New Orleans Brass Band The Hot 8 Came To London

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This week the Hot 8, one of New Orleans’ best brass bands played at London’s Roundhouse. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see them, though I dearly wish I had done.

Me and the Hot 8 go way back – well, until 2013 when I saw them at Satchmo Summerfest. Coming on stage on a clouded, stifling Sunday afternoon, they immediately lifted the energy levels of the crowd by about a I-don’t-know-what-a-plex and, for me, were the best performance of the festival.

I later read more about them, in particular in the really excellent book Roll With It: Brass Bands In The Streets Of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (who I also saw speak at that same festival). In it, I learnt about the band’s beginnings in 1994 (they were originally called the Looney Tunes Brass Band), their involvement with much success in the musical and material politics of playing brass band music in New Orleans, and the tragedies the band has endured. Three of its members – trumpeter Jacob Johnson, trombone player Joseph Williams and drummer Dinerral Shavers – have died of gunshot wounds. Terrell Batiste, another trumpeter, lost both his legs after being hit by a car.

Overall, the band’s sad but inspiring story seems to sum up the whole bittersweet history of brass bands in New Orleans. “There is much to celebrate here in the way that these young men use tradition to provide people with a sense of community through music, their success in reconfiguring tradition to resonate with contemporary experience, and their ability to accumulate status and earn a living by playing music in diverse contexts,” writes Sakaheeny. “But there is also much to condemn in the way they remain vulnerable to various forms of risk.”

This duality seems to me to be there in my two favourites of their songs, both from their first album Rock With The Hot 8. In one, “What’s My Name?”, we hear an upbeat, very confident announcement of the band’s name and its musical identity. The other, a tender yet insistent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, is a sad but hopeful love song, tinged with both with the sadnesses of Gaye’s life and death and those of the band. Like all great songs, both are specific to a tradition and the individual lives of particular musicians, yet also might say something to people everywhere.

Which brings me back to Hot 8’s recent London gig. I couldn’t see them here because it was totally sold out. I’ve written before about London’s love of, and affinity with, New Orleans’ brass bands, and the Hot 8 seems to be no exception. “Y’all raised da roof #london What a night!!!”, the band tweeted afterwards. I wish I’d been there.

(A final note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the Easter holidays for the next couple of weeks. If it’s something you celebrate: Happy Easter! Hope everyone has a good few weeks, whatever you’re doing.)

Image: The Hot 8 Brass Band

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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

Hamilton: A Musical For London And New Orleans

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A couple of weeks ago I spent a stressful morning trying to get tickets for the London production of smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which is coming to the West End next year (I managed it, just about). I heard shortly afterwards that Hamilton will also arrive in New Orleans in 2018 or 2019.

Neither city can really claim to be the spiritual home of the musical in a conventional sense. US founding father Alexander Hamilton, on whose life the musical is based, spent much of his life in New York. Lin-Manual Miranda, who wrote the musical, is from the same city, being a born-and-bred New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots.

However, Hamilton seems to have struck a chord in both London and New Orleans, if actual and forecasted ticket sales are anything to go by. Its emphasis on ethnic diversity – it alludes to suggestions that Hamilton’s mother was mixed race and the Broadway production has made a (sometimes controversial) point of using actors from ethnic minorities – appeals to audiences in many cities in the US and Europe. The association of the musical with the Obamas and its feud with the new Trump administration will have won it further fans everywhere.

But I think Hamilton has particular resonances for people in New Orleans and London that could be aiding its popularity in these two cities in particular.

To take New Orleans first, Hamilton was born in the West Indies, a part of the world with geographical and cultural ties to New Orleans. Some of his ancestors were from France, New Orleans’ first colonial mistress, and he grew up speaking French. It has even been argued that his work enabled the US to make the Louisiana Purchase, just under a decade after his death.

In terms of London, meanwhile, Hamilton also had British ancestry, through his Scottish father and his mother also. The economic and political innovations he brought about during his career, while often framed by America’s struggle for independence, were arguably influenced in part by British institutions and traditions. Despite his involvement in the Revolutionary War, he was an advocate for good political and commercial relations with the British.

And, though I haven’t seen it yet (and will have to wait for nearly a year to do so, unfortunately), I sense that Hamilton’s touchstones are the kinds of themes that are important in London and New Orleans, and that link the two cities together.

It seems to me that Hamilton is ultimately about the journey of people across the world as we’ve negotiated colonialism, a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped London and New Orleans. Many, many wrongs have been done, but people in these cities, and elsewhere in Europe and America, have moved forwards from histories involving slavery and injustice to enjoy a greater degree of freedom, democracy and equality, though there is still much, much progress to be made.

Moving forwards also requires looking back and the preservation of historical memory, which is alluded to in Hamilton’s final song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. History, storytelling, and how we confront the sometimes difficult presence of the past in our lives today: London and New Orleans know these things are worth making a song and dance about.

Image: Cosmopolitan

New Orleans Does January Much Better Than London

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Happy New Year from London. Yes, I have excluded a festive exclamation mark, and deliberately so. It is generally agreed that January is when London is at its least happy, and most miserable.

Here the first month of the year is about cutting back after Christmas spending, New Year’s resolutions, and the more recent British tradition of having an alcohol-free “Dry January”. This week my email inbox has been full of 2 for 1 offers for the restaurants, West End shows and other attractions that would have been bursting with people just a couple of weeks ago. The result is a quiet and depressing city, usually cold but these days rarely brightened by snow.

It’s not supposed to be like this. As everyone knows from the famous carol, there are twelve days of Christmas. In the UK, most people pretty much regard the whole of the week between Christmas and New Year as holiday season, even if they have to work. But by the first days of January, Christmas seems to be well and truly over in many people’s minds.

I still keep my decorations up until the 6th of January as old tradition dictates, but this week have seen many balding Christmas trees left out with the rubbish. When I was a child, my parents would go to Twelfth Night parties, but these seem not to happen any more.

There is a good case for extending the fun even further into the new year than its first six days. In a brilliant column for Time Out London a couple of years ago, Giles Coren said he thought we Londoners had got it all wrong. Why do we save all the festive spirit (in London, this essentially means alcohol) for the busy days of December and allow none for quiet, dim January?

“It’s just nuts,” he wrote. “We’re doing it all the wrong way round. What booze is for is for cheering you up when life is shit. It’s for getting you through the day when there is nothing to do and you feel like you don’t have any friends. Like in, for example, January. And the one time you do not need it is in the month running up to Christmas.”

Things are done differently, and I would say better, in New Orleans. Here 6th of January marks the beginning of Mardi Gras season, and of course its festivities. One of my favourites of this day’s events I’ve read about (having never been in the city in January) is the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows carnival krewe. The Phellows board, in costume, the St Charles streetcar and proceed, they say, to “sip champagne, eat king cake, dance, and let fly with the very first beads of the Mardi Gras season”.

A month and often longer of more king cake (see image), parties and parades follows, culminating in the glories of Mardi Gras day itself. Lent also follows, of course, but somehow giving up something festive when you can see and feel spring coming seems like a better idea than doing so during the very darkest days of the year.

Image: praline3001

Thanksgiving In New Orleans, A Very American Festival

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In writing about Thanksgiving, I know I’m a week late. But I hope that will be forgiven given that we Londoners, other than expat Americans, don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving. In New Orleans, however, I know that Thanksgiving is most certainly celebrated and I’ve very much enjoyed reading about the city’s take on the traditional turkey meal over the past week.

I’d never heard of a turducken before, a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey, which one city website describes as an “ecclectic and excessive” creation. Sounds about right for New Orleans. It also seemed fitting that seafood featured significantly on many of the city’s Thanksgiving menus that I looked at, with plenty of shrimp, crawfish and raw bars popping up.

Special mention should also go to some amazing-sounding dishes that seemed to show that, as with many other things, New Orleans does Thanksgiving in very much in its own way and in some style (and made me want to make sure my next trip to the city takes place in late November). How about yellowfish tuna Rockerfella, turducken gumbo, sassafras glazed ham or sugarcane smoked turkey? Sides? New Orleans can offer andouille gravy, ginger whipped sweet potatoes and haricot verts with a bacon demiglace. And don’t forget desserts: tiramisu bread pudding (pictured), anyone? Yum.

