April, 2017

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The New York blog

When we go on holiday, I am the family photographer. That suits me just fine. But it doesn’t always work out so well for the less patient, who don’t think that changing lenses is a legitimate use of anyone’s time. So when we went to New York a few weeks ago, I had a few goals in mind.

First, to figure out how to capture some things which I normally only see after I’ve been a city for a long time. That was not going to be an option this time and realistically, I doubt I will ever need to go back.

Second, to do so with one small camera, no zoom (OK, I cheated twice when I borrowed my tiny camera which LoLo was using because I really did need the zoom to get one or two pictures. Yes, I could have cropped a photo, but I had the other option, so I decided not to be entirely stubborn).

And third – totally unrelated – I was also looking out for stories along the way to store up for the future. I had about thirty just in the taxi from the airport. It’s that kind of city. I could see why so many shows are set there – and, I now see – so many books. Three of the ones I read while there were set partially in New York, totally unknown to be before I bought them.

Of course I took a good number of tourist photos, which are by and large the same as you will see if you Google ‘New York City photos.’ The ones I’m including here are, I hope, ones which seasoned New Yorkers might not have seen before, and maybe there’s something to tempt others to consider visiting the city. Just don’t expect any of the Statue of Liberty or the Manhattan skyline.

In no particular order…

These look like chimneys in the middle of the street. If I could be bothered, I would Google what they are for.

Some of the subway signs are miniature works of art, with mosaics and images along the length of the stations. This one was not particularly beautiful, but it was the first place we went because the Lincoln Center is where a lot of the ballet productions take place. I know you are supposed to see a show on Broadway but the tickets at the half price place were $90 each and we already had tickets for four dance shows, so we were happy to leave it at that.

You will not see this for another couple of years – Scottish Ballet in New York (yes, really, at the same time as we were there – their first trip to the US). Because we see them all the time, we tried something entirely different. Seats in the front row ($10 each – can you see why we went?). Normally those seats are hardly worth having because you can barely see the dancers’ feet but because we know who so many of the dancers are, this was a chance to see them up really close. To the extent that we could see the sweat flying off some of them during particularly fast turns. Sorry, too much information?

Dance lowlight – The Joffrey Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Not our thing at all; we didn’t like the lack of storytelling or chemistry between their Romeo and Juliet. Dance highlight – New York City Ballet doing three Balanchine pieces. Some of the most beautiful ballet I’ve ever seen, with some parts incredibly risky (and perfectly executed).

And of course we went to every dance shop in the city. More than once, in some cases.

Ellis Island, where so many immigrants were processed when they arrived in America, was for me much better than the Statue of Liberty. It was also free. Unfortunately only if you paid for the trip to the Statue of Liberty as well but as we were going to do that anyway, it worked out fine. The cavernous hall where lines of exhausted souls stood filled with hope for a future in America and the fear of being sent back home again felt like it was full of so many memories. I loved these windows with the sun streaming through and picking up the beautiful patterns.

This is what the Brooklyn Bridge looks like without any tourists. Only because I pointed the camera up though.

And this is what it looks like at night. I’ve commented before on the way cameras pick up and capture light. This is another example of the photo looking better than what my inferior eyes saw. Not that I’m complaining…

I thought there was a simpler way of saying the same thing as these signs, but nobody seemed to want my editorial input:

The tourist guides say to get this cable car across to Roosevelt Island then get the next one back again because there is nothing of interest there. So we spent the entire day on this tiny island right alongside Manhattan and loved it. A haven of sanity beside the frenetic pace of the rest of the city. The views over the city during the five minute ride were also well worth it, but that would be a tourist photo, so I can’t include that.

We were not the only people enjoying a bit of time away from all those skyscrapers:

There is no escaping the memory of 9/11 and the impact it had on the city. We found a particularly touching memorial on Coney Island with photos of all the firefighters and other emergencies services workers who died that day, and the main memorial is haunting with its two huge empty squares right in the middle of what is still a busy commercial area. Water falls down the walls and the names of all the victims are engraved around the edges, including the women who were pregnant, with the suffix ‘and her unborn child’.

The staff at the memorial place a white rose by the name of each of the victims every year on what would have been their birthday:


And then there are the museums. Our collective favourite was the Guggenheim. The building is the gallery, a gentle spiral that takes you past all the paintings with enough space for each of them to be appreciated. We stood in line waiting to get in for longer than we ended up having inside the gallery,  but as we were there on ‘Pay what you like’ evening (designed for the Scots, unfortunately also known to others), we were not entirely surprised. Turns out you can see everything in half an hour and not feel rushed.

This is something you really will not see very often. I don’t know if it’s the best pizza in the city, but Juliana’s was the best I’ve ever had and a 450 degree coal-fired oven must be about the hottest there is. The first time we went, it was an hour’s wait to get a takeaway (we erroneously thought it would be faster than waiting for a table). The second time we weren’t even planning on trying, then we saw there was no queue as it was so late in the evening. Sometimes you just get lucky…

Central Park – possibly in every film set in the city. This was just a beautiful tunnel that the girls were looking for (from Gossip Girl, possibly), and we were there when a couple of newlyweds were having their wedding photos taken.

Just laugh – we did:

And finally, three that are not of the city my family thought we were going to see. This was just by the Whitney museum, all taken within about a minute of each other. Either at just the right time if you like this kind of photo or just the wrong time if you don’t. Me, I just pulled my camera out as soon as I saw the street.




So, I was happy with the photos I came away with. And I managed to go on my personal story-hunt around the city, chasing down a thread that had started as a storyline I began many months ago. It petered out after a while and I filed it away, but I found the second part of the story in New York, as well as one person who was able to point me in the right direction to find out the historical information I needed to tell the first part of the story properly. So I now have a stack of books to work through while I’m editing the first book on the basis of feedback to date. The variety suits me, I think. 

