I’ve decided to put this blog on hold for the moment while I work on other projects. Many thanks to all my readers and followers!
I recently wrote an article about barbershops. Hackney, the part of London where I live, has a lot of them. On one 500-metre stretch of high street alone, I’ve counted five.
Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern cultures have a strong presence in Hackney and barbershops are important social hubs in these cultures. The wealth of barbershops in the borough also reflects the existence of many other identity groups here that, like most of us, may use hair in part to define themselves.
E-Street Barbers opened around nine months ago and has built a following among musicians. Cuts & Bruises Barbershop is only a few weeks old and describes its team as “ex-skaters [and] tattoo enthusiasts”. Gender-neutral and LGBT, queer and trans-friendly shop Open Barbers, founded in 2011, has been operating since last year from a permanent base in Hackney. Barberette, set up by former Open Barber Klara Vanova, is also based in the borough.
Activities beyond cutting hair also link these barbers to their tribes. E-Street hosts music-focused events and parties. Cuts & Bruises’s basement is destined to become a tattoo parlour next year and will be a space for events like boiler room DJ sets and streetwear pop-ups in the meantime. Barberette’s many charity and community initiatives have included running a raffle at one of its regular client parties to fundraise for an LGBT counselling service and exhibiting the work of Hackney artists.
Thanks to their client bases and pricing, Hackney’s new breeds of barbershop risk association, however, with the problematic issue of gentrification. Vanova is concerned about cultural debts being forgotten as barbering in Hackney develops. Traditional Afro-Caribbean and Turkish barbering traditions have bequeathed much to the industry but, in her view, this is not acknowledged enough.
Cuts & Bruises’ story is an interesting study of change, continuity and legacy. Founder Kem Mehmet has some roots in Hackney’s Turkish Cypriot community and the building that currently houses Cuts & Bruises is both where he was born and formerly the home of a women’s hair salon run by his mother. “I’m keeping [the business] in the family and we’re not a chain that’s just come in,” he says.
For the moment, new barbershops seems to be mostly happily co-existing with other offerings nearby. This could be simply because barbering in Hackney is booming, so there’s more than enough business to go round. All the barbers I visited, or simply walked past, when researching my article were extremely busy. One barber even said that he thought there was enough potential trade for six more barbershops on his patch alone. Hackney’s longstanding love affair with hair is as passionate as ever, I concluded.
My article was about London, and businesses and issues specific to London. But I found myself thinking about New Orleans too; scraps of information I’d heard or read at some time began to gather in my mind like clippings around a barber’s chair.
The strong presence of black and Middle Eastern communities, and many other communities of all sorts, applies in New Orleans too. There is also a link between barbershops and music and other cultural practices here: they say Buddy Bolden was a barber, while in recent years second line group the Uptown Swingers has been known to parade from Dennis Barbers on Freret Street. And gentrification is as much as an issue in New Orleans as in London.
So in London, New Orleans, and probably wherever you are in the world, cutting hair is probably also helping to create something far beyond one person’s headspace.
(A final note: I’m once again taking a break from posting while travelling for the next few weeks.)
Image: adrian, acediscovery
Me and the Hot 8 go way back – well, until 2013 when I saw them at Satchmo Summerfest. Coming on stage on a clouded, stifling Sunday afternoon, they immediately lifted the energy levels of the crowd by about a I-don’t-know-what-a-plex and, for me, were the best performance of the festival.
I later read more about them, in particular in the really excellent book Roll With It: Brass Bands In The Streets Of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (who I also saw speak at that same festival). In it, I learnt about the band’s beginnings in 1994 (they were originally called the Looney Tunes Brass Band), their involvement with much success in the musical and material politics of playing brass band music in New Orleans, and the tragedies the band has endured. Three of its members – trumpeter Jacob Johnson, trombone player Joseph Williams and drummer Dinerral Shavers – have died of gunshot wounds. Terrell Batiste, another trumpeter, lost both his legs after being hit by a car.
