Monday, 25 February 2019

The Thrush Sings Thrice Over.

There’s a thrush singing in my garden. When I let out my hens at daybreak, he’s there, welcoming the new morning. The first time I heard him, about a week ago now, I stood for long minutes. I had no idea that the wind from the top of the hill was lifting my hair, making me shiver. I was inside the song of the thrush. Finally, I was carried down the garden, with my steaming dishes of hen’s mash, calling out the lines from Browning…

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, 
Lest you should think he never could recapture 
The first fine careless rapture!

I’ve seen him—it might just be a female, of course— fly from my far stand of clumpy willows, out across the fields, but usually he sings in a particular beech tree, establishing his territory for the breeding season. His song repeats on and off through the rest of the day, and is always there as the shadows soften down and the hens are heading to their beds. I’m hoping he and his lovely mate will choose my garden for their nest. Mr and Mrs Thrush don’t always start thinking about lurve quite this early on, but they’re responding to the warm rush of weather that has meant I don’t even need morning central heating. We seem to have left behind the worst ravages of winter behind bang on cue. 

The TV weatherman always makes the point that there are two starts to each season. The astrological start, which for spring is the 21st of March, and the meteorological start, which they seem to think is the 1st of March. But as a Druid, I follow the Celtic farming calendar, which has been with us since the Iron Age. The 21st of March,  June, September and December are the mid-seasons, not the beginnings. Spring started on the first of February, when our little band of earth-magic lovers…pagans, druids, witches, and the like…celebrated Imbolc, the coming of spring. For, although you might not feel very springlike at the end of January, under the soil and in the sap of the trees there is a new thrusting, shooting drive to lift the head and sniff the air and get on with things, from tilling the soil, to some DIY, to raising a family. 

Our Bridie Mantle, or girdle
 People pass through it, tying on their
hopes for the coming year
Imbolc is an Irish word, meaning ‘the milk of the ewe’, andeve n now, February the time of the baby lambs. Imbolc is dedicated to the Mother Goddess and the new life that she brings. She is well-known in Ireland by various names - Brighid Bridie Brigantia, becoming, as the years went on and the religion changed, Saint Bridget. She is often symbolised by the gentle bobbing of the snowdrop, which can literally burst through the last snows, and she's said to drape her green mantle across the winter world, turning it verdent. In her honour, Brigid Crosses are made by weaving rushes into a four-pointed star. As a goddess of healing, she has sacred springs across our lands, and in Solas Bhride Spiritual Centre, in Kildare, Ireland, a Perpetual Flame is tended by the Brigidine Sisters in memory of her, guarded as a beacon of hope, justice and peace.
with thanks to
It is true that this mother goddess takes a little time to spread her mantle over the cold, hard, earth. Legend has it that if the Winter Goddess, the Callieach, intends to reign over a good, long winter, she will make sure the weather on the 1st of February is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood, often seen in the form of a raven picking up sticks in its beak. Therefore, people in old times were generally relieved if that was a day of foul weather. Last year around my area of West Wales it was a lovely day on the first, but this year it was cold enough for snow to fall. So our small ritual was based on the idea that these two had to confront each other; the beautiful maiden of spring and the wizened old hag of winter. Of course the Callieach must lose, and slink away, threatening to return next winter, but we’re not under any illusion that from the 2nd of February onwards there would be nothing but daffodils nodding in sunshine! In fact, it may be that the wonderful, record-breaking warmth we have been enjoying in the past few weeks should be worrying us.

Yesterday, it was ‘as warm as spring’, and I went on a Garden Crawl with some veg-growing friends. This is a bit like a pub crawl, but with tea and cakes as substitute for beer. We saw five wonderful gardens, with polytunnels as warm as a Mediterranean beach. For the first time since last summer, we pulled out my rattan furniture and sat on my lawn in the sun, chatting, enjoying Kate’s greenhouse-grown melon and listening to larks rising from the fields, and my thrush, shouting at the top of his voice.

