City remembers: New York mayor Bill de Blasio at the 9/11 memorial. Photo: Getty
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It’s New York, it’s almost Christmas and we’re ladies: but we’re not here to shop

Tracey Thorn’s Off the Record column. 

I’m sentimental about New York. I’ve spent enough time here over the years to feel some connection but never enough for the magic to fade, so it’s still Wonderland to me. In my ear sings Paddy McAloon – “Strolling Fifth Avenue,/Just to think, Sinatra’s been here, too . . .” – and I share his rose-tinted specs.

So I’m almost disappointed to discover that nowadays two women visiting for a long weekend, as my sister and I are, will be assumed by everyone from the check-in people to the cabin crew to be on a shopping trip. It’s New York, it’s the run-up to Christmas and, hey! You’re ladies, you must be shopping, am I right?

No, we’re not and despite our smiles we are slightly affronted at the suggestion, for we are here not to buy but to look. To walk and wander, eat and drink, marvel at it all. To “hang”, if you like. We have restaurants booked, theatre tickets lined up, excursions planned, a four-day, non-stop itinerary to keep to, so we are ready and raring to go. Much like the man next to me on the plane who, as we prepare to land at JFK, reaches into his bag for a can of deodorant and shoves it up his shirt to give each armpit a blast. It’s New York, after all. Being prepared is the least you can do.

I first came here on tour back in the 1980s; old photos show me eager and youthful, posing reverentially outside the Brill Building, my dyed blonde spiky hair blown back by the howling gale at the top of the Empire State. In the 1990s, Ben and I tried living here for a very short while, in an apartment over a now-derelict shoe shop on Chambers Street where, a few years later, some of the rescue operation would be based after 9/11.

Our stay was long ago and the city has changed so much, but the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed still hangs over it. At least, I assume that shadow is what accounts for so much of the continued security everywhere – the bag searches at the Empire State Building, the police presence all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, the coastguard patrol boat with a machine gun mounted on the prow escorting the Staten Island Ferry.

The romantic in me has always seen the city as a place of vibrancy and joy but these reminders of sadness are hard to ignore. They’re brought into focus at the 9/11 Memorial, a vast water feature sited on the footprint of the twin towers. There’s something Zen-like and calming about it, a huge version of the flowing water in Japanese temple gardens, but at the same time I can’t help seeing it as a kind of giant sink, conjuring up the unwelcome thought of lives being washed away down the plughole. The idea feels disrespectful but perhaps it’s not wrong to feel the awful sense of loss and of waste. People literally vanished into the ground beneath our feet here, down where the water flows.

After this sorrow, the rest of our trip is all joy. We walk for miles and stare at all the sights and drink in little bars to a soundtrack of Feist and New Order, Spandau Ballet and Dolly Parton. We go to an evening of Peggy Lee songs performed by a varied line-up of singers, all fantastic.

Finally, for our last night, we splash out on a midtown hotel with a view. Checking in, we hear that our travel agent is one of the hotel’s “preferred partners” and from that moment we are treated like royalty, both of us upgraded to a suite on the 49th floor and handed $100 to spend in the spa. Being a cool and world-weary traveller, I spend only two hours taking photos of the room, which is the size of a decent flat.

Even this high up and through the thick double glazing, you can hear the streets below, car horns and police sirens. On it goes, noise and lights, all day and all night, a gift of sound and vision.

When I return later, a fog has descended and my room is almost lost in it. The view now is pure Gotham City. Or Blade Runner, thrilling and spooky and I have never felt further from home.

If I ever get blasé about New York, please take me out and shoot me. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit