Posts Tagged ‘Paul Theroux’

Travelling and waiting

June 11, 2010

I was cycling across London the other day when rain suddenly pelted down. There were all of about three warning drops and then – kaboom – I was under a power shower.

The only thing worse than being out in the rain, is cycling in the rain. One gets about three times as wet, one’s vision is severely impaired by the water flying diagonally at one’s face, and braking suddenly becomes a fair bit skiddier.

So, as I was in no particular hurry, I hopped off the road and decided I’d wait it out under a leafy plane tree that was conveniently offering shelter by the roadside. I stood there and realised I had nothing to do other than wait. It would have looked a trifle eccentric to read a book on the street corner (mind you I probably looked a trifle eccentric in any case), and I didn’t really want to phone somebody up for a chat in the middle of the afternoon just to tell them I was marooned.

Waiting was rather pleasant. I watched cars zoom past; traffic lights change colour (many times); a disgruntled Asian gentleman sheltering under the newsagent’s awning opposite; a woman whose blonde hair had turned brown from all the water, marching determinedly through the monsoon; a couple of men carrying two crates of beer, semi-running, semi-hopping down the street, squinting through the downpour.

It occurred to me that it is very rare, really, to be on a street corner in London with nothing to do other than have one’s eyes upon the street. (Jane Jacobs take note.)

It reminded me of being somewhere else, somewhere foreign, on holiday, travelling. It was partly the severity of the rain. It was like an Indian monsoon, in which stepping out in it means getting soaked to the bone, so, when I was in India during the rainy season, I whiled away many hours doing not very much in various cafés. But it was also not being in a hurry, being able to just idle around for ten minutes or so.

Part of the whole travelling ‘experience’ is learning to kill time – to sit and watch people, or a street, or nothing much at all. But the place where most time is spent looking out at the world drift past must be on a train.

I’ve just read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, his account of travelling all over Europe and Asia by train. It’s a very funny book, not least because he is clearly a complete and utter (sorry, I hate to use this word) twat. His manner of observing and casting judgements upon people, places, sometimes entire nations, is at once unbelievably patronising and stuck up but also rather astute.

Take this passing description of Bangkok:

Bangkok, a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels, required visitors. The heat, the traffic, the noise, the cost in this flattened anthill make it intolerable to live in; but Bangkok, whose discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents, is a city for transients. Bangkok has managed to maintain its massage-parlour economy without the soldiers [from ’nam], by advertising itself as a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid. So it prospers. After the early morning Floating Market Tour and the afternoon Temple Tour, comes the evening Casanova Tour … As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.

It’s an outrageous description: ‘Preposterous, anthill, intolerable, discomfort, massage-parlour economy, a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid, smells of sex’. Ouch. But he’s got a point. Bangkok does thrive off its sex industry, and mostly thanks to tourists turning up for its sex shows and brothels. I suppose at least it doesn’t smell just of death, like Calcutta apparently does.

Anyway, I digress. What really struck me about Paul Theroux’s book, other than how he manages to be rude and funny and insightful at once, is how little he does. Life on a train consists of sitting around in a sleeping compartment and sitting around in a dining car. Occasionally there’s a ‘lounge car’ in which one can also sit. While sitting around, one can read, converse with fellow passengers, eat, drink, and look out of the window. Well, at least those seem to have been Paul Theroux’s options in the seventies. Nowadays one could probably spend a twenty-hour journey completely absorbed in various apps on an iPhone.

Theroux recounts conversations and drinking with other passengers – especially the brilliant Molesworth, who only drinks alcohol aboard a train, reserving his single bottle of Perrier for brushing his teeth. But he gives the distinct impression that he’s not the friendliest of passengers, not often keen to chat. This encounter with a Mr Radia is reasonably typical:

I saw he was trying to read the cover of the book I had opened. It was The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a parting gift from Mr Gupta of the Simla ashram.

‘Are you interested in yoga?’ asked Mr Radia.

‘No,’ I said, studying the book closely. I wet my finger and turned a page.

‘I am,’ said Mr Radia. ‘Not the physical side, but the mental side. The benefit is there.’

‘The physical side is the best part.’

‘Not for me. For me it is all mental. I like to exercise my mind with debates and discussions of all kinds.’

I snapped the book shut and left the compartment.

Theroux spends a great deal of time sleeping, occasionally reading, writing (of course), but mostly not doing very much at all.

I had to stop cycling, stand still, and look out at a perfectly unremarkable scene to remember that travelling can be as much about staring vacantly at not very much and letting one’s mind drift onto higher (or lower) planes, as getting from one place to another. And when it eventually brightened up and I got back on to my bike, just in time for a viciously steep hill, to be beeped at by a grumpy taxi driver and nearly taken out by a car turning left without indicating, I remembered that, when cycling, one usually does need all one’s concentration just to get from A to B.

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The Oxo Tower – A Peculiarly Placed Product

May 28, 2010

I neglected to mention, in my last blog about the glorious London Overground, that I was on my way to a party at the Oxo Tower.

Soon after we alighted, the fiancé (architect-in-training) said, ‘Of course you do know the story about the Oxo Tower, don’t you?’

I didn’t. In case you don’t either, here it is:

An old power station was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who made Oxo beef stock cubes. They got an architect, Albert Moore, to rebuild most of it in the late 1920s and as part of this art-deco refab, they wanted a big tower on the Thames on which they could advertise their Oxo cubes. They were denied permission to advertise and so Albert Moore designed the tower so that ‘OXO’ was built into its structure. They could claim that the windows just happened to be in the shape of a circle, cross and a circle.