For me, the song of the thrush is simply the best. Yes, the blackbird and the blackcap are lovely, and the robin has a very pretty tune, while the nightingale’s melody is darkly spine-chilling. But the thrush can lift off the top of my scalp. His song always surprises, full of twists and turns, and not always ‘thrice over’; sometimes he repeats a phrase four times, or twice, but what I love is you never know what will come next…only the bird knows that. It is said that the more complex the song, the smarter the bird, but that can only be true of ‘Passeri’ class of perching birds, because we all knows that Corvus—rooks, ravens, jackdaws—are as smart-as-they-come, and there’s not much to a crow’s song except latent threat and a thread of misery.

Super Worm Moon. With thanks to,f_
Meanwhile, as the new lambs, chicks and fledglings begin their lives, the wheel of the year turns. That’s what I love about celebrating as a Druid; the constant turning of that wheel. Just 21 days ago it was Imbolc;  in less than four weeks time it will be Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, an astrological event celebrated right back to the Neolithic. This year, that special moment of solar balance falls on the 20th March; twelve hours of daylight, twelve of darkness. The tides will rise as high as they can, while it feels as if the world stands still. And this year, as an added frisson, it will be the third full moon of the year; the Worm Moon…and this will be a supermoon, large, close to Earth and wonderfully ripe for magic. I wonder what we will celebrate on that night?

If the weather continues warm, my true-loving thrushes will have started a brood by then, and may carry on having broods of babies to the far end of summer. I haven’t a clue where that nest may be; it could be in the deep layers of ivy covering my century-old  beeches that line boundary, or it could be in the long, thin strip of land between the garden fence and the edge of the high bank elevating us from the little country road. I’ll be leaving out bits of cotton and fluff for birds to take advantage of, but I doubt the thrush family will use this; they like natural materials for their house. I would love to find it, with its clutch of sky-blue eggs, but I don’t want to look too close. I think it’s best if I just let them get on with their lives, while I get on with mine.

You can hear the song of the thrush here.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Mary Oliver, Eavan Boland, and Alice Oswald

Mary Oliver reading one of her poems at a conference in California.
Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Mary Oliver was one of my favourite US poets, so it was with real sadness

that I heard of her death at the grand age of 83. In fact a friend told me, via a text, so I was not the only female in west Wales to be affected by her passing.  But she was most loved,  perhaps, in her native American - she won a Pulitzer prize in 1984. For me, her poems touch my druid heart, as they  reflect a deep love of nature, a transendental connection to the spirit world and the human condition. Her poems were subtle yet straight, and ever hopeful. 

Because of her death, our last West Wales book club meeting started by reading  “The Summer Day” from 1992, which is probably her most well-known poem. 

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

We talked together of how she it's possible she had an unhappy childhood which might have led her to a huge love of the natural world. In the 50s, she  made a pilgrimage  to New York where her favourite poet, Edna St Vincent Millay,  had recently died, and there met her life partner, Molly Malone Cook. Poet and photographer made a life together in Cape Cod, and it is that landscape she often wrote about, as here, in my favourite of hers, Wild Swans; 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 She told Maria Shriver in an O Magazine interview, “I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It’s already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we’re animals, that we need the Earth.” This last poem is considered by many as her finest work, a 'death poem that becomes a life poem', as Jay Parini said in the Guardian obituary.

Sleeping In The Forest 

I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

Eavan Boland, is an Irish writer now living and teaching in the USA, she mainly writes of the difficult position of women in Ireland. Cityscape, below, is a favourite of mine. I love the concentration on ‘elver’ –  on my first read, I didn’t recognise the word in the first two stanzas, where it’s used out of context. I really thought she’d invented a word. But it’s a perfect word to use for any silvery, wriggly line, such as a diver, the sudden, bright. low light of the evening sky, and a ‘yearning for the estuary’ which may be a reference to a longing to travel into the distance, which many of us have. Repeatedly seeded through the poem to fix ‘silver’ into your mind, it works as a sort of assonance. At first, the poem's got a very ‘yaowie’ sound…word, surface, waited, day, pause, …elver, how cirrus clouds, edge, elver…Then it begins to use more flat aa’s…Blackrock baths, cracks, I can I can I can, Harry, salt,  as, has, glass…


I have a word for it —
the way the surface waited all day
to be a silvery pause between sky and city —
which is elver.

