Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Tipping Point

I think my love affair with New York may have reached a plateau.  It’s 35 years since I first visited and in that time, of course, we’ve both changed.  Maybe we should see other people.  It’s not you, it’s me.  But actually it is you.

I’ve stayed for weeks, weekends and when I worked here, a year; I’ve visited alone, with friends, with lovers, with every long-term partner I ever had, when the pound’s at par with the dollar and when it was two-for-one, and in every season from socked-in blizzard to volcanic ash cloud to hellish heat and humidity (like this Tuesday).

Anywhere you know that well should have a comforting familiarity but this time the familiarity is actually discomfiting: I’m seeing as ugly the polarization of the city into a privileged playground of Fifth Avenue shopping, luxury dining and ‘exclusive’ club-level premium-rate access to practically everything, contrasted with an almost slave-labouring underclass managing the humping, shifting, cleaning, driving and catering that underpins New York’s ability to function.  That the people who do this are ethnically, socially and linguistically divergent from the ones they serve is disturbing, as is the fact they all live far from the island of Manhattan and their daily journey to do these menial jobs is long and early and arduous.

Also cluttering the sidewalks and subways are the in-town-for-two-days tourists from States with square corners whose ignorance and taste afflicts the cultural life of the city to the extent that 90% of available entertainment has to be dumbed to their level.  At the ticket booth in Times Square you queue two hours for a jukebox musical, two minutes for a stage play.  I took a guided walk round Central Park – fountains, statues, a bit of history about Frederick Law Olmsted and the city fathers who let him reclaim the swamp.  At a statue of Columbus a woman in a golf visor with the projection of a shop awning shading a low-budget chemical peel and tuck asked “are you sure he was Italian, he doesn’t have a very Italian name”. 

Taking a guided walk wasn’t a new experience for me, but I’m having to try too hard to find things to do: on TripAdvisor’s list of ‘must sees’, I got to number 83 before I found something untried. The Rubin Museum of Art.  No, I’d never heard of it either.  But it has a Himalayan restaurant with 'Buddhist Chickpea and Paneer Salad' for $11.  How do they know the chickpeas were Buddhist?

The harmless faith of the chickpea aside, everything here seems expensive.  Even with the £ at $1.55, pretty generous to us Brits, it proved almost impossible to find a clean, decent hotel room under £300 a night: and since my shopping so far has been a couple of Brooks Brothers shirts and a dozen coffee mugs from Crate and Barrel on which I saved about £40 by not buying them my own side of the Atlantic, there’s not exactly a lot of offset.

Although as a critic I get London theatre tickets for free, I’m constantly concerned about evaluating shows from the viewpoint of the paying punter, whether it’s £12 in a room over a pub in Camden, or £70 in Shaftesbury Avenue.  The median for Broadway now seems to be $140, plus various taxes and charges rounding a typical spend up to £100 and that could be a seat three rows from the back of the Stalls in some of the gigantic theatres.  Sight lines are good, mostly better than the pillar-strewn West End.  You get a free ‘Playbill’ (programme) which saves you £4 on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s prices, but a woman in front of me bought two bottles of water and a modestly-sized bag of M&Ms, for $23. Plus tip.  Which comes with such intimidation techniques it can no longer be considered 'optional'.

Once when eating in an unimpressive hamburger joint on a previous visit, the service had been dismal: I left about ten percent and the waitress followed us outside ... my Upper East Side Jewish American Princess guest (who had been the one to complain loudly about the service) still laid on the guilt with a trowel:  "It's okay, don't think about it, I'll just never be able to come in here again."

I know there have been countless treatises on the convention of not paying employees serious salaries but expecting them to glean their income from voluntary service charges.  This time, I actually had a waiter deliver a bill with the Ukranian-Bronx accented message “a recommended gruh-too-i-tee of 18 to 20 puhssent is nyot inclyuded”.   Since waitering requires the same skills whether you’re in a restaurant that charges $25 for pizza or $150 for ‘fine dining’ and native Noo Yawkers habitually tip ‘double the tax’ or about 16%,  I’m surprised their unions don’t demand a more equitable regime of compensation.

When I was stuck here during the volcanic ash cloud, I did an interior design job for my involuntary host, a successful investment banker.  He was comparatively charming but it was hateful because the Sloane Ranger ‘project manager’ who’d lured me into it with champagne and blandishments in London was a woman we’d both worked with but who I suspected he’d also been shagging, and with whom I had to cohabit in Richard Gere’s recently-vacated and totally empty apartment for four unpleasant weeks till I could get a flight home.  

He took us out to dinner frequently to soften the blow of living in 8000 square feet of unheated Gere vacuity, once to an impossibly pretentious place in the West Village where five of us were ushered into the ‘club’ room and served indifferent food round what felt like an ironing board, for four thousand dollars, including a two thousand dollar bottle of immature Chateau Showoff on which he paid a $700 cash tip separately from the service charge.  So the waiter earned more from an hour and a half's fawning than I did for a whole day on the design project.

Whether it’s the inequities that are making me uncomfortable, or the oppressive heat and humidity, I've had enough and am off to Washington to cool down for my last couple of days.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thatcher's Child

It’s the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and in the past week since she died the press has been almost equally full of eulogy and inchoate rage, more or less divided between those who lived through her era, and those whose were too young to remember the 70s and whose caricatured impressions of her have been processed through the distorted filter of stand-up comedy.

I’ll save my story of meeting her for the end of this post, but it occurs to me I’m almost as much a child of Thatcher as I am of my own parents and certainly her actions have patterned my life. My parents even met through politics, they were both members of the ‘Junior Imperial League’, a forerunner of the Young Conservatives, just before the Second World War.

My mother, more or less her contemporary, was also a bright, industrious girl but had to leave school at fourteen and without a college education knew instead the values of hard work and self-improvement and instilled in me as best she could the same ethic. Or at least she belted me round the head often enough when I was slacking at school which amounts to the same thing.

Encouraged by educational competition I won a scholarship to public school, saving fees my parents probably couldn’t have afforded, and through that became the first child in my family to go to University, again without tuition costs. I bought my first home, on my 25th birthday. It was at the time Tory legislation was being passed to sell off the local authority housing stock and I had to rent it for £6 a week for eighteen months whilst it was sorted out, during which time the mortgage rate rose from 8 to 13.75% and the repayments when they started took my breath away, and I lived on beans for two years. 

When I moved to London I sold it for twice what I’d paid, and then bought and renovated  another and … well, any prosperity I might now enjoy stems from that initial lucky purchase, tax relief on mortgage payments which was only rescinded by Gordon Brown in 2000, and the housing boom of the 80s which followed Mrs T’s economic changes.  When I first went to work in Southampton, I hadn’t been able to find a flat to rent because the law made it all but impossible for private landlords to rent out empty properties without risking losing them to tenants who could claim they needed them more.  Once Thatcher had abolished the notorious Rent Act, renting became easier for both landlord and tenant and having been both, I appreciated it.

Through a ‘lonely hearts’ advert in the back of Gay News, then a sort of ‘parish magazine’ for the community, I met a young chap who was a Conservative candidate for the local council elections and he persuaded me also to apply on the grounds that the decision-making ladies of the Bargate ward would ‘love me’ – which they did.  So I was, for three years, the youngest elected member of Southampton City Council and only lost my seat in the higher Labour turnout of the 1979 election, which was also the day Mrs Thatcher came to power.

I’m ashamed to say I had adopted my parents’ political views fairly unquestioningly – it took  me till my thirties to develop and act on my natural liberal tendencies – and was a regional vice chair of the Federation of Conservative Students, where my happy little gang included Andrew Neil, David Davis, Tony Baldry and Neil Hamilton.  That I didn’t follow them into parliament I still regard as my lucky escape. 

We had a lot of residential courses heavily subsidised by the party, and I fondly remember the glorious converted castle at Swinton in North Yorkshire which was the Conservative College and where I learned to drink gin.  Some lectures were recorded but there were occasions when microphones were banned and we heard, for example, the outrageous Rhodes Boyson expound his immigration policy ideas of “give them a thousand pounds and tell them to bugger off”.  

Swinton Conservative College
On my last visit to review a show at Leicester’s very modern Curve Theatre, I took an hour to revisit its very ancient Grand Hotel where we had our annual conference every November, and sit in the dusty ballroom where I’d heard not just Mrs Thatcher, but a tentative and self-deprecating Ken Clarke make one of his first speeches as an MP.

At the Blackpool party conference of 1977, a squeaky schoolboy called William Hague made his debut and I sat next to Enoch Powell who squirmed a bit during the Leader’s speech, and stomped off when she finished. I went dancing in the Tower Ballroom.

But it was my first meeting with Mrs Thatcher that is so firmly etched in my memory: 19 February 1973, the day I lost my virginity.

The aforementioned Federation of Conservative Students had been asked to do a survey on student finances, because some Central Office think tank had come up with the idea that grants could be replaced with loans.  We’d touted the forms round Lancaster University without much take-up and when asked to submit the summaries, I’d simply multiplied all the numbers by five to make it look as though we’d got far more responses than we did.  A working party was asked to report to Mrs Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education, and they invited those who had, apparently, collated the most forms.  It was a rare visit to London for me, I’d only been twice before, and I slept on the floor of a friend at UCL.  He had lectures during the day and so I had to amuse myself, and though I’d try to find ‘gay life’ in the city.  I had no idea where to look – for some reason I’d confused hanging around Piccadilly Circus to pick up men with Marble Arch and spent a desultory hour at quite the wrong tube station although a few Edgware Road Arabic types did give me the eye.

We had some end-of-term ball coming up and the fashion those days was for velvet suits, so I went shopping along Oxford Street and was trying on the trousers in the fitting room of C&A when the assistant suddenly became extra helpful in smoothing the nap of the velvet, particularly in the crotch area.  Paul Attard, it said on his badge.  One thing led to another and I hope he managed to get the stains out before returning it to stock, but the other issue was that I was wearing paper disposable underpants – another 1973 fashion faux pas – and had to chuck them in a bin. 

So I went to my meeting with Margaret Thatcher, in her office at the House of Commons, without pants and smelling of sex.

still waiting for the blue plaque ...

Some good came of it: although she was fiercely well-prepared and questioned us rigorously she did come round to the idea of maintaining student grants, a policy not reversed till Tony Blair brought in tuition fees in 1998. 

We had a post-mortem in a pub in the Euston Road where I lent David Davis, later shadow Home Secretary, 10p for the condom machine in the gents.  He’s never paid me back.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A Tuesday in Panama

It’s a Tuesday in January and I’m watching a flock of pelicans dive for supper in the fish-rich gulf of Panama: the sun is so blinding I have to retreat into the air-conditioning of the cabin as it’s pushing 90 degrees on the balcony.  In England there’s up to a foot of snow and Heathrow allegedly resembles a casualty dressing station in the Crimea so I thought I should write a postcard home.

I’ve done it so often and you, tolerant gentle reader have heard it enough that I won’t burden you with the details of the journey except to say if you’re aiming for Florida, Tampa Airport is a million times better than Miami, the Disney and diaper hellhole of Orlando, or changing in JFK.  Apart from the fact you have to manhandle your baggage without the aid of a ‘cart’ which is helpfully not allowed outside the immediate customs area ‘for safety reasons’, it’s only a walk to the terminal and the car rental station where I’m allowed a free choice of Alamo’s finest and chunkiest SUVs.  Having wrangled the 46kg suitcases down five flights of stairs this morning at home when the lift was – for the third time in six days - out of order, I swing them like Indian clubs into the massive trunk area and head for the highway.

Although I’ve printed maps I find the hotel mostly by guesswork and immediately form the impression I am the only ‘independent’ customer in the place since everyone else seems to be attending the National Convention of Assholes or somesuch.  I’m hot and a bit irritable and after a few beers in the ‘executive’ lounge which has all the charm and polyester upholstery of a vasectomist’s waiting room wherein middle aged American men bullshit about sports to avoid the real purpose of their visit, I’m ready for bed.  Eavesdropping at breakfast I discover the conventioneers are all water treatment inspectors, so I was close.  All of them, even the women, look like Homer Simpson and under their uniformly oxford button-downs, it’s debatable who has the biggest boobs.

It is SO glorious driving down unfettered highways and over the long low bridges which hug the Reckitt-blue water of Tampa bay that I ask myself out loud why I don’t spend much more of the winter somewhere like this.  My first stop is the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg where my appreciation is boosted by seeing how broad was the range of his work – like Picasso, he was an excellent draughtsman, portraitist and landscape artist before developing his signature style, and it was a treat to have lunch in the company of Tom O’Shea, the architecture ‘docent’ and discover both that we had designer colleagues in common and that he shares my view that the brand new building’s striking features have been dulled by committee planners and a surrounding of death by local authority landscaping.

