This is Georgia, the Peach State. We are in Savannah, by way of a tiny airplane from New York, in a motel off Interstate 95, because we are roadtripping! This is the American south, with the singsong accents that make our British tones feel like the Queen’s, as waitresses will ask what they can get for y’all and keep right on filling up the coffee. There is a proud tradition of slogans on roadside signs - today’s selection ranged from “Prayer is the best wifi connection” for one of the dozen churches (“See sermons on utube”), and “Drop your pants here” (for dry cleaning, hurr hurr). A little bit of everything, as it says in the Lonely Planet; Savannah is “a Southern belle with an electric-blue streak in her hair”.
We visited Wormsloe Plantation, the home of Noble Jones who came to Georgia on the first ship from England in 1733. The massive site is mostly forest now, but it incorporates a stunning 2.4 kilometre-long corridor of ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The hot rain (justifying bringing my Barbour yet again) made everything smell amazing, of leaves and mud which mixed with the seawater as you approached the salt marshes. There was no one else in the woods, but I kept expecting someone to step onto the path, asking me to come on an adventure like Alice in a subtropical wonderland.
Downtown Savannah is beautiful: small and charming with lots of little squares and looked-after houses with wrought iron porches. Lots of people have big American flags outside their doors. We walked through the elegant Forsyth Park and then I had the Forsyth burger, which seemed suitable for a Furseth. But possibly the most remarkable of all was the Savannah Gas Company Globe, which we became aware of via a wonderful website called RoadsideAmerica.com. It’s a round gas tank that someone decided to paint like a globe, and then the best part: the mail box next to it has been turned into a representation of the moon. *drops mic, walks off stage*
We are in the Bible Belt. So. Many. Churches. Even where there doesn’t seem to be all that many houses for people there are certainly enough houses of prayer, proclaiming things like, “If no one else is watching, God is”. Only after all this do we realise that the licence plate of our rental car is 666. Which is neither here nor there, except that people here have “Isn’t God great” bumper stickers and generally seem pretty hardcore about it, you know? And then the car in front had a big sticker reading “Gun owners of Georgia” on it. And another one that simply said #LiveFully. I am not reassured by the right of the common man to bear arms.
Alabama is called the Heart of Dixie. We passed through a town called Anniston, which has the world’s largest office chair. It’s no longer the biggest chair in the world, alas, but still: it’s bigger than you’d think. We took a photo of it and then got turned around on the way back, taking a wrong turn into what seemed to be a scrap yard where we were chased away by two dogs. One of them was blind. The owner looked on, either bemused or menacingly, we will never know. But we are still alive. A more serene experience was had in the town of Natural Bridge, which has the longest natural bridge (hence the name) east of the Rockies. Found in a beautiful patch of forest, you walk in under it: 200 million years old, 45 metres long and 18 metres high, cooler than the outside. Free Bible passages at the ticket office.
We stayed the night in Birmingham, which is the biggest city in Alabama. It’s an important site for the Civil Rights movement, including the 16th Street Baptist Church which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. No longer earning the nickname “Bombingham”, Birmingham has done a good job at incorporating its history into the gentrified city experience, but it’s still deserted at night and hence feels a bit eerie. The next morning we passed through Vulcan Park to catch the world’s largest cast iron statue - he’s got an incredible ass on him, is all I can say.
Graceland! Oh my God. I’ve always wanted to see Graceland, in part because my dearest aunt Turid has always been a major Elvis fan. And even after Googling some photos last year and seeing how bonkers it is, Graceland is still so much more insane and amazing. The house looks quite modest from the outside actually, but it’s all happening in there: green shag-carpeted walls, indoor waterfall, mirrored stairways, white leather furniture, three-TV lounge, cars and airplanes, all preserved as it was. Words don’t do it justice. Elvis Presley lives.
Memphis, in the western corner of the Volunteer State, is pretty cool. First, dinner at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous: head down the alley and into the basement and there’s an institution with good pork eating: it’s the charcoal-smoked ribs, dry-rubbed to brilliance. They played “Freebird”. And they bring you two sodas right away, to save time, and a handful of wetwipes. Another proud Memphis tradition takes place at the Peabody Hotel every night at 5pm, when the Duckmaster leads the five resident ducks out of the central fountain, down the red carpet, and into the lift back to their home on the roof. It’s a major spectacle, and the ducks shake their tail feathers to get a rise out of the crowds. No duck is served in the hotel restaurant. Then Beale Street of course, where the blues began, and still happens. Three live acts were playing in the space of two blocks. Several eating establishments have signs at the door, telling people they can’t bring guns inside. We ate at Dyer’s, which is supposed to have one of the best burgers in America. The secret is that they deep-fry the patties, which basically makes them fat, fat manna from heaven. We passed on the deep-fried Twinkie bars, but we’re definitely going to get chunky if we stay here much longer.
