger Room (I made that one up) which gives you a clue both to how this museum was funded, and how rich Americans want to be immortalised.

The quality of what’s on show is fabulous. If I’d thought about it, I’d have started at the top, where the “Modern”, ie older than Contemporary paintings are, and then drift down the floors of the buildings ending up with the stuff that is happening today. But I didn’t, so I went jerkily back in Time Machine mode. But No matter.

“Modern” to them starts around 1880, and their collection of Modern paintings is stunning. If you like Picassos, there are about 50 of them. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, Monet, Chagall, all are well represented. And then it goes through the whole range of painters up to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Mark Rothko and the like. Some of the most iconic and well known paintings on Earth are on show here.

There is a lot of unsmiling suited attendants roaming around constantly, whose vocabulary seems to be limited to “No Flash” – photography, not exhibitionism, I assume. But, apart from that, you can get as close as you like to most of these masterpieces.

There’s an awful lot to like, and a lot which does not strike such a chord, at least in me. You can’t help being overwhelmed by a 60 foot panel of Monet’s Water Lilies, as well as the huge canvases by Jackson Pollock, though, not in my case for the same reason. My favourite painting there, the one I would have on a (very large) wall at home was one by Henri Rousseau, of a Gypsy sleeping. Quite exquisite, and you (or at least I) couldn’t take your eyes off it.

The Contemporary Floor was a real eye-opener. Some of the ideas there were weird, zany and very Left-Field – call it what you will. But if you took the time to read the little captions about them, and try to understand something about the author’s intention, quite a few drew you into them.

You do have to be a bit careful here, though. One exhibit in this section was an umbrella, leaning on the wall. There were quite a few people staring intently at it, and walking around it with quite an earnest attitude. That is until some kid rushed up to it and yelled “It’s all right, It’s still here”, picked it up and disappeared. Actually, having thought about it, it may well have been a very clever way of stealing a priceless exhibit. It’s that sort of place.

About 4pm, I reached the end, and went into the street. My stomach was making the usual demands, but I decided to walk the city a bit more, since the rain had now almost stopped. I went sort of South East, because something inside me was whispering “Pizza” rather insistently, and Little Italy seemed like a good idea. Some places you instinctively like. I ended up roughly in the area I had been a couple of days ago, and ambled down Mulberry Street, the heart of the district.

Rather than stick a pin in a restaurant map, I asked a local where the best Pizza was made, and he pointed to a rather dilapidated place on the corner, painted rather unsubtly in red, white and green. But then an awful lot of the place was in that colour. Parking meters, Fire Hydrants, and much of the road hardware seemed to have had a makeover – Italian style.

Posh, it was not. There were four or five rather dissolute looking Italian guys sitting around inside, looking as if they could easily play bit-parts in a gangster movie. But they did have a proper pizza oven, so I lived in hope. One sidled up, and waited for me to order. My attempt at chatting to the natives was not a great success. I watched as the head honcho spun the pizza dough very expertly in his hands, while chatting away to one of his mates. Ten minutes and a bottle of Peroni later, the Pizza appeared. It was predictably excellent – far better than I can make at home – and he wasn’t even concentrating. I’ll put it down to the Pizza Oven, although I suspect I’m kidding myself.

The other good thing about this restaurant was that it was 20 yards or so away from Ferrara’s where previously I had that gorgeous Tiramisu. So I trooped over there, and bought a Chocolate Canoli to take back to the hotel and trough my way through with a cup of coffee, when I got back.

Now back at base, it had turned 6pm, so I forced down a couple of beers in the bar, and I watched the Mets playing Baseball, irritating the Barman by asking him a stream of inane questions about what was going on. It was in truth a scrappy game, with neither side managing to get going. So, by about 9pm, it was Coffee and cake time. Well, it wasn’t really, but you can blame the body clock. Actually, having thought about it, you can’t, because it was 2am in the morning in England. Oh, well.

And that was about it for the day – I didn’t even give any thought to tomorrow – my last part day.



Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Today, the weather changed, and it was chilly, windy and raining. An inside job was the order of the day. So off on the subway, up to 42nd Street and Grand Central Terminus. Being Sunday, I thought it would be a good place to look around and have some breakfast there.

I had seen many pictures of the station before, with the iconic (mid Fifties?) image taken with the very moody shafts of light cutting across the concourse being the one which stuck in my mind. But today, I wanted to see it for real. You approach it through a low, wide tunnel from the subway station, and enter directly onto the concourse.

What a magnificent structure. It hits you almost physically as you enter the huge space, with a really confident feel to the vast Concourse. The whole building has recently been subject to a major renovation project, costing something approaching $200 million, and it absolutely shows.

All the walls are newly faced with a thick, expensive coat of creamy, beige marble, giving it a lovely light, airy feel, and the roof is amazing. It has been painted in a soft green, with a gold, illuminated zodiac showing all the stars painted over it. I'm no astronomer but I understand the constellations were painted, possibly unintentionally, back to front – this being hurriedly explained, it seems, as representing "God's view" of the heavens. You had PR and spin in the 30s, so there's nothing new there. There is one small roof area which has been left unrestored, presumably to show the extent of the restoration work done.

In the exact centre of the vast concourse floor is a booth topped by a beautiful 4-faced gold clock, It's one of those things where if you said to a friend "Meet me by the clock in Grand Central" there would be no chance of getting confused – it acts as a real focus to the building. And, almost inevitabably, to commemorate 9/11, there is an enormous Stars and Stripes hanging down from the ceiling.