A very brief stop at Ellenton ‘Premium’ outlet malls for a wee and a headlong dash through Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers and I’m on the road again heading for Sarasota.  By early afternoon I’ve crossed the bridge onto the narrow spit of land which includes Longboat Key and am ticking off the retirement condominiums and golf resorts along Gulf of Mexico Drive to 1241 and my friends Marvin and Betty.  They are effortlessly charming and welcoming and  after a James Bond penthouse experience where the lift opens directly in to their apartment, it’s a pleasure to see them again after six months and enjoy their home filled with light, fine art and ceramics – there’s even a Dali sketch in the hallway.  We chat until sunset on their balcony when it’s time to shower and change for dinner at the Hawkins’ in another grandiose patch of Florida real estate: their two and a half-storey ‘great room’ reminds me of a Kenyan game lodge with its plantation shutters, palm-shaped fans and clubby upholstery, and I’m guessing that’s an 84-inch television. 

They’re generous hosts and pour three splendid Californian cabernets to accompany the steaks.  We’re having a lovely and relaxed time when Betty’s cell phone rings to announce the demise of her elder sister.  Whilst this is not unexpected, because she’d been ill and the doctors had anticipated it, the poise with which Betty handles it takes my breath away and fills me anew with appreciation of how my Jewish friends take such incidents in their stride, believing life is for the living.  With barely a beat, she confirms what happened and moves the conversation on.  We clink a respectful glass.  L’Chaim, to life.

Sleep comes easily and after breakfast I hit the road again for the longish drive from Gulf to Atlantic coast and through ‘Alligator Alley’ across the Everglades where there’s a major python cull in operation.  Needless to say, I don’t see one, or indeed much at all the traffic is so light but I do surf the radio stations and am alarmed how many phone-in shows seem to take calls from people whose sole preoccupation – in the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Connecticut - is ‘what about them tryin’ to take away our guns’. 

I hit Fort Lauderdale about 1pm and the Hyatt doesn’t have my room ready so I scoot off for ‘the best hamburger in South Florida’ and since there’s a ‘beauty parlor’ directly above it, get my hair cut by a funny and chatty platinum blonde called Delaine who sports stilettos, Capri pants and mascara applied with more enthusiasm than accuracy and is possibly ten years older than me.  No ageism in the great retirement State.  She does a very good job, and I also brave having my eyebrows threaded for the first time ever, which is an odd experience but not painful.   It is all also extremely cheap, certainly compared to London.

Back at the hotel I ascend to my thirteenth floor eyrie – some dodgy upgrade I seem to have finagled – and almost immediately find Curt, Rhea, David and Peggy having a late lunch at the pool.  We don’t have long to chat before changing again because we’re expected for dinner by Bazz and Moya, former cruise line entertainers, at their brand new bar and restaurant within the Hard Rock Casino complex.  Driving there takes us through the more depressing parts of Lauderdale until what rises from the strips of tyre depots and discount liquor stores is something like the Emerald City of Oz, with soaring fountains, coloured lights, massive hotels, valet parking and a little bit of Vegas.  We find their new bar ‘Piano’ sandwiched between a Hooters and a candy store and it’s an oasis of cool Savoy style sophistication surrounded by some pretty tacky neighbours. And Moya designed, built and painted it herself.

If it gets the footfall, it should do astoundingly well since there’s nothing nearly as classy for miles – except perhaps the wonderful restaurant where we have dinner and which specialises in grass-fed, long-matured dry-aged meat of the sort that cuts like butter and again makes me recall why I like visiting the USA, we just don’t get this in Europe, or if we do it’s at Goodmans where dinner costs more than my flight here.  Bazz selects, and we drink, copious bottles of Marques de Riscal Rioja which nourishes my European heart into thinking that the Yanks may have the best meat, but we have the wine that makes their meat sublime.  If that sounds like a double entendre, maybe it’s accurate too, but I was genuinely talking about food.

In a complicated game of you-take-me-here, I’ll-drop-you-there Curt and I shuttle our luggage to the dockside and our friends to the ship before ditching the hire cars and getting on board ahead of the crowd.  The Silver Shadow is larger than the line’s other ships we’ve sailed on and it’s several days before we find our way confidently about the decks.  It’s almost full with 490 passengers but fortunately not so totally booked that I couldn’t change cabins since mine had air conditioning which came directly from a smoking section of the crew accommodation.  I was offered an upgrade several floors above the category I’d booked but opt instead for one midships on deck 5 which is the closest to the sea where you can still have a balcony and not get wet.  It’s also about where the bow wave crashes so I get lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean, perfect for me.