I spent a month in the Crescent City in February and March this year, neatly straddling Mardi Gras and St Patrick’s Day, two of biggest events in the festival calendar. It is a fabulous city. Historically and culturally fascinating, something is always going on and there are always people around to go do it with. Frenchmen Street is constantly buzzing with music, drinkers and dancers, while the French Quarter’s endless charms can be found just wandering around and soaking it all up. I stood slack-jawed at the world-class collection (and appropriately priced) photographs on display at A Gallery, and enjoyed a fabulous goodbye dinner at Bayona.
New Orleans is not really like other places in America. It’s not really like anywhere else at all. I can’t wait to go back.
Rummaging through my virtual filing cabinet the other day I came across this. I must have written it in about 2000 or 2001, not that long before I too was on my way somewhere else. I quite like it, for all the 23-year-old I was when I wrote it, and all the things that were happening then. So here it is, exactly as it has been lying around all this time, gathering only electronic dust.
End of an era at 26 Maples Street
To catch a fleeting glimpse of Julie James you must be as quick as she is… 48 hours in the country and the lists have been written, neatly pencilled with occasional spelling errors, belongings have been piled in easier to reach locations. Father is to be arriving with moustache and van at some point soon, laden with the responsibility of transporting the slower moving pieces of Julie James back to Wales, the old country, back to where they will sit like attic-bound remnants of a dead relative, gathering more dust than Julie James, far slower than her shadow that even now is winging its way to Asda, then London, then China, the world.
The sun still rises on Maples Street, and bathes our side in light so that the pale Victorian brickwork has a venerable feel; not worn and broken, as it is at the height of the kids where they can scratch and carve, but of that which has seen many things and many people pass twist and turn through time as if flashing by a moving car; world wars whose lying pied pipes walked so many young men off to war and death in a far flung field; coronation parties where red, white and blue streamers fluttered where now hangs telephone cable and gutter; or our summer exodus of revellers in vehicles, of lying on tarmac facing the darkness of an old coach’s guts, tap-tapping on corroded steel and avoiding flakes of rust and grit that fall in your eye, before piling equipment, functional, broken, objects of uses known and unknown, all stacked and inventoried and then away… over the concrete blocks that create the cul-de-sac that is our street, turn left onto Radford road and then on into town, or another country, one of our own choosing… or one of our own making.
There’s still time for things to change on Maples Street, where the coal lorry still drives around on Thursdays, still time for life here to be perhaps as it was in times of bunting and war. Now there is only black chisel markers, Laura woz ere, who’s 4 Speckie and who isn’t, burnt out cars and the war that exists in the backyards of a street in a city in a country like this. Always travelling uphill, with kids in tow, and poverty and the DSS whispering failure in their ears. Always a fractured community eking out their fragments of life so that they go further between them all. Always wrapping a Nova 1.3 GT in racing green around the lamppost at the bottom, because there’s nowt else for them to do, not in reality nor in their heads neither.
But Julie James is already gone – floating through on her way to another sketch, one this time on the other side of the world, in a place too dissimilar to conjure straight images, only ones that stem from the propaganda we absorb, fed as we are on a cathode ray nipple from birth till death. Send me a picture of men in blue boiler suits and flatcaps, I say, let me see that there is some element of China there, that the world over has not become the slave to capital that it seems. There’ll be no more of her glorious returns from abroad with brown legs sticking strident from mini skirt, nor Welsh lilting laughter from downstairs. Only a coffee table remains to remark upon her three years here with me, three years in a street that causes raised eyebrows and consternation in those that knew only the postcode, not the reality. But to Julie James and I it was a time of sunshine on redbrick and Special Brew on the wall, street furniture for our street people. Doors always open like an old world your grandma tells stories of, dogs wrestling with each other, always music from somewhere, litter rustling up and down the gutter in the summer breeze.
But this is in the past and the van that has pulled up is firmly in the present. Father (and moustache) and mother, back in number 26 for the first time in three years, calling by this time not to bring but to sweep away the traces of Julie James. Three years of artwork adorning the walls leave the faintest outlines. Three years of furniture acquisition and the hoarding of items with uses actual and imagined, all flushed through the narrow hall and into the waiting van. A civil cup of tea, a chat about our futures, and Shawn the rat, Julie James and the Jameses are gone forever.
I’ve not much time for studio portraits. While often undeniably beautiful, there’s just something superficial and unreal about a beautiful sitter and perfect lighting, make-up, and hair to make them even more so. I prefer mine in the field, metaphorically, and sometimes literally.