Thursday, 31 May 2007

The News Today is that there is No News

What makes one human being more important than another?

From where I'm sitting I can reel off the names of those humans who are most important to me. It's easy. The list includes my family and friends and then maybe those that I've not met but whose art brings me happiness.

If I was to try to think of this question in an objective sense then I'd probably go for world leaders. Then campaigners and activists of all kinds, people who try to make a difference to their environment, thereby influencing the lives of others.

But in reality I've no idea. I'd really like to think that the answer is that no one human being is more important than any other. I'd hope that's how God sees it too.

There is, however, an industry that decides which human beings are the most important every day and that industry is the newspaper industry and that human being is the one that appears on the front page. It's a tough call. Each paper is aware that it has to print stories that appeal to the current readership while trying to attract new readers. They also have to try to attract new advertising revenue. Each seems to have worked out what to wheel out on a on a slow news day:

Daily Express - Princess Diana
The Star - TV Reality show stars
The Independent - Environment expose
Guardian - Big business expose
Daily Mail - Anyone who isn't, or isn't aspiring to be, white and middle class is scum and a danger to us Mail readers, the silent moral majority.

Recently, however, there has been a pan-newspaper consensus on what constitutes a front page story, what constitutes an important human being. What our nation's media (this includes TV)has decided is that the most important story in this country for the last 28 days is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. She has become the most important person in the world, judging by the amount of exposure her plight has received. She, in this country, is more important than the Queen, the Prime Minister (and the PM in waiting), and all of our sports and pop and movie stars (which I'm sure no-one has a problem with). She is more important than genocide in Darfur and every other tragedy that is occurring anywhere in the world today and I have a problem with this.

Now follows a disclaimer, obligatory for anyone expressing any kind of cynicism at the amount of exposure that one girl's disappearance has caused. If I was her parent I would want her image on every front page, every back page, every TV programme, billboard, passing car, lapel badge etc. I would want her name on everyone's lips, in everyone's consciousness. I can't imagine the pain they're feeling and hope that in the event that their worst fears come true that they can somehow move on with their lives with Madeleine's siblings.

But I'm not her parent. I have other concerns. I'm just a person who reads about her in the papers every day hoping for new information. So far there has been none. A man was questioned by police and then released without charge, so far his only crime seems to have been that he looked a bit suspicious. His glass eye probably didn't help. And that has been the only news in the month since she first went missing. Every day her story gets top billing and every day the story is that there is no story. Not even my beloved BBC can hold its head high here as it has been guilty of the same speculative and sometimes libellous reporting - think of Robert Murat and the frequent comments on the adequacy or otherwise of the Portuguese police.

So why is she still front page news? The simple answer is that I don't know. But here are some possible factor:

- She's young and photogenic. Let's not mess about here; if she wasn't a pretty, young white girl with attractive middle class parents there would not have been all of this exposure. Sukhpal Singh from Stockwell would not have got the same treatment and you can be sure that there would have been more outcry at the parents leaving their child alone.

- Her parents have used the media fantastically well.

- Portugal is a nice place to go to report on a story.

- The public still want the story and so none of the papers want to drop it. This is a difficult point to evaluate as there is a very fine balancing act between a paper and its readers regarding demand for news: the public demands certain stories but the media can also create these demands where previously there was little interest. I think that there is still a huge amount of interest in the story although this may be waning in the face of a complete lack of new information.

This last point could absolve the media of its blanket coverage, although not its mawkish style. If the public wants a story then the papers will provide it regardless of whether there is a story at all, it would be stupid not to. It's just a shame that we're left with the strange phenomenon whereby the public and the media exist in a symbiotic relationship that is entirely dependant on the amount of grief that members of that public feel for a child that they've never met. How long can this go on? Did we collectively grieve for this long when Princess Diana died? I'm not sure we did.

What I've written here is pretty unfocused so I feel I should summarise:

- Madeleine's plight is a tragic one, especially to her family.

- But, for the rest of us, life goes on.

