New York. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I’ve got the New York bug – and it turns out the condition is hereditary

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So it looks as though I am going to be going to New York again. My mother, who left Manhattan to be with my father over half a century ago, still feels the pull of the place and has decided that she had better go there one more time while she still can. And the reason I can afford to go there is because she’s paying for my ticket. Well, you don’t turn down a free trip to New York, do you? Not even with your mother. Who, in my case, will be keeping a beady eye on the number of brandy-and-sodas I drink as part of my copyrighted anti-jet-lag system on the way there and back.

She has friends there, although sadly Cousin Lee, who mesmerised me when I was a child not because he was obviously gay but because he shaved with lather and a blade, died in 2009. Going to see him was the true, classy New York experience: a place in the mid-50s, east side, a luxurious apartment with a kitchen the size of a tea-chest (in which, however, he could cook sumptuous meals); trips to Chinatown and the best Jewish delis in town.

My mother, who used to appear on Broadway, still has New York in her blood and she would always watch the latest New Yorkbased TV shows – Rhoda, Kojak – so she could see how her city was getting on. “The best Kojak episodes are the ones with drugs in them,” she once confided in me and she was right – nothing else provided such a frisson, and a scene where the bald, lollipop sucking Telly Savalas shows his nephew a tenement stuffed with shivering junkies has probably done more than anything else to keep me off the skag for life.

The condition – New Yorkitis – is hereditary. I showed the kids The Odd Couple with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon the other weekend and despite there being no spies, spaceships or elves in it, just a lot of talk, they loved it. And what talk. The film may be a thinly disguised version of a play with a low proportion of exterior shots, but it is as muggy with the atmosphere of the place as an un-air-conditioned summer’s day there. The natural heat of the place is, in its way, a character; think also of Rear Window. I first went to the city as a child, around the same time The Odd Couple was made, and to me that is how New York is meant to look: the cabs are that shape, policemen’s caps are pointy around the circumference, like Officer Dibble’s in Top Cat, and the men wear natty pork-pie hats. It’s as archaic an image as that of a London wracked with pea-soupers but any deviation from it I am capable of blanking utterly. There are enough satisfactory relics.

That said, I tend to enjoy the full contemporary experience when I go to the City That Never Sleeps, which means I am more John Self in Money than the loquacious nebbish of a Woody Allen story. And after the last time, which ended up in a miserable, hopeless search round the Diamond District for a stolen gold watch, I was more than half glad that financial considerations would prevent me from making the trip there ever again. I need to be kept on a leash while I’m there. It starts with oysters at Grand Central and ends up trying to give the correct description to a policeman in Times Square at four o’clock in the morning.

I wonder whether the problem is that London isn’t really anything, but New York really is New York. When T S Eliot called London the Unreal City, he was on to something. London is simply too sprawling for us to see it – we’re out of scale with it, or in the wrong dimension.

I’ve lived here for about 98 per cent of my life and feel my grasp of the place actually slipping as I get older. Whereas New York’s quiddity and immensity peers down at you the whole time. The place is an intramuscular injection of hard-core, uncut cityness which, after London’s methadone, comes as quite a jolt and can cause some people to overdose. And you don’t have to be a big, brash city to have this effect on the Londoner: pretty much anywhere else can do it.

Meanwhile, I flick through the pages of my stiff new US passport. Compared with its predecessor, this is a document so stuffed with patriotic bling that it makes you want to cringe. Each page has either an eagle or a cowboy or a steam train or a sailing ship or a Statue of Liberty and an inspiring quote to go with it. It’s funny. Every time I think to myself that this is the time I will cast off my wimpy Englishness and move to the US, something happens to make me go “oh, deary me. Tut tut.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

Show Hide image

Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue