June 27, 2011

Harlem Globe Trotter

Ten years ago I stayed in Harlem for the first time. Actually, it was right on the edge, at Amsterdam and 103rd, in the worst (only?) youth hostel in New York. That particular experience is one I would have been happy to forget, but it is seared into my mind for a variety of reasons: being ripped off by a ‘taxi driver’ on the way; being aggressively propositioned in the communal bathroom; navigating the shelfless glass-doored refrigerator that served 1,500 people, etc. And at no point when leaving the building did I have any desire to head farther north. The neighbourhood was bad enough where I was, and promised worse.

A lot can change in ten years. I’m certainly no longer a ragged backpacker, for one. Experienced eyes would have looked on that neighbourhood differently even then, but now they do not recognise it as the same place. Doings at Columbia took me back to Harlem, and I hereby recommend it as your destination, the next time you choose to trot the globe.

This time Mrs. VB and I stayed in a proper brownstone house on 118th and Malcolm X. The post-Giuliani neighbourhood is a charming place, full of relaxed yet busy people. The welcome is the warmest in New York. The community is vibrant, mixed, young, and (to judge by the food on offer) demanding of high standards. Ten years ago, I doubt I’d have been consuming home-made and authentic Italian food in a restaurant street terrace at 120th Street. I might have been welcomed into the bosom of Sylvia’s soul food restaurant (it’s been there for decades), but I somehow think it unlikely that the waiter would have been able to try out his German on me back then. I also suspect I wouldn’t have wandered home calmly at a saunter at around midnight. Friends, the cosmopolitan dream is alive. In these streets America is doing quite nicely, thank you.

The 100ft climb through Morningside Park to reach Columbia on the Upper West Side no longer represents an ascent to civilisation in the stark manner of yesteryear. Ivy League cosmopolitanism is its own peculiar brand of soul-sapping homogeneity. After lengthy days in the rarefied air-conditioning of the Ivory Tower, it felt good to descend again and return to what I happily thought of, for a few sultry days, as home.

June 26, 2011

Apparition in Birdland

There’s only one way to improve a martini, and that is to have a commodious throat breathe a saxophone over it. Now, there are saxophone players and there are others for whom the horn is an extension of their souls. Most of these people are dead.

One such dead man is John Coltrane, whose ghost I half expected to see mooching around Birdland. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for a living, breathing, reincarnation of the man, his essence, and his tone. Ravi Coltrane embodies the very posture of his father, forcing one to shake one’s head in disbelief. In a set that navigated between the energetic and the melancholic, Coltrane’s muse was explicitly his mother. His four-piece ensemble played music by her, for her, and to her. If this wasn’t a direct line to the ‘60s, I don’t know what could be.

Too often in great cities with great pasts, historic venues have become merely tourist traps. If I’m honest, I expected Birdland to be just such a hokey hole. I am happily disabused.

June 21, 2011

The Adirondack

Jolting and jogging and shunting and stop.
Crawling and tilting and sprinting and stop.
The gilded-age rails are fixing to rot
And to judge by the rolling, so is the stock.

The train whistles progress, but the points are all shot:
Two hours at the border, and stop, stop, stop, stop.

Lake Champlain glistens for hundreds of miles,
To the West Adirondacks; to the east just a mire.
There is beauty here of Arcadian kind,
But the route is industrial, brutal, and wild.

A river, a bridge, a ubiquitous flag.
Eleven hours of sidings, and freight trains and drag.

We yawn through New York, creeping or stalled
In a chariot of steel, obesity withal.
Past Plattsburgh, Westport, Fort Edward-Glen Falls.
Through Schenectady, Hudson, Poughkeepsie we trawl.

A river, a bridge, a vertiginous sight.
We pull into Penn and escape with the night.

June 16, 2011

Why Men Riot

Immediately before Pompeii was covered in lava people were making love. How do we know? They were forever preserved in the act, turned to stone in the heat of passion. Danger does funny things to human beings, reducing us to the rush of chemistry in our blood and brains. There’s no accounting for it.

Rich Lam’s brilliant photograph (below) has everything but the requisite tide of lava. Caught up in a melee, men find themselves doing the strangest things. A fire becomes a primal occasion to beat one’s chest. Glass becomes an outrage to form that must be smashed. Alcohol in the blood turns to heat, and men become defiant. For an indescribable moment, men succumb to the animal inside.