- So let's continue to pray for her safe return

- Although I don't see why the Pope should get involved, unless this is the new Papal strategy for every family in the McCann's position.

- There are few things that we like more than a good old collective grieve. We are clearly, as a nation, emotionally retarded.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

New York!

My previous post ended with a short note on how I was a little apprehensive about going to New York on my own and within ten minutes of arriving in Manhattan there was the perfect illustration of why I felt that way. I left my wallet in the taxi. Fortunately, or maybe because I'd just given a generous tip, the driver alerted me to my idiocy and my week was saved. Further examples of my stupidity include: leaving my unfinished Philip Roth on the plane to New York and leaving an Elmore Leonard, my Roth replacement, on the plane that took me home. I need a nanny, or just someone to slap my face every know and then and tell me to wake up.

The Paramount Hotel was cool as was my room, if a little small. But the bed was comfy, the air-con worked and it had a great shower. It was situated just 100 yards from Times Square and that is where I first headed. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Piccadilly Circus is the obvious reference point for an Englishman but there's no comparison really. If you somehow magnified Piccadilly Circus by twenty and force-fed it hallucinogenic drugs then a similar effect might occur but I doubt it. There exists a complete sensurround of noise, colour and odour that is quite exhilarating and dizzying to the newcomer. I wandered around Times Square and its arteries for about an hour before deciding that what I really needed to do was get a drink and so I settled in the Playwright on about 49th. It looked as though it might have a British influence and I desperately needed something familiar to cling to!

I was served by a girl with an Irish accent and there was soccer (I was in America. I've since reverted to calling it football) on the big screen which was very reassuring. So reassuring that I stayed for ages. Karen from Kilkenny was very helpful and gave me a big list of places at which I might like to drink and eat, all separated by district and with a street address. Armed with this information I decided to visit some of them and had a great time. I talked with interesting people and sampled many of New York's draught beers and had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

The next morning I awoke at about nine. I was fully clothed and without even the slightest recollection of leaving the last place I'd visited or even of entering or walking back to the hotel. It's a wonder I wasn't mugged or violated in some other terrible way but also comforting to know that my homing instinct is still quite sharp. I felt absolutely terrible but had a full day ahead of me and didn't allow myself to wallow in my discomfort for long. The plan was to get the Subway to South Ferry and walk from Battery Park to Central Park, an ambitious target and one that eventually proved overambitious.

Here is what I saw and did over the next few days:

The Korean War Veteran's Memorial is in Battery Park. Beneath your feet as you walk around the memorial is information on casualties suffered by the different countries that sent troops to the war. I discovered that UK forces experienced 1078 deaths and 1263 missing in action. Netherlands had two deaths, as did little Luxembourg. Curiously, the Italians suffered no fatalities.

I walked through the financial district without stopping too long at Ground Zero. I've never been anywhere especially to see something that is no longer there. You're forced to try to visualise what was once there and it's near impossible to do that without also visualising the collisions and the collapses and I felt that it was morbid to do anything other than briefly pay my respects.

I spent some enjoyable hours wandering through Chinatown, Little Italy and SoHo. I liked the way that these districts had strict boundaries and left you in no doubt where you were. One side of the road you might be able to choose from the largest selection of Korean porn outside of Seoul and then you cross the street to be greeted by moustached men with greased back hair, each imploring you to eat pasta in their undoubtedly fine establishments. Someone somewhere was playing the theme from The Godfather. I didn't eat in Little Italy and neither did I buy porn in Chinatown. I did spend a few dollars in SoHo, however. Nothing big but a few t-shirts and shirts and pj's for me and my loved ones and all at outrageously low prices. The Paul Frank shop was cool and played Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and The Who. It was if I'd sent them a playlist in advance. I also found some fantastic book shops but had already bought about six books in America and thought I should quit that particular caper as I'd probably lose them all anyway.

