London Should Look To New Orleans To Learn How To Do “Hygge”


Recently here in London there has been a lot of talk of “hygge” – a Danish concept that roughly means a sense of cosiness and conviviality and is used to refer to occasions where you gather family or friends to spend time together, often with indulgent food and drink, in comfortable and relaxing surroundings.

Londoners love the idea of doing this. But as we’re mostly hyperactive and grumpy workaholics living in rabbit hutches hours of complicated travel away from our London friends and with family elsewhere in the UK or the rest of the world, we struggle to make hygge actually happen.

Some people doubt whether Londoners should even bother. “The concept of hygge feels entirely alien in our busy, ever-changing city,” wrote Miriam Bouteba in Time Out London recently. “Ask anyone what they like best about [London], and no one who hasn’t recently undergone a lobotomy will reply: ‘Staying in with my candles’”.

But I still think London could do with some hygge. Not so much its superficial trappings like arty lighting and cinnamon buns (though I probably wouldn’t say no to these if offered), but its underlying benefits. Londoners crave a time and space to loosen our tightly-packed lives and connect more with other people. This is what hygge really means, and our experience here of endless new attractions, constant flux in our actual and cultural landscapes, and hyperlinked transport is not giving it to us.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has a kind of hygge. It’s no more a city of woodsmoke, long snowy winters and “glögg” than London. But it seems to me that, like Denmark, New Orleans has always been good at making space and time to slow down and enjoy life.

But in New Orleans doing so takes a different form. Hygge in Denmark is a way of crystallising time and space into a protected area or moment of contentment and balance. This sounds nice and is no doubt usually pleasant and benign in practice. But it’s worth remembering that the opposite of hygge is “uhyggelig”, which can mean scary or weird. Some say that hygge is a reflection of Denmark’s relatively tranquil recent history and its somewhat homogenous and socially exclusive society, which it can also help to perpetuate.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, the equivalent of hygge is about not compressing time and space, but opening them up. For most of us, the good stuff in life – relaxed eating and drinking, fun times with family and friends – can only be small interludes of relief from work. But it seems to me that ways of life in New Orleans are capable of magnifying these experiences into whole worlds of exciting possibility, reflecting the city’s long record of cultural openness and creativity, and its historical – and in some ways continuing – proximity to disaster of various kinds that encourages its inhabitants to enjoy life to the full while they can.

“New Orleans is a small city but it seems spacious because it is always full of people…like a crowded barroom at night,” writes Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans, Mon Amour. “At dawn a deserted barroom seems small beyond belief: how did all those people fit? The answer is that space and time are subjective no matter what the merciless clock of late twentieth-century America tells us. And there is more subjective space and time here in New Orleans than almost anywhere in the United States…[The city] feeds the dreamer stories, music and food.”

And of course there’s Mardi Gras. In nowhere else in the world does one public holiday mean a whole season of celebrations, an alternative city geography, and a parallel government of kings and queens, Big Chiefs and Baby Dolls. Carnival in New Orleans is nothing less that “a social rebellion against day-to-day life,” one inhabitant of the city and enthusiastic carnival “krewe” member told me once. Frustrated Londoners who find themselves yearning for connection and fulfillment that daily life in their city does not provide could do well to get up from their dimly-lit sofa cushions and look to New Orleans as well as Copenhagen.

Image: Deann Barrera


Whether Thames Or Mississippi, Make Room For The River


The Thames and London from the Thames Barrier Park

One very important thing that London and New Orleans have in common is that they both have a great river at their heart. And recently these rivers have been flowing into my thoughts.

I’m currently reading a book by Ben Aaronovitch called Rivers Of London (known as Midnight Riot in the US), the first in a series of “fantasy police procedurals” in which, as you’d expect from the title, the Thames and London’s other rivers (yes, there are several more) play leading roles. And I don’t mean that metaphorically – they are actual characters in the book.

In one scene, protagonist Peter Grant meets “Mother Thames”, who tells him that, “all the musicians in London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.” He follows this with what, to my mind, is the inevitable question: “Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?”. Grant continues: “It suddenly occurred to me that if there was a Mother Thames, why not a god of the Old Man River, and if that was so, did they talk? Did they have long conversations about silting, watersheds and the need for flood management in the tidal regions?”

The Mississippi also plays a significant role in another book I’ve been reading, this time set in New Orleans. Jed Horne’s Desire Street is about the sentencing to death and acquittal of city resident Curtis Kyles, and his life in state prison Angola. Horne describes how the “huge and sweeping arc of the Mississippi River” is the penitentiary’s most “impregnable border”.

Horne also describes the mental tortures inflicted by time in Angola in terms of a river. Sometimes, when the hard days pass slowly, it’s a “sluggish bayou”, but sometimes, especially for a man with an execution date hanging over him, it’s “rapids”.

And just the other day, I attended an event at the London Transport Museum that included a talk by Professor Pat Brown of Kingston University about the Thames and rivers in general and what they mean to us. “Everyone understands something about a river,” said Professor Brown, and it’s true. Rivers do run alongside most of our lives, in one way or another, and certainly in a very literal sense for anyone who lives in London or New Orleans. But it’s also true in a symbolic sense: rivers and how they work represent many things about life.

They are “a corridor for imports and exports” Brown said, which has certainly been true of both the Thames and the Mississippi, and I think also symbolises how many things come in and out of our lives. Rivers are also “fluid networks”, she said, and represent how we would ideally like our transport systems, and also other ways of connecting, to operate: swiftly, smoothly, and knowing no borders – who knows, maybe there is a secret channel between Mother Thames and Old Man River?