But while we can – and should – make much of the special culinary traditions of New Orleans, and of its distinctiveness in other ways, there is no denying that Thanksgiving is of the whole US and is one of the most American of the nation’s holidays.

“As a child of the farmlands I appreciate how [Thanksgiving] honestly belongs to us,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her food-orientated memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. “Turkeys have walked wild on this continent since the last ice age, whereas Old Europe was quite turkeyless… Corn pudding may be the oldest New World comfort food; pumpkins and cranberries, too, are exclusively ours. It’s all American, the right stuff at the right time.”

Why is it important to point this out? Because, as I have written elsewhere, sometimes New Orleans suffers from being portrayed, internally and externally, as exotic, other, even outside the American nation. But the way New Orleans celebrates, at Thanksgiving and at other times of year, should be not be seen as making the city fundamentally different to the rest of the US, but as an example of the very best of what the nation can offer in terms of festivity, creativity, hospitality and community,  areas in which, it seems from a European perspective at least, the whole of the American nation has historically often excelled, and New Orleans in particular.

America needs New Orleans and what it represents about its past, present and future, and not just at Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras but all through the year, now more than ever. And the fact that this great city is a part of the nation, turducken gumbo and all, is something for which we should all be thankful.

Image: The Brooklyn Star

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

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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

Why New Orleans Should Host The Olympic Games

Aerial shot of the stadium aglow_169847Four years ago, my home city London hosted the Olympic Games. And, in say 12 or 24 years, I would love to see them come to New Orleans. Here’s why.

The path to London 2012 was not an easy one. I have dim memories from my childhood of several unsuccessful Olympics bids from northern city Manchester. As Manchester gave up and London began its bid for 2012, the capital faced keen competition from Paris, which was the favourite to win until right at the end of the process. And when London was declared to be the winner, thanks in large part to the narrative of urban and social renewal it promised, elation was abruptly cut short by the 7 July terrorist attacks on the UK’s capital the next day.

Once preparations for the Games began, a very British sense of self-doubt in our ability to stage such a large-scale event set in. There were worries about further terrorism, but also more mundane concerns such as whether VIPs would get stuck in traffic and whether the city would shrouded in drizzle for three weeks solid.

In the end, it was all fine. The sun shone (sometimes) and the rain mostly stayed away. The event ran pretty smoothly, or at least snaggles were overlooked or forgiven as UK athletes hauled in more medals than ever before and the event as a whole produced its usual astonishing displays of sporting excellence. But for me, and perhaps for many in the UK, the real highlight was the opening ceremony.

Fast-moving, multi-layered, and probably incomprehensible in parts to those who don’t know the UK well, it was widely lauded here and elsewhere as an accurate representation of the best of British culture and, like all other great Olympic opening ceremonies, for showing how the Games are about more than just sport. Aspiration, justice, freedom, unity, peace: these are the kinds of things that the Olympics can represent when they operate at their best.

Which brings me to New Orleans. No, it is not a city most well-known for sport. And there are some serious practical impediments to the prospect of New Orleans 20-something-or-other. When I asked eminent New Orleans geographer and urban commentator Richard Campanella about this idea, he raised some of the key ones: limited space for new specialised sporting venues; extreme heat and humidity; hurricanes.

With respect to Campanella’s good points, others think that the city, like London, could overcome its obstacles. There is a New Orleans 2024 Facebook group, though it is now too late for the city to bid for those Games. Local sports reporter Fletcher Mackel wrote an article in support of the idea of a New Orleans Olympics, pointing out that there are many potential venues already in place and flagging up the city’s strong pedigree of successfully hosting many large-scale sporting (and other) events throughout the year.

These are good arguments, and for me a New Orleans Olympics also has other kinds of compelling logic that go beyond sport. As we saw in London and are seeing in Rio, the Games can bring the world together and New Orleans is one of its cities best-placed to do so. While New Orleans has a distinctive culture that is all its own, this culture has arisen from the way in which it has long been a meeting point for people from all over the globe and its influence stretches far beyond the city’s bounds.