Even downstairs, in the Food Hall, the same opulence carries on. I bought my breakfast there – Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese Bagel, a very French tasting Croissant, freshly squeezed orange juice, and half decent coffee – all of it of very good quality, and costing £6.

The whole impression is excellent and gives great credit to its original designer, as well as those who undertook the restoration. It's a bit like a Twentieth Century version of what's happened to St Pancras Station in London. Here though, it's not a new futuristic railway line they're symbolising because the station is only used now for local New York Commuting trains and the days of the Twentieth Century Limited steaming into town are long gone – I looked for the Chatanooga Choo-Choo in vain. A really great feel to the place though. And Highly recommended.

This flag thing is everywhere. On a previous visit to New England, we reckoned, driving around, that 1 in 10 of the houses there had a large flag in the garden. Here, it's the Municipal Buildings where it happens. The New York Stock Exchange near Wall Street has three largish flags hanging from angled flagpoles across the front of the building. But the whole of the front of the building is then covered by a gigantic one which must be 75 feet across.

All the Americans I've had a decent conversation with, are overtly proud of their Nation and maybe this is what's behind it all. But maybe also, it's a confidence issue. They do all seem, to a man, to be really scathing about their politicians. They all have said the same thing to me – "How are we going to get out?" or "There's no way out". Meaning Iraq. It comes up time and time again. They are also, and they don't talk anywhere near so much about this, very fearful of the economic situation. They are almost ashamed of the weakness of the Dollar, and you can feel a sense of personal failure here. They are strangely reticent about it all, perhaps on the basis of not wanting to talk it down, but the Elephant, most definitely, is in the room – and it's a Big One. "It's real, real tough, out there." was the most I got out of one of them.

But, back to the Grand Tour. There was no decent light for pictures today, and it was coldish. So a bit of culture was called for. Off to Museum Mile Uptown on Fifth Avenue, and the Guggenheim. This is a remarkable looking building, and it caused a huge shock to New Yorkers when it was built in the Fifties.

Everything in Manhattan is at right angles, at least when you get above the Southern Tip. From 14th Street up to 135th Street (which is where my Map stops), the Grid system is absolute. And mixed in with "square" buildings, the architectural signature of New York is clear. Square is Cool - Curves are Out.

Until you see the Guggenheim. This is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, built as a slowly rising circular spiral building, which makes a real impact when you see pictures of it. I had huge expectations, and expected to be wowed as I walked round the corner of 88th Street.

But No. The impact this morning is very muted, because it's covered in what looks like the biggest Bin Liner in the World. Now, when you see these things, you think - It's being restored. But this is an avant garde museum, so I did wonder if it was being used for one of these "Installations" where they wrap the building up in Clingfim or Tinfoil to make a huge artistic point, like they did with the Reichstag in Berlin.

So to avoid looking like an idiot, I kept schtumm and approached it very noncommittally. You could imagine chatting to a bystander, and commenting that the builders are making a bit of a mess of the place, and "Are they going to get it finished on time?" only to find that he's the artist, and has just won the New York equivalent of the Turner Prize with his efforts.

There has even, I found out later, been an argument between Those Who Matter here about the colour the outside should be painted when the restoration is complete. When it was built, it was in Yellow, but this was later replaced by a Pale Cream. It would seem that Committees were formed, arguments were had, faces were scratched and Prams were completely emptied of Toys, but the latest Stop Press news is that The Creamists have triumphed.

Picking up a leaflet in the queue to get in, all is made clear. Yes, it's being restored - for a Fiftieth Year Old celebration in 2009. So, that's bit of a shame for those of us here in 2008. But inside, it's OK. It really is a most unusual space. The walls run in a five ring spiral, like looking outwards from the inside of a large Apple that an Accountant has peeled. All the exhibits are mounted on the walls of this spiral, which means that you view them at an angle of around 2-3 degrees off the horizontal, and spend the next hour leaning slightly to the right. Being the said Accountant, I had to suppress a constant desire to level them all up.

I'd read beforehand that the special exhibits on show were a selection of Early Twentieth Century paintings by the likes of Kandinsky, Klee and Kokoschka, and some works by a Chinese Post-Modernist artist named Cai Guo-Qiang (I've got the Microsoft Red wiggly line under that, and it won't go away!). I arrived expecting to love the pictures and hate the Chinese artist's work. It turned out exactly the opposite. I was going to say that, in the end, I leaned towards the Chinese part of the Exhibition, but I'm not going for the cheap jibe here!

There were a few pictures with which I connected – Paul Klee, Joan Miro, and a couple by Kandinsky, but the rest left me cold, and strangely unmoved.

But the installations by Cai were brilliant. One was a stream of 99 life-size tigers, teeth bared and all different. Hugely dynamic poses, which were quite frightening. You started walking through them, as if you were taking a pack of dogs for a stroll. They looked real, although they had all been made for the exhibit, and they gradually got closer together into a tight Tigerstream, and "took off" (they were mounted on wires) until at the end there was almost no space between them and they rushed headlong from above your head into a glass screen tumbling to the ground in a mass of distorted shapes. I think it's meant to be symbolic of the lead-up to Russia pulling down the Berlin Wall, but my Audio cassette had stopped working, and I was on my own in working out what was going on.

