Wilkie Collins to Woody Allen

Still Leaving

In Wilkie Collins's classic novel The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright does what 19th Century protagonists often do mid-novel, before the resolution and the happy ending: he goes abroad. Marion Halcombe sees him in a dream, now shipwrecked on a foreign shore, now menaced by "dark, dwarfish men" with bows and arrows in the grounds of an ancient temple. Glimpsing him in the surreal fragments of her dream, we know he will return, evil will be banished and hope restored. I read on. Out the window a strange sunset lay dark as blood along the edge of the horizon. We were climbing above the clouds and Auckland was already far behind. Have I become addicted to leaving?
I remember a line in Saul Bellow's novel, The Dean's December, about the ice blocks in Lake Michigan, 'gray-white and tan and stained with sand by the prevailing wind.' In the Chicago streets at the edge of Lake Michigan it was summer; no ice blocks but instead a hot sandy beachfront, thousands of swimmers and sunbathers, the stink of coconut oil, a line of crammed and rowdy bars where the beachgoers staggered to drink in the shade of fringed umbrellas. Inland, against the hard bright sky stood the glittering, elegant rampart of the city's skyscrapers. Chicago, scene of the Dean's bleak and freezing December, was baking in a blue August. The architecture was sharply stylish, and the lavish public art reflected American wealth and scale: sculptures, fountains, galleries, parks.

High above the street, the hotel swayed in high wind. The news announced a heightened terror alert, both in the Homeland and abroad. All American embassies in the Middle East would be closed. On a day of predicted terror, on a United Airlines plane, we flew towards New York, travelling in an arc to avoid a storm. The plane bucked and shuddered in the turbulence, every strut seeming to strain and creak, and as we came down a line of skyscrapers flashed copper then gold then entered a slow fall towards the horizontal as we banked and circled, the huge city spread out under a haze of glittering dust.

Below the Freedom Tower, at the September 11 memorial, the footprint of each World Trade Centre tower is now a vast, square black hole with water streaming in silvery cascades down the sides. In the centre of each monumental hole is a smaller square, into which the water disappears. The names of the almost three thousand dead are carved in metal around the edges. There is no triumphalism, no depiction of heroism, there are no human figures, only the streaming water which recalls the silver towers with bodies falling down the sides, and a sense of bleakness and mystery as the water disappears out of sight. The overwhelming impression is of loss, blackness, falling, desolation, and rage.

Seeing Woody Allen's new film Blue Jasmine and Wallace Shawn's off-Broadway play The Designated Mourner reinforced a notion I've had: that New York is intellectually freer than London. In Britain the discourse can seem stifled by class and manners. Too much social inhibition becomes an intellectual straitjacket perhaps. It's fashionable in Britain to scorn Woody Allen for his minor inaccuracies about London, instead of admiring the trenchant brilliance of his art. In Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner, a poet, his daughter and her husband live together in a fictional totalitarian regime. The husband eventually betrays and abandons his wife and father-in-law. They are executed, and he lives happily ever after. It sounds grim, and it is, but it's also riveting, moving and hilarious. In Britain, going on about man's inhumanity to man and whether we're all animals might well be regarded as slightly hysterical; in uninhibited New York there is no such squeamishness.
It's a city so vast you lose yourself in it every day, a city so beautiful in summer you could spend all day just walking. On a morning of high humidity, the air full of the threat of lightning, the heat so dense the air catches in your throat, you feel the city is a 19th Century novel. The romance, the melodrama, the implausible coincidences: the way that dark dwarfish couple at the next table downtown yesterday have appeared behind us today in a cafe eighty blocks uptown. The way the faces in the vast crowds reappear in dreams, half- remembered, repeating. City of mysteries and conjuring tricks. This is why you've travelled, like Hartwright, to the foreign shore. So you can tear it all up, leave it all behind, let your imagination run wild, be pursued by foreign spirits, travel through your own novel until, five hundred pages later, you return for the denouement, the resolution, the happy ending.
And if not, the Fall is coming, and Canada is on the cards.

First published in Metro Magazine, September 2013