Overall, the band’s sad but inspiring story seems to sum up the whole bittersweet history of brass bands in New Orleans. “There is much to celebrate here in the way that these young men use tradition to provide people with a sense of community through music, their success in reconfiguring tradition to resonate with contemporary experience, and their ability to accumulate status and earn a living by playing music in diverse contexts,” writes Sakaheeny. “But there is also much to condemn in the way they remain vulnerable to various forms of risk.”
This duality seems to me to be there in my two favourites of their songs, both from their first album Rock With The Hot 8. In one, “What’s My Name?”, we hear an upbeat, very confident announcement of the band’s name and its musical identity. The other, a tender yet insistent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, is a sad but hopeful love song, tinged with both with the sadnesses of Gaye’s life and death and those of the band. Like all great songs, both are specific to a tradition and the individual lives of particular musicians, yet also might say something to people everywhere.
Which brings me back to Hot 8’s recent London gig. I couldn’t see them here because it was totally sold out. I’ve written before about London’s love of, and affinity with, New Orleans’ brass bands, and the Hot 8 seems to be no exception. “Y’all raised da roof #london What a night!!!”, the band tweeted afterwards. I wish I’d been there.
(A final note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the Easter holidays for the next couple of weeks. If it’s something you celebrate: Happy Easter! Hope everyone has a good few weeks, whatever you’re doing.)
Image: The Hot 8 Brass Band
The fact it hurt libraries: that was the saddest thing about reading about the controversies musician Irvin Mayfield has been involved in in recent years for my blog post about jazz film Mo Better Blues last week. Some allege that he improperly diverted funds away from libraries and towards his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. I offer no opinion on these allegations, but I do agree with a comment made by the city’s former library foundation president Tania Tetlow in connection with the matter: “There’s a special place in hell for those who steal from libraries.”
I love libraries, and always have done. Near to where I lived as a child, there were two: a little, cosy one like an expanded Wendy house, and a glorious, grown-up big one with, it seemed, more floors and shelves than I could ever fully explore. I spent hours in both.
I’m a regular visitor to several libraries in Hackney, the area of London where I live. I also love scanning the Hackney Libraries website, trying to work out where I have the best chance of scoring whatever popular book I’m trying to locate – currently Ron Chernow’s biography of founding father and monster hit musical inspirer Alexander Hamilton. I’m a passionate rather than reliable user; I’m ashamed to admit that my late return fines over the years of my membership – of which the Hackney Libraries website rather damningly holds a complete record – could fund a good part of an (off-season) flight to New Orleans.
When I get to New Orleans, I love to visit its libraries too. There is the Latter Library in the Garden District, an elegant Italianate mansion shadowed by deep green trees. It’s touched with just the faintest trace of the gothic mood that gently overhangs that part of the city, being a tribute from a Mr and Mrs Harry Latter to their dead son Milton, killed in Okinawa during the Second World War. The building formally became a library on Halloween 1948, and has functioned as one ever since, with brief periods of closure for refurbishment. It has sales too, and a book that I have from one of these always conjures up for me the beautifully sedate, cool place from where I obtained it. By William S. Butler and L. Douglas Keeney, it’s called Secret Messages: Concealment, Codes and Other Types of Ingenious Communication.
The Iron Rail Book Collective, now sadly closed, was quite different, but I liked it just as much. This radical and anarchist library and bookstore was originally based in an arty area on the edge of the French Quarter and then moved to more bohemian Bywater. I’d visit and borrow books whenever I was in town, and they were just the sort of spiky and invigorating stuff you’d expect: writer and activist Deborah “Big Red” Cotton’s Meltdown Town; Marie Etienne’s memoirs Stork Bites and Confessions of a Bi-Polar Mardi Gras Queen.
New Orleans has many more libraries, and they will all be loved by someone. But libraries are in danger from floods, loss of funding, and a multitude of other threats, even violence, in both New Orleans and London as well. Personally, I’m sure there’s a special place in heaven for those who help them.
I last heard the song in 2009. It was at the Satchmo Club Strut, a Friday night Frenchmen Street half-bar crawl, half-street party sort of thing that for a number of years ran before Satchmo Summerfest, the weekend festival honouring the life and music of Louis Armstrong. This was in Blue Nile, and Irvin Mayfield was playing it.