By now I was really aching. My hangover had completely got the better of me and I'd somehow sustained a knee injury that made walking difficult. Nothing else for it but to get back on the Subway and head uptown. The Subway is excellent and, as with every city I've visited that has an underground train system, it puts London's to shame. It's cheap, clean and doesn't require you to travel half a mile underground to access it.

I landed back in Times Square and walked the rest of the way to Central Park. It was a relief to get into the Park after the chaos of the city. Its calm ambience is your reward for having endured the the sights and sounds of Midtown Manhattan. I found a spot in the shade of a tree and ate the salad that I'd bought in a Little Italy deli before sitting back and feeling some kind of bliss. All around me was life being lived at a far easier pace than I'd seen for a day and it looked all the more pleasurable for it. Near me were a couple of men playing bongos. Occasionally people passing by would stop to dance in the sun. In England they probably call the police. There were baseball and football games being played, roller bladers, cyclists, joggers and walkers. It was lovely.

I could have stayed all day but time was limited and I had one more thing to do before I could head back to the hotel for a much needed nap. I took the Subway to 110 Street and found Tom's Restaurant, better known as Monk's Cafe in Seinfeld. It was a pilgrimage I had to make even though I felt pretty underwhelmed when I got there. By now I was exhausted and headed back to the hotel and slept.

At around six I made the short walk to the Rockefeller Centre. I decided to visit the observation deck in the GE Building rather than the trip up the Empire State Building because, well, you can't see the Empire State Building from the top of the Empire State Building.

A glass roofed elevator ascends at great speed and you step out of it having climbed seventy floors in thirty seconds. The view as I stepped out onto the rooftop was one of the most beautiful I've seen. Right in the middle of a vast ocean of concrete and glass lies Central Park, looking like quite the most tranquil and fertile place imaginable. Its importance to New York is quite obvious from this vantage point - without it madness would reign. Then I walked to the other side of the building to look towards Downtown Manhattan and was greeted with a sight that was (coming up: a word that is overused but is applied literally here) breathtaking. The tops of the proliferation of skyscrapers form what looks like an uneven looking floor. Standing proudly above them all is the Empire State Building and it's magnificent. I stood staring for several minutes in a vain attempt to try to take in everything in my field of vision. I actually stayed for the best part of an hour. I don't know why, all I did was stare. I just couldn't move but eventually my stomach told me it's time to stop gawping and start eating.

I didn't do much in the evening. I couldn't, I was exhausted. I made a half-hearted effort at shopping in Macy's but it was all too much. I saw Times Square at night and watched the Yankees win for the first time in ages in an Irish bar somewhere. My back ached and my left knee felt like someone has been hitting it with a hammer. I needed a good night's sleep and hoped to wake up refreshed and not fully clothed.

How and why I woke at 7am is a mystery. My back still ached and my knee still hurt. In fact it quickly became apparent that I'd be doing far less walking as I did the previous day. Are you supposed to get arthritis at my age?
I took the Subway down to SoHo and bought some more cheap clothes and realised SoHo is like Covent Garden. There are plenty of great places to shop but other establishments that I wouldn't enter for fear of death-by-withering-look from a snooty shop assistant. I hadn't made it to Greenwich Village the previous day so headed in that direction. I was already tired and it was barely midday but in my defence it was pretty hot. I had a couople of slices of pepperoni outside a pizza joint and contemplated whether or not I'd just walked past the house where Cliff Huxtable and his family lived. It wasn't.

After I'd spent some quality time wandering around I took the Subway uptown to get my ticket for the evening's show. There's a fountain opposite Radio City Music Hall and I sat there for a while with office workers on their lunch break and made notes in the sun and cooled my hands in the water. The temperature was as hot as at any time in Myrtle Beach. The summers here must be unbearable.

I felt quite sad. I knew that I'd have to return to the hotel for some rest before the evening which, since I was flying home the next day, effectively meant that I'd done all of the exploring that I was going to do. There was, of course, one last thing to do, the reason I came to New York in the first place.

