Barbershops And Community-Building In London And New Orleans

London New Orleans barbers

I recently wrote an article about barbershops. Hackney, the part of London where I live, has a lot of them. On one 500-metre stretch of high street alone, I’ve counted five.

Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern cultures have a strong presence in Hackney and barbershops are important social hubs in these cultures. The wealth of barbershops in the borough also reflects the existence of many other identity groups here that, like most of us, may use hair in part to define themselves.

E-Street Barbers opened around nine months ago and has built a following among musicians. Cuts & Bruises Barbershop is only a few weeks old and describes its team as “ex-skaters [and] tattoo enthusiasts”. Gender-neutral and LGBT, queer and trans-friendly shop Open Barbers, founded in 2011, has been operating since last year from a permanent base in Hackney. Barberette, set up by former Open Barber Klara Vanova, is also based in the borough.

Activities beyond cutting hair also link these barbers to their tribes. E-Street hosts music-focused events and parties. Cuts & Bruises’s basement is destined to become a tattoo parlour next year and will be a space for events like boiler room DJ sets and streetwear pop-ups in the meantime. Barberette’s many charity and community initiatives have included running a raffle at one of its regular client parties to fundraise for an LGBT counselling service and exhibiting the work of Hackney artists.

Thanks to their client bases and pricing, Hackney’s new breeds of barbershop risk association, however, with the problematic issue of gentrification. Vanova is concerned about cultural debts being forgotten as barbering in Hackney develops. Traditional Afro-Caribbean and Turkish barbering traditions have bequeathed much to the industry but, in her view, this is not acknowledged enough.

Cuts & Bruises’ story is an interesting study of change, continuity and legacy. Founder Kem Mehmet has some roots in Hackney’s Turkish Cypriot community and the building that currently houses Cuts & Bruises is both where he was born and formerly the home of a women’s hair salon run by his mother. “I’m keeping [the business] in the family and we’re not a chain that’s just come in,” he says.

For the moment, new barbershops seems to be mostly happily co-existing with other offerings nearby. This could be simply because barbering in Hackney is booming, so there’s more than enough business to go round. All the barbers I visited, or simply walked past, when researching my article were extremely busy. One barber even said that he thought there was enough potential trade for six more barbershops on his patch alone. Hackney’s longstanding love affair with hair is as passionate as ever, I concluded.

My article was about London, and businesses and issues specific to London. But I found myself thinking about New Orleans too; scraps of information I’d heard or read at some time began to gather in my mind like clippings around a barber’s chair.

The strong presence of black and Middle Eastern communities, and many other communities of all sorts, applies in New Orleans too. There is also a link between barbershops and music and other cultural practices here: they say Buddy Bolden was a barber, while in recent years second line group the Uptown Swingers has been known to parade from Dennis Barbers on Freret Street. And gentrification is as much as an issue in New Orleans as in London.

So in London, New Orleans, and probably wherever you are in the world, cutting hair is probably also helping to create something far beyond one person’s headspace.

(A final note: I’m once again taking a break from posting while travelling for the next few weeks.)

Image: adrian, acediscovery


What Transport Says About Politics in New Orleans And London


This week I’ve been listening to a radio adaption of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. It has been thought-provoking in many ways, but one quote in particular has stayed in my head. “If you want to find out what this nation is like, you have to ride the rails,” says one character, as runaway slave Cora prepares to begin her journey on the “underground railroad”, which Whitehead has reimagined as an actual railway line.

The radio also prompted to think about links between transport and politics, this time in a New Orleans context specifically, when I heard Leah Chase interviewed on the Food Programme. The famous cook spoke not only about her family’s world-renowned restaurant Dooky Chase, but also about its role in the civil rights movement. Its bowls of gumbo and fried chicken fuelled some of those taking part in the “Freedom Rides” of the early 60s.

New Orleans’ connections with the politics of transport go back even further than this. Homer Plessy, the man at the centre of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that failed to overturn streetcar segregation, came from New Orleans’ Treme neighbourhood.

Treme is also renowned as the birthplace of jazz, which reminded me of a minor political episode in the history of public transport in London. A few years ago, I read in London daily newspaper the Evening Standard that then-mayor Boris Johnson had cancelled a jazz workshop arranged for employees of the city’s bus and train body Transport for London, “just as we have got rid of many other pointless excrescences in the public sector”, he said.

