Category Archives: travel writing

escaping to cape cod

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America in 1620, they were a touch cagey at first about coming ashore. The pilgrims sailed up and down Cape Cod for a month, eventually weighing anchor in Provincetown harbour where they wrote and signed their founding document, the Mayflower Compact.


Four hundred years later their reluctance to make landfall could be even more pronounced. After all, Provincetown circa 2013 would prove pretty confronting for a boatload of fusty puritans. As well as being one of New England’s prettiest and most characterful seaside towns, P Town, as it gets called locally, is also Massachusetts’ premier gay tourist resort. My first day there I found myself idly browsing chocolate penises in the souvenir stores and dodging bicycle-riding drag queens on Main St. (In case you’re wondering, she was promoting her one-woman cabaret.)

The Cape Cod peninsula extends from the coast of Massachusetts not unlike a bony middle finger. P-town is located on the New England side at the northern tip of a large bay. Actually, P Town has quite a sedate vibe as it goes. While its distinct clapboard houses play host to a smattering of gay bars they are radically outnumbered by seafood restaurants and art galleries.

Liz Carney has a gallery selling her fauvist landscapes on Commercial Street.

“This is a place of exceptional natural beauty,” said Liz. “You can see it reflected in the paintings of Edward Hopper (Hopper had a home on the Cape). It’s also the reason writers like Eugene O’Neill and Norman Mailer spent a lot of time here, and the reason visitors keep coming back.”


Nor is the Cape only popular with human tourists. Frequent vacationers in recent years have been North Atlantic harbor and grey seal populations. The seals’ puppy dog faces are a feature as you walk the pristine white beaches of the Atlantic shore side, staring back at you just beyond the surf.

We visited a sandbar in the early morning that becomes a resting ground for a colony of a hundred-plus grey seals at low tide. Sitting on the beach listening to the seals’ haunting siren calls, just audible over the whip of a North Atlantic bluster, was a magical experience. A National Parks volunteer, clearly enjoying his position as purveyor of local seal lore, told a small flock of curious tourists that in recent months the seals’ presence had attracted unwelcome visitors to the Cape’s coastal waters in the form of great white sharks.

The sharks come to feed on the seals but don’t just stop there. Last summer a 50-year-old holidaymaker was bitten by a great white off Ballston Beach in nearby Truro, the first shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936. It has been followed by a number of sightings, as well as the first ever successful capture, spot-tagging and release of a great white by scientists and fishermen off the Cape.


If the idea of man-eating sharks isn’t enough drama for you then the Cape has a lively theater tradition dating back to the 1920s when Pulitzer-prizewinning dramatist Eugene O’Neill lived and worked here.

O’Neill wrote his plays in a rickety wood shack south of P-town. The shack is one of a group scattered across the dunes built originally for lifeboat men in the nineteenth century. O’Neill’s residency lent the shacks artistic cache and since then the likes of Jack Kerouac and the poet e.e. cummings have had spells staying in them. You can enjoy a pleasant afternoon tramping from one shack to the other, communing with the spirits of the great artists who spent time here.

This artistic heritage is ongoing. The restaurants of P-town are overrun with jobbing actors who wait tables by day. Our waiter, Ben, was in the awkward early stages of a mustache he was cultivating for a part in a Tennessee Williams play. He advised we check out the Welfleet Harbor Actors Theater located a short drive south of P-town in the fishing port of Welfleet.

Aside from the theater Welfleet has a great lobster shack, which serves seafood delicacies like clam chowder, lobster rolls and a superlative oyster po’boy sandwich. The Cape is brimming with great seafood. It’s also reputed for its sweets and an over-indulgence of island fudge is a far more real and present danger to your health than the Jaws lurking in the deep.


The Welfleet theater, which had a production of a Vietnam-era black comedy showing when we were there, is known for putting on cutting edge plays that belie the sleepy harbor setting. It was presided over for many years by Jeff Zinn, the son of the radical leftwing historian Howard Zinn. who is best known for his revisionist work, “A People’s History of the United States”.

Zinn’s book recounts US history from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens. The Cape too offers a retelling of the American story, in particular its historic role as a place of refuge.

In its earliest incarnation the Cape offered safe haven for the pilgrims. Since then the Cape has fulfilled the same role for artists and, in the present day, the LGBT community who – like the pilgrims — have faced their share of persecution.

