(2012) A New York Frame of Mind
Written in early January 2012.
Been a busy fortnight of mostly switching off and relaxing. New York is back to being my town. London beckons but the music, the variety and buzz of the Big Apple is hard to beat. Caught up with friends. Saw three Broadway shows – Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Follies’, Mandy Pattiken & Patti LuPune doing a reprise of their best songs (they first met on the stage of ‘Evita’) and ‘Memphis’, a rolling, rollicking, original musical of how black music in the early 1960s found its way through the transistors of white folk through an innovative, feisty southern radio station and set off the modern era of Rock and Roll. Each show, really different, got standing ovations. ‘Follies’ is no sweet musical. It is about heartache and raw love.
There are some favourite things: staying at the Palace Hotel smack next to St Patrick’s Cathedral, opposite the Rockefeller Center, across the road from Saks of Fifth Avenue, too expensive! but still nearly the best really high end Department store in New York (Goodman Bergdorf beats it). We are located on Madison Avenue smack in the middle of the greatest shopping strip in the world, joining huge crowds of business people from nearby skyscrapers and shoppers and tourists all in a hurry. Nowhere is like that. The Executive Lounge at the Palace has a bellybutton to ceiling gunbarrel view that is breathtaking: skimming across St Patrick’s, taking in Park and Madison Avenue down to Central Park. You see all that amazing architecture and the teaming throng. From Mary’s and my hotel window there are several art deco buildings and a glimpse of the Chrysler Building. Love it. Could this be home, please?
Outside the air is cold, it’s winter, but it hasn’t snowed, but people seem to walk faster to keep warmer. It is New York. Great restaurants, good memories: on the second level of the Raddison Hotel overlooking Time’s Square there is a little known bar which has the most stunning, panoramic view. Ate Xmas dinner there. A few days before found some gifts. I thought: go to the edge of the main shopping areas, to 7th and 8th and 9th Avenues where creative, hoping-to-make it people have set up shop, where the rents are cheaper, where they need to turn the revenue, where there’s fear of the post Xmas retail slump, where the quality is good, and where you can bargain hard to drive down the price. “What if I bought 5?” It worked!
Underneath the Rockefeller Center there is an underground restaurant with one thick glass wall looking to the ice-skaters turning and twirling and doing fun. The girls, Louise and Amanda, love this place. The outside: a sunken open area in between the buildings, where it’s open to anyone to don the right shoes and have a go. There seems to be a lull – even as I’m chatting business to a fund manager I’ve known for thirty years – you glance out: a guy’s on his knees, a tiny box is presented, the girl’s reaction tells you what you need to know. There’s clapping outside and inside the restaurant and the dizzying, crowded ice-rink seems to absorb the moment, the magic skater couple lost amongst them all.
Then there’s the galleries: Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is always worth visiting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) has surely the greatest single collection of art anywhere in the world. It is overwhelming. Then there’s the new kid on the block, the Neue Galerie New York, a collection of the Lauder family (think Estee Lauder) of Austrian and German art, recently donated – museum, paintings and sculptures – to the public of New York. Previously I have not seen it before up close: Gustav Klimt’s oil, silver, and gold canvas of ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ (1907). It really is exquisite: http://eu.art.com/products/p12970230-sa-i2214582/gustav-klimt-mrs-adele-bloch-bauer-1907.htm?aff=conf&ctid=1435741833&rfid=504682&tkid=0
No wonder the Nazis stole it!
Besides the joy of family – including being with two daughters and one son-in-law, seeing the shows and everything mostly together (did I mention the afternoon tea at the Plaza?), there were two highlights: seeing Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein performing in a cabaret show. Everyone looked dressed up and well heeled. The brilliant actor John Lithgow was there to see. It’s intimate, 80 to 100 people, tops at tables around the stage. You order and eat a great meal. Very civilised. And then the performers and jazzy band come on stage. Cook is now really old; one of the greats of Broadway. She loves to sing. She explains the songs. You feel you are in a conversation with a real person you’ve known a long time. Her memory stretches back to where this song came from, who composed it, what the lyricist or composer thought at the time, how she likes to present the song. It’s a line or two each song. She looks to the audience and says she doesn’t know the finer things about immigration policy, but most of the greats from the past were immigrants or first-born Americans in their families. Her policy is simple: “if they can write songs, let ’em in!” Tonight her repertoire was mostly of songs she has just mastered or freshly thought about. ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is an obscure song, not sung when I saw her, but on this clip, it shows a glimpse of what she can do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zBoj_v5lHs&feature=related – though, of course, she never bored us with so much commentary in a concert as you would at a masterclass!
So that was New York!
And then a flight with Mary to Madrid on New Year’s eve; a terribly over-rated event. I knew the Time’s Square celebration could be missed. That would be a nightmare to go to. Crowds. Our plane journey across the Atlantic to the New Year would answer a mystery: Do they serve champagne on these flights?
(2005) Arrivals and Departures
Written in January 2005.
Whenever I am away I try to meet up with someone who, from left field or through force of intellect and personality, might get me to think.
Several decades ago, I spent a weekend with Dr Henry Drucker (not to be confused with the business academic Peter Drucker) and his wife Nancy (the social worker and childrens’ author) in Edinburgh. I had read Henry’s short, little book Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, which, despite its heavy, almost thuddingly dull title is the most interesting book I have read on the culture of the Labour Party in the UK.
