Monday 18 September 2017

New York: Central Park (Saturday 08/07/2017).

Donald, do you remember the story about the man who built his house on sand? Without checking, I am not completely sure, but he might have gone to hell.

But at least, until then, you will have plenty of sand for your bunkers.

Keep Digging Don.

It turns out the builders of the 58 storey Millennium Tower in San Francisco did the same thing, when with just a little more gumption, they could have excavated down the bed rock like the neighbouring buildings. It seems that when you are working on a project of these dimensions, there is a hubristic tendency to think that the laws of physics that constrain the rest of us, don't apply.


Donald, the metaphors just write themselves.

Predictably, the structure is sinking and leaning even faster than the builder's hastily briefed experts concluded, when faced with litigation but I don't think Pisa is worried about its tourist traffic just yet.

Which will go first?

At the southern end of Manhattan island, where most of the really big buildings crowd, the bedrock  starts at about 8 meters below the surface; the further north you travel, the deeper you have to excavate to find the rock base and hence the shorter the buildings.

You don't have to dig too deep however, to find the irony that City Hall is built on sandy foundations but thankfully New York, unlike San Francisco, is not expecting a mega-quake.

But there is a large part of Manhattan that doesn't mind whether the rock beneath its two feet or two hundred feet below the surface.

Central Park from The Rockefeller Centre

Central Park is either an 850 acre testament to philanthropy or misanthropy, depending on your perspective. Conceived in 1857, this was a big year for bashing the little guy all over the world. The British massacred the Indian Mutineers, The Supreme Court ruled that black people were not citizens and could not sue for freedom and Italy lost 10,000 lives to Europe's worst earthquake of modern times.

Plans for the Park were laid by the wealthy as a playground beyond the reach of the squalor and it was inaccessible to most when construction was completed in the 1860's. Communities were evicted and housing demolished to make way for lakes and pleasure gardens.

19th Century Central Park (from a very tall building).

Scroll forward over the intervening 170 years and, as with so many grotesques of the past, it has  since fallen into public ownership, then disrepair and finally love; 25 million visitors trample the green lungs of New York each year.

The 3,439,950 square metres of prime real estate is currently dedicated to squirrels and picnics. Woe betide anyone who tries to build on it apart from the countless extensions to the Met which is the only building to have breached the iron cordon that is formed by Central Park West and 5th Avenue.

Apartments overlooking the park currently retail for around $3,500 per square foot. By my maths, Donald could bulldoze the park for a clutch of Trump Towers for a fraction over $120 billion; which makes it 30,000 times more expensive that the agricultural land that was largely disenfranchised to create the park in the first place.

I find it strangely pleasing to think that even based on the delusional but well publicised assessment of his own wealth, he could barely afford buy the park's pitch and putt (plus some sand for the bunkers).

But San Francisco had 4 earthquakes today, so perhaps the Millennium Tower isn't the only crumbling edifice that is going collapse under the weight of its own hubris.

Sunday 17 September 2017

New York: Airbnb (Friday 07/07/2017).


At first it looks like a mangled autocorrect but as your brain slowly starts decipher the chaotic scramble of consonants you wonder; is it an acronym or an abbreviation or both?

Officially, according to something I once missed the beginning of, its supposed to be short for Airbed and Breakfast but if it really was it wouldn't have caught on. Every airbed I have ever spent time on, didn't involve much sleep and rarely does the kind of person who puts you up on one, cook you breakfast in the morning. I know this for a fact; I own one and I often make my guests suffer the indignity of slowing going soft in the night....and sleeping on a flat mattress.

I mention this because having touched down at New York JFK at an ungodly hour, made infinitely worse by the time difference, an Airbnb apartment on West 48 and 10th should have beckoned us to our rest.

It was all planned in good faith because we had made this trip with the firm intention of staying with our antipodean friends (the VB's) and their extended clan, who had travelled infinitely further than us and hadn't even ditched the small people to do so.

Sadly, while Airbnb may be an ecologically sound, world beating internet sensation, powered by hipster beard trimmings, it too has succumbed to what has long ailed terrestrial estate agents the world over. Misdescription.

The apartment in now trendy Hell's Kitchen was advertised as offering all the latest modern conveniences. The roof patio boasted genuine rain water; the photos showed a palatial duplex with views of midtown unspoiled by the dedicated helipad; Jeremy Irons popped in to turn down the beds and leave a chocolate on your pillow. 

Ironic*, or what!

It probably explains why the VB's looked so crumpled when we finally met them.

