Saturday, 9 March 2013

New York, New York, New York...

My life is pretty great. Occasionally, for example, I get taken to New York. My wife has to go there for work often enough that I get to tag along, sneaked on as hand baggage, maybe as often as once a year. A perfect storm of air miles, baby-sitters and opera commitments hit last weekend with the upshot that I found myself in Manhattan with a whole Sunday to waste as I saw fit.

The problem, at least for someone who occasionally blogs about travelling, is that the more often I visit somewhere like New York, the less remarkable it is. I'm past the initial shock, but still many years away from Proustian remembrances. I'll never be cool enough to be blasé about Manhattan, but I am beginning to accept that it is a real place that I can walk around and explore. Given one free day by myself, I'm not swamped with the frenzied pressure of a tourist, desperate to see as much as he can before he leaves. It's a nice position to be in. But I wouldn't have thought to write about it: a sign I might be starting to take it for granted.

I began with breakfast with my wife at Doughnut Plant on W 23rd Street. This place must be amazing because I don't even really like doughnuts that much. It was her recommendation and (not unusually) she was very right. At 8am on a Sunday, the place was beautifully quiet and the Meyer Lemon Yeast doughnut was absolutely delicious: the perfect glaze cracked as I took a bite, like paper-thin ice on a half-frozen pond. The dough was light and sweet and, to my relief, I realised it was a 'made with' not a 'made from' situation with regard to the yeast. I'm not the greatest coffee-drinker in the world either, but I was able to gulp down their Valrhona Mocha effortlessly, like it was spring water. Not a bad way to start the day.

And then she had to go to work (oh dear) and I had to while away the day until she would be finished. I had made a rough plan which I quickly threw out of the window. Very slowly I made my way to the USS Intrepid, moored at Pier 86, 12th Avenue and 46th Street. It's a WWII aircraft carrier that served at (possibly) the biggest sea battle ever: Leyte Gulf. Today it houses all sorts of military aircraft, as well as a Concorde and the space shuttle Enterprise. There's also a Cold War submarine, USS Growler, that was armed with nuclear cruise missiles and told to sit off the coast of the USSR. I viewed stopping here as tidying up - my boys had already seen it all without me on a previous visit so I had the perfect excuse to whiz around for an hour by myself.

Aircraft carriers are impressive things but I think I enjoyed the submarine most of all. America is good for subs: we've seen the USS Pampanito in San Francisco, HA.19 in Fredericksburg, and U-505 in Chicago. This one was very good: full of old school dials and switches, things that have been designed to go demonstrably 'clunk' when they are pressed - quite an important feature when one is messing about with nuclear missiles. The thing I really liked about Growler was that it provided a technological snapshot. Intrepid served for decades and was refitted again and again, masking her original capabilities, whereas Growler, commissioned in '58 and out of service by '64, was made obsolete almost immediately by the advent of Polaris missiles.

Enterprise, the first space shuttle (built for atmospheric test flights only) is still under wraps following Hurricane Sandy, but we've seen her already at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center) back in 2010. (Washington now has Discovery, whilst Mission Control Houston only gets a dodgy mock up handed down from the Kennedy Space Center, which has Atlantis. Don't get me started.) And then Concorde. I had never seen one up close before. Certainly never flown on one. (Let's be honest, the closest I've got is this.) It's a beautiful machine, surprisingly small and delicate but with incredible, alien-looking sweeps and flourishes. It still looks futuristic, like something Derrick Meddings would have dreamed up for Gerry Anderson. On another day, with more (or less) time to spare, I'd have poked my nose around inside, but I was keen to move on.

I've been around the Metropolitan Museum of Art before. Or at least, I've spent some hours inside it and seen some of the enormous and amazing collection. But I knew I hadn't even scratched the surface. I seized the opportunity of a long afternoon to try and get some more of it under my belt. I'm not going to give you a gallery-by-gallery account of everything I saw, but I spent the time well. Even better, there are still rooms and rooms of stuff to go back and see in the future.

I surprised myself by enjoying the period furniture, mainly because the Met does such a good job of contextualising it. They recreate whole rooms and salons, brilliantly evoking the whole culture and not just showing a table or a chest of drawers. I don't know why this should be, but the experience is rather more pleasant here than it is plodding around actual stately piles in England. Perhaps because there is none of that stuffy resentment of a home being made available for viewings, the peasantry being allowed to gawp at how their betters live. Recreated inside a New York art museum, these spaces are appropriated for an international public and largely shorn of the divisive nature of class. The paintings are good too and, being alone, I was able to zoom along, only bothering with the ones that compelled me to stop and stare, which is by far the best way to deal with an enormous collection.

But when I do eventually bring the kids here, the first room I will take them to is the armoury. It's not an intimidatingly large exhibit, but there are some very nice pieces and, although they have a bloodthirsty purpose, they do qualify as works of art in their own right. If you don't believe me, check out the hilts on the rapiers next time you're passing through because they are as swish as you like.

And then, like always, Henry VIII turns up. Twice.

Henry VIII is unavoidable. He is the gouty uxoricidal axle around which English history spins. Every thing that happens before leads to and is neatly drawn together by his reign; every thing that comes after starts with him. So I wasn't surprised to bump into him in Manhattan at all. He materialised in the form of two suits of armour, each made for him at a different point in his life. Before we look at them, let's just spend a moment exploring a long held theory of mine: Henry VIII has a lot in common with Elvis.

Both kings, obviously, and also musicians: Henry was accomplished with the lute, a 'talented player of the virginals' (Frankie Howerd face) and composed tunes, but probably not 'Greensleeves'. Elvis built Graceland and hung out with Richard Nixon; Henry built Hampton Court and Nonsuch and wrestled with the king of France. But there's more - two beautiful-looking young men, full of talent and vitality who let it all go to their heads and their waistlines and became all fat and rubbish.

So this is essentially Henry VIII's '68 Comeback Special suit of armour:

And this is his rhinestone onesie, dead-on-a-toilet suit of armour. 

Not convinced? Here's the clincher: Henry's last words were (allegedly) "Monks, monks, monks!". If that doesn't make you think of this, then I don't know what else to say.

Anyway, I have become rather sidetracked. I started writing this because I wanted to mention how nice it was just to be in New York. Nice to be somewhere full of people, mostly young, mostly impossibly fashionable and beautiful, all going about their Sunday in the winter sunshine, either citizens of the world idly gawping at the skyline or native New Yorkers heads down, pacing purposefully. Nice to be somewhere cold too, with everyone wearing hats and coats. I had forgotten, living in Houston as I do, that there is a simple pleasure to be had sitting in a bar or coffee shop and watching people as they step through the door, their skin red and rosy, their frozen faces breaking into smiles as they see their friends, their eyes alive with the anticipation of warmth and comfort and, just maybe, a Meyer Lemon Yeast doughnut.

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