New York Living: Pumpkins are making me patriotic

On Monday night I walked into the supermarket and saw a pizza combing the frozen foods, a dinosaur being carried through the bakery section and a slew of superheroes at war in the dairy aisle.

On my way home I walked past houses with giant spiders crawling through their windows, witches swooping over their doorways and impressively ghoulish pumpkins guarding their entrances.

Over the weekend I partied with a host of Sega characters, a giant white swan, Hunter S Thompson and Santa. It was messy. You can imagine.

New York does Halloween very well indeed. It makes me adore my adopted home just that little bit more.

And yet, as much as I love this place, there are still pieces of England that I long for…

I miss the way everyone apologizes for everything. “I’m sorry” or “pardon me” prefix everything from asking where the bathroom is to simply navigating a busy city street. In America I sound perpetually apologetic, in England I sound like everyone else.

I miss the fact that no one claps for the pilot when he lands the plane safely.

I miss the NHS.

I miss rolling hills and a pint at a country pub.

I miss the stiff upper lip. Fall down a flight of stairs in Britain and you are expected to do nothing more than crack an embarrassed smile and limp away, protesting that it is really nothing at all.

I miss Sunday roasts, blackberry crumble and hot cross buns.

I miss taxi drivers who know every address in the city and haven’t learnt to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto.

I miss chatting to friends over a cuppa rather than over Skype.

I realize that England has its problems, there are pieces of the country that I don’t miss at all, and I have no immediate plans to return to the homeland. But those thoughts are much too practical…I’d rather sit in my cozy New York flat picturing the UK as an idyllic land of digestive biscuits and sarcasm.

New York versus London

From New York City to Motor City

What would you do if you were stuck at Detroit airport with a five hour flight delay?

With a biblical storm licking across the country the planes were grounded and we weren’t going anywhere quickly so we decided to postpone the joy of airport security lines and body scanners. We grabbed a rented car and zoomed out of the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Motor City.


There was the Detroit that I had read about – the project of city planners and artists and the setting for the award-winning book Middlesex. I had heard a lot about the place. I thought I was well prepared to see the city.

I had read about the mass exodus from the city but I had also heard stories of hope, of vacant lots turned into urban farm land, of the burgeoning food scene, of the money poured into downtown.

And all of that was true but it missed the utter emptiness of Detroit, the ghostly lack of people. Coasting down the city’s potted streets, the history of the place was visceral. The city threw a party, it erected some stunning architecture and soaring skyscrapers. The population swelled and then it burst. I wasn’t prepared for the eeriness of the shell it left behind.

It is a haunting place to be and yet it is also clear that the city is fighting. It has a life and an energy that peaks up between the cracks. Eminem’s super bowl video has a lot of truth behind it and there are many people who still believe that Detroit has a future.

As we drove through Midtown we saw new galleries and crepe shops dotting the streets between boarded up shops and we swept past the gleaming, imposing façade of the art institute and the public library.

We didn’t have long, our flight was set to take off in three hours so we swung back through the ghost streets of downtown and back towards the airport through Corktown. In the towering shadow of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Slows Bar BQ looked intriguing with its salvaged wood exterior and line of customers snaking out the door. Inside the pulsing restaurant the city’s lifeline seems stronger than ever. Hipsters squeezed in next to old-timers to scoff down the tender pulled pork and beef brisket.

Driving back to the airport all I could see was the colour of Detroit – the painted murals on the side of buildings, a concert happening by the side of the road and green grass growing between the houses. From an urban planning perspective it is fascinating. How do you resurrect a crumbling city like Detroit? It is a place where people are willing to try anything to make that happen.

But that is all still just potential. In the very brief time I spent there it was a difficult place to be. A sad place with pockets of hope.

Bill Withers: Still Cool

It is one of life’s more pesky ironies that I cannot sing. My virtual tone-deafness has always seemed unfair in light of my stutter. Away from the delicate ears of others, I have been known to belt out the odd 80s classic in the shower and I have never once stuttered. In fact, of all the stutterers I have met, I have yet to hear about one person who stutters whilst singing. Grabbing on to this little factoid a surprising number of people have suggested that I turn my daily conversations into a real life musical. No doubt I would be completely fluent singing away in my padded cell.

Stuttering singers span the breath of music history from Carly Simon to Mel Tillis and Gareth Gates (for those of you Brits who were teenagers back in 2002 and remember the early novelty of Pop Idol). But there is no stuttering singer as quintessentially cool as Bill Withers. I remember thinking that when I interviewed him back in 2009 for my book on stuttering and I felt that again last night when I stumbled on the recent documentary ‘Still Bill’ in my Netflix account.

bill withers

“Some people are born cool”, he observes in his trademark rolling voice. It seems like he must be talking about himself until he cracks a smile and carries on, “I was an asthmatic stutterer from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” His playful wit establishes from the beginning that this is a rare musician’s documentary. There are no fawning crowds, no crumbling rock and roll hedonism. Rather we are given a picture of Bill’s daily life as he spends time with his family, records music with his daughter, shoots the breeze with friends and celebrates his 70th birthday.

We are shown a humble man who chose to walk away from fame for a quiet life, and is happy that he did. As he tells his kids, “It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful you’re gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look round and get used to it because that maybe is as far as you’re gonna go.” Is he talking about himself? It seems hard to believe but the line reminded me of something he said when I interviewed him years ago. I had been sitting with him in his wife’s office for almost two hours when he got a call from Simply Red’s management asking him to come as a VIP to his next show. His surprise morphed into gratitude and, when I asked him if that kind of thing happened all the time, he laughed, “No sugar, most people think I’m dead these days or too old to walk over there.”

Both in the documentary and in person you can see only a hint of Bill’s lifelong stutter. It is so slight as to be barely noticeable but there is a strong feeling that this seemingly minor challenge has shaped his life. He comes across as a deeply emotional man and we see him quietly cry twice in the film. Once from fatherly pride and once as he talks to a group of children that make up Our Time’s theatre group for kids who stutter. Intimately indentifying with them, he observes that stuttering can make other people nervous and says, “We have to go just that little bit further to help them feel at ease.”

Bill seems like a man that treads softly and makes a big noise. The film is peppered with wise, unscripted words. It is about a man who knows who he is. He’s still the same guy he was growing up in Slab Fork, he is still the guy he was when he started his family and he is still a stutterer.

If you missed it, you can always catch it on Netflix here.