Mayfield said it was from a film, the name of which I didn’t catch. In this film, a male trumpet player, it seemed to the musician’s teenage self, had the most amazing life: women, money, song. It was, Mayfield said, the song that made him want to be a jazz musician.
I remembered all that and the tune of the song itself. I didn’t, however, remember its name. This is unusual for me. As I’m a writer and not a musician, I normally have a much better memory for words than melodies. But this tune stuck with me when words did not. A slow half-happy theme in two, circling around a handful of notes, then repeated in a varied form. This, I realise, could describe an almost infinite number of jazz tracks – and don’t ask me to sing it for you.
But that is all I had to go on. Without words, my usual way of identifying most things, I had no way to find it again, though I did try. I combed YouTube and Googled jazz films. I even went to see Mayfield play again in the hope it might be a regular on his set list. It was not.
And then I heard it last weekend, when I wasn’t expecting it. I’d gone to the Rio Cinema near where I live to watch an old Spike Lee film about a jazz musician, screened as part of the Spike Is 60 festival. And there it was: “Mo Better Blues” – the name of the film, the name of the song, and a phrase that evokes that mix of sex, money and music at the film’s centre that Mayfield referred to.
But while the song was the one I recognised, what was new to me when I heard it again was this: it’s a half-sad song in a sad film. One where money is not fairly distributed, where hearts are broken and a musician loses his ability to play. What’s more, since 2009 Mayfield has been involved in some high-profile controversies.
Finding things again after a space of time usually means seeing them changed, and sometimes for the worse. But I was pleased to see the film had a happy ending, of sorts. And not only do its final scenes contain some resolution, they are also, in a very jazz-like way, a transformed and informed replaying of its first ones. Whenever you revisit things – whether that’s songs, films, places or people – they’re never the same as when you first encountered them, but we shouldn’t forget that there’s usually something good in this experience.
You could say that London’s Underground, its railway and subway system, carries a bit of the city’s soul, along with its millions of passengers. One way it does this, in a very understated London way, is through the poems, known as the “Poems on the Underground” that are slipped into its carriages in between adverts.
As I’m writing about the Underground at the moment, I’ve spent some time this week reading through a selection of these published in book form a few years ago. And I was pleased to discover some poems here that made me think of New Orleans.
First, there was William Dunbar’s “To the City of London”. Yes, this poem is primarily about London. But its praise of the city includes its “merchants full of substance and might” who sail their ships down the “beryl streams” of the Thames. The first voyages to the “New World” took place during Dunbar’s lifetime, setting in train the colonial process that would lead to the founding of New Orleans, also a powerful trading city, and one that would eventually send ships to London.
Of course, colonisation was and is a hugely problematic process involving significant injustices. Large among these is the fact that the mercantile wealth both London and New Orleans enjoyed was founded on slave labour. I found allusions to slavery, and its legacies, in Poems on the Underground.
These include Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. “I’ve known rivers,” Langston writes, speaking of the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and then saying, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen/ its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”
In Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, Dan Baum’s book about nine citizens from various ethnic and social groups in the city, he describes the effect that hearing this poem as a schoolboy had on one of his subjects, Mardi Gras Indian chief and House of Dance & Feathers’ museum founder Ronald Lewis. “He’d seen the Mississippi just that way, all golden in the sunset. Abraham Lincoln, the pyramids, the motherland beside the Congo, and, right up with them, the Lower Ninth Ward. It was all one, a Negro life beside the rivers. And he was part of that.”
I also found a poem that powerfully asserted the capacity of poetry to help to right wrongs and bring cities on different sides of the world together, both of which I’d like to think were in the mind of those behind Poems on the Underground.
John Agard’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture Acknowledges Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’” imagines what the leader of the Haitian revolution, which saw a significant number of Haitians emigrate to New Orleans, might have said in response to Wordsworth’s sonnet praising him and celebrating his achievements. He says the following, and it’s surely the best last word.
“I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.”
I had plans for a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras this year. I wasn’t going to be in New Orleans but here, in London, my party skirt, the purple and green beads that stay in a special drawer for the rest of the year, and the glitter hairspray were all coming out.
I was going to a much-loved event that I’ve been to many times before, where there would be bands, banners and a parade. There would be dear friends, and we would have had drinks made out of things like pistachio vodka and artichoke liqueur, danced, and maybe even stayed out all night.