Victoria had called as soon as they got there to relay the bad news. At first it was hard to understand what she was saying as the receiver was pressed hard against her cheek, merely to give the others space to inhale.

In short, it wasn't quite as big as Airbnb might have led us to believe.

There are times when you realise what a good woman you have married and this was one. Had it been left to me, we would either have ended up spending (a) more than we could afford, or (b) three nights in a dumpster. Clare foresaw the alternatives, and without so much as a murmur of complaint, scoured 65 million websites in 0.67 seconds and booked us into the Hudson Park Hotel, even closer to the action.

That there was a room to be had anywhere in New York on Independence Day weekend, let alone one so central and for such a piffling amount, still confounds me. Ninety percent of my brain urged me to drop to one bended knee and immediately ask this girl to marry me. The other twelve percent said 'you did that 13 years ago (she said yes), and by the way she's not like all the other girls!'

The remaining four percent discarded any mathematical quibbles and put the improbable vacancy down to the high likelihood of alien invasion. After all, the movie would certainly have bombed at the box office if they had appeared through the cigar smoke on 23rd November (Thanksgiving) and not 4th July.

Conquest would have been inevitable as Jeff Goldblum would have been at home working his way through a massive turkey as opposed to starring in one.

Waking early on the 17th floor, we gazed out over mid town, skipped the $28 hotel croissant and headed to street level for a takeout and a very long walk.

'How do you get to Carnegie Hall?' I asked after stopping a passing local.

'Practice, Practice, Practice!' he said gleefully before cuffing me roughly across the ear with his Empire State woggle stick.

After that, Trump Tower looked distinctly brown and lacklustre, like 1980's commercial double glazing.

Police help a window cleaner at Trump Tower.

Trump addresses his adoring fans.

St Patrick's Cathedral did a great job of appearing simultaneously enormous (inside) and tiny (outside) like a TARDIS wedged between its towering neighbours.

Grand Central Station conjured memories of just about every great American movie that I have ever seen.

As we huddled in the east portico of the New York Central Library, the rain that had been threatening to fall all morning, started in earnest. As we gazed out down East 41st, it was not hard to imagine the approaching tidal wave in The Day After Tomorrow.

Say hello to the New York Public Library.

Tidal Wave goodbye to the New York Public Library.

Lunch booked at 5 Napkins on 9th meant a four block dash in the monsoon conditions for Clare and a slightly more leisurely stroll for me as, having lost her in the crowds after 8 paces, I stopped, paid $5 for an umbrella and texted her periodically to update her on my progress.

I confess that I might have meandered a little; stopping to inspect some peeling paint; pausing to appreciate the architectural features of a basement door; admiring the reflections in the puddles, and by the time I arrived, I was still dry from the neck up, which is more than be said for Clare who had got there sooner but grown gills.

The burgers were excellent but this was but the first of a worrying number of meals at which I was denied the legendary New York cheese cake that I had specifically travelled 3,459 miles to consume.

It was probably for the best as New York only sells two things cheaply. The first is taxi rides and the second is .....let's stick to taxis.

Footsore and exhausted, we shambled back down 5th Avenue, past store after store sporting bored shop assistants but not a single paying customer.

The unattractively named Frankie's 570 Spuntino in West Village was our evening eatery of choice. A pine panelled chalet style restaurant, it felt like its natural home should be high in the Alps sporting a roaring fire and a pendulous, bear skin clad Bond girl .

Spuntino means "snack" in Italian and Google suggested that Frankie's offered 'small plates of Italian-influenced New York comfort food'. It was nice but it wasn't all that and the comfort became a tad less so when the bill arrived. A dollar sign just before the 570 would have satisfied the sticklers.

In the name of editorial balance, we headed down the street and stumbled into Jonny's Dive Bar where for the price of  a Screw Driver in Manhattan you can have as much Sex on The Beach as you want, at least until they ask you to leave.

There may have been a genuine misunderstanding when I emerged from the toilets in my speedos and struggled to find the steps to the high board but the locals didn't seem to mind.

The VB's had a pitcher of something alcoholic that was comfortably big enough for a twisting somersault with reverse pike entry.

But to be honest, by this time, like my airbed,  I felt a bit deflated.

*(Note: After first publication, a number of readers questioned why this was ironic. I looked up the term to make sure that I had not committed some terrible literary faux pas and then loaded my service revolver. Then I decided that rearranging my grey matter was an over reaction.

Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

Jeremy Irons popped in to turn down the beds and this explains why the VB's looked so crumpled.

Jeremy patently did not iron anything.

I am not Alanis Morissette.)