This exhibit led into the next, which was an icon of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. 102 lifesize clay models of Chinese people, some workers, some women, some children, some soldiers, all bringing the feel of fear, decay and deprivation literally in to your face as you walked through them – inches away from your face. They never stopped coming at you, and it built up in intensity as you walked through. It sounds depressing, but the quality of the sculpture, and the looks on the people's faces, as well as the sometimes agonising poses completely held you. They made a real impression on me.

I'd literally never seen anything like it, and it keeps coming back into my mind. It really, really surprised me.

Lunchtime now, and a walk across Central Park to the American Natural History Museum. In retrospect, after the Guggenheim, this was a bit of a mistake. You were brought down to earth with a bump. I had a so-so containered lunch of Chicken Caesar Salad which they managed to make without any dressing on (different!), and set off round the Museum. It's vast – a bit like our Natural History Museum, or even the British Museum.

The exhibits are Top Drawer – the Biggest This in the World, and the longest That, but it lacked sparkle to me – all a bit worthy.

You tended to rush around to try and see everything, and ended up seeing far less than if you'd picked one bit out and concentrated on it. But the sight of a full size 50 foot Blue Whale is not forgotten easily!.

It was about 4pm and I was flagging a bit now, so gave up and decided to return to base. I walked along the Avenue bordering the Park, past the Dakota building, outside which John Lennon was shot in 1980, and onto the Subway, and back to the hotel.

I went for a "peace and quiet" evening, and strolled down to the Waterfront for a leisurely evening meal. I found an old, slightly decrepit Italian place, where the menu looked as if it was of the "Whatever's delivered today, We'll cook for you" sort, and gave that a go. Apart from the massive portions, it was a good choice. Antipasta, and Seared Scallops on Garlic Pasta, Lemon Sorbet, and a couple of Beers. Had a long chat to the guy behind the bar about this and that (He hates Bush, as well – that's Six out of Six, so far). The DJ on the radio was playing songs from the Fifties and the Sixties, and rather depressingly he and I were the only ones there who knew the words. So we had a rather low key, geriatric Karaoke session until the programme finished.

We then put the world to rights, and they shut up shop and threw me out. He went home on the Staten Island ferry, and I went back to the hotel.

A lower key, "inside" day, with Grand Central Terminal and the Guggenheim being the star attractions.



Beethoven was a genius – in my humble view, the greatest creator of Art the world has ever seen. His music taps into every emotion the human mind can experience in a way no one else can match. I have listened to his music for many decades, and, as so often, in my case at least, many of the performances which drill themselves into me are those recorded several decades ago.

If I had to take one of his works to a desert island, it would be his Violin Concerto. This is not his most popular work by a long way, but to me it’s as perfect a piece of music as exists. It’s not as confrontational or perhaps aggressive as many of his larger pieces, and perhaps that’s the reason why I have continued to admire and love it for the last 40 odd years.

I first heard it whilst I was at University, and bought a recording in around 1968 which has remained my favourite since that time. Arthur Grumiaux, an underrated Belgian Violinist took a non-theatrical and slightly understated view of the work, which to my mind worked perfectly. He played the amazing Kreisler Cadenza, and the point of re-entry into the second movement is quite, quite beautiful. I have listened to it hundreds of times, and I never tire of it.

Very recently, another violinist, one Nigel Kennedy, has issued a new recording with the Polish Chamber Orchestra (a first for me, at least). Nigel Kennedy is a very unusual character. He looks (and speaks) as if he is a hooligan of the first order, and he is, of all things, an Aston Villa supporter, which in itself makes you wonder if all the screws have been done up tight enough. Frighteningly, to me at least who sees him as a slip of a lad, he has recently passed his 50th Birthday, and lives for part of each year in Poland – hence presumably the orchestra.

BUT, by the Lord Harry, he can play the violin. Although I’m not a World expert on these things, if there’s a better violinist in the World, I certainly don’t know his name. At the very top level, it’s not just about technical proficiency, as they all have that skill in spades. You need to think about the music and come to your own individual conclusions about it, as well as retaining the passion that brought you into the game in the first place when you were young. This he does, in a way that most Division One Artists seem to lose as they get older. I’ve heard him play live in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, with Jimmy Hendrix being the composer under the spotlight that night, and we saw, or more accurately heard a very different side of him then. He played, sometimes on his own, and you could have heard a pin drop - the audience were transfixed.

Give me him any-day compared to a Vengerov, in the same way I think pianist Martha Argerich stands head and shoulders above the technical, but to me rather soulless playing, of someone like Kissin. It’s the individuality, the mercurial nature, that makes the difference.

Kennedy recorded the Beethoven Concerto a few years ago, with Klaus Tennstedt in a very measured, and to me, unremarkable performance. This latest one is a very different animal. Probably because he also directs the orchestra, you are getting undiluted Kennedy here, rather than a composite view of a soloist and a conductor who may not be seeing the work in the same way. Here, it’s vibrant and almost sensual in places, and it ggrabbed me as I listened to it for the first time yesterday. The cadenza is quite beautiful, and the last movement is a real joy to listen to. Altogether, a terrific performance.

It’s quite different from the Grumiaux version, and I’m just off to listen again to that version, not to see which is better, but just to see how another great violinist approaches the Number One piece of music in my Classical Top Ten.


Monday, May 05, 2008


Up with the lark this morning, and off to a local Deli for breakfast. They do everything in these places. A simple Egg and Bacon on Poppy Seed roll with no cheese. Yesterday's breakfast had come with cheese, and it was NOT a success. The Americans don't do cheese. It's all like an especially stretchy Kraft Cheese Slice that's been polished until it shines. Even the more expensive ones are just the same, only a brighter, more luminous Chernobyl’y colour.