It’s all a bit quieter out in the Magnolia State. More greenery, fewer cars on the roads. And one school bus in a ditch. We passed through the northeastern corner on our way to Tennessee, and now we’re travelling down the length of Mississippi to the ocean. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a beautiful scenic route, even if it lost me the road game of “Horse”. My decision to get out of the car to look where a vague sign pointed to the “Sunken Trace” was justified when the spot in question turned up on a postcard in town. It’s a Native American trail, running all the way to Nashville. Imran was unimpressed: “It’s a groove in the ground.” On a different note, there’s Mammy’s Cupboard, a politically incorrect roadside cafe inside the skirt of a massive black woman. And the spire of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, which is a massive gold hand pointing to the heavens: “Jesus went thataway.”
Then, Natchez. Lonely Planet promises it to be a liberal pocket on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, complete with Log Cabin [gay] Republicans and plenty of antebellum charm. This is all true, but part of the story is also the fact that this was the main slave trading site for the region. We opted out of seeing the old “market” and went to dinner instead. At Natchez-Under-the-Hill, the Magnolia Grill served fried green tomatoes, catfish, brown shrimp and sweet potato fries, complete with Louisiana hot sauce. Then we sat on the bench outside, next to the first club Jerry Lee Lewis ever played, and watched the wide, wide blue river, and the yellow sinking sun. This country is vast and massive and endlessly fascinating.
New York, New York.
This is New York. Specifically, this is Irving Farm Coffee Roasters on the Lower East Side, and the city’s got its short sleeves out after a very long winter. Everyone is high on possibility. Or maybe that’s just us: Imran and I are on our honeymoon, 36 days in the United States of America. The locals call it America.
And New York. Ooooh. This is probably the most incredible city in the world. I don’t know what that entails exactly, except the fact that I mean it literally: I cannot believe this place. It is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. It has completely saturated me. New York! It’s so familiar, walking around among all the things you can see in a thousand photos, providing a sense of deja vu as you look across at the State of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry. The Empire State. But there’s so much here that no photo can capture. Like in Midtown, where all those massive buildings are rolling in waves along the straight avenues. There’s no slack, no dead space, as every block earns its keep. There’s something to catch your interest on every corner, says Erum, Imran’s cousin who lives in the East Village. That’s where we’re staying too, in a bolt hole where we sleep and drink coffee in the morning as we stretch sore legs before heading out again. Imran says this place is just a little bit faster, a little more sleepless, a little more ahead than anywhere else. I think New York is just more keen, much more intense. There’s an energy here I’ve never felt anywhere else. Such a rush! I have no doubt that anything could happen here. Anything seems possible.
“The city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” F Scott Fitzgerald
Places. East Village. Katz’s Deli, eating what on Seinfeld was described as “the most sensual of the cured meats”. Pink Prosecco on Erum’s roof, with the bonkers view all the way from Brooklyn to the Empire State Building. First New York breakfast at the Clinton Street Bakery: Huevos Rancheros. Walking the High Line, New York’s newest charm attack. There’s a Thai restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen called Yum Yum, like my favourite in Stoke Newington, but this place dished up the best Pad Kee Mao I have ever had. Dinner with Erum at The Spotted Pig, which feels like a British pub but has a Michelin star and does things to carrots (carrots!) that I didn’t think possible. Tribeca. Little Italy. Chinatown; the place that just says “Fried Dumpling”, five for a dollar, with a sign for “Transfiguration” next door. Walking up to the first pillar on the Brooklyn Bridge, revelling in tourism.
Central Park! The Alice in Wonderland statue, Strawberry Fields, and the two guys who got married by the Bethesda Fountain just as we walked up. The park is like a memory I’ve already had, playing out in real life. I love how the tall city buildings surround the park, like a shelter reminding us that this bit of nature is still in the city. And that the city is massive. The trees are almost completely bare even though it’s April, as winter only let go here about a week ago. Times Square is madness embodied, but in the most exhilarating way with the wall-to-wall flashing billboards and the crowds and the traffic. I realise now I actually had no idea what Times Square looked like, but once you get there you know it. But the best thing about it is possibly Max Neuhaus’s sound installation, which is a deep hum under the central grid, rising up under the mania. It’s loud enough that you don’t miss it, but subtle enough that unless you knew it was deliberate it would just feel like a natural extension of the chaos. Like the Pollock at the MoMA, the trippiest of the lot in this amazing collection: Rothko, Picasso, Matisse and his way with black.