Thursday 14 September 2017

New York: ESTA (Thursday 06/07/2017)

I think that we can all agree that the airport is always a fairly priced opportunity to pick up a few last minute essentials . To avoid this,  I work from a packing check list which has three things on it; socks, moisturiser and an ATM card.

This is why I live in constant fear of forgetting my passport.

We flew from Gatwick which is currently bidding for third runway status in a David and Goliath struggle with Heathrow. Gatwick has all the cards but Heathrow has all the Londoners. Common-sense should prevail but Gatwick's successful bid is bound to be a mysterious no show at the award ceremony, only to be found dazed and bleeding in a back alley dumpster, minutes after Heathrow scoops the prize by default.

Gatwick's main disadvantage is that its easier to swim to New York whilst lashed to an anvil than to get to the airport; and so our journey proved. We missed our bus due to the perils of a second pastry; the train was cancelled at Reading and the scheduled replacement unicorn service was late. In the end we made it by a whisker thanks to the benevolence of a passing hippogriff.

Worth missing a bus but not a plane.

Once safely ensconced on a Norwegian Air Dreamliner to JFK, the painful memories of Gatwick's Tuna Nicoise (which arrived without the tuna) and Sausage Surprise (which arrived without any surprises) began to recede. The plane has so  many gadgets that it is a wonder that it can get off the ground.

The windows dim; the cabin maintains the air pressure of a moderately flash penthouse; the lighting is so amazing that you begin to suspect that they have laced the air filters with LSD.

It is properly psychedelic!

The only questionable surprise was Boeing's decision to dispense with the toilets. I swear the seat discreetly catheterised me shortly before take off and if true, this not only avoids the mid-flight meal time toilet trolley dodge but also brings the added benefit of fuel savings. Norwegian doesn't have to fly around storm clouds and I didn't have to tolerate the usual whimpering indignity of pretending I had spilled my Lambrusco during turbulence.

Since 9/11 all transatlantic flights reputedly carry an air marshal. I searched for the tin star without success and the passenger in seat 57, who looked suspiciously like Wesley Snipes, shifted uncomfortably when I asked to see his gun. Fortuitously, our neighbours smoked him out with some increasingly rowdy behaviour that initially had the air stewards, then the 2nd officer and finally the captain paying visits to row 36. I blame the LSD.

Wes strolled forward, did some jujitsu and the rest of the flight was peaceful.

Landing at JFK, clutching our ESTA, I had a feeling uncomfortably familiar to the departure check list anxiety, when there is no longer time to go back for the passport. The ESTA asks all kind of difficult questions over which it is easy for the unwary to stumble.

Had I previously committed acts of sabotage?

Yes, but only my career and past relationships.

Was I entering the country to commit acts of moral turpitude? The guidance notes helpfully suggested that this might include activities that are inherently base, vile and depraved. Its so hard to tell. Would I be OK if I planned to be base and depraved but not vile?

I turned to Google as the queue snaked slowly forward to the paunch with the gun. It was he who would determine whether I would be granted entry to the world's greatest democracy (ahem) or have to watch The Great Gatsby three more times while enduring 8 more hours of those crazy lights.

Did I plan wickedness, degeneracy, iniquity or sinfulness? The list went on at some length.

The answer to each was almost definitely probably; but what I planned to do in the privacy of Bloomingdales' ladies underwear section was surely my business?

Ultimately, I am the kind of person who hands back change when the teller makes a mistake and I do not have a poker face. If I told the truth, I was on a plane straight back to Gatwick. If I lied, paunch would see through me in an instant and escort me to be probed in the back room.

In the end, I needn't have worried. As it turns out, large swathes of America have succumbed to moral turpitude since my last visit, thanks to the Guy At The Top.

It seems hard to offend anyone nowadays.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

New York: Runway Runaways (Thursday 06/07/2017)

When I was 11 I lived in Israel and went to school in England.

Sooner or later, most children drag their feet on the walk to school but as my Dunlop Green Flash were regularly at 35,000 feet and travelling at 600mph, this wasn't a problem for my parents.

What was a problem was the bomb.

In the scheme of things, the emergency landing at Zagreb on a snowbound runway and the 8 hours during which  my waiting parents could only assume the worst, seemed preferable by comparison to the awful alternative.

However, barring the abrupt meeting of fuselage and rock face, I like to think that I would have been alright. Private school has many drawbacks but in the 1980's it did equip you to achieve almost anything with a pen knife, a magnifying glass and a Walter Mitty world view. After all, Indiana Jones seemed largely unscathed after bailing out at altitude with nothing but an attractive blonde and an inflatable life raft to break his fall and as a result, he has been my yard stick in most things for nearly four decades.