Radio City is quite unlike any music venue I've ever seen. It certainly beats Brixton Academy. Due to dire warnings of body searches and confiscations on my ticket I didn't bring my camera into the venue which is such a shame as my clumsy descriptions can never do it justice. It feels like a living, breathing Art-Deco museum; you get the feeling that the interior hasn't changed since it was built (I could be very wrong, I have no idea!). The lobby features huge chandeliers hanging from a ceiling four floors up and a winding, sweeping staircase to the upper levels. The most startling things were the bathrooms, or Gentleman's Lounges. They featured ante-rooms that resembled the Red Room in Twin Peaks. A large dark marble (granite? I dunno. It looked great though) floor with luxuriant armchairs in each corner greets you before you enter the loveliest bathroom I've seen anywhere. And that includes homes and hotels. I'll remember this place next time I'm in the men's room of a London club, having waded through urine-soaked floors to wash my hands only to have an attendant attempt to charge me for the privilage of being handed a paper towel.

Then there was the small matter of the band. I've used enough words already on Arcade Fire so I don't really need to say much here other than that they were magnificent and they alone justified my journey here.

And that's about it. I went for a few drinks after the the show to try to help take stock of what I'd just seen and heard, not just that evening but over the preceding few days, and then to bed.

I took the train to JFK the next morning. It was quick, clean, easy and cheap. I arrived home about 12 hours later, exhausted but very happy and thinking that no place has ever made me feel so small and insignificant and yet so much a part of something incomprehensively big and wonderful.

I love NY!

Thursday, 3 May 2007

America #2

Myrtle Beach is characterised by, among other things, diners and shops. These establishments generally subscribe to the idea that, in order to best make us aware of their existence, they should make their frontages big and bold. All of this goes on for quite a few miles along the coastal road and it gets a bit much after a while. It isn't pretty.

Travelling south on Highway 17 you notice the shopfronts becoming less gaudy. You pass through a few pleasant looking towns. Georgetown in particular, with it's antebellum (before war - look at me learning Latin!) houses, was very pretty. That's as long as you stay down by the waterfront and try to ignore the steel works. After this there is about an hour of countryside before you reach Charleston and it was during this time that I felt that I was really seeing America for the first time. There's a fantastic feeling of well being to be gained by driving (or being driven - Becky was driving) in the sun in the American south with the radio playing Lynryd Skynryd and other rock classics, like a nostalgia for something not yet experienced. Some kinda wonderful.

Charleston is where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. The city has retained much of its architecture from before that period and has encouraged later buildings to fit in with the existing surroundings. The result is a real step back in time, the kind of place that I could not imagine existing here, although modern encroachments are apparent and will probably only get worse. It's also very beautiful and has joined the small list of places where I'd be happy to live should England drown. (Though I don't imagine the local alternative music scene to be up to much but, hey, you can't have it all)

Becky and I ate She-Crab Soup and Fried Green Tomatos (a tasty first for me) in a restaurant that had the names of famous diners engraved on small plaques and nailed to various tables. At my table, quite thrillingly, the Beach Boys had sat! We then went on an entertaining and informative guided tour by horse drawn carriage before taking a slow walk around and then settling at a hotel's rooftop bar. It was one of the few occasions in a place up high where I've felt that the view wasn't as good as at ground level. I think that's a compliment. I had a very enjoyable day.

At this very second I'm watching Fox News ("Fair and Balanced" If you say so...). In Dallas last night one woman was killed when struck by lightning and another drowned when her car was swept away by flood water. We don't get that in England, that's real weather. We think it's an emergency if a roof leaks. And now Fox News is reporting the outrageous news that gas is hitting $3 a gallon. $3 a gallon! Ours is $9 a gallon, deal with it!

I'm still enjoying every minute here but New York is looming quite close on the horizon and if I'm honest I'm a little nervous. I have the guidance of my hosts here but will be all alone in the big city. I'm not worried about my personal safety or in fact anything specific at all, more that a developed sense of initiative a) would be useful in New York and b) is something I'm lacking. I know everything's gonna be cool though.