"One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” Tom Wolfe
This city just goes on and on. And the strangest thing - the colour of New York is brown. The place feels oddly retro, like a flash of the 80s, or maybe an alternate timeline, a vision of what the future could look like if the world had been built without restraint. We took the lift up to the top of the Rockefeller Center, nearly 70 floors, so fast that my ears popped three times each way. The island of Manhattan looks smaller from up there but it also feels massive, so dense. The Empire State Building is both of those things, boldly plonked down in the middle of it all, framed by the Hudson and East rivers. We stood up there for an hour, enjoying the perfect temperature after two days of zipped-up coats. And New York is happening. It’s not a place you see, or an experience you have. It’s a place you feel and an experience that has you. There is no sense of perspective here, just one of brash, and earned, entitlement. The Big Apple is bigger and bolder than anywhere else and it knows it. New York commands your full attention and demands nothing less than your unreserved adoration.
Reading List, Island edition.
It’s late and there are no sounds in my house other than the gentle rush of the night traffic, My brain is whirring slowly around nothing and everything, it’s been hours like this and it’s so wonderful when it’s quiet.
I’m still on the meditation, which is nothing like I thought it would be and so much better than I ever thought possible. I am starting to hear the hum again.
[Image: From Iain Baxter ‘Reflected San Francisco Beauty Spots’, 1979]
Los Angeles is a woman. Roxane Gay.
"We are not minds who have bodies, in the way we have a cricket bat or pair of sneakers. We are bodies." Charlotte Wood, via @dailydoseofjess
Keith Gessen in Medium, on the opening up and closing up again of Russia.
A new sense of energy and optimism: The state of journalism 2014, by the Pew Research Journalism Project
Adult Magazine has put some stuff online at long last and it’s thoroughly wonderful. This one is about money and how it feels. This one’s about bad sex (LOL). This one’s in Ruth Curry’s sheets: “It’s one of the nice things that I like about being single - whatever goes, you’re fine.”
"I love the rhythm of all this but it feels like stasis. It feels as if I’m in a purgatory of sorts, and nothing yet has emerged.” Felicia Sullivan
"Sorry, I can’t go out. I’m going to be tired later." Katherine Carlson, The Hairpin.
Pete Doherty, in a field, playing Fuck Forever.
Stevie Nicks’ weather forecast. Because the Internet <3
"The company of fellow travelers, the slow burn, the long view - and the perpetual guiding change of nature. Both are bigger than us; they support and carry us. We can fly at the back of the formation they form and take our place as a part of patterns they make … We set out to make something about companionship and wonder in the face of bitterness and disillusionment - and we set out to hope that companionship and wonder might win." Tilda Swinton, speaking to New York Magazine.
“Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.” Sylvia Plath
"Agatha, who has a birthmark the shape of Mexico."
I got another tattoo in Melbourne, at Third Eye in Fitzroy North. It’s my 11th. It’s a bird, a classic tattoo subject and one that’s been in the back of my mind for many years. But as much as I liked the symbolism of free-flying I could never get it right, as I tried to sketch wings and flocks of swallows. But this! This is a self-made bird, folded out of paper. The shape is based on a necklace I got in Berlin, an impulse purchase next to the till at a shop in Friedrichshain. I copied it onto paper and worked out the right size, courtesy of the public photocopiers at the State Library of Victoria. While all my ink is relatively modest, this is the biggest and most prominent piece I have. I love it.
My first copywriting project has started going live - Think.Brilliant. is published by CNN International in collaboration with ANZ Bank. I’m working up copy for 8 of the 24 pieces in this series on creative management, expertly illustrated by the designers at Turner Commercial Productions. This is different from my usual work, and surprisingly good fun.
Meanwhile, in journalism, some articles lately.
* On tangerines, tangents and North Pole adventures: Interview with Charles Nasser, founder and CEO of Claranet, in Megabuyte.
* For Aquila kids magazine: Technology as aid in times of crisis.
* How to work a room: Interview with Daniel Sasaki, MD of LDC London, in Megabuyte.
* Rory Powe and the long game, in Hedge Magazine (p30-34).