Or so goes the apology. I rather think that last night’s laying waste to Vancouver was rather more organised and wilful than it was primal and forgivable. The men in hockey shirts – from Boston as well as from Vancouver – likely had no interest in the game, but came with the intent of kicking off. The instigators, I will bet my life’s savings, were not swept along by an animal impulse, but were organised, determined, and acting under their own sober (if idiotic) volition. A hockey loss does not cause men to loot Sears (below). A hockey loss does not cause men to attack the CBC or the police. A hockey loss does not lead men to cover their faces, lest they are identified, before casting the first stone.

The British police have known now for several decades that the presence of a crowd will always attract an element that wishes to degenerate it to violence and anarchy, and they have become the best in the world at preventing it at sporting events. (At political events they have recently taken too many leaves from the book of Italian policing). I do not know what the security arrangements were like in downtown Vancouver  last night, but it stands to reason that if 100,000 people gather to watch a game, someone should be watching for the usual suspects. Quite simply, this should not have happened.

Let’s be clear: men don’t riot because they are disappointed. Men don’t riot because they are hockey fans. Men riot because they are easily led by other men who adore violence and chaos. The easily led are weak, pathetic animals, and (I should imagine) soon remorseful. The others are dangerously rational, but lost to civilisation. Something is deeply wrong with them. Let’s not call them hockey fans. Let’s find out who they are, and determine how, through profound failure, our society has produced these sorry excuses for men.

June 14, 2011

City (E)scape

I’m catching up with myself. I’ve ditched Berlin for the month of June, and come to you from Montreal. New York next week. Montreal is the city I call home – a place I adopted five or six years ago – and, as with all homecomings, one begins by exhaling. The psychological comfort zone is welcome. I’m steeling myself for a busy time, as I attempt to reconcile my purpose to my future. July is likely going to be a mare, but I’ve broken worse.

A couple of points of order:

I must cordially acknowledge Lily Lemontree for giving me a hearing on her elegant blog. It’s a strange experience to answer direct questions about oneself, but the result I think is pleasing, and possibly an insightful backdrop to the pages before you. In the coming weeks I shall appear there again, detailing five elegant places not to miss in Berlin. I’ll let you know when it appears.

On arrival here I was pleased finally to take possession of my Timothy Everest signature tie, which I consider myself very lucky to have received. Tim’s Spring into Summer ready-to-wear is out, and as per usual it’s right on point. I hasten you there. Here are his images, stolen in the nicest possible way:

June 08, 2011

High Steaks

The best way to get a great meal by a great chef at not so great a price is to have luncheon.

It is, I think, rather a recent oddity that our midday meal has been reduced to the limp sandwich. In England the sandwich is king, and it even places highly on the list of the nation’s favourite foods. The inevitable blandness of pre-sliced bread has been turned into something of a gourmet caricature, with John Bull now thinking nothing of munching on crayfish and rocket, blackpudding and cranberries, or roast pork and stuffing, all between tranches of soggy bloomer. It’s a sad attempt to conjure up something of luncheons past, but typically ends up a mere meagre repast.

Get thee to a decent restaurant! You might have to work an extra hour at the end of the day, but if you get yourself fed up to the gills you’ll be able to do it, and a lot more besides. Gourmet eateries everywhere offer their best deals at luncheon, and you can often get premium cooking for a tithe of the evening price.

Now oddly enough, in Germany the main meal of the day is still at lunch time (at least for certain folks). You’d think, therefore, that the lunchtime thrift rule wouldn’t apply. But frankly I’ve found the best lunch in Europe, and it’s going for a song.

The place is called Filetstück and it’s right around the corner. In the evening you’ll pay 26 Euros for an 8oz entrecote, and 34 for fillet. Sauces and vegetables are extra. At lunch time, you get a hunk of beef or lamb, cooked exquisitely by their resident Frenchman (if he’s not actually French then he’s been plastically modified to look like one), with the vegetable sides, and a glass of wine, for 9.50. And it’s sublime.

Better yet, the restaurant doubles up as a premium butcher shop (and you know how I feel about butchers), purveying the finest cuts money can buy and making a mean sausage to boot.

Eat luncheon, dear readers! And get that soggy sarnie away from me!