Similar but different

A long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, my greatest fear was not that I would not finish it, but that I would suddenly find after a couple of years that someone else was ahead of me in looking into my area of research and what had seemed an original idea would suddenly be blown out of the water. Back then, checking such things on the internet was still in its relative infancy so there was an element of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. It turned out that nobody else seemed to have been interested in East German journalists so I was fine.

Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m just hoping that someone hasn’t had a too similar idea to me for a novel.

Then I came across Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair.

East Germany in the 80s, a Westerner going there to university, an East German linguist desperate to escape to the West, and some pretty unpleasant Stasi people along the way.

Phew. Not even superficial similarities unless you think that every story set in the same country will be the same.

So, what of the novel?

The most striking element from the start was that half of it is written from the second person perspective. ‘You see this,’ ‘you walk there,’ and so on. It’s not for me and there’s a good reason it’s used so sparingly. Stephen King started Needful Things with the second person perspective and it stood out immediately. I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read which uses this perspective. But despite my personal preferences, after a while I got used to the language and it almost faded into the background.

I found it gratifying that Rintoul gives a more nuanced view of East Germany than the all too easy ‘East bad, West good’ cliche. One of her two main characters, Magda, wants to escape because her earlier enthusiasm for the East German system has turned into disillusionment, and she has enough minor characters who are able to argue for what was good in the country to give different perspectives. Her other main character, Robert (Bob), comes from Scotland to Leipzig to study and this allows Rintoul to give an outsider’s view on what the country was like, and what it felt like, including his constant faux pas. She based his experience on her own when she studied in Leipzig in the 80s, which came across as a good dose of authenticity and provided a very different narrative. Another big tick there.

The overall story contained a good number of uncertainties, doubts and machinations to keep me wanting to keep going. The fact that I knew pretty early on what the big reveal at the end was going to be is more because it was probably the one way it could have worked and I read novels with one eye dissecting and the other just reading. Sometimes the reading eye manages to cloud the vision of the analytical one (Gone Girl and Fingersmith spring to mind – both surprised me).

I enjoyed reading something on my home turf and seeing how someone else combined a few facets of the myriad possible stories and created characters and a narrative which worked for me. And which were entirely different from the strands I picked out to tell a different story.


For the non-pedants, you can stop here. For those who have any interest in dealing with writing in one language and setting the book in a country with a different language, I have a couple of additional observations. 

Dealing with non-English language is always a question for the author. My impression is that there is an assumption that everyone speaks enough French so that dialogue can have entire sentences with no explanation or translation, even if they are important. I have to say that I find that annoying. When it comes to German, I think it’s right that we ensure the reader understands the German dialogue if we are going to use it, even if we use a phrase particular to an area or time that it hard to render exactly in English. I am less keen on translating street names (which Rintoul does). And if I were translating Edinburgh’s  ‘Princes Street’ into German, I would not call it ‘Princes Strasse’ or ‘Prinzenstrasse’ because I think it is clear that it is the name of a place. But that’s my preference. So that’s just my preference. What does get to me is when the language is just wrong. If I’m using another language, I think it behooves me to make sure it is correct. Either I am absolutely sure it’s right from my own knowledge, or I check it with someone. And if I’m translating something into English, it also has to be right. And there was one thing which did annoy me in this novel.

You might know the German word ‘bitte.’ It normally means ‘please.’ But it also means ‘you’re welcome.’ As in, if I pour you a drink, you say ‘danke’ and I say ‘bitte.’ It does not mean ‘please.’ Rintoul has waiters putting a plate of food in front of someone and saying ‘please.’ No. ‘Bitte’ cannot be translated as ‘please’ in that context. What beats me is that Rintoul is a translator from German to English, so I have no idea why she would get this wrong, which means that I don’t think she did get it ‘wrong’ in the sense of not knowing what was correct, but that she consciously chose to use that translation. I just don’t know why because it makes no sense in English.


I am meant to be taking a few weeks away from the story that has been living in my head for too long now, but it’s not entirely working yet. I keep having the characters’ commentary on something pop into my head in situations which I then realise mirror something I know they experienced. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes it makes me sad. Then life moves on again. The good news is that I am feeling more open to new ideas again, and things I’ve played around with in the past are coming back to me now and again, jostling for attention and to make it to the top of the pile. The story which is currently winning is about a girl called Lesya who grew up in the Ukraine in the years when Stalin decided to starve the population, with millions dying as a result. I had got her to a certain point in her story and then left it – and her – there, because I didn’t know what happened next. Now – perhaps – I do, and I have some scenes in my head which I now need to jot down before I go to sleep. I have pictures in my head of her interacting with different people in specific places and a sense of what she was feeling in those moments. Whether they will at some point lead to a fully-fledged story, I don’t yet know, but there is something there to write down and tuck away and see what happens. The real question for me becomes – is this a story I would want to read? If so, I will write it. If not, I will leave it and find a better one.

I’m also finding it amusing how little echoes keep coming to me, like when I walk out of a subway and think, this is like a Berlin station I know, or when we walk five minutes to change subway trains and it feels just like Friedrichstrasse in the mid-1990s. And then I see this:

And I have to take the picture, because it reminded me immediately of a picture I took in Berlin:

The difference was that even I decided it was too dangerous to stand in the middle of the street to get the two structures to ‘touch’, although I know I can get them at just the right angle. Which probably means I will go back another day and do the photo ‘properly’, but probably not while my family is standing waiting for me. The traffic has to stop for a few seconds at some point, doesn’t it?