In P-Town I meet Ward, a gay Bostonian with a sly sense of humor who came here 15 years ago and stayed. He loves the wide angle ocean vistas, the artistic tradition, but most of all the tight-knit community that is embracing, non-judgmental and “ incredibly supportive”.

I don’t think I could survive anywhere else,” he said.

A version of this story first appeared on the travel website


registering the homeless to vote

Not long after I came to the US my friend Sarah convinced me to go on a road trip with her to register voters ahead of the 2008 election that brought Obama to power. This is a piece I wrote at the time. I don’t know whether the situation has changed much in the last four years concerning the disenfranchisement of homeless voters. I’d be interested to know if anyone has more information.

a homeless man in Las Vegas

I have just returned from 10 days spent registering voters in Nevada and Colorado, two states that could go either way in the upcoming election.

In some ways the trip was not unusual. Right now large numbers of politically-motivated activists, Democrat and Republican, are migrating to swing states across the US, knocking on doors, standing outside strip malls, trying to secure crucial votes that could prove the difference in an election that once again looks like it’s going to the wire.

Though we were certainly part of this general trend, myself and my friend Sarah (who accompanied me) stood at a distance from party politics.

There was no proselytising for one thing: We weren’t interested in telling voters who to vote for, only to vote. Our road trip also concentrated exclusively on a single demographic; the hundreds of thousands who sleep rough in America every night. Outside homeless shelters in Las Vegas and Christian missions in downtown Denver we tried to enfranchise the poor and destitute, tempting them with bags full of cheeseburgers and cups of cigarettes. Kneeling on the sidewalk of a dimly-lit street to help a Vietnam War vet with a head full of liquor write out his social security number; listening to their hard luck tales and the incoherent ramblings of crack addicts.

It was an experience and an education. One of the most glaring insights was the extent to which the homeless in the U.S. have been abandoned by the political process.

Democrats are traditionally seen as the party of the poor and dispossessed and it was clear from talking to the homeless on the streets of Nevada and Colorado that majority planned to vote Obama.

It is a fact both parties tacitly acknowledged last week in Ohio when they clashed over a six-day window in which voters can register and vote in the state on the same day. The measure would clearly benefit the homeless, whose chaotic lifestyles can make the simple act of getting to the polls on election day a near impossibility.

Ohio Democrats support the move; Republicans do not and have challenged the voting window in court.

In spite of the obvious advantage they hold, there was little evidence that Democrats in Nevada and Colorado were reaching out to this small but potentially significant pool of voters. At the Obama campaign office in Las Vegas our plan to target rough sleepers was met with incredulity. They could offer no advice on where we might find homeless voters, and seemingly had no plans to reach out to them themselves.

In Denver they were more encouraging, though equally bemused by the tactic.

Maybe this is not so surprising. There’s no doubt some of those pledging support for the Chicago senator on the streets of both states would raise more than a few eyebrows in polite Democrat society.

Our first sign-up was Mark, a 48-year-old ex-con we met outside a 99-cents Taco restaurant in down town Vegas.

Mark had half his teeth missing and a deep tan from riding out in the sun all day on a beat-up mountain bike. He had spent nearly half his life in prison, and whilst inside became a member of the notorious white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood. Nonetheless he said he was planning to vote Democrat, “for the black man.”

Perhaps the failure to engage with the homeless can also in part be explained by state laws on voting rights that have for a long time excluded many of those who find themselves on the street.

A large proportion of America’s estimated 750,000 homeless have criminal records, and until recently many states prohibited former convicts from voting. Civil rights groups claim the restrictions were rooted in racism since the number of states passing laws stripping convicted criminals of the vote doubled in the years after suffrage was extended to blacks and, then as now, a disproportionately high volume of African-Americans went through the prison system.

In the last few years legal challenges have returned voting rights to ex-cons. With a handful of exceptions most states, including Nevada and Colorado, now allow former felons to vote. (Although most states still don’t extend that right to those currently serving time).

It appears, however, that no-one has bothered to tell the people concerned. The most consistent response we heard on the street was: “I ain’t allowed to vote. I’m a felon.”

For those at the margins of American society, rehabilitation is a long, often lonely road.

halloween in auschwitz

A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 22, 2011.

I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh winter morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid sick stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.

halloween in auschwitz

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.

This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else, though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.

In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes off Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced.

When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables.

More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.

Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day.

“Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.

At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.

The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened in June 2010. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews.

halloween in auschwitz

I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. Outside of bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed men wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles.