The Frenchman sitting next to me had a big coat and an almost limitless supply of Cointreau so wrapping up warm and setting things on fire on a chilly debris strewn mountain side seemed pretty much in the bag. We were in first class which anecdotally increases your odds of crash survival by about 34%. Most importantly, there was a nun across the aisle (I know - in first class) so the machine gun stutter of her rosary was bound to protect me.

In the end it was all fine but it was an experience that will never leave me; at least not until I stop flying but I have taken a perverse  and uncharitable pleasure in discussing it loudly on every flight since.

Which brings me to New York.

I went once, long ago, but at three years old I confess that the cultural significance was largely lost on me. Clare, on the other hand, has been to the Big Apple more times than Fed Ex and still she has not tired of it; so it was pretty easy to persuade me that it was time for a re-match.

As everybody knows, New York is a dangerous place. The plucky citizens repulse alien invasion fleets at least twice a week; zombies bag all the decent theatre tickets; sky-scraping monsters are always on the rampage and most pertinently, the weather is a tad unpredictable. If the waterfront real estate isn't being toppled by tidal waves then there is always the incessant deluge of asteroids and lava to contend with.

Take your pick.

I couldn't choose so I packed for the apocalypse.

What I did not pack for was the entirely predictable heat followed by rain, fog, blistering sunshine, more rain, cosmic rays...

....not forgetting the meatballs.

First there was The Fog....

....then the rain....

...and the whirlpool..

....and the spaceships...

...and the giant inflatable women...

Thankfully this is just a fountain...but it looks dangerous.

Stuff gets wrecked so often, everything is Lego!

Monday 11 September 2017

Ile De Re: Hobie Cat (Thursday 22/06/2017)

Burying the children up to their necks in the sand entertained them immensely; and provided a few moments of relief from the relentlessness of it all.

We could have left them there all day.

When they were babies, the control was real. They couldn't walk or talk and even Alex's 'cowboy with an arrow in the leg crawl' was months away.

As they grew, they started to assert their independence in countless different ways. First it was sleeping and then eating and one by one the barriers were broken down and the obstacles overcome until now they are fully functioning 4 year old adults. They have all the power of preference but none of the responsibility of choice and I fear that this is likely to continue until they earn their first pay check.

Until then, the erosion of control is gradually replaced by the need to manage their increasingly wilful disobedience.

At the moment I am deep in the territory of threats, bribery but mainly counting to five.

Most conversations go something like this:

Me: "Sophie - can you put your shoes on lovely?"

Me: "Sophie - can you put your shoes on now? We are leaving in two minutes."

Me: "Sophie -  I've asked you to put your shoes on twenty-nine times? If you don't have them on by the time I count to five, you are not taking teddy."

After rushing from one to three with no discernible indication of compliance, four gets dissected into ever small fractions, until at 4 and 16/20ths, the leading foot makes its first slow move. Eventually, she leaves the house with a sandal on one foot and a welly on the other. A shaky compromise has been achieved, but at the cost of any semblance of my authority.

Clare on the other hand is super effective in the face of the merest whiff of non compliance. Alex is staked out in the desert by two and rowing a slave galley by four. Five never comes and I don't even think she knows what would happen if it did.

But Alex's time on the rowlocks has served him well and by the time we finally dug them out, Tom and Jenny had chartered a Hobie Catamaran and were amazingly willing to let the children on board.

Perhaps sailing a dinghy on some chilly lake in Wiltshire is not a fair comparison to careering across the temperate Atlantic foam in a superfast twin hull with a maniacal career capsizer at the helm. Tom spent most of his childhood trying to sink the unsinkable and Alex probably didn't fully appreciate this as we lashed him into an outsized life jacket and plonked him unceremoniously on the canvas deck with one simple instruction; hold on tight.

With Hindsight....

My job was not to save him if we went over; it was to film it for the board of enquiry.

My boy is a plucky chap. If he was anything less than fully satisfied with the pre-launch safety briefing, we never heard a peep. If he found that compliance with the International Avoidance of Collisions at Sea Regulations left something to be desired, well, he took it all in his little stride.

Breaking out the shoreline surf, I'll confess that he looked a little unsure whether he had made the right decision. As he skimmed over the 50m contour line and the water 12 inches beneath his bottom on the nylon deck webbing turned to inky blackness, a small smile had returned even as the spray plastered hair to his forehead. By the time we prepared to round the first inflatable yellow buoy with the nose threatening to dig in and catapult us all into the drink, his grin was broad and he may even have emitted the odd yelp of excitement.

