Empire state of mind

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I’m not quite sure when the dream began but a 1990s guidebook is evidence of it beginning many years ago. The city itself never really seemed close though – we went to France and Spain for our holidays, I related to New York only through images – the horror of 9/11 and then all the films and photos in both colour and black and white. Part of me almost didn’t want to really go there because the reality could only be a disappointment. And then last year we decided to cross the pond and I spent months and weeks in giddy anticipation counting down, reading all the travel guides, watching all my favourite films, not quite believing that my dream was coming true. I will never forget the view from above, just before landing, looking out at a landscape totally unlike anything I had seen before and the reflections of the setting sun perched on the horizon. And those first moments when we saw the shimmering skyline of Manhattan for the first time from the cab crossing the Queensboro Bridge – is that really the Chrysler Building? The humidity hit us like a sledgehammer when emerging rather tired and travel stained but full of excitement that night. Exploring would have to wait until the following day though.

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We checked in at the Best Western Premier Herald Square which I definitely recommend. A small room (but then this is Manhattan) but amazingly quiet and a great location. Staying just 5 minutes away from the Empire State Building made it a natural choice for our first destination. Definitely take your time looking out at the skyline through the glass on the lower level in air conditioned comfort first – I rushed things in my eagerness to get outside.The humidity was intense, even at 9am, and crowds clustered at every corner of the observation deck but nothing could dim the thrill of being that high with the city at our feet.

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Somewhere I have never travelled..

…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.

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Esther Bubley

Nina Leen

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.

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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.

Fred Lyon

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

Roger Schall

André Kertész

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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’.

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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