I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me. The past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed? Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “Mate. You know any strip clubs?”

There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow ain’t it?” He said eventually.

“Lovely,” I said.

“Been to Auschwitz?”


He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” And the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.

on the trail of native america

A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sept 10, 2011.

On a groggy late summer’s day on Manhatten island I’m taking refuge in the marble-domed George Gustav Heye Center, near the start of Broadway, admiring two pieces of flint. Not just any pieces of flint. Dating from between 11,000 and 13,500 BC, these are among the earliest evidence of Paleoindian culture in any museum collection in the world. Each has been carved in fluted points a few centimetres long.
the mohawks helped build the empire state

To archaeologists, they are Clovis points. To the rest of us, they are easily recognisable as the lethal tips fashioned by early hunters before being fastened to wooden shafts to make spears. Aside from their antiquity, the really interesting thing about the spearheads is where they were found: just 320 kms north of here in Washington County, New York State.

So when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that later bore his name to claim New York on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, the natives who greeted him were part of a continuous occupation that had gone on for millennia.

Yet in less than 400 years they have almost completely disappeared.

Back in Hudson’s day, there were no such countries as Canada or the United States of America. Now I’m in north America’s largest city on my way to a native American festival across the border to learn more about the sad decline of such a proud culture.

I begin at the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in 1994 in the historic Alexander Hamilton US Custom House as the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. The spearheads, like most of the collection, were gathered by George Gustav Heye himself, a New Yorker who quit Wall Street in the late 19th Century to indulge his passion for Indian artefacts.

Heye was one of the few men of his era interested in preserving the continent’s pre-Colombian past, amassing 800,000 pieces in his lifetime. He opened his first museum in 1922 in order, as he put it, to “unveil the mystery of the origin of the red man”. Yet despite his best efforts little material evidence of Manhattan’s native history has survived.
There is the name of course. Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata written in the logbook of one of Henry Hudson’s officers and meaning “island of many hills” in the language of the Lenape Indians who lived there. There is also the route of Broadway, which follows an old Indian trail.

Ironically, the most striking example of Native American craftsmanship in the city in existence today are the skyscrapers. In the Twenties and Thirties Mohawk Indians were employed in the construction of some of New York’s most iconic landmarks, including the Empire State – sadly, because they worked for such low wages and reputedly had such good heads for heights. Like the Lenape, the Mohawks were native to New York State and a large proportion of them were driven inland or had their population decimated by disease in the wake of European colonisation.

Famously, the Lenape lost Manhattan in a treaty with the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for $26. What’s less well know is that the reason they gave away their homeland so cheaply was due mainly to their having no concept of land ownership. To the Lenape, you could no more own the land than you could the sky. And anyway, they believed the Europeans merely wished to share the island with them.

The Lenape were exiled to Oklahoma. But the majority of remaining Mohawks now live north of the border on reservations in Quebec where I am now heading to visit a Native American festival being held in Kahnawake Mohawk territory on the south shore of Canada’s mightiest river. One of the festival organisers tells me that Kahnawake means “place of the rapids” in the Mohawk’s native Iroquoian language.

We drive there on a grey afternoon, crossing over the pregnant waters of the St Lawrence and into the reservation. Battered clapboard houses, gas stations selling cliché Indian souvenirs and scores of smoke shacks line the roadside (tobacco is sold tax-free on the reserve).

The streets are deserted, the houses shut up and the only sign of life is a few scattered children playing on porches. My host Jean takes me to a café where an old photo of the town’s lacrosse team hangs on the wall. Lacrosse, like the smoking of tobacco, is one Native American tradition that caught on with the colonisers. We sit outside watching vast cargo ships slip by on the St Lawrence Seaway, the canal linking the Atlantic to the Great Lakes that runs through the reserve.
“The locals are wary of outsiders,” says Jean in hushed tones. “They prefer to be left to themselves.”

The Mohawks came here from the 16th century onwards. Since then they’ve been involved in a long resistance struggle that continues today. In 1990 the nearby Mohawk community of Kanesatake was involved in a land dispute with a local mayor that ended in a violent standoff and the death of one police officer.

A twenty-minute drive from the Mohawk communities, Montreal feels like another world. Established by French fur traders around the same time the Mohawks came to the region it has developed into Canada’s second city and the country’s cultural capital, with over 100 festivals taking place throughout the year. With a largely bilingual population speaking French and English, it is a friendly, cosmopolitan town that offers a nice melange of Gallic charm and North American practicality.