Improvise, the arts organisation that would have run the workshop, would rebuff this description of their work. “Our novel inspiration is the premise that, if we understand more about how jazz musicians communicate, innovate, manage risks, work together, create and sustain change, support and lead one another, then there are valuable lessons for us all as individuals, teams and organisations”, a spokeperson said at the time

To some – Johnson evidently – jazz is just background noise. But, writes Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States, “jazz, however joyful, portended rebellion”. Transport is also too often regarded as just a city’s background noise, as an unremarkable means to an end. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore either.

“Listen,” wrote New Orleans music magazine OffBeat about jazz musician Fats Waller. “You can hear [him] everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There is something about his rhythms and melodies that are in the way people walk and horns riff and cars drive and streetcars squeal and cutlery clanks and cast-iron pots simmer.”

In London too – and other places– there are pings from trains and streetcars, a bass note thrum from buses and ferries, and the sound of the movement of many people in different directions. It is the sound, impossible to silence, of transport, the human need for freedom, and the pleasure we take in it.

Image: Terekhova

London And New Orleans Are Patchwork Cities And That Makes Them Strong Cities


I was asked recently where I’m from. I love New Orleans, but I am always just a visitor there. I live in London, but I’m not from there either. I grew up in Cambridge, in the east of the UK, but yet again I’m not really from there. I wasn’t born in Cambridge. Neither of my parents is from Cambridge. They no longer live there and I don’t really have connections there any more.

Where am I from then? I don’t really know. Maybe the places my parents are from, but I only really know these places second-hand, through them. So where?

All of us have different histories and many people would say they absolutely do know where they’re from. But I think it is part of human experience to hold both our histories and a sense of uncertainty about who we are constantly within us. “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present,” wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “Burnt Norton”, part of his Four Quartets series.

One of the many threads of Four Quartets is the way in which T.S.Eliot was divided in some ways between London, where he spent much of his life, and America, where he was born. Which brings me to London and New Orleans, two places that – despite the fact that they are not where I am from – feel like home.

These two cities in particular have been made in a pronounced way from what might have beens, tensions and absences, as well as presences. Their role as centres for trade and immigration have given them, and continue to give them, feet in other countries and continents, memories and artefacts of other places, and also a strong consciousness of loss.

Their unusually long, eventful and storied histories mean they must also contend with older versions of themselves – real, disputed and imaginary – around every corner. Their complex and tightly-packed presents means that they are less one cohesive city today than several alternative cities layered and twisted around each other.

Among all this, London and New Orleans must also come to terms with the natural landscapes they have, like many great world cities, dramatically supplanted. But as every storm, oil spill, flood warning, heatwave and freak snowfall shows, these older places have not been not entirely eroded. Any map of London or New Orleans will show you that these cities sit with, not above, their old geography.

All these various complexities, however, do not detract from the presences of London and New Orleans and their sense of what they are. In fact, they are part of what gives the two cities such rich and distinctive identities. In a similar way, I don’t feel that my lack of a hometown by birthright rather than adoption lessens my sense of self. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems the patchwork in our histories, the contradictions and the missing pieces make us what we are, and can make us strong.

Image: Crumpart

How Houses Mark Us In London And New Orleans


The net worth of the average African-American family is around one-tenth of that of the average white US family and that’s mostly down to property, I was told on one of my first visits to New Orleans in summer 2011.

I was taking refuge from the July sun at the Old US Mint. On show inside the building, part of the Louisiana State Museum, was an exhibition on mortgage “redlining”. This is the highly problematic practice, sadly legal until 1968, of excluding residents of certain areas of a city from access to mortgages, often on the basis of race.

Mortgage redlining, the exhibition told me, has had a very tangible effect on household income in America. Much income disparity between black and white American families, I read, “is due to differing rates of home ownership between these two groups and to the generally lower values of homes owned by blacks”.

Housing was much on my mind at that time. The effects of the global financial crisis, which had its roots in part in the US mortgage market, were still unfolding. Meanwhile, I myself had recently become for the first time both the owner of a London home (a small flat in Hackney) and the holder of a residential mortgage.

Housing has always represented personal trajectories and wider political ones. This is especially true here in the UK. A gathering of people above a certain age in London will often involve a discussion of house prices. UK prime minister Theresa May’s recent admission that home ownership may no longer be an achievable goal for many British people, an issue that is most acute in the capital, has prompted much national soul searching.

As the mortgage redlining exhibition emphasised, housing has a similar significance in the US. You could say this was encapsulated in some ways by Michelle Obama’s comment about her then-home, the White House, last summer. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

During the Obama presidency, the income disparity between black and white families that is so linked to property ownership has narrowed, but not disappeared. Since I visited the redlining exhibition in 2011, the average household income of black US families has risen to represent just over 60 per cent of that of white US families, according to some 2015 figures.

