How Houses Mark Us In London And New Orleans

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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

Whether Thames Or Mississippi, Make Room For The River

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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.

Two Beautiful And Important Cinema Buildings In London And New Orleans

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The Rio Cinema’s 1915 “ghost auditorium”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice Cream Memories In London And New Orleans

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We London people like ice cream more than you might think, given that our climate for most of the year is not ideal for this frozen delight. But we don’t mind not having the weather for it – in fact, I’m sure I remember reading somewhere or other that more ice cream is consumed in the UK in the winter than in the summer.

Personally speaking, this Londoner adores ice cream. I’ll eat it any old time, but it’s also my default choice on a restaurant dessert menu and my favourite prize for when I feel I deserve something special. I’ve celebrated a new job with pillowy swirls of frozen yoghurt sprinkled with my choice of toppings (brownie pieces and raspberries), and on my birthday this year I made a pilgrimage by myself to a new cafe in my neighbourhood to sample a creamy caramel “freakshake”. But my London ice cream memories stretch a long way back into my past.

Paddington Bear and his Knickerbocker Glories. How a maths textbooks – a US import, as it happens – taught me how permutations differ from combinations by asserting that “a double scoop ice cream cone with jamoca almond fudge on top and strawberry on the bottom is not the same as strawberry on the top and jamoca almond fudge on the bottom” – quite true, of course. Everyone loving impromptu hot chocolate sundaes at a New Year’s Eve party after the hostess mistakenly put salt instead of sugar into the apple pie. The Ben & Jerry’s music festivals on Clapham Common – unlimited free cones! The innovative gelaterias that make your ice cream on the spot with liquid nitrogen, require a secret password for certain flavours, or even whip up an icy treat up out of breast milk. The very traditional gelateria that has for generations been located in Primrose Hill near my parents’ house, and where I had my 29th (yes, 29th not 9th) birthday party.

But many of my most precious London ice cream memories involve my grandmother, very much a native Londoner, if mainly of its suburban south-west fringes. I think she loves ice cream almost as much as I do. I remember, when I was a only small child and she must have already been a mature lady, ordering “honey gelato, please” in unison with her in a restaurant we were at for a family party. Her coffee ice cream (recipe pictured) is legendary. To this day, we’re quite likely to both have a dame blanche for pudding if it’s on the menu when we meet for lunch.

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My grandmother’s coffee ice cream recipe

Perhaps because it also has significant Italian immigration in its history, New Orleans of course also has a rich tradition of making and eating ice cream. I’ve been in love with the city’s ice cream parlours for almost as long as I’ve been love with the city. I think I visited La Divina in the French Quarter on my very first day there, and I also have happy memories of attending an evening poetry readings around the cast iron tables in its little alley courtyard. Angelo Brocato (pictured) meanwhile, was one of the places I made a beeline for when I began to explore Mid City.

I’ve been thinking about all these ice cream memories a lot recently. Perhaps because this September it has been unseasonably hot in London, which happily has prompted more ice cream eating. But a favourite gelateria wasn’t open when I tried to visit, as it’s actually officially autumn now. Hot weather at this time of year can also lead to storms and flooding, unfortunately suffered by parts of the world both near London and near New Orleans in recent weeks, which reminded me of Ben & Jerry’s climate change awareness campaign – tagline: “If It’s Melted, It’s No Good”.

These things show that there are ebbs and flows in ice cream that reflect those in every other part of life. The sweet stuff symbolises life’s pleasures and can be a powerful connection to the precious things in our histories, but by its very nature also represents and reminds us of their fragility and fleetingness.

I read recently that La Divina closed its original Magazine Street outlet. Angelo Brocato moved in the late 1970s/early 1980s from the French Quarter to Carrollton Avenue and then, just after celebrating its 100th birthday, was forced to shut for over a year after Hurricane Katrina, which was held to be one of an array of key signs of the trauma inflicted on the city by the storm. The return of the business and its famous lemon ice was warmly welcomed by the city and even got an honourable mention in Treme.

And on that lemon ice: I never used to like it much. Nothing against Angelo Brocato, of course – I just found the sharpness from those citrussy juices and oils, which are of course the very essence of lemon and hence of lemon ice, too much. My granny, meanwhile, loves what we call “lemon sorbet” probably more than anything else in the ice cream family.

But when I was recently in New Orleans and visited Angelo Brocato, lemon ice/lemon sorbet was suddenly the only thing I wanted. And it was very good. Maybe I’m finally growing up and getting more sophisticated tastes after all those birthday treat sundaes, I thought. I found myself thinking about my granny too, wondering if something had happened to her, if my sudden craving was some kind of cosmic message. And actually, while there was no immediate emergency then and there remains much about her life to be thankful for, she has bad days sometimes. She celebrated her 93rd birthday this summer, with all that entails. It’s the lemon in the lemon ice. But it’s still very good.