June 04, 2011

Männertag? Just No

Last Thursday it was Männertag here in the non-Catholic bit of Germany. That’s ‘Men’s Day’ to you and me. It is a secular booze up in lieu of a religious holiday, and it actually spills over into the weekend. The form is to wander around getting drunk all day, lugging crates of beer from place to place, and generally being obscene. According to the Federal Statistics Office, so I’m told, there are more than three times as many alcohol related traffic accidents on this day, compared to the daily average. It’s also a good day to get into a fight.

It’s pretty sad to see masculinity reduced to a personified belch, and I really wonder what the men of this land have done to deserve their weekend of over indulgence. I went to the Tiergarten with three ladies and had a civilised evening, trying to avoid the male natives. Looking into the zoo next door, all the animals seemed very well behaved. An American would call that ‘ironic’. On Friday morning I was awakened by a ‘man’ rolling home just before seven o’clock, doing his best tribute to a cat in heat singing Angels by Robbie Williams. Think that’s funny? You had to be there.

I hereby consign Männertag to the cultural dustbin. Men don’t need a special day to be at their worst. We’re capable of that whenever. It might be an idea, on the other hand, to encourage an alternative Männertag next year, at which time we shall be on our best behaviour, and spend the day looking dapper and generally being civil to one and all. It may serve as a reminder that we can do that anytime too.

June 02, 2011

Mixological Magic

If I had the use of my body, I would throw it out the window.

Jane Brown

There is no sign above the door, and a heavy black curtain lies immediately behind the plate glass. In the middle of the window, a portrait of Samuel Beckett is suspended. The door is ajar, exhaling Cuban tobacco, and affording a glimpse of blood-red leather. The passer-by passes by. There is no contrivance of attraction; no desire for passing trade to cease its passing.

The curious can find out. Behind the door lies a body, fibrous and bloody, moving to the syncopation of a Coltrane beat. There is black bile here, but there is also passion. Cigars circulate in the lungs, and the blood is thinned by the spirits. We sink into muscular arm chairs, feeling inside out.

A server appears and hands us a book of Beckett criticism. Bound at intervals between the leaves is the cocktail menu of a late-modern imagination. Behind the bar, the mixologist cracks eggs, sprays vapours, and tastes his work. He is the engine room of the senses, creating enchantments to dazzle the eye, mystify the nose, numb the finger, and invigorate the palate. The shaking and stirring of his chemistry is a Pavlovian stimulus to the salivary gland. We lean back, go with the flow.

We are in Beckett’s Kopf, Prenzlauer Berg’s most refined cocktail bar. We are reluctant ever to leave. Floating on ten-euro martinis, the room embodies us. We are essential, internal organs. We are the je ne sais quoi of character in a physiological environment. The elegance of strong alcohol strips the paint of our exterior and leaves us – artifice exposed – the men we were supposed to be.

June 01, 2011

"Fair Play" in a "Man's Game"

2011, the 1848 of the twenty-first century, has given us ample demonstration of the fate of tyrants. When the going gets tough, the iron fist squeezes all the more tightly, and the people, like sand, slip ever more quickly through its fingers. Humanity, when pushed to the limit, has an indomitable spirit. This has been a good year for getting rid of the atavisms of absolutism, and it promises more to come.

One thing has been constant since the last war. Under the banner of football, nations otherwise in strife and discord have come together, symbolically to represent the spirit of man and the ideal of fair play. It is the motto of FIFA, and it defines its importance. But like other mottoes, it has become a dead letter. FIFA is a corrupt nation, its ministers motivated by greed and self-importance, its president a tyrant by any other name. There are probably no lives at stake. Probably. But the humanity that the beautiful game is supposed to represent is being dragged through the mud, and we are all losers for that.

The art of the press conference, as perfected by Syria, Libya, and Egypt

What is so disappointing about this affair is that no revolution seems plausible. In the spirit of fair play, sometimes the fair thing to do – the just thing – is to rise up and overthrow. This group of salesmen – for that is what FIFA is – will quietly endorse the incumbent president because it appears the least troublesome, and the least costly, thing to do. Representing a sport (that used to be) defined by never giving up, by playing to the whistle, and by heart, these men will keep quiet and capitulate. They will be ‘fair’ to sponsors, and to television networks, for fear of losing money. And the game, a game that once defined manliness in its activity, its sportsmanship, and its passion, will die a little bit more.

Whether it is war, oppression, or just sport, the indomitable spirit of people remains. At root, football is what it always was: a group of men kicking around a ball. The sooner we get back to that, the better.
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