Sunday, December 26, 2010


Savannah is faking it, but that's OK. It's what you'd expect; a generous, kindly, hospitable sort of fakery.  You only have to look at the drooping trees to know this place swelters, in normal times. Everywhere is built for shade, but right now, it is deep midwinter, and we need no shade.
We have come from the grim grey of the northern Southern winter in search of a bit of sun, and here it is. no lattes, though; they don't know how to make lattes. But thinking of the heat, that sort of makes sense.
You cannot see all Savannah's charms in a day. The Historical District, glorying first in the riverbank, and then expanding to a surprisingly large area around Forsyth Park, makes even Charleston feel like a small, hard, lumpish town, exposed to the unmannerly bay. It's not like that here. The water is always on your mind, sure. But it is different.
One block from the waterfront, and you're in a world of foot bridges spanning the paved canyon of Factor's Walk, designed  for cut-purses, costume dramas, and delivery vans. There is something sly and sliding here, something I'm missing, walking in the cool dawn shadows. These stones are English, you know; ballast from ships heading back to Britain laden with tobacco, and tar, and I don't know what else. Although it's probably written on the sign I'm standing under. I think I'd fit right in, here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three roses

Don't waste time. 
Say yes. 
The space between bloom and gone is less than you think.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Life on Mars

A visit to Williamsburg is like going to Mars, or Hell. 
It looks a bit familiar, in a Christopher Wren, Tom Sawyery kind of a way, but overall, the atmosphere is alien. OK, cowboy-and-alien. Don't let the Union Jacks fool you for a moment. This is Americana; restrained, elegant, v ancient, even - but definitely New World.
Wide, aspirational streets lined with quiet clapboard houses that are discreet, not modest. Some of them are still private residences, the line between the two is traced very faintly. 
Williamsburg is Old money, shedloads of money and academic gravitas (William and Mary is a stone's throw from the Capitol building) of the sort that makes the presentation of US history feel as serious as a heart attack at the Mayo Clinic. Everything is under control. 
  A city, but not a huddle-together town, as you'd find in Europe; despite the potentially hostile hinterland, everything's very open plan, partly because  your Sunday-afternoon transport can't be left to sit in the garage all week.
Heat. It must have shocked those first pioneers, used to the lukewarm English summers. For us, used to air conditioning, it's equally shocking, out of the world. It's hot like a long, wet, reptilian throat, swallowing every bit of initiative.
How could they be so precise, in this weather?  How can you get anything done, in fact... how can you even care. the heat gets inside your bones and between your synapses. I can't believe that the prospect of getting rich, or nation-building would make you do it. Suddenly the concept of forced labour makes a lot more sense - cruel to say so, maybe, but if it weren't for threats and torture I don't see how anything would have gotten done. You'd have to be pretty afraid for your personal safety to dig up stumps and make bricks here.
  In the evolutionary tree of Americana, Williamsburg is an early mammal, right next door to notional remains of the amoeba-like Jamestown. The streets are very wide and the houses have a field instead of a garage, but it's the recognizable ancestor of  Anyville USA. 
The shops and stores might be a bit staged, perhaps; they're pricey, but this is no collection of back-lot facades. Like a buffer between 'modern' Williamsburg and the hallowed historical ground, here's a slightly more modern shopping district that looks like it has been transplanted from Oxfordshire. They sell peanuts and ham and the kind of women's clothes that people who eat peanut and ham can't get into.
Back in the Living Museum bit, this is the cobbler's establishment, full of leather, awls, and glue. And ghost-like inhabitants, everywhere, dressed for comfort.
There's always a bit of a comprehension gap, between the English and American usage of the word 'shop'. in England, we mean a small place where you buy things. A store is something bigger, or else a place where things are stored, not sold. At least in my head.  Looking at these shops - place of manufacture, and point of sale all rolled into one, the meaning suddenly lurches into the realms of reasonableness. Maybe I have been here too long.
 People who've never been here often imply that there's fakery going on in Williamsburg, that it's all been reconstructed in Lego, as if it were Six Flags without the rides. It isn't. It's been tweaked, sure.  You'll find fifes, shoes, soap, mead, wigs, hats, herbs, clocks, and books ... basically lots of single-syllable, historically accurate items for sale. Supposedly, these are the extras that  self-sufficient yeoman farmers splurged on after a successful harvest, on something they couldn't make themselves. Can't help suspecting they came here mostly to litigate, but I can't see how you could turn that into a marketable souvenir.
There's a huge, very tasteful hotel right on the edge of the historical district, and plenty of pubs, sorry 'Inns'.
 Aaah icy drinks. Anachronistic, but a life saver.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Capital 4th

Washington in July - who can say no to that? A clear blue sky, the sun sparkling on the Potomac, all those glorious museums on the Mall, and then in the evening, the redbrick delights of Georgetown.
Sarah rocks.