Main image: Kevin O’Mara

Thinking In London About The Flooding In Louisiana

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I had what I was going to write this week all planned, but I changed my mind as more and more information and images came through regarding the terrible flooding in Louisiana.

The first thing to say is that I’m hugely saddened by what has happened, particularly the news of the deaths that are reported to have been caused by the flooding, and I send my sympathies and good wishes to all who have been affected.

I have been impressed, but not surprised, by how much the New Orleans community has been supporting those affected by the floods – in terms of cash donations, food and other practical supplies, and emotional solidarity, which I think is also important.

This quote, cited in this article in the Times-Picayune, from Amy Cyrex Sins of restaurant and cookery school Langlois, really struck me: “I think we all know after Katrina what it’s like to be hot, sweaty, wearing the same clothes or someone else’s clothes that have been given to you. There are a lot of people who are tired, but people are really coming together.”

What has surprised me is how little coverage the floods have had in the media elsewhere, particularly in the UK where I live. A notable exception is this article in the  Guardian, which points out that the floods are part of a bigger picture of extreme weather events occurring across the world as a result of climate change.

This article and others making similar points are good reminders that while the Louisiana floods are in some ways very particular to their location, they are also one element of something that is pretty much everyone’s problem and that we shouldn’t be ignoring, in the UK as much as anywhere else. We often now have serious and sometimes life-threatening winter floods in the UK and it takes the huge Thames Barrier to protect London from the powerful waters of the Thames estuary.

Finally, I wanted to flag up that in the many excellent articles I have seen listing some of the ways that people can help with flood relief (thanks are due here to @UtopiaforCynics who sent me some great information), there are also options for people who live outside Louisiana or even, like me, outside the US, so can’t volunteer or contribute food or clothes in person.

You could mail items through an online store. You could make a donation. And there is one donation option that caught my eye in particular. Called the “Nola Pay It Forward Fund”, it’s designed primarily for those in New Orleans to help their neighbouring parishes. But whether you’re thinking from a cultural, environmental or simply human perspective, it’s hard to deny that we’re all neighbours of a sort, so I would say it’s a good way for anyone to help.

Image: Thomas Cizauskas

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

Hurricane Katrina Should Remind Us That New Orleans Is At The Heart of America

Anyone writing about New Orleans probably can’t ignore the fact that it is ten years now since Hurricane Katrina, and I have thought long and hard about what say about this fact.

As someone who doesn’t live in the city and who wasn’t there ten years ago, there are many things to say that it is not my place to say, and many stories to tell that are not mine to tell.

But as someone who loves New Orleans, I have been thinking about the city a lot over the past few weeks, and following the huge amount of anniversary coverage, and it seems to me that there is one thing, highly relevant to Katrina, that is still not emphasised enough: the centrality of New Orleans to the American nation.

The continued fascination with Katrina on the part of outsiders, while often well-intentioned, can be seen as part of a long tradition of external exoticising and “otherising” of the city. New Orleans is so often somewhat misunderstood, both inside and outside the US, and perceived with a sometimes morbid mixture of nostalgia and fantasy as an otherworldly location defined by festivity and indulgence.

The positive side of this is a thriving tourism industry, which has helped the city considerably since the storm. But there is a significant negative side too: longstanding neglect and alienation of New Orleans by the nation of which it is a part. The most notable example of this of course is the US Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to maintain the city’s levees, later referred to as “monumental negligence” by a federal judge.

New Orleans is undeniably a unique city that continues to require particular kinds of support to deal with Katrina’s legacy. However, that should not blind us to the fact that New Orleans – despite its rich and unusual culture; despite its geographical marginality and fragility; despite the fact that ten years ago it suffered a series of events that led some compare its landscape to wartorn Iraq or a post-apocalyptic dystopia – is at the heart of America.

I wish people – in the US; in Europe, where I live; and everywhere else – recognised New Orleans more often as an example of the very best of what America can offer the world. In almost every aspect of America’s vision of itself, New Orleans has lessons to teach, if sometimes through having had to learn them itself.

This has long been true of openness to immigration and trade, racial integration, regard for individualism, civic solidarity, and hospitality. To these can now be added environmental awareness and entrepreneurship.

Losing 75 square kilometres of its wetlands a year and having suffered a devastating oil spill in 2010, Louisiana is now one of the front lines of the green movement in the US. It also boasts a 64 per cent higher rate of business startups per resident than the US as a whole, according to a recent report.