Thinking I might come over all unnecessary late one evening with a sudden desire for a Club Sandwich, I asked him what time he closed. "We don't." was his simple reply. When they say 24/7, they mean it.

Fully refuelled, I trooped off to see Ground Zero. It's only a few hundred yards from the hotel, so you've almost got to go. I had quite mixed feelings about it beforehand, because I simply didn't know what to expect. Sometimes the Americans can be a bit heavy handed with these things, and there's a fine line to be walked in getting the tone just right.

It's one of those John Kennedy assassination, Buddy Holly plane crash things – we all remember where we were when it all happened, and talking to the Americans over here, it's still very much at the forefront of their minds. When you talk to them, they all seem to bring it up unasked in conversation.

The truth is - it's a building site. A very large building site, probably 300 yards square, but still a building site. They plan to have it finished with a very fancy tall new building, in 2012, so at the moment it's a massive hole in the ground. At least, I think it is, because they've gone to considerable lengths to stop you seeing what's going on. It's all high barriers, set out quite deliberately to cut off the public's view. There is no viewing platform, and if you approach the barriers, someone immediately shouts at you, or blows a whistle, to tell you to move away – and NOW. Of course, as you walk round, if you try hard enough, there are places where you can poke a camera lens through, but you are left with the definite feeling that they'll take the covers off when they're good and ready, and they've got a nice new shiny building for the World to see – and not before. They're probably right.

I'd got almost all the way round thinking that they hadn't actually got a Visitor centre, but I finally came across one – very small and low key. Not what I was expecting at all. Well done, them. The only place apart from this where you had a real sense of what had happened was a small Fire Station, with a frontage of no more that 25 feet, alongside the Visitor Centre, where the Fire Engines inside were being dutifully polished. A small bronze plaque on the wall outside commemorated the six men from that station who had perished that day. It was discreet to the point where most people didn't even see it as they walked past – but very sobering.

I usually find that there's always one thing in these circumstances which bring it all home to you, and usually not the obvious one. Here, the thing which really hit me hard was a mangled, twisted, painted and scorched body panel hidden away high up on the side-wall of the fire station. It had been recovered from one of the fire trucks which had been there on September 11. That one piece of metal, no more that 6 feet x 2 feet, more than anything else there, stopped me dead in my tracks.

I felt they had got this "Matter of Fact" approach just right. They're a very positive people, and it really showed here. They all seemed to be getting on with the job, with a real business-like buzz around the place.

I had decided that, being Saturday, I would make for the Chinatown/ Little Italy are of the City. The good thing was it wasn't too far to walk, but the bad thing was – I still had to walk. Past their equivalent of the Old Bailey, the surroundings changed rather abruptly. One minute you're among large, formal, intimidating municipal buildings, with lots of steps and stone columns, and the next minute, you're in a street market, with people selling things to eat you don't even begin to recognise.

Chinatown buzzes with energy. Although it's predominantly Chinese, it's a real melting pot. The streets are lined with stalls and guys from all over the world selling the most amazing piles of stuff. But it's the shops which grab your attention, particularly the ones selling food. Vegetables which were completely unknown to me and my sheltered life. What's a Darian, for instance? The size of a large melon, Yellow and covered in what looked like Acne. The skin was tough – the guy selling it was preparing it for a stroppy American woman, and was attacking it aggressively with a Stanley Knife. Out of each of the inner cavities, he withdrew six or so piles of something which looked like creamy, squishy bread dough, or uncooked brains. It did not look terribly appetising.

There was the most impressive Chinese take-away I've ever seen. Chickens cooked in half a dozen ways, hanging in the window, over a range of 20 or so tempting dishes. If you wanted some of the chicken, a guy took one down, and with a very large, and I have absolutely no doubt very sharp, Meat Cleaver, smashed it down to cut it into Quarter inch thick slices. He missed his fingers by about half an inch each time, starting down ferociously from about head height. You winced each time he did it, but there were still 5 fingers on his left hand, so presumably you learn quickly.

But the Fish Stalls - remarkable. There were dustbins full of live Blue crabs, tanks full of live Fish a couple of feet long, piles of huge octopus, large fish heads and a massive range of fish laid out on ice beds the like of which I'd not seen before. I had no idea there were so many different sorts of prawns and crustacean on this earth. Quite fascinating, and You Want Fresh – You Got It!

I took a few pictures of the fish, but the Chinese are not overkeen on having their photograph taken. But talk about a vibrant foodie area. Excellent.

Next to Chinatown is Little Italy, and by comparison, it is little. It used to be much larger a few years ago, but somehow the Chinese have taken over – that sounds really comforting, doesn't it? But the bit that's left is good fun. Being Italy, it's almost all food. Wall to wall restaurants, with a few shops dotted around selling fancy meats, cheeses, wine, olives and bread. Drool, drool, drool.

It was now nearly 2 in the afternoon - time for a late lunch and I was hungry. The plethora of guide books I'd brought aimed me at the snappily name Umberto's Clam House, where I sat down with a cold Peroni to people watch. The restaurant is famous for home-made Lobster Ravioli so I'll give you three guesses what I ordered. Too right. It was great, and £14 in English money. I decided that one course would do for lunch, and I'd find somewhere for afternoon tea a bit later on. I'd read the guide books here as well, so there was a bit of method in my madness.