And another one for how
the bay shelved cirrus clouds
piled up at the edge of the Irish Sea, 
which is elver too.

The old Blackrock baths 
have been neglected now for fifty years,
fine cracks in the tiles 
visible as they never were when

I can I can I can
shouted Harry Vernon as 
he dived from the highest board 
curving down into salt and urine

his cry fading out 
through the half century it took 
to hear as a child that a glass eel
had been seen 

entering the seawater baths at twilight —
also known as elver
and immediately
the word begins

a delicate migration —
a fine crazing healing in the tiles —
the sky deepening above a city 
that has always been

unsettled between sluice gates and the Irish Sea 
to which there now comes at dusk
a translucent visitor
yearning for the estuary.

More recently, Alice Oswald has become renowned for writing 'nature verse' although understandably, she hates that nomenclature. Oswold is an Oxford graduate who now lives in Devon and loves gardening, ecology and music, all of which find their way subtly into her poetry. She became famous after the publication of her second book, Dart, which was the outcome of years of primary and secondary research into the history, environment, and community along the River Dart in Devon, England. But it's her later works that I really love which include Woods, etc. (2005), winner of a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; Weeds and Wild Flowers (2009), illustrated by Jessica Greenman; A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009) and Falling Awake (2016). Here's a favourite of mine, from that collection, Slowed-Down Blackbird;

Three people in the snow
getting rid of themselves
               breath by breath

and every six seconds a blackbird

three people in raincoats losing their tracks in the snow
walking as far as the edge and back again
with the trees exhausted
              tapping at the sky

and every six seconds a blackbird

first three then two
passing one eye between them
and the eye is a white eraser rubbing them away

and on the edge a blackbird
trying over and over its broken line
trying over and over its broken line. 

Finally, here's a poem I wrote last spring, when I found a fallen fledgling. I looked for alliteration 
(beached boat), assonance, (cat-dragged…back…soft, moth…lift, tissue)… Integral rhythms (I want to live, fly, court, breed) simile (beached boat, moth wings,) and metaphor (cloaked in suede). I hope the poem explains some of how deeply affected I was when I found the fledging.

Cat-dragged to the back porch,
Your wings have micro feathers with pigeon patterns
Your rib cage humped as a beached boat
Cloaked in suede 
Breaths soft as moth wings,
Life is worth the fight.
I lift you on tissue to my palm
You are as light as any bird yet heavy with existence
Your outsized beak opens wide
As if I were your mother,
A silent cry – help me!
I want to live, fly, court, breed, 
Lay a clutch of eggs, raise a brood.
Within the kitchen towels, I twist your neck.

On the porch step I sit 
Heavy with death.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Art Deco of New York

The Art Deco of New York

Part Five of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art.

Shortly before I discovered I was going to New York, my son gave me a birthday present, a book called New York Art Deco, by Anthony Robins, with a map of locations and street walks that found the best examples of Art Deco in Manhattan.  ‘How nice,’ I thanked him politely. ‘I didn't know you realised I was interested in New York Art Deco,’ while I couldn't help thinking, yeah, lovely; shame this book will be no actual use as I'll never GO THERE, will I? A few moments later my family was treating me like a TV show guest, raising their Uncle Sam top hats, popping confetti and singing along to Sinatra's New York, New York. Yes, this book was going to be of actual use!

So, with this special book in hand, we traced our way around the Big Apple's glug…its veritable deluge…of Art Deco. To quote from the book…The style is instantly recognisable but hard to pin down. It takes its sources from European flowery and zigzagged crafts and Art Nouveau, with African influences, and has become the collective name for all that is brash, polychromatic, geometric, whizz-bang…with a motto of ‘Beauty with Utility’ it was part of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Era, the Jazz Age, and prohibition. Its hallmarks could summon up a skimpy dress, a rakish look, and a glass of champagne. These include vertical columns of windows to take the eye up, powerfully-built and scantily-clad figures of both men and women, the iconic sunset patterns, and loads of streamlined curves, speed-lines, chrome and gold leaf. Its chosen colours are red, black, white and gold.

