Water, Water, Everywhere – In London And New Orleans

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All of this month, I’ve been thinking about water. As New Orleans prepares for a significant water-related anniversary, some important dates have flowed past in London.

Two events that were already in my mind rose very much to the surface on a trip for a family celebration to Hackney Wick, an area of east London close to the Olympic Park.

We went to a café (pictured) located just across the river from the Olympic stadium. This weekend, it hosted the London 2012 Anniversary Games, and for me remembering the Olympics always means also remembering the 7 July 2005 London bombings that occurred in the same week as the announcement that London would host the Olympics in 2012.

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It seemed appropriate to be marking these anniversaries by the water. Hackney Wick and the other areas of London touched and changed by London 2012 are defined by their proximity to river, canal, marshland and estuary. And one of the elements of what happened on 7 July 2005 that has stayed in my mind the most after ten years is the way in which the boat service on the Thames put on extra free-of-charge ferries that night to help people get home.

Water runs right through London and New Orleans, and many other cities, in space and time. It’s not always the first thing we see or think of, but it’s always there, sometimes underneath the surface, as an conduit for trade, transport, refreshment, history, celebration, mourning and more.

But water staked its claims before people. It’s not there to serve us and cannot always be controlled. Apparently, there is a crocodile in the waters of Hackney Wick – though it’s worth remembering that its acts of destruction are most likely either the product of human actions, human imagination, or human prejudices.

I didn’t see the crocodile on the sunny Sunday morning I spent in Hackney Wick, which I think shows we can live at peace with our waters, sometimes at least. We shouldn’t forget, however, the role they have played and are playing in shaping our cities and that they carry many things below even calm surfaces.

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Why I Write About New Orleans Even Though I Live In London

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The latest cool thing in London is to talk about leaving London, or to talk about people talking about leaving London, or to talk about not leaving London. Even I am guilty of it.

My favourite escape fantasy, as you might have guessed, is living in New Orleans, which I’m able to sate, in a way, by writing this blog (and by reading about the city – see picture). But as I write it, I often think: do you need to live somewhere to write about it properly?

It’s a question I often consider, and it’s one that has come up in a writing group that I’m a member of. One person in the group has developed a compulsion to write about Missouri, even though she’s never lived there or even been there, and we were talking about whether she could seriously do so, either from a practical or a moral perspective.

We talked a little about Stef Penney, who wrote bestselling novel about nineteenth-century Canada The Tenderness of Wolves without ever having visited the country. We decide that probably to write pieces of work with a strong sense of place, some first-hand experience, preferably from more than a holiday, is needed.

But then again, Penney never visited the nineteenth century either, and we don’t question the validity of historical novels because the authors don’t have access to a time machine.

Maybe it’s all about perspective and presentation. The historical novel is an art form we accept as necessarily artificial, as one that gives us a window into another world that is limited and flawed, but better than no window at all, and which has the present world the author and readers live in as an interesting visible or invisible framing device.

Along the same lines, a solution that was suggested for the wannabe Missouri novelist was to write about Missouri from the perspective of a British woman visiting the state for the first time, thus acknowledging and using her lack of on-the-ground familiarity.

I think about this blog in a similar way. I would always pitch myself as an insider in London and an outsider in New Orleans and that, for better or worse, is the perspective I write from and makes the blog what it is.

I’ll go further. This perspective is the impetus behind the blog. As I’ve said already, the fact that I live in London and don’t live in New Orleans makes me want to write here in London about being in New Orleans. If I did leave London to live there, I wouldn’t write about New Orleans in quite the same way.

Why I Wish London Was Always As Hot As New Orleans

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This week London felt just a little bit more like New Orleans than usual, thanks to temperatures in the 30s (that’s in the 90s for any of y’all reading this in America). And it made me wonder what London would be like if it was that hot here more often.

People in London go a little crazy when the sun comes out and it gets properly summery – usually we cancel all our existing plans to have picnics, take our clothes off in public, and do other crazy things, like pretend we’re mermaids and jump in the river or the nearest pond (see picture).

The rest of the time, as we shiver in our winter coats (I was still wearing mine in late May this year and I’ll need it again by September), we’re unfriendly, cynical and, well, cold. Sure, we can be nice once you get to know us, but if you’re in London don’t bother trying to talk to a stranger on public transport, or expect anyone to take any notice of anyone yelling anything on the street – unless it’s “house prices fall” or “Fire!”.

Does more consistent hot weather make for a more welcoming and open society? I know how hot it can get in New Orleans, having spent most of my time there during summer months, and I’ve always been astonished at how friendly and open to strangers people are here compared to Londoners.

And the courteous interactions which come more easily when there’s no need to rush indoors are arguably not just a formality, but an important dimension of a functioning society. There’s a moving passage in Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina work Why New Orleans Matters where he mentions the powerful  impact of the seemingly simple step of placing lawn chairs outside residential cabins at a Red Cross camp for evacuees. “New Orleanians like to sit out outside on their steps and talk,” so this gesture, he says, “helped immensely.”

Further proof that these small everyday social rituals can go to the heart of who we are as humans can be found in today’s Greece. As I write this, news of the results of the bailout referendum has just come in.

Looking at this ongoing very difficult situation, it’s easy to wonder why social unrest in Greece hasn’t been greater – economist Vicky Pryce said on BBC current affairs programme Any Questions recently that there would have been a revolution in the UK if the same situation had occurred here. There’s not enough space here for a full anthropological analysis of Greek society, but I wonder whether its more socially outgoing, inclusive and cohesive nature compared to British society which is arguably aided significantly by its warmer weather might just have had something to do with it.

London can’t change its geographical climate to make it more like that of Athens or New Orleans, but maybe our current heatwave should inspire us to try to heat ourselves up a bit socially.