Furthermore, New Orleans is arguably not just one of America’s best representatives, but also its template. The fusion of European and African elements, with a good number of other influences mixed in, that it pioneered could be said to be the basenote of much of what we recognise as quintessentially American today, whether you look to demographics, food, music or cultural attitudes.

Most importantly, this process of integration, as well as its ingredients, is a microcosm and forbear of the creation of the American nation as a whole.

And looking to the future, the solutions New Orleans finds to its social and environmental challenges may well be ones that the rest of America comes to emulate.

So as the anniversary of Katrina comes and goes, we should more often recognise this city, that ought to be more understood and beloved than it is, as one of the truest cornerstones of the American nation.

Water, Water, Everywhere – In London And New Orleans

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All of this month, I’ve been thinking about water. As New Orleans prepares for a significant water-related anniversary, some important dates have flowed past in London.

Two events that were already in my mind rose very much to the surface on a trip for a family celebration to Hackney Wick, an area of east London close to the Olympic Park.

We went to a café (pictured) located just across the river from the Olympic stadium. This weekend, it hosted the London 2012 Anniversary Games, and for me remembering the Olympics always means also remembering the 7 July 2005 London bombings that occurred in the same week as the announcement that London would host the Olympics in 2012.

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It seemed appropriate to be marking these anniversaries by the water. Hackney Wick and the other areas of London touched and changed by London 2012 are defined by their proximity to river, canal, marshland and estuary. And one of the elements of what happened on 7 July 2005 that has stayed in my mind the most after ten years is the way in which the boat service on the Thames put on extra free-of-charge ferries that night to help people get home.

Water runs right through London and New Orleans, and many other cities, in space and time. It’s not always the first thing we see or think of, but it’s always there, sometimes underneath the surface, as an conduit for trade, transport, refreshment, history, celebration, mourning and more.

But water staked its claims before people. It’s not there to serve us and cannot always be controlled. Apparently, there is a crocodile in the waters of Hackney Wick – though it’s worth remembering that its acts of destruction are most likely either the product of human actions, human imagination, or human prejudices.

I didn’t see the crocodile on the sunny Sunday morning I spent in Hackney Wick, which I think shows we can live at peace with our waters, sometimes at least. We shouldn’t forget, however, the role they have played and are playing in shaping our cities and that they carry many things below even calm surfaces.

Why I Wish London Was Always As Hot As New Orleans

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This week London felt just a little bit more like New Orleans than usual, thanks to temperatures in the 30s (that’s in the 90s for any of y’all reading this in America). And it made me wonder what London would be like if it was that hot here more often.

People in London go a little crazy when the sun comes out and it gets properly summery – usually we cancel all our existing plans to have picnics, take our clothes off in public, and do other crazy things, like pretend we’re mermaids and jump in the river or the nearest pond (see picture).

The rest of the time, as we shiver in our winter coats (I was still wearing mine in late May this year and I’ll need it again by September), we’re unfriendly, cynical and, well, cold. Sure, we can be nice once you get to know us, but if you’re in London don’t bother trying to talk to a stranger on public transport, or expect anyone to take any notice of anyone yelling anything on the street – unless it’s “house prices fall” or “Fire!”.

Does more consistent hot weather make for a more welcoming and open society? I know how hot it can get in New Orleans, having spent most of my time there during summer months, and I’ve always been astonished at how friendly and open to strangers people are here compared to Londoners.

And the courteous interactions which come more easily when there’s no need to rush indoors are arguably not just a formality, but an important dimension of a functioning society. There’s a moving passage in Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina work Why New Orleans Matters where he mentions the powerful  impact of the seemingly simple step of placing lawn chairs outside residential cabins at a Red Cross camp for evacuees. “New Orleanians like to sit out outside on their steps and talk,” so this gesture, he says, “helped immensely.”

Further proof that these small everyday social rituals can go to the heart of who we are as humans can be found in today’s Greece. As I write this, news of the results of the bailout referendum has just come in.

Looking at this ongoing very difficult situation, it’s easy to wonder why social unrest in Greece hasn’t been greater – economist Vicky Pryce said on BBC current affairs programme Any Questions recently that there would have been a revolution in the UK if the same situation had occurred here. There’s not enough space here for a full anthropological analysis of Greek society, but I wonder whether its more socially outgoing, inclusive and cohesive nature compared to British society which is arguably aided significantly by its warmer weather might just have had something to do with it.

London can’t change its geographical climate to make it more like that of Athens or New Orleans, but maybe our current heatwave should inspire us to try to heat ourselves up a bit socially.

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.