The city’s annual Just for Laughs comedy festival is finishing and a fashion festival is about to get under way, but I am here for the First Peoples Festival, a 10-day celebration that brings together indigenous artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the globe. Held in the city every year for the past two decades, the festival’s focal point is in the Place des Festivals where traditional teepees are assembled in front of the stage and where a ceremonial flame is lit the first night.

For the opening night the headline act on the main stage is Samian, a rapper from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in western Quebec. A star among the province’s indigenous community, his arrival on stage is greeted by screams from adoring fans and the words from the announcer: “A voice for aboriginal culture.”
He raps in French and in his native tongue, Algonquin, which he learned from his grandmother. “My language is dying out and it’s important I do what I can to save it,” he explains.
Elsewhere there are films, poetry readings and displays of traditional song and dancing.  “This is obviously not Just for Laughs,” says Andre Dudemaine, the chief organiser of the First Peoples event. “We have an agenda to create space for aboriginal artists. There are severe problems burdening our native communities. Unemployment and drugs are the two that come to mind. But there are reasons to be optimistic too, one of which is the festival. Ten years ago a platform like this could not have been imagined.”
We speak amid the gentle bustle of the Quartiers Des Spectacles, where most of the 100-plus festivals locate themselves. I wonder how he hoped to stand out in such a crowded marketplace.
“If you really want to know about the authentic culture of this land then this is the only event that offers that opportunity,” he says. “It is a chance to participate in a living history.”

the other dam

“It’s called ‘Manhattan on the Maas’,” a local said to me my first day in Rotterdam, pointing to the smattering of high-rises that jab the skyline on the banks of the river that snakes in from the North Sea. Then, as if she’d said something grossly presumptuous, she gave an embarrassed laugh: “Well, that’s what some people call it,” she added.


Rotterdammers are absurdly self-effacing when it comes to the charms of their hometown. Almost the first question you hear when you meet someone here is, “So, when do you plan to visit Amsterdam. This inferiority complex is unsurprising in many ways. Amsterdam, after all, is achingly pretty. Its network of canals fringed by centuries-old gable houses provide most visitors with the picture postcard version of Holland they were anticipating. Holland’s second city, by contrast, is less easy to love. Its center was laid to waste by the Germans at the start of the war and though it has recovered remarkably to become Europe’s busiest seaport, it is like the ugly sister who knuckled down to work while her more beautiful counterpart was lavished all the attention.

In Rotterdam, so the saying goes, shirts are sold with their sleeves already rolled up.

In the center this resourcefulness is evident all around you. In the years since the war the flattened landscape has transformed into a wonderland of modern architecture with world-renowned architects like Norman Foster adding their imprint to the city in a series of ambitious building projects.

The best way to navigate the city is by bike. As with Amsterdam there is an excellent network of bike paths and the center is compact enough that all the major landmarks are a short ride apart.

The first stop for anyone interested in the post-war rehabilitation of Rotterdam is the Laurenskerk. The city’s only surviving medieval structure, the church is a powerful symbol of renewal. The Laurenskerk’s imposing tower was the only part that survived the Nazis aerial bombardment in 1940 and in photos taken in the aftermath, the tower is seen alone in a sea of rubble. Walking through its austere and beautiful interior it is hard to believe that most of what you are looking at dates from the fifties. The elegant stone arches that line its nave and transept have been painstakingly reassembled while towering over the vestibule the largest church organ in Europe suggests the ambition that has allowed this city to recover so well.

In front of the church in the large square known as the Grotekerkplein a produce market was underway. Vendors selling traditional local delicacies such as stroopwaffel (treacle-filled biscuits) and kibbeling (deep-friend fish nuggets) were set up alongside Vietnamese and North African food stalls.

At the cheese stand I was offered some samples of Holland’s most famous foodstuff. The British humorist Alan Coren identified two types of Dutchmen – “the small, corpulent, red-faced Edams and the thinner, paler, larger Goudas.” The man doling out the tasters definitely fell into the later. Even so, Coren might have to revise his classifications these days, especially in Rotterdam, which is Holland’s most culturally diverse urban center.

