True Detective, True Louisiana?

I just, very belatedly, watched the first episode of True Detective. Thoughts? First, glad to see Matthew McConaughey’s star rise even further – I’ve long thought he’s an amazing actor and he’s been criminally underrated in the past.

Second: clever, stylish, creepy. In the main, I loved it. But one thing bothered me: the fetishisation of the South and specifically of Louisiana, probably because the main culprit (Matthew McConaughey’s character) is supposed to be a Texan.

Sample quotes: “People here don’t know the rest of the world exists”; a town is “like a memory of a town”, to which were added some hints of folk magic and an abundance of dreamy shots of the bayou.

None of these things necessarily represent inaccurate or even undesirable elements of a portrayal of Louisiana, but somehow when mixed up together (like a cocktail, pot of gumbo, voodoo potion or murky swamp, probably) there’s an overly strong whiff of an idea of Louisiana as exotic and outlandish, the land of elaborate fancies and tempting vices.

We do this kind of thing in London too. For instance, if you tack the word “voodoo” or just “New Orleans-style” onto anything it’s instantly cool and edgy round here at the moment.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s this simple. What starts as cultural exoticising has a tendency to turn into political exclusion. Here’s an example.

People in New Orleans joke about other Americans needing a passport to visit their city. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana citizens forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in other states were routinely labelled as “refugees”, as if they’d come from another country, probably one of those far away ones that are a bit strange and that we don’t actually need to worry about.

So I’ll carry on watching True Detective, but with this in mind: whatever’s “true Louisiana” about it is also “true America”.



Street Art in London, Street Art in New Orleans

Spring has now properly arrived in London. And when the sun is out, I like to walk. And when I walk, I like to look out for street art, whether I’m in London or in New Orleans. And in both cities, there’s plenty to look at.

To cite just two aspects of street art in the two cities: London, thanks in part to its longstanding incredibly wide – and widening – social divisions, has a rich tradition of making political statements through street art, while it seems to me than in New Orleans street art is just one part of a wider desire to beautify life as part of a consciousness of its brevity.

Here are some of my favourite examples of street art in the two cities that I’ve photographed over the years:

Swimming on a French Quarter pavement, and just about to hop off in Hackney:

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Dust woman in an empty CBD building, and a water woman on my running route (by Spanish artist El Chico Iwana):

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The Code of Life revealed in London, or maybe we’re all wrong in New Orleans:

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Dog’s dinner in the Wick, and finally, my very favourite, getting fresh in the Bywater:

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No City Is An Island


I met an old friend on Friday. Doing so is always a pleasure and, for me, even more of one when that friend has just returned from their first trip to New Orleans. I was fairly sure my friend – let’s call him Thomas – would love the city, so couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say about it.

We, and some other friends, had a drink by the river – the Thames not the Mississippi sadly, but it was almost warm enough to be a late spring night in New Orleans. And Thomas told me about his trip.

He’d arrived in New Orleans on Good Friday for the whole of the holiday weekend and had loved it all – Kermit , the McDonagh Oak in City Park (see image, courtesy of the park’s blog), étouffée in a Quarter restaurant, Easter parades, a house by the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Abitas, the Hot Eight, and all rounded off with a crawfish boil on the bayou.

Thomas comes from Northern Ireland and has family in Belfast, so has a taste for complex cities with complex pasts. He told me he regards Northern Ireland as to some extent an island, part and not part of what surrounds it.

And as we all do, he reads new places through the ones he knows best, and he said he thought New Orleans might be an island too, or even a collection of islands. I suppose you could see it that way, part and not part of land and sea, part and not part of the American continent and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico that run into the Caribbean.

While he was in New Orleans, Thomas was in training for the Belfast marathon the following weekend. He said running the marathon, through all the city’s communities and past cheering spectators from across them all, reminded him of the New Orleans parades he’d seen.

They’d given him, he said, a new appreciation of how a city can be united and placed in context, making it more than the isolated sum of isolated parts it might sometimes appear to be.

And I guess what he said reminded me in a new way of how travelling across the world, a world of different cities, can reveal the connections across it. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no man is an island and, in some ways, no city is either.