I wandered off into the Soho district which joins onto where I'd been in the morning. Different again. Lots of hugely expensive shops, fashionable boutiques, art galleries selling some lovely stuff (and a lot of pretentious rubbish, but we're catching the positive US vibes here, so we won't dwell on that) at prices which made your eyes water. But people were buying it, so What the Hell. The words Credit Crunch didn't seem to be affecting too many of them.

An amusing sideline. Many of the yellow taxis have a two sided advertising board mounted on the roof, which can be seen by the people as they pass. They're all advertising Insurance Companies, Real Estate, and other really boring stuff. One however cracked me up. It was all white, with simple writing on it, saying "I'm SO over Sarah Pullen" in huge letters. We know no more than that, but I can't imagine she'd be a happy bunny if she ever saw it wafting past her.

Back to the wandering - One of the distinctive features of this area is the Cast Iron staircases which adorn, and they do adorn, the outside of the buildings. They are beautifully ornate, all different and their symmetrical repetition on the front of a ten story high building is very satisfying, although a crick in the photographer's neck is a necessary price.

There's clearly some form of architectural protection around here, because they were all painted in muted, understated, and dare I say, very non American colours. No flash, “Jamaican on Speed” reds, purples or anything like that which you'd have thought some bright spark would have gone for to give him an edge – it was all very Farrow and Ball. So turning a corner, what do we run into, but a large Farrow and Ball paint shop. They're not daft, are they? But the overall effect is one of homogeneity, and a really unique style of building which I found very pleasing.

By this time my stomach was reminding me that pudding was still awaited, so I was drawn back to Little Italy, and the hunt for "Ferrara's" was on. Reputedly the best cake shop in town, there was only one real choice. I had visions of a long queue on a Saturday afternoon, but my stomach told me to stop faffing about and get walking. I found it straight away by spotting the queue, where everyone was salivating over one of their ice creams, it being now pleasantly warm. I sidled (good word, that) up to the front of the queue in a distinctly non English way, and asked the young girl "How long for a table for 1?" and was taken straight in, to imagined looks of hatred from the families still waiting. "Outstanding", as Warren* would say.

If you like cakes and pastries (and I do, just a little bit), you could be forgiven for thinking you'd died and gone to heaven – and landed up in the bit reserved for Gordon Ramsay and his like. The cakes on show were magnificent, so I sat down to read the Menu. You didn't peruse this one, you read it, and then looked at the counter to see what was around, Perfect looking breads, exquisite cream cakes, tarts, cheesecakes, mountains of Panetonna, biscuits and..and…and.

Being in the land of Italy I settled for Tiramisu, and an Iced lemonade. My thinking was on the lines of "If they can't make a decent Tiramisu, then I'm a Dutchman's uncle", which I'm not. The fresh lemonade had home-made lemon sorbet ice laced through it and the Tiramisu was stunning. I can't think of ever eating a better cake. I'm sitting here in the hotel writing this at 6.30 on Sunday morning, and I'm drooling – how pathetic. But my plans for the last two days of this holiday are being modified, as I speak. The subway map's out and a return to this part of the world is currently quite advanced in the strategic planning phase.

It's now about 5pm, and a return to base is called for, so try to find a subway. By God, they're well hidden. Nothing as helpful as a sign which says "Subway". The railings around the entrances are painted dark green, presumably to blend into the background as well as possible, and there are a couple of poles with dirty red balls on the top. I've walked past them on a couple of occasions, and having asked some poor unsuspecting Yank where the subway station is, felt a complete twit when he looks at you in that superior way they sometimes have and points to something no more than twenty yards away. Dur!

I suspect it's a remnant of the 9/11 thing, but there a lot of work going on on the subway, so the stations near the hotel were not open, and neither was the subway running there. So I found an alternative route which took me marginally closer that I was already, and set off. The trains don't come as often as in London, and they have a mix of local and express trains, so if you’re not careful, you can have the odd experience of watching your intended destination flash past you, if you don't decode the way the express trains are named.

One enjoyable little benefit of the change of train was that the Information guy, who sits at each station in his little armoured cabin actually told me to "Take the A Train". I immediately burst into an impromptu Duke Ellington impression, trying to win him over with my humorous wit. It really made me very pleased, but he didn't move a muscle – I suspect I was about the millionth person who'd done it to him. Oh Well.

Seeing it was Saturday night, I thought that a trip to photograph the lights in Times Square was in order. So I grabbed my tripod, and made my way back onto the subway. Times Square at night is a riot. All the world seems to be there, jostling and seemingly going nowhere, shouting and having a good time, heaps of cars, taxis, buses all tearing around, and police blowing whistles and trying to maintain a small level of order. And all this is going on as if you're inside a Firework Display – the lights are amazing. I spent around 90 minutes there, getting in the way of as many people as possible, and expecting to be had up by the local plods for using my tripod as an offensive weapon.

My stomach informed me on the way back to the hotel that it hadn't seen any food since the Tiramisu had arrived, and would I please like to send some more down. Now the problem with a hotel in the Financial District, is that, at the Weekends, the area is dead, so they all stay closed. But I finally found a place on Pier 17, by the side of the River, where they served me a very acceptable Pizza. And a Cool Beer!

So I went home very satisfied. A truly excellent day.

* You need to have watched THIS LIFE (on BBC TV in the UK) to pick up this reference.