Nearly half the population are from migrant families, with the biggest minority Muslims from North Africa and Turkey. This large scale immigration has caused frictions, the most glaring example of which can be found outside the Schielandshuis Historical Museum, a short walk south of the market. Here a statue was erected to the local politician Pim Fortuyn, an outré character who won widespread support for his harsh views on Muslims (he once told an interviewer he favored “a cold war with Islam”).

His murder by a left-wing extremist in 2002 drew international attention to the country’s racial tensions and challenged the common perception of the Dutch as open and tolerant. Nearly a decade on Rotterdam has a Muslim mayor but the tensions that Fortuyn saught to exploit have not gone away – Holland’s third largest political party is headed by Geert Wilders, whose rhetoric about the tides of Muslims sweeping into Europe is strikingly similar to the murdered Rotterdammer.

Inside the historical museum it was tides of a more literal variety they were concerned about. The area in and around Rotterdam is the lowest in Holland, reaching over six meters below sea level in parts. An interactive map of the changing city down the centuries showed the system of dikes that protect this lowland from the North Sea and the polders, the large swathes of land reclaimed from the sea on which much of present-day Rotterdam is built.

Like the rest of the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s history is inextricably linked to water. Away from the center you can find some of the earliest evidence of this relationship. In the outlying suburb of Delft, a few miles northwest of the city, narrow boats hug the banks of tree-lined canals and the sails of ancient windmills, known as grondzeiler in Dutch, stand dormant in the sun-filled afternoon.

Crossing to the southside of the Maas, the river that splits the city in two, this relationship with water is brought more up-to-date. Riding over the sleek lines of the landmark Erasmus Bridge, designed by Ben van Berkel and named after the town’s most famous resident, the skeletal silhouettes of the cranes that mark the vast container port are visible on the horizon.

Nicknamed De Zwaan (the Swan) for the quirky bend two-thirds up its central pylon, the bridge is located alongside the offices of the Dutch telecommunications firm, KPN Telecom. Another idiosyncratic structure on the city skyline, one side of the telecom tower is tilted and covered in green lights that function as a giant billboard.

A hundred yards upriver from the bridge is the Hotel New York. Dwarfed by the modern edifices nearby, the hotel is one of the few buildings left in the city that attests to its maritime history. The former headquarters of the Holland-America Line, it was a silent witness to the mass migrations of Europeans to the New World. In the last quarter of the 19th century 130,000 passengers, a large proportion of them Jews from Eastern Europe, were processed through this building. It must have been a profitable venture since the interiors are luxuriously decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The highlights are the beautiful wrought-iron staircase and balustrades that spiral up from the reception area.

In the café-restaurant on the ground floor you can look out on the river. On the day we were there the sky was clear and in the late afternoon sunlight flickered on the waters of the Maas and off the face of skyscrapers on the north shore. Sipping a coffee I watched rush hour traffic cross the Erasmus Bridge, commuters returning home after a day of work in this industrious city, which is much prettier than it would have you believe.

A version of this story appeared in the Toronto Star on 1 July, 2011

of jazz, rock, rap and new york

It was a cold night in Harlem. The speakeasy was down some steps in the basement of a brownstone on West 133rd Street. We rang the bell and a small, neatly dressed black man with a gold pendant round his neck opened the door a fraction. “Is that you Gordon?”jazz

Our guide stepped out from the shadows and into the thin line of light escaping from the doorway. “I got some guys here itching for good jazz. Think you can help out?”

In the back the band had set up on a small stage: A dusty upright against the wall, the sleek contours of the sax reflected in a solitary spotlight.

“Billie Holiday played here when she was a teenager hustling for gigs,” Gordon said, as the heavyset Venezuelan on piano struck the chords of the first number. “She treaded these same floors.”

From the speakeasies of Harlem to the nightclubs of the Lower East Side and the street corners of the Bronx, New York is a city that lives and breathes music. Almost every genre of popular music has found a home here down the years and many of the greatest musicians of all time have, like Holiday, called the city home at one time or another: Bob Dylan started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village; Madonna began her ascent to pop heaven in a crummy apartment in the downtown, juggling playing in local bands with shifts at a donut store.

The city has also witnessed many seminal moments in pop history – the birth of hip hop in the Bronx; The Beatles’ first appearance on American television recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway; the arrest of Sid Vicious for the murder of his girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel.

Tapping this rich vein of history takes a few days and is best accomplished in the company of one of the handful of tours focused on the musical heritage. The tours are subdivided by genre and usually presided over by amiable obsessives who can give you chapter and verse on the relative merits of bebop or the significance of Joey Ramone’s favorite brand of soft drink (it was Yoo-Hoo in case you were wondering).