We were fated to always seeing the Empire State Building from various distant views; first as we entered Manhattan in the Limo, later that day from the New York Bateaux. Later we saw it again from the top of the Rockefeller. But today, we walked closer and closer to the Empire State Building until we were so close we could no longer see its grandeur, which explains why it’s better to see it from afar. We also took in the Chrysler Building, which has an amazing rising sun symbol worked into its architecture. My particular exterior is the Brill Building, which we discovered via the book, but on every street corner, down every block, there are examples of the Art Deco style, each demonstrating 
 that iconic NY Art Deco look, the ‘wedding cake’  or ‘stepped’ design. These buildings explode up into the sky, narrowing as they climb. But this wasn't just art or architecture – by 1916 Manhattan streets were dark, narrow corridors between increasing amounts of new build, and a regulation, the  Zoning Resolution, was brought in to force planners to reduce the footprint of a tall building as it rose, depending on the width of the street. The idea worked; light came back into New York and Art Deco was handed its most iconic statement.

Art Deco had really taken off by the time the US was deep in the depression. Not every tycoon had lost their wealth, and they began to compete with each other to offer the jobless and near starving ordinary New Yorkers construction work building taller and taller skyscrapers. Apparently, W H Auden’s reply to the question ‘Why are the public buildings so high ' was... 'because the spirits of the public are so low.’  

Tall buildings symbolize hope, power, achievement. Already the Chrysler and the Empire State stood, taller than tall, and John D Rockefeller, who had made his millions in oil, wanted to beat them all. He built a large complex consisting of 14 original Art Deco buildings covering 20 acres, split by a large sunken square, which becomes a skating rink in winter, and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza. 

Rockerfeller was a Baptist, and was often shocked by the scantily clad maidens clutching half-naked men that were incorporated in the Art Deco designs he was commisioning. When Lawrie Lee created a 45ft bronze statue of Atlas,  he postitioned it right outside St Patrick's Cathedral. The story is told of how the archbishop came out of Sunday Worship one morning to discover the heroic pagan god staring down, holding the world, butt-naked but for a slipping loin cloth.Both Rockerfeller and the bishop was incensed. The artist, mollified the bishop by asking them to walk around and view the statue from the back. There, the symbolism changes dramatically. The Titan looks like a crucified Christ, gazing at his own place of worship. 

Rockerfeller Centre is filled with Art Deco masterpieces, every building's facade a hymn to the art form, including Christies auction house, which, at the time we were in Manhattan, was exhibiting a collection of pieces donated to charity by the Rockefellers. Rather like you and me, when we empty the attic, but while we take everything to the local tip, David and Peggy Rockefeller sent their cast offs to Christies, where they raised eight hundred million dollars for good causes.

The Rockefeller Building has a stunning viewing deck called ‘Top of the Rock’.  Becki had chosen this to be our view of New York; because, ironically, you have the best of the Empire State from there, not to mention Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and in fact, because it was a clear day, all five boroughs of the city. This was the moment Becki’s Selfie Stick came into its own. She’d already taken a lot of stick (pun intended!!) from friends. ‘Selfie Stick?’ came the general cry. ‘That’s so trashy, so stale, so  déclassé, darling!’ And that was just possession of such an item, never mind that Becki’s SS turned out to be the wrong sort for her phone, so she couldn’t plug it in (she used delayed shot instead), and it had already lost a screw so it flopped over at the top. In other words, a trashy, broken bad buy! But by the time we reached the Top of the Rock, she’d found the missing screw (holding it up in triumph in the hotel room) and it had its moment, as we laughed and waved with a backdrop of all Manhattan. 