* On one hit wonders and musical chairs: Social media is in a valuation bubble, maybe, probably. In Interactive Investor.
I also did some news shifts at Interactive Investor, because I can still speak stockmarket.
The East London Group was an artist collective active in the 1920-30s. Their work is a record of the East London that was, now that the area is changing so rapidly. But it’s still there in pockets, especially in places like Bow, Limehouse and Poplar, along the Docklands Light Railway.
Top: Bow Bridge by Walter Steggles
Bottom: Bow Road by Elwin Hawthorne
The freelancing life just turned three, in January. And I’m still alive! It feels like it’s been a long time, but also like I’ve barely started. I filled out a freelancer survey the other day, flipping a coin on the question whether I’ll still be doing this in five years. I’ve been thinking about things a lot lately, but flexibility is a tough habit to kick … In any case I’ve never really planned my future beyond a year, and even then it’s usually guesswork. Then again, I decided to become a journalist at 17, and now it’s 17 years later.
Things I like about it.
The variety. This is odd because I’ve had the same breakfast for four years, but with work I get very excited, and then I get restless. But this way there’s always something else happening next week, and it’s a constant treat. It’s the sense of possibility, I guess. And I love the freedom to work in a cafe or on a train, or in Melbourne or San Francisco. No clock-watching, no office politics, just doing the work. And working from home! It’s bliss. The isolation is a problem for some freelancers, but for me, hell is a place with constant interruptions.
Things I don’t like about it.
Pitching. Does anyone love this? I need to do more of it. Sometimes I miss working in an office where you make a suggestion and the editor says “OK, do that”, or when a section editor goes on holiday and you fill in for them and “officially” get that experience. Also, I’d like to make more money! I want to write more fun stuff for money. I’d like to jump out of bed every morning, raring to go, like they bang on about on Lifehacker. As it turns out, getting up in the morning pretty much sucks regardless, but at least there’s no commute.
Things I’m pretty sure about.
* Even if no one will see you, you really do need to get dressed. Nothing fancy, just have a wash and put on something clean. Then, if you want, go back and work in bed.
* Figure out what time of day you’re most productive and do the brain-heavy stuff then. For me, this is the afternoon. Related: Being an early risers doesn’t suggest moral superiority, it’s just genetics.
* Work when you work (that means closing the Twitter tab), and don’t work when it’s your day/night off. Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. And always make sure there’s food in the house. Seriously - hanger is real.
… That’s pretty much it, I think. Except for this:
Reading list, Purist edition.
“Reality is in the details, and even if you can predict what’s going to happen you can’t imagine how you’ll feel.” [Chris Kraus / I love Dick]
[Image via Behance: Not Girl with a Pearl Earring]
"There always has to be somebody with a story, somebody who isn’t completely defined by their past achievements, somebody who’s prepared to do ‘that’ … Somebody who will come close to the photographer and be forthright and opinionated, because so many interviews you read these days, you give yourself a shake and realise they’re not saying anything at all." Penny Martin discusses The Gentlewoman, in Stack.
I’m so happy about Eva Wiseman, and her ways.
This piece on Nicole Dieker’s first job in telemarketing is strangely wonderful. In The Billfold.
Like I said to my friend: “If you are in the market for a ranty, sweary blog written by a brilliant, mouthy lady with no regard for etiquette, sexual delicacy or personal hygiene, Sam Irby’s your gal.”
"That many freelancers sound like they have to defend their chosen career path says something about the state of the work world. It’s as if being satisfied in your work and how you go about it is something to feel guilty about; like somehow being your own boss is equated with not having a real job and faffing about in your jammies; as if in order to do real work you have toil away at a ‘stable’ job with an office and its attendant politics.” Rae Ann Fera in FastCo Create.
"I hate that by advocating for a few minutes of time to myself it makes me sound like I don’t enjoy collaboration—as if one must be the opposite of the other." In defence of the do-not-disturb sign, by Jason Feifer on FastCompany.
A polaroid a day from San Francisco.
That video of strangers kissing.
I paid the light bill just to see your face: Stephen Powers, muralist. And, Don’t Fret.
The XX Factor section on Slate has been really good lately.
"The face that radiates no life experience, and so, so much awkwardness. While I may not look better at 30 than at 23 … there’s something nice about knowing that whichever ravages of ancientness have yet to reduce me to looking as I did at 16.” Phoebe Maltz Bovy.
This is a timeline of how old Joan Didion was when she published her various books, essays and scripts, because the good stuff takes time. And, Joan Didion on the economy of words.