Gordon Polatnik runs tours in Harlem. A softly spoken 50-year-old, his mild manner masks a lifelong passion for the neighborhood’s jazz history. He ran a café here for five years mainly, he admits, “so that I could have live jazz on the menu every day.”

His tours reflect this concern with the contemporary scene and feature at least two live performances. In between he led us through Harlem, along streets filled with distinguished brick rowhouses that date back over a century and which first welcomed African Americans driven out of midtown Manhattan in the years before World War I. This migration brought with it dance halls and gambling dens that jumped to the erratic new sounds of jazz and ragtime.

In the roaring twenties prohibition drove the liquor underground into the speakeasies on 133rd Street, known then as Swing Street. The new law did not dent the party, however, and society figures and celebrities such as Mae West clamoured to the area and to renowned venues like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington’s orchestra were the house band.

These days the music venues are a little thinner on the ground although the Apollo Theater on 125th Street has been running a talent night every Wednesday for so long that it can boast that Billie Holiday got her big break there.

“The city is a proving ground,” said Gordon as we climbed back up to the street into the crisp air of the Harlem night. “Anyone can come here and get a gig. That’s the genius of New York.”


Standing in front of the downtown tenement Bobby Pinn held up a vinyl copy of Led Zepellin’s Physical Graffiti. Overhead the sky was clear blue and though the sun cast a shadow on the artwork it was still possible to see that the building on the album cover and the one across the street on St Mark’s Place were one and the same.

“Now,” said Bobby, a fast-talking New Yorker with bleached blond spikes and an inexhaustible supply of rock and roll anecdotes. “Which of you is gonna tell me what’s missing on the Zep album?”

Our small band of rock geeks scratched heads in shamed silence as yellow cabs clattered by and skinny young things in black jeans weaved past on the sidewalk.

The tenement on the album has a level missing, Bobby said. Apparently this cosmetic change was ordered by the band after it was discovered that one of the group’s drug dealers lived in the building. “Taking away the dealer’s floor somehow made sense. There’s heroin logic for you!”

Bobby began his rock tour in the heart of the East Village, formerly the Lower East Side. A hundred years back large swathes of European migrants made the streets around here the most densely populated on the planet. In the post-war years this beat-up slum was a perfect haven for penniless artists. Bobby showed us the St Mark’s Hotel, a flop house frequented by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, who nicknamed the eaterie on the ground floor “the respectable bums cafeteria.”

A hundred yards or so down Second Avenue he pointed out the site of the Fillmore East, a concert venue where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin vied for top billing alongside acts like The Who, who premiered their rock opera Tommy there. On the sidewalk a mosaic plastered onto the base of the traffic lights commemorates the venue, now a savings bank. The mosaic contains the names of bands that played the Fillmore as well as a shard of the guitar Pete Townsend smashed on stage during the Tommy show.

Today the Lower East Side is a sanitised version of its former self, replete with boutiques selling retro clothes and yoga centers (“What we’re rebelling about now is the influx of yoghurt,” said Bobby). But in the late seventies this area was awash with drugs and crime. Nor were these problems confined to the downtown. The city was bankrupt and a blackout in the summer of 1977 led to widespread looting.

Out of this chaos came creativity. The emerging music scenes of punk and new wave were at the vanguard of this creative surge. Homegrown bands like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie cut their teeth in venues like the legendary CBGB on The Bowery. The Ramones played their first gig there “in front of seven people and the bar dog.”

At the same time disaffected teenagers uptown seized on the chaos to forge a new musical form. JDL is part of the Coldcrush Brothers, a rap act from the Bronx formed in 1979. “Back then the city was in disarray,” JDL said. “Slum landlords were burning down apartment blocks to get the insurance money. These places had no amenities and were deserted. As kids we held parties in them that turned into jams, never guessing this thing we did for fun would turn into a multi-billion dollar industry.”

The former DJ now leads tourists around his old neighbourhood showing them significant markers in the story of hip hop, including the location of the first documented hip hop party on Sedgwick Avenue.

“The reason New York is such a force in music is the diversity,” JDL said. “The drive to make it here is phenomenal. So many people come here to see it, to live it. It’s what makes this the greatest city in the world.”

A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on May 21, 2011

a night in an english ruin

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

the bothy at warnscale head

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011