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.

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.”

The Fictional Characters Who Best Represent London And New Orleans

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Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s January; there’s not much else to do right now in London. And because, for me, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate Londoner.

First, there is his obsessive knowledge of this vast, dense and knotty web of people, places and things perched in the Thames estuary. His forays outside it are undertaken with a sense of adventure, but also a polite distaste for spending too long outside the capital that any Londoner would recognise.

Even the way in which Holmes eventually retires from the city to keep bees on the south coast is an acting out of a version of a longstanding Londoner fantasy that’s as potent now (and as likely to remain confined to fiction) as it was a hundred years ago.

Then there’s his anthropological fascination, used to great effect professionally, with London’s caste distinctions and conventions – and his willingness to ignore or breach them. This is true to London as a whole, which is the place where the UK’s class system and social customs are at their most complex, and also their most flexible.

Finally, he shares the fascination of many Londoners with anything unexpected and novel. And like many of them, he is as happy mining the city’s layers of historical detritus as he is looking to the newest scientific innovations to get a hit.

While I’ve read plenty about New Orleans and visited many times, I can’t claim to know this city as well as I know London. So I asked people who live there which fictional character they would pick to represent it. I received some inspired suggestions that reminded me how much great literature has been written about New Orleans. (Though as one person pointed out: “Tough question for a city full of real-life characters.”)

Lestat, Anne Rice’s legendary rock star vampire. Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, which many see as the best novel ever written about New Orleans, or just ever. “Sometimes Stanley, sometimes Blanche”, two of the lead characters in Tennessee Williams’ electrifying downtown-set play A Streetcar Named Desire. Benjamin Button, the eponymous hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and a 2008 film starring Brad Pitt, who lives life going backwards.

Quite a gang. They’re all very much individuals, but I notice some common threads in their personalities and the stories that link them to New Orleans.

First: order versus anarchy. Stanley lectures Stella on the Napoleonic Code as their lives begin to twist out of shape. Ignatius is a notorious breaker of New Orleans’ social rules, yet cannot bring himself to leave the city.

Then there is time. Lestat is a joyfully decadent immortal, only occasionally troubled by the trials of neverending life. Button is distinguished by being born old and dying young, which I think qualifies him well to be (in the film at least) an inhabitant of New Orleans.

Sherlock Holmes could be one of this crew. Like them, he balances somewhere between order and anarchy. He also seems to somehow float free of time’s usual restrictions, as shown by the regularity with which his adventures are adapted and updated.

All these characters tell us something about the overall characters of London and New Orleans. The fact that they’d probably all get on well if they were to meet in a Marigny bar or a Hackney pub also tells us there are a few things the cities have in common.

Image: Scott Monty

Rereading Divine Secrets

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Last week I reread one of my favourite books: Lousiana-born writer Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, first published in 1996.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of a feud between a mother, Vivi, and a daughter, Sidda, that stretches back in time to Vivi’s youth in mid-century Louisiana and forward to the potential derailing of Sidda’s wedding in what was then the present day. It’s also a story about female friendship – the “Ya-Ya sisterhood” of the title.

Part of why I love it is that it’s so consciously of Lousiana, where Vivi still lives and which Sidda has largely left behind. To pick just a few examples, we’re given bourré, fisherman’s mass, cochon de lait, pecan tarts, crawfish étouffée, Community Coffee, and more bourbon and bayous than you can shake a Cajun fiddle at.

But despite having cultural roots very different to mine, the book still has many personal resonances for me.

I read it for the first time when I’d just started at university, having never lived away from home and my family before. The reason I picked it up was because Louisiana – which I’d never visited at this point – fascinated me because I knew my mother had spent a term at Tulane as a university exchange student in the 1970s.

Two years later, analysis of the book formed a major part of the thesis I wrote at the end of my degree about the complexities of how female authors write about their mothers in mid to late-twentieth century American literature.

Ten years later, I read again during one of the hardest times in my life when I faced a loss that mirrored in some ways, or at least seemed to at the time, the darkest moments in the book.

And fourteen years later, which brings us to last week, I read it again during the weekend of a family wedding, which is also what closes the book and provides the story it tells with what is in some ways a resolution.

The specifics of why the book speaks to me so much are hard to explain more. I’d have to tell a lot of long stories for which here is not the place. Instead, I want to focus on one detail that I hope gives a sense of what I mean.