Saturday, May 03, 2008


Up bright and early on Day 2 mainly because my body still thinks it's in Shropshire. Weather bright and sunny, with a good forecast for the day, so stuff the scarf and gloves – Yippee! Out and about around 8am without breakfast, taking the subway to a station near Times Square. The plan was to potter around Times Square, and walk "Uptown" as us locals say, to Central Park on the Western side, returning down the East side along 5th Avenue. My map, rather usefully doesn't have a scale on it, so it all looked a bit of a doddle. I think my feet might just remind me to return to that last sentence.

Times Square is a madhouse. You've never seen so many electronic advertising hoardings in your life, all competing for your attention, which of course they don't. They all seem to cancel each other out, and I can only remember one – the depressing thing for a 62 year old is that it was for M&Ms.

If it had been raining and a bit darker, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the set of BladeRunner. Sirens wailing, taxis blowing their horns, traffic everywhere and people shouting incessantly led to a real "Wall of Sound" feel to the place.

Suddenly though, over all the noise, there was the concerted shrieking of a serious number of young kids, just like you get at a pop concert. Around the next corner, and blocking the road off completely to the traffic was a temporary grandstand, and as I shuffled past (due to weight of pedestrian traffic, not my age!), a band struck up and a girl's voice started singing. It sounded like Mariah Carey to my untutored ear. And talking to another of those neckless, twirly black headphoned, cuff talking guys stopping us all from using the King's Thoroughfare across which the stage had been erected, his reply to my clever little "Sounds like Mariah Carey" comment was "That's because it is Mariah Carey."

And it was. There she was in a very tight, short, bright pink dress and a grey cardie, obviously made by her Gran. It was clearly unfinished, only reaching down just to her sticky-out bits. And yes, they did stick out! She started to sing, accurate to the second, just as I arrived. I never knew she cared (or is it Careyed?), and it was really good of her to wait until I had just arrived before starting. Who gave her the signal? Am I being watched? It's BladeRunner again. I've no idea why she was there, in a New York side-street, belting it out on a freebee at 8.30am on a Friday morning. But, there you go. You don't get that in Walsall.

Wandering around taking pictures of the world at large, it got to 10 o'clock, and my stomach sent messages that some food would not be rejected were it to be sent down. I asked a doorman on a posh looking Apartment Block were he would go for his breakfast, and he pointed me in the direction of a Deli round the corner. So off we (actually I) went. It was run by an Italian guy who looked as if he'd played a bit part in the Godfather, but the food was excellent. Freshly squeezed (and I mean Freshly Squeezed) Orange juice, Eggs and bacon on toast, with potatoes, and a halfway decent cup of coffee – coffee is one thing the Americans are C- at, in my limited experience. I sat at the counter and watched the world go by for half an hour, then off Up North.

It was a serious walk, made longer, by photographic detours up many of the side-streets, reaching Central Park at around noon. It's a massive place – some 850 acres or about the size of 5 golf courses stitched together. And there was an amazing number of people there, most doing some form of exercise - Joggers, Walkers, cyclists, proper runners, all belting their way around the inner circuit. God, they're keen and wholesome. Although I'm not so sure about the guy whose sweat stained T-shirt said "Do I look like a fucking People Person?" on it.

The blossom was out on many of the trees, and it looked really pleasant in the morning sunshine. Whoever put the Park there in the first place knew precisely what he was doing – it acts like a green lung for a place with so many people living and working so close together.

I headed for a part of the Park called Strawberry Fields, which was an area set up recently to commemorate John Lennon. As a centrepiece, a circular memorial made from Mosaics simply said "Imagine". It was decorated very stylistically with flowers, and looked simple and impressive. No graffiti, no vandalism – someone was looking after it really well. I managed to suppress the thought that in England, that would be a tad more difficult.

Rather spookily, I turned round, and, out of the 8 million people who inhabit the place, who should I meet but the Turkish Brain Surgeon who had been sitting next to me on the flight from London. Ooo-er. I know it's only statistics and random maths, but it still felt a bit strange. Perhaps he wasn't a Brain Surgeon. Did he know Mariah Carey? I took a picture of him, in case I disappear in mysterious circumstances. You can't be too careful.

Anyway, the meanderings continued, back along Fifth Avenue, with various sorties off onto the side streets. The street naming and layout is immensely logical and efficient in this main part of Manhattan. You start to understand the bemused looks you see on the faces of Americans whom you meet looking at maps and trying to find their way around back in Shrewsbury. They’ve got no chance.

Anyway, back to the plot – Fifth Avenue. If you want a physical definition of Conspicuous Consumption, this is it. I've never seen so many shoes, or handbags, or scarves, none of them even remotely being sullied by a price tag. It goes on for about 20 blocks before the tone of the shops starts to come out of the stratosphere. There are two or three "showcase" churches/cathedrals along the drag, and it strikes you the impact of these buildings is completely the other way round from where we live. At home, the church, architecturally at least, dominates the towns and villages. Here, it's the complete opposite. I went into the Roman Catholic St. Patrick's Cathedral, and a service was in progress. All amplified and recorded choirs, and I have to say, it didn't give anything like the same sense of occasion as say York Minster where I went a few weeks ago. All a bit smooth and synthetic, at least to someone who pokes his head in for a few minutes. Perhaps I'm biased.

