Planes, Trains, Automobiles And Streetcars

I recently made the very long journey back from staying in both one of New Orleans’ loveliest hotels and my favourite guesthouse to my home in Hackney. While struggling with the jet lag I acquired as a result, I’ve been thinking about public transport in both cities.

I was fortunate enough to get picked up from the airport after my flight home, so I didn’t have to sit for an hour on the Piccadilly Line as I did on the way out. This was especially good because, as well as my suitcase, laptop bag and handbag, I was struggling with a rather large box containing what I think is a very special New Orleans souvenir (which I hope to write more about in another post soon).

I could start complaining here about the tube, which Londoners just love to do but, you know what, unless you have a very large box, it’s not that bad. And a woman I got talking to once in one of my favourite bars in the French Quarter reminded me that London’s public transport is actually amazing.

No, the tube doesn’t run all night like the New York Subway. Yes, it’s a whole lot more expensive than the Métro in Paris. But guess what? It’s reliable, extensive and, a big tick in my book, pretty much safe all the time. And remember you’re riding through history – lots of it is well over a hundred years old, with the oldest lines generally also being the deepest ones. My grandfather used to tell me which these were, and I think the Piccadilly Line, my budget Heathrow Express, is one of them. And I haven’t even started on our world-famous red double-decker buses, our river ferries that I’ll always love for running all day and all evening for free to get people home after the July 2005 bombings, and our small collection of streetcars, or trams as we call them.

There are also plenty of special things about public transport in New Orleans. It’s certainly not as extensive as the system in London. But I’ll never forget how excited I was when I discovered that even buses in New Orleans come in Mardi Gras colours. I love clanging though the Garden District on the St. Charles Streetcar, stopping for silver dollar pancakes if I have time along the way, but I also love the different view of New Orleans you get from taking the Canal Street line through Mid-City, up to the New Orleans Museum of Art and City Park, or to the cemeteries nearby. And on my recent visit to the city, I took the ferry to Algiers for the first time, getting a different view again.

Speaking of new ways to travel, in recent years, Hackney has been treated to a new tube line or, more precisely, overground line, branded a cheerful orange, probably either to exude positivity or because it was the only colour London’s transport tsars had left in the box. The East London Line has made it a lot easier to get between parts of the city that were a pain to find a link between before, like Hackney and its south London hipster paradise twin Peckham, thus reshaping not only the city’s physical geography but also its cultural landscape. The “gingerline” community even has its own supper club, whose events are always held at a secret destination somewhere along its route.

Down in New Orleans, change is afoot as well, with a new streetcar line planned to run along North Rampart Street, the lakeside boundary of the French Quarter, then along St. Claude Avenue, the top edge of historic Creole neighbourhood the Marigny, and all the way to Elysian Fields Avenue, the street where Stella and Stanley are described as living in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

A supperclub, a play – these remind us that public transport is not just a way to get around. Streetcars, buses, trains and ferries also have cultural – and hence political – significance. How this fact manifests itself in London and New Orleans could fill many books, but I think one of the key themes here, and in other big cities, is that access to transport means power.

New Orleans once had dozens of streetcar lines, including the Desire line made famous by Williams’ play. These, however, were mostly ripped up between the 30s and the 50s due to the rapid rise of the car to prominence in twentieth century American life. That left people without access to a car at the risk of physical isolation and political disenfranchisement, a problem which was made particularly evident after Hurricane Katrina, when a longterm lack of mobility among some communities was shown to be not just inconvenient, not just disadvantageous in terms of cultural capital, but also deadly.

In London, meanwhile, the East London Line was a welcome addition to a part of the city that had never been covered anywhere near as well by the tube network as other areas an equal distance away from the centre of town. And as in New Orleans, this historic lack of access to public transport has been part of a longstanding web of social disadvantage and poverty.

I wish there were a streetcar or tube line linking London and New Orleans. Until someone builds one, I guess I’m stuck with flying. But while I hate droning along in a big cold tin can over the North Atlantic, I’m grateful I have the means to make these journeys.


Happy Birthday Louis Armstrong!

2013-08-02 22.49.18

This week and next are special ones for me – I’ve left London to its own devices for ten days or so to come to New Orleans. The reason I’m here now is the thirteenth Satchmo Summerfest, an annual event celebrating the life and work of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, also known as “Pops”, with live music, food, and one of my favourite aspects – seminars.

