Libraries I Have Loved In London And New Orleans

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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.

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Finding “Mo’ Better Blues” in New Orleans and London

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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.

New Orleans In London’s Poems On The Underground

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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.”

A New Orleans Mardi Gras Turns Into A London Pancake Day

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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.

Image: Heather