It’s not all been plain sailing, of course. Like London, New Orleans has endured social, political and environmental difficulties over the decades since the founding of the modern Olympic movement. But just as London 2012 marked a culmination of decades of change, regeneration and resurgence in one great world city, an Olympic Games in New Orleans could be a powerful symbol of endurance, momentum and rebirth in another.

Image: Getty Images

Dressing Up And What It Means In London And New Orleans

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This weekend, it was Satchmo Summerfest, a festival held in New Orleans every year in honour of its distinguished son Louis Armstrong. At this same festival a few years ago I gave a talk, about Satchmo, about dressing up in London and New Orleans, and in particular about Mardi Gras Indians and Pearly royalty: bead and plumage-suited carnival celebrants from New Orleans’ African-American communities and silvery button-bedecked Eastenders raising money for charity through entertainment – two great traditions that I would say are comparable in some ways.

But what I remember most clearly now about the occasion was what I wore – a silk shirt as black as a London taxi and a dress the colour of the sky and the water in New Orleans in high summer, a combination of colours that reminded me of the two cities. It seemed important to be wearing the right thing.

In New Orleans, clothes are significant. Take the seersucker suit, that particular marker of Southern gentlemanliness. This menswear classic arguably calls New Orleans home as gentlemen’s outfitter Haspel, one of its most famous purveyors, hails from the city. On a visit to the city during Mardi Gras, I saw this fact parodied in a float from the all-women Krewe of Muses. It depicted former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal clothed in those classic blue and white lines and dubbed him an “In-Sin-Seer-Sucker” – get it?

Then there are hats. Along with a dog and tattoo, they are the one thing that everyone seems to have in New Orleans – and not just gentlemen. The city is full of hat shops: Goorin Bros, Key West Hat Company, La Red Rooster and, oldest and most famous, Meyers on the junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue that claims to be the South’s largest hat store. “It’s because of the heat,” one Southern gentleman told me once, but I think it’s about more than that – perhaps a desire for self-elevation in a city with something of an (unjustified) inferiority complex and with a flair for the creation of a sense of occasion that headwear often brings.

In London, there is also a rich tradition of dressing up. In the many communities here where people have historically not had very much, looking your best can be an important sign of self-respect, respect for those around you, and belief in the possibility of transformation. This tradition has surely helped to create the engine of progression and prosperity that London has represented for many.

Take fashion designer Alexander McQueen. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said, a quote that was written on the wall near the start of a recent sell-out exhibition of his work at the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He came from a working-class family and was the son of a black cab driver but via London’s world-famous suit-making centre Savile Row became a legend in his field.

I certainly feel uncomfortable going out in London or New Orleans without dressing up a little. Bright black, sky-and-water blue, and often one of my two favourite pairs of earrings (see picture): pink pearls that I’d like to imagine are from some sweet swamp-born oyster; and small silver birds with delicate scratches that could be, if you look closely enough, tiny feathers.

What Alexander McQueen Exhibition “Savage Beauty” Says About London – and New Orleans

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This weekend I went to Savage Beauty, a significant and striking retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, until last Sunday, on show in an expanded form at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The show was the most popular in the museum’s history, a gesture of appreciation for the designer’s work from the city that he deeply identified with. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”, McQueen said, in a quote reproduced on the wall of the exhibition’s opening room.

For me that identification was obvious even without the quote. This collection of work from a man who was the son of a black cab driver and who trained on Savile Row was crammed full of details that I associate with London, sometimes for reasons that are hard to explain. To list just a few: impeccable tailoring; tough feathered creatures; handmade theatrical magic; punk tartan; piles and piles of bones; and the inescapable presence of water.

Together these details also summed up something about London as a whole: it is a city that has a culture that is all its own but, paradoxically, has been shaped in large part by cultures from elsewhere – hardly anyone or anything in London has ever really been just from London.

That elsewhere could be ancient Rome, eastern Europe, Africa, Ireland, or any one of a thousand other places, regions and worlds. McQueen himself, as the show made clear, saw himself as a Londoner through and through but also deeply identified with his Scottish roots and engaged with Indian culture, African culture and many other cultures from across the world in his work.