In New Orleans specifically, houses and home ownership have very particular personal and political meanings. The sight of homes marked with “Katrina crosses” by FEMA is one of the most profound symbols of both the personal losses and wider political failures that were part of the often racially-delineated impact of the storm on the city. In the years since Katrina, the effect of rising house prices on the city’s communities, and particularly its black ones, has been much debated.

I have a German friend who thinks that we Londoners are mad to care so much about houses, house prices and home ownership. But in the places where these things mark us in so many ways, willingly or not, it’s hard not to do so.

Image: Shutter Runner

The Liberty Bells Of London And New Orleans And Why They’re Important


I have always liked the sound of bells. Peals, or “methods” as they are sometimes known to campanologists, seem to possess something essentially English, though bells are heard all over the world. Meanwhile their tight-held almost-balance of pattern and anarchy reminds me of the jazz music that I love.

Bells are also a resonate symbol of democracy, in both the US and the UK. In London our Houses of Parliament has a 13.5-tonne heavyweight, Big Ben. On the other side of the Atlantic Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell has become one of the best-known emblems of the principles of freedom and equality at the heart of the American political tradition.

These bells also represent the links between the British and American nations and their democracies, not least because both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made by the nearly 450-year-old east London workshop that is now the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

America also has other less well-known liberty bells in other parts of the nation, however, and of course has not always had harmonious relations with the UK. The Kaskaskia Bell, also known as the “Liberty Bell of the West”, arrived in New Orleans in 1743 as a gift from the French king Louis XV and was then was taken upriver to Kaskaskia, located in what was Upper Louisiana and is now southern Illinois. While the bell began its history as a curio of the colonial age, it started a new life with a new nation when it was rung to celebrate the liberation of Kaskaskia from the British on 4 July 1778.

These days, however, liberty bells everywhere seem fragile and quiet. The Kaskaskia Bell now lives in relative obscurity and is rarely rung. The Liberty Bell and Big Ben are both cracked, and the latter will be silenced for maintenance of its tower’s clock for a few months sometime in the coming years. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s building is to be sold, with the business facing an uncertain future.

The Philadelphia Liberty Bell is inscribed with a powerful Biblical inscription: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”, and it is hard to avoid seeing these falls in fortunes of bells and limitations on their ability to speak to us to us as a symbol of the damaging blows freedom and equality have endured in the UK and the US over the past year.

Big Ben’s crack gives it a “less-than-perfect” but also “distinctive” tone, says the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Writing about the Liberty Bell in her history of Independence National Historical Park, US academic Constance M. Greiff asks if the fact that it is “irreparably damaged” is part of its “almost mystical appeal”. She adds: “Like our democracy it is fragile and imperfect, but it has weathered threats, and it has endured.” It is very tempting at this point to think of those famous words from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, who died last month: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

At this dark time of year in particular, bells are traditionally rung to symbolise festivities and new beginnings (which I will use as an opportunity to say that my blog will take a vacation for the next couple of weeks). Let’s hope that these things bring refreshed voices and renewed hopes.

Image: Shinya Suzuki

Why It’s Worth Mapping Out A Comparison Of Two Cities


People are often surprised when I tell them I write a blog about London and New Orleans. The pairing is not as obvious as some. You might expect London and New York, or London and Paris. Or New Orleans and Paris, or Marseille.

There are some similarities, however, between the two cities. Despite their many differences, for me they sound some of the same notes at times: being dapper, old rhythms, deep water. There’s similar tone, too: a kind of proper appreciation of decadence shot through with courtesy and a sense of social order. This simply isn’t found in, say, New York (too uptight) or Paris (too laissez-faire).

Tastes echo as well. French-influenced food is still the ultimate in fine dining in both cities – but in both we’ll do it very much in our own way, thanks. New Orleans-style dishes have gone down a treat in London in recent years (some cooked right, some less so), as part of a wider fad for Southern food, and US comfort food as a whole – barbecues, posh burgers, hard shakes and all. I’ve recently heard that New Orleans gourmet grilled cheese joint The Big Cheezy might just be opening here in London soon…

Meanwhile, some British classics are well-established on New Orleans eating and drinking circuits – the Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, for instance, is the best cocktail made with the English drink that I’ve ever had.

But regardless of whether or not you find actual connections, it’s always an interesting exercise to read any foreign city through your knowledge of another. I recently found an app that allows you do to so by juxtaposing a map of one with another, and I couldn’t resist immediately plugging in my two favourite metropolises.