However, this didn’t happen. Thanks to a complicated set of circumstances, I had an UK-style Mardi Gras instead – or, as we Brits would say, Pancake Day. Just as I did at this time of year when I was a child, I spent the evening sitting round a kitchen table, mostly waiting for it to be my turn to eat.
It’s in the nature of Pancake Day that you spend a lot of time waiting – and watching others eat. We make pancakes in our own way in the UK – much thinner than US ones, a little thicker than French crepes – and they can only be cooked one at a time. And of course it’s a sin not to consume them when they’re hot.
But it’s worth the wait, which is also the beauty of the the occasion. Because the meal is drawn out, there’s time to talk and relax, and get everyone to share the cooking, in a way that there usually isn’t on your average weekday evening. I remember my childhood Pancake Days always seemed like special occasions. From ingredients that are always in your fridge (which is just as well as sometimes my mother would forget what the day was), a feast day-worthy supper would be conjured.
That was also the case at my Mardi Gras meal this year. Parma ham and goats’ cheese replaced cheddar and frozen spinach as toppings. We drank prosecco rather than orange squash. But the evening still saw plenty of plates doused with the lemon juice and caster sugar combo that never goes out of fashion, and the joy of creating something magical from the simplest of components was just the same.
Eating this meal with friends turned out to give me the same freedom to let go of troubles momentarily that the maddest night out can provide. And this is what Mardi Gras and Pancake Day are all about. How to enjoy life fully, without avoiding our responsibilities or denying the realities of the difficult times that we all go through (which will be waiting for us when Lent begins). In his book Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza says that an ability to, “Go with what is. Use what happens” is “the spirit of Mardi Gras itself”.
London’s quirky storecupboard version of the festival might not quite match that of New Orleans for style and panache, but I’ll now always be just as happy to take it.
This week I’ve been listening to a radio adaption of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. It has been thought-provoking in many ways, but one quote in particular has stayed in my head. “If you want to find out what this nation is like, you have to ride the rails,” says one character, as runaway slave Cora prepares to begin her journey on the “underground railroad”, which Whitehead has reimagined as an actual railway line.
The radio also prompted to think about links between transport and politics, this time in a New Orleans context specifically, when I heard Leah Chase interviewed on the Food Programme. The famous cook spoke not only about her family’s world-renowned restaurant Dooky Chase, but also about its role in the civil rights movement. Its bowls of gumbo and fried chicken fuelled some of those taking part in the “Freedom Rides” of the early 60s.
New Orleans’ connections with the politics of transport go back even further than this. Homer Plessy, the man at the centre of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that failed to overturn streetcar segregation, came from New Orleans’ Treme neighbourhood.
Treme is also renowned as the birthplace of jazz, which reminded me of a minor political episode in the history of public transport in London. A few years ago, I read in London daily newspaper the Evening Standard that then-mayor Boris Johnson had cancelled a jazz workshop arranged for employees of the city’s bus and train body Transport for London, “just as we have got rid of many other pointless excrescences in the public sector”, he said.
Improvise, the arts organisation that would have run the workshop, would rebuff this description of their work. “Our novel inspiration is the premise that, if we understand more about how jazz musicians communicate, innovate, manage risks, work together, create and sustain change, support and lead one another, then there are valuable lessons for us all as individuals, teams and organisations”, a spokeperson said at the time
To some – Johnson evidently – jazz is just background noise. But, writes Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States, “jazz, however joyful, portended rebellion”. Transport is also too often regarded as just a city’s background noise, as an unremarkable means to an end. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore either.
“Listen,” wrote New Orleans music magazine OffBeat about jazz musician Fats Waller. “You can hear [him] everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There is something about his rhythms and melodies that are in the way people walk and horns riff and cars drive and streetcars squeal and cutlery clanks and cast-iron pots simmer.”
In London too – and other places– there are pings from trains and streetcars, a bass note thrum from buses and ferries, and the sound of the movement of many people in different directions. It is the sound, impossible to silence, of transport, the human need for freedom, and the pleasure we take in it.
