…Gladly beyond any experience.
I have recently started to suffer with insomnia, rarely sleeping more than a few hours a night. One of my readers (hello Kenneth!) suggested imagining a journey to a place I have visited or would like to visit as a way of drifting off. And so I find myself in those hollow morning hours (or The Hour of the Wolf as Ingmar Bergman so brilliantly put it) travelling to places I know and love and also those imaginary places of the past which no longer exist or the cities of my mind where I have yet to venture.
I know them well. Those New York drugstores illuminated late at night on street corners where you can get a coffee or an ice cream sundae. There are the neon signs and theatres to discover on Times Square in the 1920s. There is always a film I want to see at the all night cinema and I can observe the lights of the apartments whizzing past from the Third Avenue El.
In L.A, there are the dazzling headlights to admire from the hills, Schwab’s pharmacy, Romanoff’s and the Brown Derby if there’s a free table, palm lined avenues and morning walks in the grounds of the Griffith Observatory. Sometimes the Hollywood sign still reads Hollywoodland.
In San Francisco, I imagine the winding roads of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and those shadowy streets which Fred Lyon captured so brilliantly. Or hear the music in the jazz club visited by the ill-fated Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A.
And of course there is Paris in its greatest times. The hotel rooms you can live in so cheaply can be rather cold and dingy but you only need to walk a short distance to be enveloped in the warmth of the Flore or the Deux Magots as you sit and write on the first floor. There are books to borrow from the original Shakespeare and Company or something in French if you prefer from Adrienne Monier’s ‘La Maison des Amis des Livres’. And at night, there are strolls along the wide avenues, sometimes even climbing the steep flights of stairs up to Montmartre to observe the city at your feet, other times wandering by the Seine to admire the Pont Neuf.
James Joyce and Sylvia Beach
In Venice, I think of the poet Joseph Brodsky who went there every year, generally in winter, arriving for the first time late at night by train, smoking and drinking coffee in the station cafe while he waited for someone to meet him, as described in his exquisite book ‘Watermark’.
Gianni Berengo Gardin, 1960
All of this makes me a hopeless romantic or a misguided nostalgic for something I never knew, depending on your viewpoint. The past was never this wonderful in reality, I’m fully aware. And yet as I drift between wakefulness and sleep, I think about the spaces we need to think and exist which are missing in today’s cities, how much has been lost and how much we need to save and feel glad that these invisible cities are still accessible to us in books, films, photos and perhaps even in dreams.
The Richfield Oil Tower, Los Angeles