I’d been particularly taken with some Egyptian-influenced frescos on one of the complex’s skyscrapers, and so we had our lunch on the pavement right beside these. Becki, finally had her dream come true; oysters and champers were on the menu! I had Eggs Rockefeller, which was a massive breakfast dish. As it arrived, the people on the table next to us leaned over to ask what I’d ordered. When I told them, they ordered it too. They were not New Yorkers, but from Denver. She was Swedish, but had lived in the US since marrying Tom, who was proudly telling us he was ¼ Welsh and ¼ American Indian. All his working life he’d been in the art world, and now he was writing a book about it. They were in town to bid at the Christie’s auction. ‘Have you seen the Rockefeller exhibition,’ they asked. We shook our heads. Fine chance. ‘Hey, I have two spare tickets. We thought our son would like to come, but he can’t.’ Tom passed us gilt-edged invites. 

We couldn’t believe their kindness, but we’ve been showered with such generosity from the start. Everyone in New York wanted to share a friendly moment with us, like the girl in the Campbell Bar last night, and the young man, as I was coming up some steps, who held the door open for me at the top.I sped up, to get there the quicker, ‘please don’t hurry,’ he called down. ‘I’m fine here. Don’t rush, you may trip and hurt yourself.’ On our first morning, we’d got into the lift at the Mandarin Hotel and struck up a conversation with some business women who were showing an English girl around their workplace. ‘Have a wonderful time here,’ they said. ‘We love our city and I do hope you have the most marvellous stay.’ And the moment, earlier today, as we walked towards St Patrick’s Cathedral, I remarked that they must power-wash it regularly to keep the brickwork so white in the grimy environment, and a city-suited man joined us as we walked to say, yes, he’d been thinking the very same thing at that instant, as if we were old acquaintances that he’d caught up with on his way to the office. 

Radio City is the jewel in the crown of the Rockerfeller Centre. Even the  the outside has amazing artwork, murals depicting the various arts and entertainments. Inside, the sculptures, frescos, furniture, and perhaps especially the gold-leaf wall coverings, were out of this world. We enjoyed our afternoon tour of Radio City for all those things, but thing we both remember most about that tour was our tour guide. I’m afraid his name escapes me now, which is just as well. I fondly remember him as Lanya.

‘Right,’ he began as we clustered together in the foyer. ‘Have you all got your lanyas?’
There was silence.
‘Lanyas, your lanyas,’ he piped at us. ‘Don’t you know what a lanya is?’
Admittedly, around 50% of us were not American, but there were sufficient US citizens, including a lovely gaggle of little girls, to demonstrate that no, no one knew what a lanya was.
‘Your LANYAS’ he screamed, holding up his own lanyard, with his own ID dangling on the end of it.
Oh, right, yes. We all had our lanyas.
We had a fair few guides to take us around New York, but Lanya took the crown. He was without doubt the most irritating of our guides - the most irritating guide ever - and maybe the most irritating person alive today.

Lanya only knew what he was supposed to know, not a fact more, and each over-emphasised factoid was accompanied by the work ‘indeed’. None of his jokes worked. ‘These ceilings need constant attention, almost slave labour. Indeed, I send my own five daughters in to do the regular job,’ he chirped.
No way do you have five daughters, I thought, looking at his skinny frame. But if you did, I bet you’d send them off for slave labour, indeed.
He seemed delighted to be able to tell us that they were preparing the stage for a performance so we wouldn’t be able to go into the auditorium. We started peeking through little portholes that showed us a poor view down to the curtains, but were finally taken to a view platform. ‘Ha-ha,’ gloated Lanya. ‘Now all of you who tried to peer in illegally are sorry, aren’t you?’

‘Are those boxes?’  someone asked him of the side-seats were in the auditorium.
 He threw the question right back in her face. 
‘Are they boxes?’
‘I don’t know, I’m asking. Are those called boxes?’
‘What do you think they are called?’
‘I thought they might be boxes?’
‘So you’re saying they’re boxes?’
‘No…I’m so sorry,’ the woman stuttered.

