Visit to New York

Added on Monday 7 Jun 2004

So much for updating this page on a regular basis; I don't know how Pat Byrne puts up with me. However, at long last I feel as if I have something of interest to tell you. Way back in 2003 Marie Carter wrote to invite me to take part in a series of readings in New York run in association with Hanging Loose Press, and the American-Scottish Association. At the time I was thrilled, but then writer's block and the resulting depression set in, and I pushed the offer to the back of my mind.

As the date of the proposed reading loomed closer, I seriously considered telling Marie that I was too ill to travel, which would've been letting her and myself down. Luckily for me, whilst browsing in Borders one day I picked up Weekend Life Coach by Lynda Field. As you will know by now, I'm a sucker for self-help books, so I bought it and went to a caf? to read in peace. The impact was almost instantaneous. I read the first chapter, stood up and went along to the King's Theatre and bought tickets for the Harlem Dance Theatre, then went and had a much-needed hair cut. When I got home I sat at my desk and wrote down my two most immediate goals: A. to apply to the Scottish Arts Council for funding for the New York trip, and B. to finish my languishing radio script.

The funding application was a real rush-job, and the staff at the SAC did themselves proud in processing everything in just over a week. I collected the cheque on the Friday and flew to NYC on the Tuesday, having produced a script which my producer was delighted with.

Because I had only collected my air tickets the day before departure I was subjected to some pretty rigorous interrogation at Glasgow Airport. Thankfully, I had a file with all my correspondence with Marie and the SAC, plus proof of where I was staying in New York, or I could've been sitting here now thinking 'I coulda been a contender'. It was a surreal experience, having a man who told me he was born in the same hospital as me; Irvine Central, addressing me as Ma'm throughout. The best/ worst moment came when he said, "Do you mind telling me why you look nervous, Ma'm?" I managed to keep the heid and reply "Because I'm afraid of flying" and not what I was thinking "Because you're interrogating me, ya wee tube".

Anyway, he let me go. I got there, and it was wonderful. The event was on Wednesday 26th May at New York Public Library. I read with Linda Cracknell, a writer I've known for a while. We had bumped into each other at the BBC and the Book Festival, and had a couple of friends in common, and it was great to see her again.

Half way through my reading, a wee crazy lady wandered in, muttering to herself. I thought it was a hoot; apart from the accent, she could easily have been from Maryhill or Bridgeton. At the meet and greet session I got talking to Judi Komaki, a playwright who is coming to the writers retreat at Hawthorden Castle in Midlothian in July. Judi wanted to know about contemporary Scottish writers, and Linda and I gave her an extensive list including Galloway, Kennedy, Lochead, Gray, Kelman and many more. In return Judi very kindly invited us to her West Village apartment for breakfast the following Saturday.

After the reading a crowd of us went out for dinner. I met Ed Chapp, who lectures at NYU, and who did his M. Phil in Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde in the early nineties. His fictional account of living in the West End is published in the Hanging Loose Press anthology Word Jig (New Fiction from Scotland), and is very funny. After dinner I went for the subway which is umpteen times the size of the Clockwork Orange, but not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. I turned the corner at 42nd Street, and there was Times Square, all lit up. New Yorkers and tourists alike were treated to the sight of a mad Glaswegian jumping around, shouting OH WOW, in the middle of the pavement, sorry, sidewalk.

The next day I was too tired to do the big tourist trip, so I stuck to my own nieghbourhood: Amsterdam Avenue from 103rd St to 112th. The area around Columbia University is very cosmopolitan with pavement cafes and bookshops tucked down lanes; a bit like the west end, in fact. I browsed for ages in Labrynth Books on West 112th St, and left with a biography of the American Modernist writer Djuna Barnes (mentioned in Sitting Among the Eskimos) a couple of New York novels, and gifts for the folks back home. In the end I had to buy the tote bag with the name of the shop on the front, so watch out for me posing about Byres Road with it slung over my shoulder.

After a break at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue where they had more delicious-looking cakes than I've ever seen in the one place, I crossed the street to the cathedral of St. John the Devine. Set in beautiful surroundings, including a children's sculpture garden, the cathedral is also a centre for the arts; a bit like St. Mary's on Gt Western Road, although on a much grander scale. They have a Poet in Residence, and a Poet's Corner with children's poems pinned on the wall, and a floor made up of poets names and quotes. My favourites were "My soul has grown deep like the rivers "(Langston Hughes) and "Take up the song, forget the epitaph "(Edna St. Vincent Millay). That evening Linda and I went to the Lennox Hill Bookstore on Lexington Ave on the Upper East Side to hear Colm Toibin read from his new novel, The Master. We managed a few words with Colm, who selected me for publication in New Writing 11 a couple of years ago. His first words were "Have you got a book out??"I muttered something about having my contract cancelled. Colm is far too nice a man to tell me to get my finger out, but I got the impression that was what he was thinking. I'm half-way through reading The Master, which tells the story of Henry James, and it's nothing less than a masterpiece. I heartily recommend it.

The Upper East Side is very upmarket, and Linda and I had fits of the giggles comparing this book launch with the ones back home. Instead of scrabbling for plastic cups of warm wine, a very handsome and urbane gentleman poured glasses of Chablis and told us "there's plenty more, ladies". Now, you never get that in Waterstones.

The next day we visited the Poets House in Spring St, Soho. The director Lee Ellen Briccetti showed us round their extensive library which includes an impressive collection of Chapbooks (pamphlets to us) and talked about their various community projects, including the Poet in residence at Central Park zoo. She was very interested to hear about our Poetry in the Botanic Gardens project, and keen to forge links with poets in Scotland. I'm meeting Gerry Loose to pass on some info later this week. The same day we wet to the Poetry Caf? in the Bowery which hosts a lot of readings and music events, and Linda and I both felt that we'd love to have something similar in Glasgow.

For the rest of the trip I walked and walked. Greenwich Village was a definite favourite; I felt like a writer again, standing gazing at the block where Djuna Barnes and e. e. cummings lived on Patchin Place. In Little Italy a waiter who looked like Al Pachino called me Baby. Now there's another thing you never get in Byres Road. On the Saturday, after a visit to a farmers market with Judi, and a delicious breakfast in her beautiful apartment, I walked to the end of 12th St and found the Hudson River, complete with sunbathers in the adjoining park, ice-cream vans and greetin weans. I spent the afternoon there, soaking up the sunshine and the atmosphere.

I didn't feel like a tourist. I never got to the Empire State Building, and I never went near a museum. I sat at pavement cafes, where smokers and real New Yorkers congregate; I looked at and listened to the boyz in the hood on Amsterdam and Broadway. I did eat in the restaurant featured in Seinfeld, but only by accident. I was there as a writer, and as the days passed I felt more and more like one. I loved New York. There's talk of another invitation next year. If it comes, I'll have my funding application in well in advance and a second novel under my belt.

Now I'm looking forward to catching up with my friends, and to the West End festival. I'll keep you posted.