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.


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

Drink up! (part 2)

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After such a long delay since my last post, I’m sure you’re thirsty for the alcoholic installment of my mini-series on the drinks of London and New Orleans.

Drinking in London. Drinking in New Orleans. Quite frankly, it’s hard to know where to start – both of those topics would give you enough material for several long shelves of books, so I’m going to confine myself to alcoholic drinks and drinking habits that have a special connection to either city and, where possible, both.

My hometown is the city of gin. It originates from the European mainland, but here we have our own special “London gin” – an especially excellent version of the beverage recognised by the EU that must, among other requirements, use high-quality alcohol, predominantly natural flavourings, and limited sugar. Top of my list of New Year activities for when my hangover passes is to visit the Sipsmith’s distillery in west London, now the only place to be making London gin in the city.

Gin has played no small part in London’s history. Traditionally the drink of the poor, it’s long been blamed for social problems in the city, depicted most famously in William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane. These days, now the vodka boom of the 1990s and 2000s has passed, there’s barely a Cosmopolitan or Moscow Mule in sight in London’s best bars. Instead they’re enthusiastically reclaiming gin as part of a wider trend for all things speakeasy, and just a little bit down and dirty, that the more complex of the two key cocktail spirits suits down to the ground.

Now we’re on to cocktails, I’d better mention New Orleans, which claims to be the birthplace and spiritual (sorry) home of these drinks. This claim is disputed, not least by some in London, but what can’t be denied is that New Orleans has a distinguished list of cocktails it can call its own.

But, although it’s not the case for the city’s most famous cocktail, the Sazerac, many alcholic concotions beloved in NOLA are linked to London through their use of gin. With the frothy and tropical Ramos Gin Fizz the link probably starts and ends there, but in the case of the Pimms Cup a real connection between the two cities is detectable.

The Cup is strongly associated with Napoleon House, and I understand that in New Orleans you think of it as your own. But we in London, and the UK as a whole, treasure this fruity treat, ideally served with cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream on a green lawn, as our quintessential summer drink.

Beyond these cocktails, I’d say mixed drinks in New Orleans are all about rum, bringing the city’s Caribbean connections to the fore. There’s the famous Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane, but whenever I’m in the city I like to drop by the Pirates Alley Café for a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, or a drink containing rum at least. And I was pretty excited to read recently that you can do tours of the New Orleans Rum Company distillery. Sadly, we make no rum in London, not really having the necessary climate for sugar cane, though we do have a large Caribbean population, and we certainly love to drink it.

Here are some things we now do in London however, if only recently, that I think of as crucial parts of the New Orleans drinking experience. Number one: cocktails on tap – we haven’t quite got to putting them in washing machines yet, but give us time. As a side note, I think there’s a long and rich history of links between doing laundry and drinking in New Orleans – think Checkpoint Charlies, Cosimo Matassa or even the Maple Leaf – and London too that I hope to explore more in the future.

Number two: go-cups, which I recently saw advertised in Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes, a bar near where I work though, thanks to our weather, we don’t have the same on-the-street drinking culture as New Orleans. Interestingly, like some of New Orleans’ best bars, Jaguar Shoes has gone from being fabric-focused to drinking den – the site used to host a womenswear importer.

Changes like these happen in every city, and how, where and what people drink are signs of the times. Therefore it’s significance that go-cups are being banned in Bywater and drinking is being heavily regulated in Dalston, my neighbourhood in London. More to come on this topic in a later post.

To end this one on a final toast to the rich heritage of drinking in both cities, I’d like to explain the picture that goes with this blog. It’s a glass from a vintage cocktail set I lugged back from my trip to New Orleans this summer. When I say lugged, I mean lugged – we’re talking hand luggage.

If you’re a skier, or a golfer, or if you have a family, you’re allowed to check in one extra piece of luggage to make your life more fun or easier – but not if you’re a single girl cocktail drinker. At least “single girl cocktail drinker” doesn’t often overlap with “terrorist” for those who use profiling techniques in airport security – otherwise I might have had to give up my beautiful glasses and accompanying carousel altogether as there are some potentially pretty dangerous pieces of metal and glass in there. Thanks for that at least, American Airlines. And for enduring that trip, I think I deserve a drink. Cheers!