At first, all I knew about him was from reading his book, which I chanced upon at Abbey’s bookshop in Sydney. I decided to track him down, wrote to him and decided, on a Commonwealth and Foreign Office sponsored visit to the UK in 1987 to go to Edinburgh and meet him; it was a pleasant weekend, learning about his upbringing (Jewish in the States in Philadelphia, interest in US Democratic politics, move to the UK to research & write a PhD at the LSE, eventual immersion in Scottish politics with the Labour Party, including with a then budding Scottish politician and later Labour MP, Gordon Brown – they wrote a book or two together; Brown is, of course, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the finance Minister, in the UK).
I told him that life in Australia was superb – a relatively egalitarian society, a Labor government (at the time), a broadly social democratic society (a ‘fair go for the underdog’ ethos), great surfing beaches, a vibrant culture – and you could eat mangoes all year long; I loved them for breakfast! This latter point, in wintry Edinburgh, struck him as my most telling point in favour of Oz.
His book on the Labour Party, its rituals and traditions, its culture was written from the perspective of a ‘outsider insider’ – a person who from another culture and political tradition (in the States) found the Labour Party strange, another country, though he eventually as a party member and activist assimilated to the culture; I remember his saying to me that most books on the party were written as if the party was the Fabian society, rather than as a social organisation; to understand the party one needed to know both its ideas and ideology as well as its ethos. In reading the literature to discover the latter was like, from the footprints, constructing or imagining the beast above, he wanted to write something infused with his experiences as well as wide reading.
When I last met him more than 5 years ago he had long moved on to philanthropy and was the first major (and very successful) fundraiser for Oxford University; in the early nineties I received some publications in his capacity as head of the “Campaign for Oxford”. Some of his research and interests were moving to innovative areas. I remember having lunch with him once at the Reform Club on Pall Mall (in London) wherein he discussed Cardiff City’s interest in getting “on the map”, by getting something commissioned akin to Sydney’s opera house. How did we do it? He was considering taking on the job. One thing he hated though was travel; even the trip across the Atlantic left him jetlagged and disoriented for a week; he could not imagine flying to Australia; besides, his health wouldn’t be up to it.
This weekend I decided to look him up, make contact and renew a friendship; I would be in London long enough; what had happened to the Cardiff venture? What did he think of UK Labour now, after eight years in government?
Then I learnt the news. He had died almost two years ago: see http://education.guardian.co.uk/obituary/story/0,12212,835194,00.html
That was something of a shock.
One day I would like to reflect on what he was doing in philanthropy; maybe in a decade or two, when I have made a bit, give a bit back; think about entrepreneurial philanthropy.
Life is indeed brief – like a drop of water on a blade of grass.
(2004) Cape Town
Written from Cape Town, Wednesday 22 December 2004.
Cape Town is surprisingly prosperous, feels safe, with maybe one and a half million whites in a population of 4 million; we were here for Reconciliation Day, as they call the day of independence (December 16th.) You get the feeling that Mandela’s achievement in calming passions, moving the country to independence and tolerance was one of the class acts of our lifetimes.
You get the feeling, in Leonie Sandercock’s phrase in her book Mongrel Cities that if “the 21st century will be the century of multicultural cities”, Cape Town – and indeed, South Africa – might pull it off, becoming one of the more interesting societies of the world.
We drove around: to the wine country (one area, Franschoek, the French corner, is better than anything I’ve seen in Oz). The beaches (at Camps Bay Beach we were lucky to find off the ’net a three storey, built on a cliff overlooking the ocean, penthouse, and in easy stroll of the shops; definitely the place to be), Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the African markets, the shopping areas at the Victoria & Alfred waterfront and the stunning, scenic hills and roads hugging cliff and sea.
In vivid sight behind the apartment were the Twelve Apostles, a mountain range, with twelve outcrops. An advantage of the mountain ranges is that the hot air gets swept up in the late afternoon and a cooling breeze blows in from the ocean; much like Sydney’s southerly buster.
Driving near Hout’s Bay, we saw a couple of enormous, black killer whales; everyone drove at the side of the road to take snaps. The scenery is beautiful – and closer to the metropolis than Sydney’s Blue mountains or Bowral gardens, etc. You can understand why people compare favourably Cape Town to Sydney.
Despite the obvious wealth in this society, the contrast in poverty and opportunity is enormous. The white regime educated – beyond secondary level –less than 1% of the black population. Driving from the airport there are thousands of shanty-towns – fragile, wooden, makeshift structures – only a few connected to electricity, still less other supplies. An enormous amount of building – attractively designed apartments for the well off – is going on – much of it along the coast. You wonder how unattractive it would be to live here.
The reason we (Mary, the girls, sister-in-law Catherine and our nephew John) were here was to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of two twins – born and bred in South Africa, both of whom left nearly forty years ago, straight after university, one to Australia; the other to London, believing they couldn’t live in a racist society.
For one of the twins, that was a practical choice; if he hadn’t rushed out of the country in 1964, he would have been arrested by the apartheid regime. Their story – including a role funnelling money and support to the independence struggle – has partly been told in a recent book, White Lies. It was interesting to hear at the birthday celebrations – bringing together a family diaspora and friends as far apart as Australia, Israel, the States, the UK and South Africa – that since the 1930s the family has poured tens of millions into humanitarian programs, mostly medical and educational, through the Leon Foundation.
The food was great, though we all came down with a tummy virus. On several days, in my case, the dawn met a technicolour yawn.