I think there’s only one mention of my hometown – London – in Divine Secrets. Sidda gives Vivi a Victorian lachrymatory, a small vial to hold tears, that she bought here. Sidda says that, “in olden days it was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone. It meant you loved them, that you shared a grief that brought you together.”

It’s an example of how something very specific can nevertheless be understood more widely. A lachrymatory is both achingly personal and private, but the experience of bereavement is something all humans have in common.

Whether from Lousiana, London or somewhere else, we all have lachrymatories of some sort from our home towns – they’re very much our own, but they’re also what we all share.

 

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”.

 

Watching 12 Years A Slave In London

Last Sunday, I saw 12 Years A Slave. It’s an incredibly powerful film that, like all the best films, owes a large part of its impact to its visual effect. Much has been written about two key particularly shocking scenes: the first being where central character Solomon Northup is left hanging while plantation life continues around him, and the second the brutal whipping of fellow slave Patsy, made more horrifying by the fact that Solomon is compelled by his master to inflict this punishment on her.

I also found myself troubled by the film’s lush, swampy landscapes, unmistakeable to anyone who’s ever been to Louisiana. I found their beauty and familiarity added to the film’s disconcerting effect by acting as a reminder of the links between the society portrayed in the film and our own – slavery might have been abolished, but its effects continue to be felt in ongoing racism, race-related violence and in other ways, in Louisiana and elsewhere.

More positively, the scene where Solomon and other slaves encounter a group of Native Americans was a reminder of the connections and fellowship between these two groups honoured in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition.

Because the city has changed so much since the mid-nineteenth century when the film is set, the scenes of the film in New Orleans don’t provide as immediate a connection to Louisiana today. But traces of the events shown in 12 Years A Slave are visible in the city – the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel is built on the site of the slave market shown in the film and is reportedly deeply haunted.

Over by St. Augustine Church in Treme, there’s the well-known Tomb of the Unknown Slave (pictured) dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme” and intended to also “honor all slaves buried throughout the United States”.

It’s important to remember that the southern United States was by no means the only region of the world deeply implicated in the crime of slavery. As an exceptional permanent exhibition “London, Sugar & Slavery” at London’s Museum in Docklands (the city’s former port area and now part of its financial district) makes explicit, significant parts of the city’s current prosperity and its physical environment were built from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

That slavery was an international business, in which London was involved as well as New Orleans, can perhaps be seen as echoed in the making of 12 Years A Slave. The film’s construction involved a British director with Caribbean heritage, a British leading actor with Nigerian heritage, a Kenyan leading actor now living in America, Americans of many races, and others of many different ethnicities and nationalities. Coming together to construct something as powerful as this film is a fitting response to slavery’s legacy.

Bold As Brass

Earlier this month, I read a great bookRoll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Tulane professor and musician Matt Sakakeeny. It’s an analysis, one of the first, of the work and lives of the musicians who play in the new generation of hip hop-influenced New Orleans brass bands. Sakakeeny mainly writes about musicians in the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth, many of whom he has close personal relationships with.

There are many things I really like about this book. But what I want to draw attention to here is the way in which Sakakeeny emphasises the relationship of culture and its political and economic contexts, a relationship I’m very interested in. He highlights how the creation of New Orleans’ distinctive and beloved brass band music today has always been enmeshed in complicated social and financial structures.

For example, Sakakeeny rightly recognises the jazz funeral as the musical heart of the New Orleans brass band tradition, but points out that these events are also an important source of income for brass band musicians.

He goes on to examine at length how their participation in these funerals, particularly in the tragically not unusual experience of where they’re for colleagues, relatives and friends, can be a source of musical inspiration and hence financial profit and are a part of a wider artistic engagement characteristic of New Orleans brass band musicians with the poverty, violence and injustice that are often presences in their lives.

We do have a brass band tradition in the UK, but it’s different to that of New Orleans and, certainly in the case of London, not on the same scale. However, as with the musical culture Sakakeeny has studied, there is a significant political and economic dimension to the work of brass bands here.

There’s historically been a strong connection in the UK between brass band music and working class life, particularly in the case of colliery bands. This connection was very effectively examined in 1996 British film Brassed Off, which tells the interlinked stories of the closure of a Yorkshire village’s coal mine and the fortunes of the community’s colliery band.