I pootled further down the Avenue, and did a detour into the New York Public Library. I'm pretty well Skyscapered out by now and this long low building is a welcome change. It's a bit special. A terrific 1911 white stone edifice on which lashings of Sponsor Money (all listed VERY prominently) had been spent restoring and keeping it up to scratch. Apparently it has 88 miles of bookshelves – we are in America here! But the Reading Room was stunning – an absolute gem. Serried ranks of long tables, with an amazing range of varied people, young and old, all races, beavering away, in total silence.

The ceiling in this massive room had been painted very ornately to look like the sky with clouds above you, and as you went back into the room where you ordered your books, the ceiling was the same – clouds and sky again, but much darker. I asked a girl whether one room had been restored and the other not, but she said that it was intentional. Where you sought for knowledge, it was dark, and as you went into the Reading Room, read your books and gained enlightenment, it all got brighter, and clearer.

I rather liked that.

Back outside, and a slice (American style –about an acre) of thin crust Pizza, eaten dribbling Tomato juice along the sidewalk. Not, I suspect the prettiest sight, but needs must, and anyway I pretended I was German. And, as an aside, while getting rid of the detritus, you realise how clean much of where you walk is. It may be the showpiece areas, but the difference from, say, London, is very marked.

This part of town, around the Empire State Building, is a lot less posh, and I went to sort out the logistics and opening times of getting up the Empire State Building, as I planned to go up and photograph the city from there one evening. The building is undergoing a massive restoration, and is frankly, a bit of a mess at present. And the queues….. We'll see.

On to a subway, and back to Wall Street. It's now 4pm, and my feet are in full Whinge mode. It's warm, and I want to lie in a bath. So, back to base, a bath, and a beer. I know it's only mid afternoon, and the sun is not yet over the American Yard-arm, but my body tells it to piss off – the bit that wants a drink is still firmly in the UK! I got talking to another fellow from a group in the Bar who ran a Software company. He ordered a Newcastle Brown, and when I said my mother was born there, and that I had spent most of our childhood holidays in that part of the world, his eyes glazed over. I had clearly become a God in his view. Or maybe, it wasn't the first one he'd drunk that afternoon.

He shared with me, in typical forthright New York terms his views of George Bush – there seems to be a trend appearing here. I know I'm 50 yards from Wall Street, but they all hate him – what they are all uncomfortable about is that, all of the potential successors are real lightweights, and not the man for the job. This Iraq thing has really got to them.

He did suggest that what America needed was someone like "your man Blair". I put him right on that.

I was a bit worried that the previous night's pictures may not have been as sharp as I wanted, so I decided to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, into Brooklyn and take some shots from dry land, on the river bank, with the Bridge in front of the Manhattan sky-line. So, more mad cyclists, and over the river into Brooklyn. It was a pretty decent walk, so my feet told me, but "Il faut suffrir pour l'Art". That's French for "You've got to kiss a lot of frogs before a Prince turns up" – I think.

I ended up in a park, by the side of the river, where there were piles of people lying around, doing not a lot. Kids playing, guys reading, the odd couple snogging, and about a dozen photographers, who'd had the same idea as myself, but all grouped together on a little viewing platform. I thought they'd got their position wrong so I started a pincer movement, and located myself on some huge rocks, lower down and closer to the river and put there to minimise the bank erosion. I'd picked the Prime Location here, and was soon joined by a few like minded geniuses, with the original group now looking decidedly Second Division.

The gradual change as the sunlight went down, with the colours gradually changing, the way the lights in the skyscrapers come into prominence, it all takes a good hour and I thought it quite magical. I know it's man made and all that, but it's very, very, impressive.

And as a sideline, since it was Friday Night, and presumably POETS Day works over here as it does at home, why do they leave so many lights on. It's a prodigious and profligate waste - but very good for taking pictures.

A long walk home, picking up a really scrummy Chinese take-away – Total $5 – the last of the Big Spenders. And a cold beer!

Another day over. What will tomorrow bring?


Friday, May 02, 2008


I've been off the air for a few days. I decided to jump on a plane and have a few days taking photographs in America - as one does. In order to remember what I'd done, I kept a diary over the five days, and the piece that follows is Instalment Numero Uno -

DAY 1 -

Landed in New York at about 2.05pm (their time) yesterday afternoon, and then landed again a couple of seconds later – 3 marks out of 10 for the pilot! I'm here on my own for 5 days of selfish picture taking, and general gawping.

I thought I'd at least try to write bits of it down as it happens, so here goes. First impressions are not good – the people who man the booths in the airport, unless you ask them the exact question, and to the exact right person, feign no knowledge. I asked the Customs guy where you got onto the airport shuttle train. He "didn't know", in spite of the fact that he probably came to work on it! Ho Hum.

I'd dutifully packed fleece, scarf and gloves to combat the weather over here, and arrived into 80 degree temperatures. Well planned, Roger. New York was greeted then by a geriatric Impromptu striptease in the JFK Customs Hall.

I have a thing about Governments keeping personal data on me, but faced a rather stern Customs official who had the Full Monty of Fingerprinting and Iris Recognition cameras waiting for me. It did feel a bit like the opening scene in BladeRunner, with the slight, but rather crucial difference that I did't kill him half way through the process! Something told me that non-compliance, and civic protest about individual's rights was probably not going to bear a great deal of fruit, so I'm now on their database – at 62 I'm now a common criminal! But he did suggest that I "Have a Good One", so that's OK then.