Even so, he couldn't dim the glory of Radio City, where even the loos are a work of art. The highlight of the tour was getting away from Lanya to talk to a Rockette all kitted up in her fabulous costume and stage make up and able to make the little girls’ dreams come true by having a photograph taken with her. She told us it had been her own little girl dream to become a Rockette and she’d been dancing at Radio City for almost twenty years, even though she didn’t look much over 20 herself.
Although Manhattan is often thought of as the city of modern sky-high buildings, it became clear that not much that was lovely has every been pulled down; 18th Century churches and nineteenth century synagogs rub shoulders with the Beaux Arts library and Central Station. Art Deco scrapers nestle between towering shocks of glass plate and concrete. This is what makes the NY skyline so unique. No two buildings standing together are the same, and in their own way they are all beautiful…and acutely loved by New Yorkers.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Hatching Characters

I’ve just embarked on a new writing project but I haven’t written a word yet.  The story is in its first prototype, unformed and vaporous…just a muddle of ideas swimming in my head. My protagonist is pretty unformed at the minute, too – I’m not sure of looks, personality or even gender – it’s all a blank sheet I need to colour in.
It’s like this character has just hatched out of an egg, and that reminds me of the four chicks our broody hen, Ceredwin, raised this summer. The eggs cracked, and four fluffy heads poked out into the world, three yellow and one brown. They knew nothing, had no history and no expectations. As it’s impossible to sex newly-hatched chicks, we gave them gender-fluid names…Little Wings, Brown Wings, Yellow Wings and Pink Beak.
I've been writing about hatching a new character, and the lives of my hen and her chicks at, and you can read the rest of this post about writing HERE

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Manhattan, Old and New.

Manhattan, Old and New

Part Five of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art.

I've just been treated to a trip to the Big Apple to view the art, history and culture.

In A Cultural Experience in Manhattan, I chronicled my adventures on our arrival in Manhattan; the ballet dancers in Columbus Circle…the nighttime boat trip under Brooklyn Bridge and around the Statue of Liberty…dinner at the Mandarin Hotel. The following day, we'd booked up a full tour of the history of Manhattan from the moment Hudson landed in 1607 to the building of the Memorial Towers.

We’d both read our book on the history of New York, so felt girded up for the five-mile tour of historic Manhattan that would take the entire day. We met our guide, Jessie, at The Battery, named after the artillery batteries that were stationed there in the 17th Century. While we were waiting, we enjoyed taking in a huge statue near the fortress. Made in the 1970s of bronze and red granite by sculptor Luis Sanguino to celebrates the diversity of New York City and the struggle of immigrants, by showing the different kinds of émigré who came into Ellis Island, such as European Jews, as well as a freed African slave, a priest and a worker Chinese. It uses heroic symbolism with facial and bodily expression to emphasise the struggle of the dislocated, clearly about to arrive at Ellis Island, straining to catch a first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, some reaching out, some collapsing with hunger and emotion. It reminded me of how I’d visualised such an event last night on the Bateaux.

The Immigrants
 Jessie arrived a bit late, which peeved my punctual daughter, but we were soon chatting away, as she turned out to be (like all the New Yorkers we met), very friendly and obliging. She was a Brooklyn girl who ran her own small drama company, but was excited about the MA she was about to start in drama…at the Old Vic in Bristol. ‘We come from Bristol,’ we said. ‘You’ll love it.’ Clearly, she was keen on local history, so we told her to search out the history of our native city. I’ve always believed that history is written in the brickwork, skyline and landscape of any place…you can see this in the buildings, waterways and green places of Bristol…now it’s becoming clear it’s also true of New York.

We started outside the Clinton Castle, the little fortress built by DeWitt Clinton – the inventor of the Manhattan grid system – to keep the British out of New York after the revolution. From the tip of The Battery, we saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time in daylight – this is where you catch the boat to Liberty Island. She looked just as regal and godly through the distant morning mists that she had close up and illuminated the night before. Jessie moved us on to the Bowling Green, where in 1765 New Yorkers protested against the British rulers by burning the picket fence. Doesn’t sound like much of a protest, but I doubt it stopped there. A new metal fence was erected, and Jessie showed us how the decorative tops of the posts had been roughly removed. This happened in the early days of the revolution, so no one knows what the missing ornaments looked like, or why they were sawn off.  