I found the following. Two bendy tidal streams. Two east ends where the further you go out, the more the water dominates. Big swathes of parkland to the north-north-west with whispers of wild animals. Epicentres at riverbank cathedrals looking across to a neglected south.

I also saw that London looks like a web, and New Orleans like a spider spinning one. London seems a green and pleasant land, while New Orleans gets the blues. Follow the Mississippi river on a map of New Orleans and you’ll pass through Empire, Bohemia, Venice and Sulphur as the ground dissolves around you. From London, you’ll encounter less poetic-sounding places like Grays and Southend, and an assertive opening to the world, like a trumpet or a speech bubble in a cartoon.

Ultimately, this kind of mapping exercise is less about compare and contrast, and more about the questions it sparks in your mind. Just as children that are bilingual are supposed to grow better brains for communication than the rest of us, trying to translate between two cities makes you more able to grasp the elements that link them all, and to pose some interesting questions, too.

Are cities that look east different by nature to ones that look west? Does a river bring cities together or divide them? And just how far out is too far out? If you’re wondering any of these things about your own city, looking at another one might help you decide.

Nightlife’s Slow Death In London And New Orleans


This weekend I went to a gig at the George Tavern in Stepney (pictured), not too far from where I live. This pub has a long history – it’s mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare and claims that at least some of its brickwork is 700 years old. In the latter years of its long history, it’s become well-known as a music and culture venue, largely because of the work of artist landlady Pauline Forster who bought the pub as a derelict building in 2002.

A few years ago the George Tavern faced closure as a developer’s plans to build a block of flats near to the site would affect its ability to host live music nights, one of its most important sources of income. The George Tavern was saved, thanks in part to a high-profile campaign and the backing of a number of celebrity supporters, from Amy Winehouse to Justin Timberlake.

However, the venue is once again under threat. Plans have been proposed to replace nearby studios with, once again, a residential building. “[The George Tavern] is a vital community asset and must be protected at all costs,” said the George Tavern’s management in the text of a letter they recommended fans of the venue send to the borough council. “Experience across London has shown that introducing residential uses in close proximity to noise sources inevitably leads to complaints of noise nuisance which can result in curbs on the established activities at the site and ultimately closure.”

What they’re referring to is how noise restrictions and development pressures are now having an effect on iconic music and clubbing businesses in many parts of the city. In recent years London has seen the closure of a significant number of iconic venues, in part because of these kinds of factors. These include legendary Soho venue Madame JoJos’s, nightclub Cable located under the arches of London Bridge station, and Dalston club and historic centre for black music Four Aces.

In Hackney, the part of London where I live and where Four Aces and many other closed venues were located, the closure of and restrictions on nightlife businesses is such a keenly-felt issue that a campaign has been set up to oppose this. Fittingly, it was launched last year with a party that attracted over 600 people. One closing East End venue even held a New Orleans-style jazz funeral.

Nightlife in New Orleans could be slowly and picturesquely dying too. This city as well has seen many beloved places to listen to music, dance and socialise close and, despite the differences between the two cities, they are doing so for the same reasons that they are in London. And as in London feelings have coalesced into campaigns similar to the London ones both to keep individual venues open and on behalf of the city’s music scene as a whole – MACCNO deserves a special mention here.

When thinking all this, it is important to remember, however, that the places we live in have always changed. Venues of all kinds have always closed and been replaced by new ones, and it’s especially in the nature of the bars and club world for this to happen, where being new can be a significant selling point,

But it does feel like something different is happening now. The centres of our cities are becoming hollowed out by gentrification, as living somewhere urban is becoming more fashionable for the affluent middle-aged than the suburbs. People are living in areas once rich with nightlife who think they want to be somewhere lively but who actually don’t, so end up loudly complaining about bars or clubs. Meanwhile, in part because it’s now harder for them to live in city centres and in part because of other economic and social pressures on them, young people are going out less.

So while we should all campaign about individual venues in our neighbourhoods that we care about and our cities’ nightlife as a whole, we should also think about how the ways in which people, money, music and noise are ebbing and flowing across our cities are part of a bigger social picture too.

Image: Ewan Munro

Speak Out Now For Migration In London And New Orleans


This week I went to an unusual and rewarding theatre work about migration. London Stories: Made By Migrants, currently being staged at the Battersea Arts Centre, gives you the chance to hear six stories about migrant experiences related to London, told by the people who experienced them.