What chutzpah! Yes, it was clever of them, but it was also cheeky and dishonest.

And now, of course, it’s known as the Oxo Tower – the building is defined by this piece of advertising. I wanted to ask the waiters if they had to use Oxo cubes in all the food there, but it didn’t seem like the sort of party where that would have gone down terribly well.

So the OXO can no longer be seen as just an advertisement; it’s part of the building. I’m afraid I think there’s something grotesque about advertising in any case, but it’s particularly foul when a product wheedles its way in like that, insinuating itself in such a dishonest way.

It’s like product placement. Who can forget that Britney Spears, in her film Crossroads (yes, I loved it and I won’t deny it), uses Herbal Essences shampoo? (And so did I for the following five years.) Or that in The Faculty Josh Hartnett and all his friends wear Tommy Hilfiger? The products aren’t advertised in an obvious way, they’re woven into the fabric of the film, adopted by the narrative.

This is nothing new or particularly surprising, I hear you say. Nobody likes product placement (do they?). But product placement happens more than we realise; it happens pretty much all the time. In books as well as in films. It’s a question of where you draw the line – what is a product and what isn’t?

For instance, I’ve just read a proof of Paul Auster’s forthcoming novel Sunset Park (due to be published in November). In this book, the film The Best Years of Our Lives is referenced again and again and again. One of the characters is studying it for her dissertation; the main character and his girlfriend watch it at her request; the father of the main character watches it on an aeroplane … you get the picture.

Now clearly Auster wants us to think about his book in relation to The Best Years of Our Lives – why else would he mention it so many times? I hadn’t even heard of the film, but, seeing it mentioned so many times, I assiduously looked it up online. It became clear that it’s firmly in the American canon of World War Two movies. (You can watch a bit on YouTube here.) I so enjoyed the novel, was so intrigued by these references to the film that I think I might go out and buy a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives. In the same way that I went out and bought Herbal Essences and Tommy Hilfiger when I saw Crossroads and The Faculty as a teenager.

Yes, there is a lesson here. I need to become less impressionable. But essentially isn’t Paul Auster placing a product in his book? But he gets off the hook because The Best Years of Our Lives is a film, which can masquerade as a cultural reference, rather than obviously declaring itself as something for sale.

But this film is clearly important to Auster, and to his ideas in the book. Why shouldn’t he reference it if he wants to? I’m now reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and he quotes from T.S. Eliot all the time. Why shouldn’t he? Even if it makes me want to reach for my T.S. Eliot and reread his poems. Or, if I didn’t already own it, go out and buy a copy. Where does one draw the line between a cultural reference and advertising something that can be bought in a shop?

And what about if the book, or film, or television programme, is set in a certain place? The Apprentice, for example, got lots of stick for sending all its contestants out to well-known London establishments. ‘Free advertising,’ grumbled the critics, while the restaurants and bars that were featured kept schtum and quietly patted the wads of cash in their pockets as wannabe city execs turned up in droves. But it would be ridiculous if The Apprentice contestants didn’t do anything in London, as that’s where the programme’s resolutely set.

Everyone’s making a fuss over the new Sex and the City film being set in Abu Dhabi over Manhattan. It’s an NYC programme and yes, perhaps it does seem quite bonkers to move it to the Middle East. We expect to watch lunches and brunches, drinks and dinners in ‘fabulous’ Manhattan eateries, not to mention shopping trips to Jimmy Choo and Prada. Evidently product placement is so central to SATC that, to critical eyes, it falls apart when the New York products are removed. The television series would have been just as rubbish as the new film (apparently) is, if brands weren’t allowed to be mentioned, or if it couldn’t be seen to endorse any actual NY restaurants or bars. It would feel far too fake, not nearly NYC enough. Perhaps it is the products and brands that make Manhattan Manhattan.

But in the same Paul Auster novel, Sunset Park, I glimpsed a solution to the dilemma of how to set a story somewhere specific without endorsing gross consumerism. Auster mentions a certain greasy-spoon diner called Joe Junior’s. It’s an important place in the novel – the setting of a couple of poignant scenes and home to some father and son memories. And the diner is described in detail; we learn that it features ‘a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall’. And Auster locates the diner, very specifically, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street.

Gosh, is this a real place? I wondered. Would hardcore Auster fans make a pilgrimage to Sixth and Twelfth and order Joe Junior’s (apparently) legendary onion rings? I searched online and found that yes, Joe Jr.’s is a real place. Or was a real place. It seems that this little diner on the corner of  Sixth and Twelfth – and the photos make it look exactly as Auster described – closed down on 4th July 2009. By all accounts it was a very sad day for fans of Greenwich Village, when this cherished little independent establishment could no longer meet the rent. There was much speculation about which ghastly chain would open there in its place. (I can’t tell, as Joe Jr.’s still exists on Google Maps.)

So yes, Auster has written about a real place, one that many New Yorkers knew and loved, and one that losers like me can look up and see photos of. (I think the best ones are here.) But no, I can’t go and eat their cheesburgers and onion rings because it’s closed down. Instead I can feel sad that an independent has been forced to close its doors, feel inspired to go and support my own local independent lunchspot – no longer will I buy my sandwiches from Pret! – and I suppose be a slightly better person for it.

The irony about the Oxo Tower is that it’s no longer the home of Oxo cubes. The restaurant is let out to Harvey Nichols. And quite why Harvey Nichols would want to encourage the sale of cubes of beef stock, when in their online ‘foodmarket shop’, Oxo is left out of its list of ‘brands’ and one can only buy things like a ‘fashionista hamper’ and a ‘Dolce Vita Espresso Gift Box’, I can’t quite fathom.