Charging Bull
On Wall Street, named because early settlers built a wall to keep the Native Americans out (don’t tell Trump, Beckie whispered), is the NY Stock Exchange, where we see the newly famous Charging Bull and Fearless Girl, two bronze statues that arrived like mushrooms blooming overnight. The artist DoModica created a larger-than-life statue of a bull in his art foundry and arrived early one morning to install it inside a ‘street works’ tent. The Bull clearly represents all that is belligerent about the stock exchange; flared nostrils and wicked sharp horns, ready to gore; its testicles are massively visible and the tourists ('specially the women!) are queueing to be photographed nestling them in their hands. The little girl arrived years later in 2017. She reminded me of Francie Nolan, the young heroine in Betty Smiths’ 1943 book A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, (a book, a film and a blogpost here)  The Girl faces off The Bull in button boots and a cotton dress, her hair blowing away from her face as if the snorting of the bull is creating a strong wind. She looks ready to take on the world. Both works are guerrilla art, and New York’s City Hall still insists they are on borrowed time. 

It was at the gardens of City Hall that we had the best historic ‘buzz’.

I’d been reading about ‘The Collect’, a large pond that supplied the best tea-making water to the
The Collect Pond, copyright Wikipedia
settlers Quite quickly it was ruined by the growing meat industry (clearly, even early Americans loved their steak), when  it became a dumping for the waste products of slaughter. In 1800 it had become a stagnant mess and was drained, filled with soil from the small hills that had been flattened as the city expanded. Houses were built on the land, however, no one had noticed that The Collect was fed by springs. Very soon the buildings began to subside, losing their value. The entire area ended up as a slum, with hundreds of poor New Yorkers living in abject poverty in sinking houses. Jessie hadn’t been sure where the Collect was, but here was a timemap in the grounds of the City Hall, describing its position not far from where we stood…although it was several acres wide so we were probably on the edge of it. In delight at our discovery, we jumped up and down. I’m sure she thought we were quite mad.

NY public library
‘Where would you like to go for lunch,’ Jessie asked us.' Shall we eat like New Yorkers?' She took us to a diner where we stuffed ourselves to the gills on sandwhiches packed full of pastrami and other cold meats and cheeses, served with crisps and a gherkin before catching a yellowcab into the central area of Manhattan to look at more architecture. She explained that there were two main periods before the modern skyscapers of glass and steel; Art Deco in the Jazz Age, which was preceeded by beautifully ornate, colonnaded buildings, built during what we think of as the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Jessie described this as Beaux Art (although she annoyed Becki by pronouncing this ‘beaus-art).

We start our trail with the quirky Flatiron Building; 22 steel-framed floors of triangulation built in 1905, then on to perhaps the favourite of the older buildings we saw; the New York Public Library. As we walk around it, Jessie told us it had been built in 1908 for the people of NY and there are over 50 million books housed here. From the outside, it’s beautiful, with neoclassical pillars, bas-relief work and statues. Inside, the decorative motifs, murals continue, but what I loved was that the library has the smell and atmosphere of an ancient house of reading. Both of us could have happily stayed there for some time, perhaps in order to look at some actual books, and we decided to put it on the ‘last day’ list of things to do.

Whispering corner
Grand Central Station that took our breath away. Built in 1913, it’s more like a temple than a railway station. The architecture feels like ‘Beaux Arts meets Art Deco’, offering the best of both. The main concourse has a massive floor of rushing people, but if you look up, you’re transported to the heavens. The ceiling is painted with the 12 constellations of the night sky. This starry wonder is, however, astronomically inaccurate in a complicated way. While the stars within some constellations appear as they would from earth, other constellations are reversed left-to-right, as is the overall arrangement of the constellations on the ceiling. Jessie’s explanation was that the ceiling design might have been based on the medieval custom of depicting the sky as it would appear to God looking in at the celestial sphere from outside. It’s probably just an error, though! Always on the hunt of a good oyster, Becki was instantly taken with oyster bar, Central's oldest business, while I was enraptured by the ‘whispering corners’ which allow to people to stand at either side of an area of the main concourse and whisper secrets into the pillars of one corner, to be heard perfectly in the opposite corner. One imagines the Mafia of prohibition NY using this device a lot.