London has no collieries but does, you might be surprised to hear, have a colliery band. Named after the area where I live, Hackney Colliery Band is made up of classically-trained musicians who would be quick to admit that, while most of them are based in Hackney or nearby, they do not have local connections equivalent to the community roots the members of New Orleans brass bands or British colliery bands tend to have.

Rather they aim to represent in their work a mixture of some of the very diverse musical influences found in Hackney, including jazz, rock, African music, Balkan music, hip hop and a vibrant club scene. “We try to imagine,” said Hackney Colliery Band trumpeter Steve Pretty when I spoke to him earlier this year, “that there was a colliery band [in Hackney] – there’s this whole tradition of colliery bands being the hub of the community, reflecting the musical tastes of that community.”

They’ve also drawn musically on the rich worldwide brass band tradition, including New Orleans brass bands, and embraced the tradition’s commitment to social engagement. For example, parading, that powerful use of performance as a political act so often engaged in by brass bands, is an element of their onstage (or should that be off-and-around-stage?) presence.

Taking things one step further, the band are currently working with young brass players in a project set up in conjunction with the Roundhouse performance venue in Camden, a borough adjacent to Hackney in north London with a similar mix of privilege and deprivation.

To give a third example, the band have named their latest album Common Decency which, Steve told me, “came out of the fact that I wrote a tune when I was quite annoyed with people not behaving properly and it’s gratifying that it’s now the guiding philosophy of the band.”

You could read Steve’s statement as an understated, and thus characteristically British, expression of a laudable commitment to social justice that’s shared by many brass band musicians. Sadly, social justice is something that’s sorely needed in London, across the UK, and in New Orleans. And the part that brass bands and other producers and guardians of culture can play in bringing it about should never be taken for granted or forgotten.

Death, Film And Taxes

2013-07-14 23.03.41I watched Interview with the Vampire this weekend, the largely Louisiana-set 1994 Neil Jordan film based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name.

I’ve read the book recently (love it), but hadn’t seen the film since my last year at school, over fifteen years ago. That was long before I’d visited Louisiana, so it was interesting to watch it again knowing the state and New Orleans in particular, though of course there are one or two differences between Jordan’s dark and theatrical settings and the state today.

Large portions of the film were filmed on location in Louisiana, though – for instance, lead character Louis de Pointe du Lac’s estate is Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, and the house where he sets his onetime companion Lestat on fire is in fact the building known as Madame John’s Legacy at 632 Dumaine Street.

Since the mid-1990s, a fair few more movies have been filmed or partially filmed in the state, including two vampire flicks schoolgirls are probably more likely to be found watching today – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Part 2, and the superlative Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact, Louisiana boasts more cinematic activity than any other state in the US apart from California and New York, with New Orleans being nicknamed “Hollywood South”.

Popularity with filmmakers is something Louisiana has in common with London, where film production also continues to boom. Those making movies here also show an appetite for horror, with zombie films being some of the best-loved London productions over the past decade – see 2004’s Shaun of the Deador the more recent Cockneys vs Zombies.

I’d love to be able to say that London and New Orleans/Louisiana in general have storytelling in their water, or that there’s some mystical quality to these places that makes them particularly magical when looked at through a camera. I do actually think these things could be true, but what’s probably the real reason for their cinematic popularity is more prosaic – both Louisiana and the UK offer hefty tax breaks to filmmakers.

However, I think the association of both places with telling horror stories on film is about more than accounting. London and New Orleans are old cities with long and – partially – dark histories that hover close to their surfaces. They’re also ports, always welcoming a flow of new people, new tales and new money which can mean, in the popular imagination at least, new dangers. Both of these factors make them good settings for all things scary supernatural happenings.

And it’s intriguing that New Orleans and wider Louisiana continue to be associated by filmmakers with vampires, which were popularised in the modern era by Irish-born London resident Bram Stoker through his seminal and partly London-set novel Dracula.

Zombies, meanwhile, London’s silver screen monsters of the moment, have their cultural roots in Haiti, which is not so far from Louisiana, geographically and culturally.

I think it just goes to show that, while bloodsucking and monster munching are a little icky in literal terms for some, even those who don’t love watching a good horror film have to admit that they’re thoroughly good things when seen as metaphors for cross-cultural feeding and fertilisation. As are those juicy tax breaks too, of course.