If you’ve ever been in New Orleans in August, you’ll know how attractive a cold, dark room can seem, and if you can listen to an expert talk about something interesting while you cool off, that’s an added bonus. In all seriousness, every single one of the Satchmo Summerfest seminars I’ve heard since I first attended the festival in 2009 has been very much worth a listen.

The seminar programme always covers a very wide range topics on and around Louis Armstrong’s music, personal life and cultural and political influence – you might find yourself listening to a detailed analysis of a rare recording, an account from a younger musician of Armstrong’s impact on them, or reminiscences from a neighbour and friend about Armstrong’s idiosyncratic eating habits and passion for herbal laxative “Swiss Kriss”.

The breadth and depth of the seminars on offer every year are testament to the fact that there are few musicians, or cultural figures of any kind, who provoke scholarly attention and strong feelings to the same degree as Louis Armstrong. Here at Satchmo Summerfest I’ve witnessed both some of the most detailed and reverential pieces of musical analysis I’ve ever heard, and some the most heartfelt tributes to an individual’s character and influence, not to mention many incredible musical salutes from the “Red Beans and Ricely Yours” or “Cornet Chop Suey” stages.

And this special status of Louis Armstrong makes the festival special in a cultural landscape crowded with music festivals. The organisers must be commended for staying true to the unique spirit of inclusiveness that Armstrong embodied by keeping it free and so accessible to everybody.

And, despite having grown and developed over the years, it’s often described as, and feels like, a family reunion – affection for Armstrong means that many of the same performers, presenters, organisers and audience members return year after year. It’s always held on the nearest weekend to Armstrong’s birthday – 4 August according to the birth certificate discovered after his death, though he always believed it was 4 July – and everyone attending always gets together at some point over the weekend to sing Happy Birthday and share birthday cake, and, this year, cookies from the wonderful Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe. Yum.

This community atmosphere that you find at the festival symbolises Armstrong’s ability to bring people together. In his fantastic biography of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout cites this great account from New Orleans musician Danny Barker of what Satchmo’s dressing room was like: “In the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see maybe a guy come out of a penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policeman or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ‘em…And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s lookin.”

And the power of his legacy is such that a love of Louis Armstrong is still able to bring people together from far and wide for events like Satchmo Summerfest, and that’s including from all across the world. During his life, he toured widely, creating a worldwide community of Satchmo fans that is still very much in evidence today, and a portion of these gather in New Orleans for Satchmo Summerfest every year.

One of those who travels furthest is distinguished jazz musician, Louis Armstrong devotee, and “Japanese Satchmo” Yoshio Toyama. Toyama and his wife Keiko, also a jazz musician, spent five years in New Orleans in the late 1960s and early 1970s learning their craft by immersing themselves in the music that Louis Armstrong helped to create.

After crime levels in the city shocked them on a return visit to the city in 1990s, they set up the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, whose mission to provide instruments and other support to the city’s young people who might otherwise become involved with drugs and violence was inspired by Louis Armstrong’s progression out of poverty to musical stardom.

After Katrina, the foundation raised over $100,000 to help purchase new instruments for young New Orleans musicians. And when Japan was hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the favour was returned, as fundraising initiatives were organised in New Orleans, leading to instruments being purchased for a number of young Japanese musicians who had lost theirs because of the disaster.

But what of London and Louis Armstrong? He played in the city many times, including for both Princess Margaret and also George V, who presented him afterwards with a gold-plated Selmer trumpet, currently on display in his former home, now the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

And there’s a legend that my home country is where the “Satchmo” tag originated, being the way in which the original version of the nickname, “Satchelmouth”, sounded to American ears when pronounced in a plummy mid-century British accent. Whether this story is true or not, Armstrong appears to have certainly regarded his visits across the Pond with affection, saying once “I’ll never forget England and its people, so nice to me.”

And we haven’t forgotten you! Now is probably a good time to confess that I’ll be speaking at the Satchmo Summerfest on Sunday on London and New Orleans and, of course, Louis Armstrong, a turn of events that arose from my admiration for the work and life of this great man. So Happy Birthday Pops! and thank-you for bringing me once again to the wonderful city where you and your music were born.