And on top of these geographical elsewheres, London – that seemingly civilised capital of government, law, commerce, culture and church – has also always had to contend with the heavy presence of its long history and a deep salting of the uncanny and uncomfortable.

There is the city’s rich tradition of harbouring the unconventional and the macabre; the way it has been carved forcibly through the ages from a place that once was wild; and its problematic relationships with colonialism, slavery, inequality and desperate poverty. All these seem to be to be present in McQueen’s work – in too-sharp Victorian-style tailoring, ripped kilts, sealed leather masks, and fabulous creations seemingly designed to transform their wearer into half an animal.

The show also made me think about some of the fashion traditions of New Orleans, particularly its habit of costuming for carnival, and about the city in comparison to London.

Many Londoners would see themselves as ultimately from somewhere else, while many New Orleans’ inhabitants always feel inseparably associated with the city, especially those who have found themselves exiled from it in recent years. A London designer creates suits and party frocks solely for very rich people that seem on the verge of flight away into a multiplicity of lives of their own, while the ordinary people of New Orleans make fantastical costumes for high days and holidays that stitch unusually real communities together.

Death In London, And All That Jazz

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Death is something we all have in common, whatever city we live in. Yet even after we die, social divisions and injustices can still be very evident.

That’s true of New Orleans, an old city where contemplation of death is unavoidable for the living – it’s literally a place on the map. There are jazz funerals and magnificent above-ground tombs with their broken columns and staues of angels. But there are also sites like Charity Hospital Cemetary where thousands of impoverished victims of the city’s nineteen century yellow fever and malaria epidemics are buried in mass graves.

There’s the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death” in the Treme neighbourhood of the city. And then there’s the bodies still unclaimed after Hurricane Katrina, now memorialised by a monument at Charity Hospital Cemetery.

London too has its own distinctive traditions for marking death – only today I saw a traditional East End funeral, horse-drawn hearse, black feathers, top hat and all, pass my window. And as in New Orleans, how you lived determines how you’ll be treated after you die. The number of “paupers’ funerals”, burials for those who die without resources to pay for their sending off, is on the rise in the UK.

This fact is the inspiration for a play I saw last Saturday (from which the image is taken): human rights-focused theatre company Ice and Fire‘s new production The Nine O’Clock Slotnamed after the unpopular time of day when those without friends or relatives to pick a better time tend to be buried.

The piece has a striking start. The venue, usually an art gallery, has been temporarily set up to look like a funeral parlour and action commences with the audience being welcomed by a presiding minister and then ushered into a narrow stairwell and towards an unknown underground zone for what’s been billed as a “a downward journey from the world of the living to the off-limits world of the dead and dying”.

The action that follows, covering the connected stories of four economically and socially impoverished individuals buried together, has excellent dialogue and is extremely well-acted. There’s interesting use of jazz music which, in London as much as in New Orleans, evokes the rich and bittersweet complexities of life, as lived by the deceased. Interestingly, the tracks used include “St. James Infirmary Blues”, in which living and dying in London and New Orleans are woven together.

But there’s much about the play that’s not assured. After the promising beginning that makes full dramatic use of the building’s twists and turns, the work settles into trotting through a one-location incident-packed narrative that sometimes, because of a few overblown set pieces and unnecessary plot twists, resembles an episode of Eastenders.

I’d also add that there are sections that could be unbearable for anyone who’s endured or contemplated the death of someone close to them – there’s pain to be felt here that I don’t think a theatre company should set out to induce in its audience.

But maybe I didn’t really like the play because I simply don’t believe in death. Let me explain. It’s become somewhat fashionable for morbid contemplation to be fêted as a signifier of the value of life, a view I can sympathise with but am now coming to think I can’t fully subscribe to.

I think if you take an audience down into the grave, you need to let them rise out of it again. Thinking about death is an important part of life, but life should be the point – once you’re dead, you’re dead, in this world at least. In a play like this one, and in our lives in general, we should remember the dead but ultimately focus on the living.