Ground Zero waterfall
Finally, we brought history up-to-date. No one would go to Manhattan and not want to pay their respects to the terror and horror of 9/11 by visiting the Memorial at Ground Zero.

Twin Tower Memorial
From a little way off, the 9/11 memorials look like two enormous holes in the ground; both so big you can’t see both at once. They are the exact footprint of ‘ground zero’ - the space made by each World Trade Tower after it was destroyed by terrorists on the 11th of September 2001. As I moved forward, I could see – and hear – the massive waterfalls that form an outer square of walls. The noise of millions of gallons of falling water drowns out traffic and pulled me in to the emotional intensity of these two enormous pools, which are titled “Reflecting Absence”. The water disappears into a simple, square hole at the centre. The noise, the beauty of the four walls of falling water (the largest man-made waterfalls in the US), and the black hole that’s sucking at the life of the water, moved us both incredibly and made think about life, and the way it can be snatched from you in a blink. Around the edge, the names of all the dead are deeply carved, including the firefighters who lost their lives, moving memorials in the world, small stars and stripes flags are tucking into some of the names. Rising above them is Freedom Tower. It’s a triangular column of glass, and on this brilliantly sunny day, it caught the light of the at the very tip of its 1,776 feet, the date of the American Revolution in New York. 

The Oculus
Next to the memorial is The Oculus. This is  extremely interesting architecturally… it’s  as bowed and compact as the Freedom tower is stretched and liberated. From outside, it reminds us both of a white bird, half in flight. Inside, where there is a terminus, it’s like we were in the body of a dinosaur. New York felt the destruction of the World Trade Towers strongly, took the deaths of its citizens very hard. They want to celebrate those lives, cut short, as well as proving to the terrorists who tried to destroy their way of life that life will go on.  
Grand Central Station cocktail.

There's a coda to our day of Manhattan history; that evening we returned to eat at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.  With its tramline furniture and vaulted ceilings, it really looked the part. One could imagine the Bright Young Things and flappers of the 1920s coming here for their oysters. Of course, back then they wouldn’t have been allowed alcohol with their shellfish, and to Becki’s horror, Champagne still wasn’t on the menu! ‘I can’t eat oysters without Champagne,’ she announced.
I didn’t fancy the menu at all…I was thinking that since the 20s, the clientele had deteriorated somewhat. Bag ladies rubbed shoulders with workers at the end of their shifts on the long communal tables. ‘Let’s try somewhere else,’ I said. So we wandered througj the Central Station Concourse until we reached an Italian Bar, where we ate at the counter. We had salads – Bex with her glass of Champers and me with the most eye-watering vodka martini I have ever swallowed down. Becki said later that she watched me getting more and more drunk over the course of this one glass.

It was ten when we left. I was keen for an early-ish night as we had another full day of sightseeing tomorrow. But as we left the Station, Becki spotted a sign. ‘the Campbell Apartment!’ she squealed .’I’ve read about that. When the station was being built, John Campbell, who was overseeing the work, lived here – he had both his office and his bed installed so he could keep a close eye on the work. And then in the 20s, it became a speakeasy. In fact, it’s the only cocktail lounge in NY that was originally a speakeasy. Inside, it was small, but perfect. It looks like the galleried hall of a medieval palace, but was packed with punters having a great, if noisy, time, squashed together round tiny tables.
The Cambell Apartment
The drinks, however, were not a patch on the Italian bar. My vodka martini was a diluted replica of the previous eye-blower. And Becki took one look at her Tatti and said, ‘it’s flat. There’s no fizz.’
‘Is your drink flat?’ The girl sitting on the next table heard Becki and leaned over to give advice.
‘I’m sure it’s from the dregs of the bottle,’ Becki said. ‘Tell the waitress, she insisted. ‘Go on. Call her over and tell her.’ Quite soon, Becki was in possession of a sparkling glass, and we had a new best friend in friendly NYC.