The first time I came here was for a strained November afternoon, and we took a tram  tour to all the sights. The second time was in the depths of a bitter December, and we saw Colbert's portrait and C3PO, and the chilling Holocaust museum. And Dan from the Amazing Race. YAY.
It's hot now, though. Begin with Lincoln, it's the only way.
The best bit of Washington is the Mall. The museums up and down it are all different, all wonderful in their own way. It's neat. They don't try to out-do the Met, they explore the past, and the arts from a different perspective. The Air and Space Museum is perhaps the busiest, the American Indian Museum the oddest, with some really funky food served in their waterside restaurant. I'm talking sauteed cucumber. This is the subway. Looks like Trump meets the Pantheon.
But away from the Mall there's other stuff to see, still part of the Smithsonian - like the Renwick, which is somebody's house converted into an art gallery, but stil retaining that rich party-just about to start atmosphere. Here and in New York in the past months, I've seen so many nudes reclining, resting and generally hanging out, which makes this piece by Karen Lamonte all the more exceptional.

I'm no patriot, but we watched the parade snake by for an hour or so in the oven of the mall, appropriately enough just outside the American History Museum

After a bit, we had enough, and went to the Freer. Cool, silent. Whistlers, and other masterpieces, with the promise of fireworks to come in the night.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


When Max and me went to see the P&O.
Caution: this video contains information of an educational nature.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Big Bambu

At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the roof has become a rain forest, overlooking the soft green woods of Central Park. Nestling on among the concrete and brick of the fourth floor courtyard, bamboo poles crowd and cluster, forming a sort of stilted cocktail party, alive with anticipation.
 This is Big Bambu. At floor level, it's a labyrinth of slim pillars, but look up a little, and Big Bambu becomes a bird's nest, full of complicated, chaotic intersections. There is no symmetry in the tangle of poles, but somehow the eye finds patterns, geometric harmonies in 3D. Doug and Mike, the Starn twins, support and direct the overall look of the sculpture, which started as an idea some 13 years ago. Previous to getting permmission to nestify the Met, they built an incredible indoor bamboo arch at their studio at Beacon, just to show the possibilities of both the materials and the techniques they had in mind. The interior pathway  made and reminded me of the voliera in Parco di Monza, but while that structure from 2006 is showing signs of decay, Big Bambu is the Voliera taken flight; bright, busy and still growing: how apt Big Bambu's tagline You Can't, You Won't You Don't Stop. 
But with typically light touch, Doug and Mike have not micromanaged their builders, who are mountain climbers, not professional scaffolders or artists. The brothers set goals to reach, marked on the ground, and then the guys branch out, knot by knot, pole by pole, to reach them.
This is performance art: every move has to be calculated, small engineering quandaries must be overcome, either in private moments of calculation, or with the help of the rest of the team. The result is a unique knitting together of individual solutions to the shared problem of how to get there from here... Big Bambu is an allegory of the city that surrounds it, already complete but never finished, worked out in flows and currents that you have to be inside to really appreciate.

Bamboo is used in the Far East for scaffolding, and it's resilient, light, flexible and forgiving. The dozen or so helpers who work each week on the Starn's project were chosen for their ability with 'methodical knots' (each brightly colored, Swiss-made 'bootstrap' takes about three minutes to tie just right) and with a head for heights. Both talents are essential: the structure is currently 20 feet tall but will soon tower some 40 to 50 feet above the rooftop.
Most visitors only get the roof-level effect of the build, many don't even notice the winding paths that run up into the sky, and the gaping hole at the center,  but for a lucky few, there's a chance to climb up into the structure and to do so just before sunset is the best. During the summer, on Friday and Saturday nights, the roof of the Met is open until sunset, and fills with visitors enjoying a cocktail, company, and the view.
 This is Zac, one of the builders, and also a guide on the Big Bambu tour. 'You're with the elements, up here. There's a feeling of complete happiness working on this project, working steadily as a team, with the wind making the canes rustle and sway a little, you feel interconnected with all the sounds, with the feel of weather as it changes, withe the work of the people around you.Big Bambu is like a cresting wave, when you get up top, you can see the overall form the Starn brothers have in mind. It's like the jungle and the ocean coming together.'
So far, thousands of strings, and more than 4000 poles of varying sizes have been gradually  hauled up onto the roof for use on the structure: 'We're rocking the domestic bamboo,' Zac said, 'All of it comes from South Carolina and Georgia.' With the exception of sensible things like making the walkway complete and safe for visitors, they try to build in such a way that it is not necessary to cut the poles down to size; they'd rather work with the dimensions and use them to invent and suggest new departures for the construction.
It's not until you climb inside the structure, however, that you really get the feel for it. Groups of 15 (the number of people who can be transported in a single elevator from the ticket office in the basement up to the 4th floor) are let in through the bamboo gates and up the narrow walkway. Like corpuscles moving through an artery inside a great beast, our feet and hands interact slightly nervously with the springy interior. 'It's not often an artwork can make you a little afraid,' Zac comments. This is New York, the whole thing has been subjected to all kinds of safety tests, but the feeling of being on the edge remains. You can't carry a camera - or anything else you might drop on the visitors below - up into the sculpture, so no pictures, sadly, but it would be impossible to capture the sensation of being a part of this build, connecting with each  beam, with each builder, and in a new way with the city at out feet.