What is certain is that back on dry land, he had pinched a phone and chartered a 37 foot Bavaria in the Adriatic for the summer half term long before Sophie had returned from her drenching.

She was less impressed with the whole affair.

Perhaps I should have been more firm with her from the start.

The slave galley clearly did Alex good.

Ile De Re: Date Night (Wednesday 21/06/2017)

So fleetingly rare is the chance for the parents of small children to enjoy normal discourse, unpunctuated by the perpetual round of threats and bribes, that date night has become an essential pressure valve.

No less than 3 times per year, a reckless devil may care attitude surfaces. In a two fingered, hang the expense gesture to the universe, ruinous child care is procured and glad rags are shaken out for the occasion.

Not for us, the bright lights and glamorous watering holes, when a carbohydrate heavy feed washed down with something alcoholic and fizzy will suffice.

And so having duped Tom and Jenny into not only capturing the little people but also subduing them until our return, we sloped into the evening sunlight leaving a trail of occasional aftershave and bitter recrimination as the penny dropped.

After inspecting the wares in the tourist pop up shops at Phare de Baleines (note: there is a big lighthouse but a scandalous absence of whales) we prevaricated until hunger started asking difficult questions and Le Café du Commerce in Ars-en Re happily provided all the answers.

Very tall and striking...and a lighthouse in the background.

As Brexit looms, the social and economic ramifications of the government's monumentally poorly thought out proposition encouraged Clare to explore some thought provoking issues that child care rarely allows space for.

I nodded sagely while pretending to smoke one of my lamb chops like a pipe.

Later I wobbled my Crème caramel suggestively.

Sunday 10 September 2017

Ile De Re: Uzi 9mm (Wednesday 21/06/2017)

Guided by the unshakeable conviction that the best eateries are always situated by a war memorial, we elbowed our way into Le Moulin à Café, which playfully dominates the east corner of Rue Jean Moulin.

It was busier.

Whether John Mills was the café owner or merely a Napoleonic street naming celebrity from yesteryear wasn't entirely clear. Either way, in retrospect, shoving some elderly folk roughly into the gutter seemed an entirely fair way to secure seating as when the food came, it was delicious.

There was competition for a good seat.

Meandering back to the car, there were wall tops to be traversed and bollards to be jumped from but all were callously thrown over when the play ground hove into view.

There were no pallid youths, smoking belligerently on the swings and it looked like a long time since any drug raddled adolescents had fired up beneath the monkey bars. This was a giant sand pit populated by a clutch of olive skinned cherubs, cavorting joyfully beneath of shock of cork screw curls.

Alex and Sophie dived in and for the next half hour there was nothing on God's earth that could have prised their tiny fingers from the apparatus.

Having already prematurely deployed the ice cream bribe, the only option was to ensure nil by mouth. The strength sapping afternoon heat gradually degraded the children's stamina until shade and fluids seems marginally preferable to being picked over by vultures.

Running the gauntlet of the car's superheated interior, we cranked up the air-conditioning and headed for home where there may not have been a lido to flop into but a small inflatable paddling pool was the next best thing.

Which is when the front door lock seized.

I have always had a knack for this sort of thing. Dennis Ackrill's heavy fortified tuck box presented little resistance to the probing pointy bit of my Swiss Army penknife. The perils of being locked out in the early hours have never held any fears for me, providing I had a spoon and a piece of string. And so it was that I nonchalantly parted the ditherers and prepared to demonstrate the dividends of a wasted youth.

Easy when you know how.

But it wasn't budging.

On nodding terms with the lady next door and being only slightly embarrassed at having given her rather noisy cause to close her shutters in the 35 degree evening heat, the obvious answer was to scale the wall from her back garden and use the back door which was never locked.

Knocking politely, she answered whilst wiping the flour from her hands and ushered me into the kitchen with a look that could have been pity but might have been contempt. The difference was quite important as on the walls of the room hung every gun on the island. Rifles, shotguns, semi-automatic weapons; that the French like to dress stupidly and blast away at low flying migrants is no secret; that octogenarians still do it with an Uzi 9mm was surprising.

Kitchen Appliances,

Hoping that my pigeon French was not tickling her trigger finger, I gingerly explained the predicament and, with slightly more haste that might have been advisable for a man of my age, scaled the wall, ignored the hernia and braved the serrated concrete lip that rendered further progeny improbable.

Why was I quick over the wall?

One cold beer later, the front door was open, the pool was full and the brush with neighbourly homicide was forgotten as date night beckoned.