The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, May 18, 2012

Moon over Gotham

It's now a fortnight since I went to America for a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and high time I wrote about it. PEN American Center looked after me very well, and paid for my flights, accommodation and transport.

Early on Friday afternoon I was met at Newark NJ airport by a driver from Diva
Limo, who whisked me to the hotel, the Jolly Madison Towers on 38th and Madison
(near Grand Central). The hotel was splendid and the room was good - nothing
fancy, but plenty of room and everything ship-shape. So I had a shower and then
walked down 3rd Avenue to the main Festival hotel, the Standard in Cooper
Square. I was wearing my black boots (as they're the nearest I have to smart
shoes) and I got a blister that hurt for the rest of my stay - by Monday it was
quite painful, though it started to go as soon as I got home and changed back into

Anyway, I enjoyed the walk, which took about forty minutes. The Standard is just across from the old Cooper Union building and next door to the new one, which looks like an aluminium Culture Ship.

Just off the reception at the Standard is a quiet parlour called the Library, with books around the walls and lots of sofas and soft chairs. This room was being used as the PEN hospitality suite. It opens onto a plaza with tables and more seats. I introduced myself to a young lady sitting with a laptop beside by a stack of Festival programmes. Her name was Emma Connolly and she welcomed me on behalf of PEN. I drank some water and ate a pastry from the table and I was just replying to an email from Julian Sanchez when he walked in. He's 33 and thin and talks as enthusiastically as Charlie Stross. He was wearing jeans, a striped jacket, and shirt with a bow tie: the very image of a Cato Institute free-market libertarian.

Talking and smoking as I hirpled beside him, Julian took me out for a drink via a lecture he wanted to hear at a nearby university, where a conference was going on on Anonymity and Identity in the Digital Age. This turned out to be actually relevant to both the panel topic and my thinking about my next book: there was an intriguing discussion of how anonymous can data really be - if, say, patients' medical records are used for epidemiological (etc) purposes, the more relevant facts a given record includes the less effectively it's anonymized. Julian put the point in a self-acknowledged geeky way: '"Sarah Connor"', he said, 'is not a unique identifier - but that doesn't help Sarah Connor.'

What really struck me from the discussion was how confident everyone was that legislators were open to rational persuasion, and that between good programming practice (with a bit of revision I could design the SQL or Excel query myself) and well-formulated regulation that particular problem could be solved.

We had drinks in a dim but posh tavern and I impressed Julian with my e-cig if not my now jet-lagged conversation. Then we went back to the hotel and into its fine bar (which is opposite the main doors, glass-walled and accessible from the street) to join Julian's girl-friend Kashmir (who is a reporter for Forbes and is nice) and some of their friends. Julian, Kashmir and I had dinner in a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant in the East Village for something ridiculous like $20 each including tip. By this time it was about ten and I left them at the hotel and walked back to mine. I hit the sack and got a good night's sleep, followed by a good continental breakfast. I went for a stroll around the vicinity, which turned out to be the Fashion District (mostly closed for Saturday), then back to the hotel in time to be picked up by another Diva Limo car at noon.

The line-up for the panel, in the new Cooper Union, was: Larry Siems introducing, Julian chairing, Catherine Crump from the ACLU, me, and Russian writer Ludmilla Ulitskaya and Romanian writer Gabriella Adameșteanu (who turned up with three or four friendly people from the Romanian Cultural Institute).

Ludmilla and Gabriella had interpreters on stage, which made made the discussion a bit less free-flowing than usual (and bit odd for me because of the whispering at either side). But it seemed to go well, and everyone I spoke to afterwards said that it had. It was covered in the New York Times, though Julian felt (and I agree) that the report cast an unfounded aspersion on him.

Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden were there and took me, Julian, and Kashmir out for a late lunch at a Ukrainian diner. At one point Julian was talking about an alarmist article he'd read about the countermeasures teenagers take against electronic tracking by their parents, and Patrick remarked: 'We're raising kids to behave like characters in spy novels!'

Patrick invited me to drop by Tor any time between 12 and 3 on Monday. After Patrick and Teresa headed home, I left Julian and Kashmir on the way to the hotel and set off for St Mark's Bookshop, which I was sure was in St Mark's Place. It wasn't, but I had an interesting walk finding out. The bookshop itself was just as I remembered it from my previous visit back in the late 90s, full of academic left (cultural studies etc) and general books in so many bookcases that it's hard not to brush against a sharp corner. (This happened to my son Michael that time, making a tiny scratch on the casing of a new sports watch he'd saved for for months and had just bought at Nike. I still have a pang about that.)

In a back corner are two revolving racks of left-wing journals. One contains the respectable left (In These Times, Dollars and Sense, ISJ) and the other the far left and ultra-left: Spartacist, Maoist, and three left-communist journals which are as mutually hostile and politically indistinguishable as they were when I first encountered them in Compendium in Camden in 1976 and whose format, layout and fonts, as well as their contents, are exactly the same as they were then. I gave all these a cursory browse and a determined miss and bought a copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style, for about $4.

Looking for something to do before the party at 10, I found a poetry event in the ground floor of the Standard, and very good it was too, with a lively young black MC and several poets. One was pregnant - 'She's eating for two, and she's reading for two!' the MC said. There was a real feeling of a buzz of new poetry and experiment. Also, free wine, cocktails and cookies.