I sat on the plane next to a Turkish Brain Surgeon who lived in New York, and he gave me the inside track, so to speak, about the subway, I used it to get into the centre of the city. Catching the J Train, (rather than Duke Ellington's A Train), we clanked our way into central New York, past a continuous stream of grafitti covered buildings. The train ran at high level on a raised track which was definitely "French Connection" car-chase territory. Still, it allowed my noseyness full reign, and I could look into 10 miles of suburban American backyards. Conclusion, the average New Yorker is not the tidiest animal in the world, by an extremely long way.

The skyline here is something else. Quite possibly the best known in the world, and watching it gradually appear, exploding into full view as you trundle slowly across the Williamstown Bridge before disappearing underground in Manhattan, is hugely exciting.

The total cost of the journey was a princely $7, and it gave you an hour looking at the people in the carriage who live here. Huge ethnicity, lots of languages, everyone (and I mean everyone) locked excitedly into a mobile phone – presumably each person telling someone out there that "They're on the train".

All except for one absolutely gorgeous, slim, elegantly but casually dressed black girl, who sat there in serene stillness for the whole journey. I felt a real scruff and she put us all to shame.

I had decided to stay in the Financial District, as I wanted to be able to get access to the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront by walking there, rather than having to take subways, buses or taxis. So we got to Wall Street, and the flaw in saving a few dollars on the subway came to light – you've got a 20 kilo bag and a camera bag which weighs a ton, and no escalators to help. Do it slowly. Oh, well!

Wall Street is much tighter than I'd imagined - very narrow street, massive buildings, taking a lot of the light, and lots of gentlemen without a neck, outside the buildings, all sporting those twirled up black headphone wires, and speaking into their cuffs. Every other car seemed to be a hulking Black, dark windowed 4x4. A bit sinister - I did feel a touch of "The Bourne Ultimatum" around me, as I wandered along in a bright pink polo shirt. But then a well hit golf ball played from where I was standing would have landed in Ground Zero, so perhaps you can understand it.

The hotel entrance was covered in scaffolding, and didn't look that inviting to tell the truth. But the room was well fitted out – plasma screen, microwave, un-turnoffable Air Conditioning system. It was also extremely clean, and the staff did not seem to be able to do enough for you. So, full marks here.

Having unpacked, I shot back out to walk to the River, to take a few pictures in the warm sunshine. Wandering around Pier 17 (London's equivalent is Covent Garden), there were acrobats, trapeze artists, and a Marching Band, with a terribly earnest and unsmiling Leader who blew his whistle rather than speaking (a bit like one of the Clangers), to start the Blue and Red uniformed 15 year olds off. Actually, it was a Standing Still Band, with a few very large American Teenagers blowing their own trumpets, but no matter. Good fun.

I suddenly realised that I was hungry, it being the equivalent of 10 o'clock at night RST (Roger's Stomach Time). Charlene, from the hotel, (always make friends with the Hotel receptionist!) had recommended a local Italian Place, where I duly turned up at the equivalent of 5pm, for an evening meal. It was very good but Heavens above - their portions are absurd. I was really famished, but only got halfway through the towering mound of Prawn Linguini, before giving in. The Italian waiter, who actually turned out to be Albanian when I asked him which part of Italy he came from, thought I didn't like the food because I'd left some. I think, in future, a Kiddy portion is the order of the day.

I wanted to walk over Brooklyn Bridge, and photograph the skyline as the sun went down. So off we went, camera bag and tripod in hand.

The place was heaving. The bridge itself is a remarkable structure, especially considering it was put up in the 1880s. The wooden slatted walkway sits on-top of the roadway, and is divided into two, one section for the pedestrians, and the other for the lunatic cyclists who blast past you in a flash of intensely focussed pedalling mayhem, taking absolutely no prisoners, and most definitely asserting their rights to be there, if you got anywhere near them. I nearly speared one hapless Lance (Boom-Boom) Armstrong lookalike when I was fiddling with my tripod, which I'm sure wouldn't have been covered by my insurance.

It was a lovely evening, warm and clear, and the view off the bridge was breathtaking as the sky darkened, and the millions of lights from the buildings, the boats and the incessant stream of cars took over. The whole of the world seemed to have come onto the bridge with the same idea, but it was all very good natured, although I did have to throw a couple of Germans over the side to get a decent spot for a picture. Getting a good picture was more difficult that I'd imagined, because the traffic makes the bridge jolt around and vibrate continuously, just enough to stop your images being dead sharp. So, take a lot of pictures and hope – maybe we'll end up with a "soft focus" theme to it all. But it's a hell of a place to end Day 1 of my trip here.

Except that I got back to the hotel, parched and in dire need of a beer. I got talking to a San Francisco Human Resources Lawyer, who turned out to be very good value for money. We watched the New York Mets play on TV as he gave me a potted synopsis of Baseball over an hour or so. We put the world to rights – he thinks Bush is a total disaster, and has let the American people down badly. The guy (not Bush!) is a Democrat, but will probably vote for the Republican McCain, because he thinks he's the best man (or anyway, the least worst) to sort out the Iraq mess, which has clearly struck at the heart of the thinking American. I'm not sure we think like that in the UK. Anyway, I now know a lot about Baseball, Curved Balls, Sliders, Pitching techniques etc. He, in turn had both barrels from me on how Cricket works, so I'm not sure who lost out most in the deal.

But they're all keen to talk, and, I suppose expectedly for a hotel in the Financial District, all have a well formed and different view on life and an opinion which they voice to support their case.

Got to bed at 5am UK time (Midnight over here) quite tired, having been up for just over 24 hours. But a really exciting place to be, even if the weather is going to get worse rather than better.