I was asked recently where I’m from. I love New Orleans, but I am always just a visitor there. I live in London, but I’m not from there either. I grew up in Cambridge, in the east of the UK, but yet again I’m not really from there. I wasn’t born in Cambridge. Neither of my parents is from Cambridge. They no longer live there and I don’t really have connections there any more.
Where am I from then? I don’t really know. Maybe the places my parents are from, but I only really know these places second-hand, through them. So where?
All of us have different histories and many people would say they absolutely do know where they’re from. But I think it is part of human experience to hold both our histories and a sense of uncertainty about who we are constantly within us. “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present,” wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “Burnt Norton”, part of his Four Quartets series.
One of the many threads of Four Quartets is the way in which T.S.Eliot was divided in some ways between London, where he spent much of his life, and America, where he was born. Which brings me to London and New Orleans, two places that – despite the fact that they are not where I am from – feel like home.
These two cities in particular have been made in a pronounced way from what might have beens, tensions and absences, as well as presences. Their role as centres for trade and immigration have given them, and continue to give them, feet in other countries and continents, memories and artefacts of other places, and also a strong consciousness of loss.
Their unusually long, eventful and storied histories mean they must also contend with older versions of themselves – real, disputed and imaginary – around every corner. Their complex and tightly-packed presents means that they are less one cohesive city today than several alternative cities layered and twisted around each other.
Among all this, London and New Orleans must also come to terms with the natural landscapes they have, like many great world cities, dramatically supplanted. But as every storm, oil spill, flood warning, heatwave and freak snowfall shows, these older places have not been not entirely eroded. Any map of London or New Orleans will show you that these cities sit with, not above, their old geography.
All these various complexities, however, do not detract from the presences of London and New Orleans and their sense of what they are. In fact, they are part of what gives the two cities such rich and distinctive identities. In a similar way, I don’t feel that my lack of a hometown by birthright rather than adoption lessens my sense of self. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems the patchwork in our histories, the contradictions and the missing pieces make us what we are, and can make us strong.
The net worth of the average African-American family is around one-tenth of that of the average white US family and that’s mostly down to property, I was told on one of my first visits to New Orleans in summer 2011.
I was taking refuge from the July sun at the Old US Mint. On show inside the building, part of the Louisiana State Museum, was an exhibition on mortgage “redlining”. This is the highly problematic practice, sadly legal until 1968, of excluding residents of certain areas of a city from access to mortgages, often on the basis of race.
Mortgage redlining, the exhibition told me, has had a very tangible effect on household income in America. Much income disparity between black and white American families, I read, “is due to differing rates of home ownership between these two groups and to the generally lower values of homes owned by blacks”.
Housing was much on my mind at that time. The effects of the global financial crisis, which had its roots in part in the US mortgage market, were still unfolding. Meanwhile, I myself had recently become for the first time both the owner of a London home (a small flat in Hackney) and the holder of a residential mortgage.
Housing has always represented personal trajectories and wider political ones. This is especially true here in the UK. A gathering of people above a certain age in London will often involve a discussion of house prices. UK prime minister Theresa May’s recent admission that home ownership may no longer be an achievable goal for many British people, an issue that is most acute in the capital, has prompted much national soul searching.
As the mortgage redlining exhibition emphasised, housing has a similar significance in the US. You could say this was encapsulated in some ways by Michelle Obama’s comment about her then-home, the White House, last summer. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
During the Obama presidency, the income disparity between black and white families that is so linked to property ownership has narrowed, but not disappeared. Since I visited the redlining exhibition in 2011, the average household income of black US families has risen to represent just over 60 per cent of that of white US families, according to some 2015 figures.
In New Orleans specifically, houses and home ownership have very particular personal and political meanings. The sight of homes marked with “Katrina crosses” by FEMA is one of the most profound symbols of both the personal losses and wider political failures that were part of the often racially-delineated impact of the storm on the city. In the years since Katrina, the effect of rising house prices on the city’s communities, and particularly its black ones, has been much debated.
I have a German friend who thinks that we Londoners are mad to care so much about houses, house prices and home ownership. But in the places where these things mark us in so many ways, willingly or not, it’s hard not to do so.
Image: Shutter Runner