I made the most of left-over wine and cookies while hanging around the plaza until the party. It was in the 21st-floor penthouse, which had a huge suite (including a bedroom) and an all-round balcony, which had as you can imagine (you'll have to, because my camera was recharging) the most amazing views of Manhattan at night.

'This is Ayn Rand's New York!' I said to Emma Connolly, the nice young woman who'd greeted me. 'All it needs is a naked man on a cliff,' she replied, impressing me with her knowledge of The Fountainhead.

Later I got into a conversation with Leily Kleinbard, who as well as working for PEN works with Larry Seims and others on Reckoning With Torture, a project to develop a film that they hope will go viral. I agreed whole-heartedly with the aim, but in articulating my own fury and frustration on the issue I'm afraid I bent her ear a bit (though she assured me later I hadn't).

Around midnight I saw that Oana Radu, one of the women I'd spoken with earlier from the Romanian cultural centre, had her coat on and went over to say goodnight. It turned out her hotel was near mine so we shared a taxi which dropped her off.

The following morning I strolled down Madison Avenue to Washington Square and then into Greenwich Village, took a phone call from the editor of a computer magazine that's publishing a short story I've just written, and then walked over to Cooper Union to listen to a panel on Occupy with the editors of the Occupy! Gazette.

After this I mooched about for a bit, had an over-priced but welcome bagel, walked around a few blocks of the East village, and just before five joined the block-long queue for Salman Rushdie's Arthur Miller Lecture. This was in the main auditorium of the old Cooper Union, a most impressive hall which was packed with mostly young people. Rushdie's talk, as you can see from the video, was brief, witty and interesting, and followed by a Q & A session with Gary Shteyngart, the American son of Russian dissidents.

I bought a $20 Metro pass (spending exactly $10 too much, as I thought at this time that I'd have to make my own way to the airport) and took the line up to Grand Central, went back to the hotel and showered and changed. Back down for 8.30.

The party was in the top of the Clock Tower of the old Cooper Union: one bare room, with an opening to a balcony, and the workings of the clock itself on show inside. The party started slowly but soon got busy. Early on I joined others outside to see the moon rising, huge and orange, just one night after full.

It felt strange being in the same room as Salman Rushdie, and I hung around the edge of a semi-circle around him on the balcony while he held forth on the short film 'Powers of Ten', which he said showed the non-existence of God. I chatted to a few people, including Beth Weinstein, who'd arranged everything for me and who I met for the first time there. She told me that a car would pick me up for the airport.

I took the subway back after the party finished at 11.

Monday morning I got breakfast, showered, packed, checked out and left my luggage and took the subway to the nearest station to the Flatiron. When I turned up at noon Patrick asked me to come back in an hour. I wandered on, around a small branch of Barnes & Noble, and back. Patrick took me and Steve Gould out to lunch, which was good, then recommended I should check out Union Square, which he said was the real heart of New York. I walked down and found a busy organic market and an Occupy stall and a generally lively scene.

Subway back to hotel, car to airport, home! - and jet-lag for a fortnight.

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Cheers Ken :)
Sounds like you had a ball.

Incidentally, as a recent convert to "harm reduced" nicotine ingestion myself, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on your e-cig. It was almost a "damascene conversion" for me, seriously!



I wish you had an RSS feed showing when you will be appearing. I would really have loved to have come to see your panel. I'm glad you had a nice trip, despite the problem with the shoes!

Ted - thanks. well, I did blog and tweet about it. I'm still a bit clueless about RSS - does the Atom Site Feed in the sidebar not do the job?

murfey - I like the e-cig, though I haven't switched over completely. It's very handy for places you can't smoke!

Wonderful writeup, and I found the Rushdie clip to be rather inspiring.

Sounds like a blast!


"[The event] was covered in the New York Times, though Julian felt (and I agree) that the report cast an unfounded aspersion on him."

I read the links. From now on, whenever I mention the New York Times, I'll always refer to it as "the New York Times, a newspaper whose advertisers include some of the largest corporations in the country, although most of its articles and editorials gloss over this." ;)

PS: Off-topic, but I'm currently in the middle of my fifth or eighth re-read of the Fall Revolution series. Many thanks for the hours of reading (and thinking) pleasure you've given me.

Stevo - many thanks for these encouraging words!

I have fond memories of the old Cooper Union, and indeed of the entire area from Union Square, down Broadway, past Cooper Union, on through the Village, then a right turn to the Barnes and Nobel of those years (58-68), and then to the New School, onto the Subway, and finally the trip back to a last stop, Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway Queens. There were many used and new bookshops along that route. Fine years. If the new Cooper Union looks like a Culture ship, be thankful that it's not 185 kilometres long. Where would it fit?

Hey,I was starting at the Standard then, wish I had known.

Only looking at this now, having finished Night Sessions moments before....

I love the word "hirpled".

Just thought I'd let you know, unc ;p


Craig - Neil Craig? You were staying at the Standard?

Hi Caroline - Good to hear from you! 'Hirpled' is a good Scottish word. See also 'trachled'. :-)

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