Who did I meet? An stylish elderly lady who survived Auschwitz, by video. A woman – around the same age as me – who was born in Iran and is now an artist. A Syrian man who came to the UK after crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat and being smuggled in from Brussels on a German lorry, and who is dreaming of working as a dentist again. A Chilean-American man who had spent much of his life in New York but now loves London. A girl who spoke about her Pakistani father and his habit of hoarding as he built a life here. A Ugandan refugee who had fled her country to escape Idi Amin.

The genius of this work is the way in which it mirrors the type and significance of the experience it describes. Separated from the people we arrived with, we were led in small groups around the rambling and artily slightly decrepit Victorian former town hall building that now houses the BAC. This seemed to recreate the dislocation and loss of control that many migrants must endure, though of course in a much more gentle way and entirely without the jeopardy that is so often a part of the migration experience

Six times we arrived in a small room or space – each time differently shaped, decorated and lit – to sit face to face with another person to hear the story they wanted to tell us, each time an unusually intimate, true and valuable piece of art.

Migration and what it means is extremely topical at the moment. This summer’s Brexit referendum in the UK and the campaign and result of the 2016 presidential election in the US have put it at the top of the political and public discourse agenda in both nations. The producers of London Stories: Made By Migrants have not shied away from this, choosing to place posters with headlines and comments of various kinds about migration – some welcoming, some analytical, some hate-filled – on the walls of the building to be viewed as the audience walk around it.

It is a sad but true fact that hatred of migrants and what they seem to represent has not been confined to paper and ink. Hate crime against migrants or those who look like they might be increased sharply astonishingly soon after Brexit – and it seems that the same thing may be happening now in the the US.

Luckily, there have also been some steps taken in London to assert not just tolerance and empathy towards migrants but also the fact that migrants have been integral to the creation of the city and to its nature today. London Stories: Made By Migrants is one shining example. There are others in the arts world – I heard that the next At Home With The Ludskis event, a recurring art/film/theatre night at Dalston’s Rio Cinema, will have a pro-migration theme. This reflects the fact that the Rio’s founder Clara Ludksi, who the event is named after, was a migrant who came to London from Russia in the early twentieth century.

We still need many, many more such arts events, and other actions that achieve a similar effect. Given what it happening in the world, it seems no longer enough in London to not be anti-migration and to assume that people from different countries will always live here and that we will all always rub along together pretty much fine. We need to say that this is what we want and that it is important.

New Orleans is a different city in a different country. But, like London, this city and everything it means cannot be conceived of without its history of being open to and of valuing migration. With recent anti-immigration narratives in the UK now being uncannily echoed in the US, New Orleans needs to speak out now just as much as London.

Surprising Reasons Why I Welcome Direct Flights From London To New Orleans


The news that soon there will be direct flights between London and New Orleans made me feel happy, for several reasons.

I’m glad of course that our cities will now be linked so much more closely. I also welcome the prospect of more people coming from New Orleans to London, and going from London to New Orleans – there is a tendency for Londoners to think of the US as simply New York and California, with nothing in between. So wrong.

The prospect of direct flights also reminds me how much New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport is a happy place for me, unlike London’s Heathrow or some of the southern US airports I’ve had to travel through on trips there. While I would never recommend that people coming to New Orleans spend much more time at the airport than they need to given all the city has to offer, it definitely has its attractions.

It’s named after Louis Armstrong, a musician whose life and work means a lot to me. I first visited the city to go to Satchmo Summerfest, a festival in his honour; later spoke at that same festival; and, as I have learned more about him over the years, have realised how much he – with his joyfulness and sense of hospitality – embodied all that is best about New Orleans.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect an airport to share the qualities of the person it is named after – but in New Orleans it does. While they’ve not always been joyful in the strict sense, my experiences at Louis Armstrong Airport have never been bad. The airport always seems efficiently run, yet also relaxed – which cannot be said for any London airport.

The airport is also certainty hospitable. I’ve been greeted by a brass band in baggage reclaim on more than one occasion. Also, once when feeling sad in Departures I heard what seemed like an appropriate performance from a local singer of Amy Winehouse’s melancholic and beautiful masterpiece “Love Is A Losing Game”. This song – like all of her work – is so of London, yet this singer made it sound like it was from New Orleans, which of course in a way it was because she was so influenced by the jazz tradition to which the city gave birth.

This is what airports and flying do. The former might seem like soulless, transitory locations, but they represent the places and people they belong to. Meanwhile, the acts of travelling and transition they embody, and the links these create, help to construct the identities of those places and people.

Image: Mike Chaput

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.