Brown’s second lesson was: “Make room for the river”. This seems to me to be both a practical guide to flood defence – as both London and New Orleans have learnt through painful experience, this means working with a river, not fighting it. But I’d like to think the maxim also carries the sense of making room for the powerful effects that close contact with running water is thought to bring about.

Both London and New Orleans are river cities, and both are sites of transformation and rebirth. Rags to riches (and sometimes to rags again) in London, symbolised by apocryphal stories about medieval mayor Dick Whittington. Happiness to sadness (and back again) in New Orleans, drawn every year into the slow ebb and flow of the carnival cycle. Prisoner Curtis Kyles even saw death become life again. Rivers, perhaps because their waters change all the time yet stay the same, carry mysteries of these kinds in their currents.

Commuting, Communicating And Why Public Transport Matters In London And New Orleans


Ride New Orleans’ vision for the future of public transport in the city

London’s public transport has been central to the city’s identity in modern times – think of red double-deckers, Hackney cabs, and the Tube, whose presence in London’s idea of itself can be traced back as far as Sherlock Holmes. And as the use of the Tube by the fictional detective suggests, the Tube and other public transport systems have long been part of London’s cultural landscape in their own right and are not merely linking mechanisms between its points of interest.

Then there is also of the popularity of alternative tube maps. I have a collection of these that includes the Tube in tinsel, an Underground map where station names are replaced by smells, and a map with “real” distances, which Londoners find silly and unreal.

The Tube map is also used by cartographers here and elsewhere to represent other networks of significance: relationships between philosophers; the Milky Way; or the global network of fibreoptic cables that the internet relies on. All this suggests that the Tube is not just a transport network but a shared internal logic for Londoners, a deep structure for which they instinctively reach.

There is usually little evidence, however, that public transport might represent anything collective on your average Tube or bus journey, where passengers tend to remain resolutely in their individual worlds. In his great poem The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot said of commuters walking over London Bridge: “I had not thought death had undone so many./Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

One person set out to change this recently by producing “Tube chat?” badges, or buttons if you like, to get Londoners to talk to each other on public transport. It may be relevant that this person is an American – in my experience, people from the US are generally far more willing than Brits, and especially Londoners, to talk to strangers.

People in New Orleans can certainly be highly commended for their willingness to strike up a chat, on public transport and elsewhere. But while the city has some notable examples of useful and beloved public transport facilities – for example, the St. Charles streetcar, or the ferry to Algiers – the city, in thrall to the car for too long like many in America, could do better on this front. Public transport campaigning group Ride New Orleans in particular is doing much to bring about change (see the map above for their vision for the future of the city’s public transport).

The opportunity to talk to people you wouldn’t normally encounter is just one small aspect of the importance of good public transport to cities, which brings shared social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits that stretch far beyond the simple convenience of being able to get from A to B. Some cities need help with communication, some with commuting, but the more we all do to nurture our public transport networks and what they can do for cities, the better.

Two Beautiful And Important Cinema Buildings In London And New Orleans


The Rio Cinema’s 1915 “ghost auditorium”

The other weekend, I took a tour of the Rio Cinema as part of the Open House London initiative, and learnt some new things about this familiar landmark in my neighbourhood. Meanwhile, when I was in New Orleans a little further back, I stumbled across a magnificent building that I had certainly passed before but had never properly seen, which turned out to be former cinema and now theatre and concert hall the Orpheum.

The Rio was built in 1909 and was then fronted in the 1930s with a cool white Art Deco facade topped with three neon bars that shed what I like to think of as benevolent blue light into our Hackney evenings, which are quickly darkening now that autumn is here. While the Rio seems like a little taste of Miami-esque modernism in London, the 1918-built Orpheum in New Orleans contains echoes of old Europe. This can be found in both its name, which recalls the tragic musical hero of Greek legend, and its beautiful Beaux Arts structure, with its layered flavours of both nineteenth century Paris and imperial Rome, among others.

Both buildings started life as cinemas but can boast a very mixed bill over their long lives. Between them they have housed drama, vaudeville, orchestral performances, talks, immersive theatre, independent cinema, gigs, video art, birthday parties, Mardi Gras balls, striptease and the odd crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

As you would expect, both very much have their stories – and their secrets. The Orpheum played a starring role in quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, being where lead character Ignatius J. Reilly, having persuaded friend George to guard his hot dog cart, went to watch a film. The Rio, meanwhile, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its founder Clara Ludski, a enterprising émigré from Russia. It also, I discovered on my Open House visit, houses a spectacular hidden 1915 “ghost auditorium” under its roof, capped by a beautiful dome.

Restoring the Rio’s crowning glory would sadly be too expensive for its current owner, a not-for-profit charity, though a programme of restoration and improvements is planned for next year. This is part of the building’s ongoing structural and social journey – from ambitious commercial plans under Ludski’s entrepreneurial stewardship, down to a nadir that included time as a porn cinema, and then back up to today’s respectable bohemianism and valued status as a community resource – which closely echoes aspects of the story of the neighbourhood it is located in over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The Orpheum has perhaps followed the fate of its environs even more intimately. After promising beginnings, its fortunes declined and it suffered from threat of demolition and financial crisis in the 80s. Having found some stability in the decades that followed, in 2005 it was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Bought out several times since then, it has now happily been restored – chandeliers, pink and gold paint, original elevator and all – to French patisserie levels of perfection, and had its reopening in 2015 celebrated by a special performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.

Cinemas might be palaces of dreams, but they are also a vital part of our real, waking lives in our neighbourhoods. If you have a building like the Rio or the Orpheum near you, visit it, cherish it and, just as it tells you stories, repay it by remembering and telling its own.