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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Manhattan in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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How Woody Allen's Manhattan became Donald Trump's New York

Trump took everything that Allen hated about California - charity galas, golf, awards fever, architectural bad taste - and brought it to New York.

The transformation of faded, fire-ravaged, job-bleeding ‘third-world’ New York (signature headline: “President to City: Drop Dead”) into a safe, clean, smug, wealthy, first-world-problems kind of place (presiding logo: “I ❤ NY”) is popularly associated with the work of three men, Ed Koch, Donald Trump, and Woody Allen.

In their different ways, they embodied – when they didn’t help to engineer – all manner of civic, fiscal, economic, municipal, cultural, and spiritual change. 1978 was the turning-point. That year, Koch became mayor and went about healing the crises that had occurred under the previous incumbent, Abe Beame. Trump, exploiting the city’s new tax incentives, bought the decrepit old Commodore Hotel – later the Grand Hyatt – and began negotiating the sale of the Bonwit Teller flagship store, just south-east of Central Park, the future site of Trump Tower. In that same year, Allen – who was born in Brooklyn in 1935, the year that Trump’s developer father, Fred, began to concentrate his business in that borough – co-wrote, directed, and starred in Manhattan, which was released the following April.

The film, which has just been reissued in a 4K print, is an attempt to salvage New York from its scuzzy 1970s manifestation, and an exercise in what the cinematographer Gordon Willis called “romantic reality”. In glistening widescreen black-and-white, abetted by a Gershwin score, Manhattan presents the borough as an assemblage of highlights: Bloomingdale’s, John’s Pizzeria, the Dalton School, Hayden Planetarium (actually a set), 30 Rock, MOMA, the Guggenheim, Elaine’s, the Russian Tea Room, and so on. Sitting in the park at Sutton Place, in sight of the Queensboro Bridge, Allen's character Isaac Davis says, “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anybody says. Really a knockout.” (The moment required some airbrushing. The crew had to find a bench from somewhere and on the original poster the image was tinkered with, to reduce the size of the buildings in the background.)

The case-against had been made, or at least heard, two years earlier, in  Allen’s first proper New York film, Annie Hall. At one point, Alvy Singer (Allen) says that his friend Rob (Tony Roberts), who loves Los Angeles and thinks Alvy ought to move there, should be doing Shakespeare in the Park. “I did Shakespeare in the Park," he replies. "I got mugged.” In Manhattan going to Shakespeare in the Park is invoked as just another pleasant thing to do and the only threat to safety is the occasional rain storm. Nobody troubles to talk up LA. (The reasons that praise for that city falls on deaf ears in Allen’s work include its lack of seasons, its love of prizes, its congenital faddishness, and the necessity to drive.)

The film’s opening is a montage of over thirty images (pedestrian excitement, New Year’s fireworks, a pre-Trump skyline), garnished with Gershwin, and set to a voiceover of Isaac contemplating possible first paragraphs for a novel. It’s also the sound of Allen airing his conflicted feelings. The first begins, “He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion.” He proceed to dismiss draft versions as too corny, too angry, too preachy. He eventually settles on one that begins, “He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved” and ends “New York was his town and it always would be.” But in every version, there is some acknowledgement of Isaac's romanticism – the rosy tint of his perspective.

On Manhattan's release, the New Statesman film critic John Coleman, used it as an occasion to knock Annie Hall and Interiors (1978), in the process eliding some very large differences. He described the films' shared setting as “elitist, snob-cultural New York chic, full of encounters in OK restaurants between people with time on their hands and themselves on their minds”. Coleman was following a critical agenda set by Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books (“the sense of social reality in these pictures is dim in the extreme”). However, Didion was a self-confessed apostate from New York worship – leaving the city was the subject of her essay “Goodbye to All That” – so maybe she was just the person to miss the point entirely? James Wolcott, looking back in his memoir Lucking Out – in some ways a riposte to Didion's neuroses – calls the film's opening “a balm for every bruise that New York had taken in the seventies, a relieved sigh from the trenches signaling that perhaps the worst was over, somehow we had come through”.

Allen made no attempt to defend the city against a more general, less time-specific charge – what might be considered the "Manhattan libel".  As Alvy Singer puts it, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers.” He speaks for his creator when he adds, “I think of us that way, and I live here.” In Allen’s view, New York was not just decaying but decadent, heaving with snobs as well as lowlifes, its integrity under threat from above and below. Sitting with Annie on a park bench, he pokes fun at the passersby, among them a cigar-chewing mafioso and “the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest” – in fact, Capote himself. The film stages encounters with both kinds of bad New Yorker, who are placed in implicit contrast with a pair of European film-makers who, to Allen, embodied the right balance of refinement and modishness, sophistication and popular appeal. Waiting outside a cinema to see Bergman’s Face to Face, Alvy, a stand-up comic, is accosted by a pair of Italian-Americans who vaguely recognise him from television. Queueing elsewhere for a documentary, he winces as a academic from Columbia complains about the new Fellini.

In Manhattan, the gangster types are gone, but the film reinforces the idea of New York as a phoney-magnet. After bumping into his married friend Yale (Michael Murphy) with his lover Mary (Diane Keaton), Isaac complains to his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a seventeen-year-old high-school student, that Yale has always been a sucker for the kind of women who involve him “in discussions of existential reality.” Though Isaac soon falls for Mary himself, a glimpse of their first date shows him throwing up his hands as they emerge from a screening of the silent Soviet film Earth, and we cut to them reentering her apartment as he says that as far as he’s concerned, a great movie is something with W.C. Fields. In the next scene, standing before a sculpture, he mockingly deploys Mary-ish terms like “negative capability”. She ends up back with Yale.

***

Allen managed to sustain his adoration of the city by associating its true nature exclusively with things and types he doesn’t loathe. It’s an incoherent vision – or at least fixed according to his unique set of peccadilloes, his narrow definition of what isn’t philistine and what isn’t pretentious, what occupies the space between the anti-rational and hyper-rational. Alvy Singer calls himself a “bigot but for the left,” but Allen's position is a little more paradoxical. He abhors mass-culture phenomena like pop music and television, but worships baseball and basketball and old movies (often watched on late-night cable). He looks with equal disdain on haute couture and academe, corruption and radicalism, accountancy and flower power. He loves museums and jazz and Chinese takeaways but is suspicious of conceptual art and rock and fast food. He likes pizza but not punk, smutty jokes but not foul language, gazing at bridges but not crossing them, psychoanalytic vocabulary but no other kind of jargon, Broadway but not modern theatre, cultural references but not high-culture seriousness (what Alvy calls “fake insights”), city parks and rivers but not the country, kooks and innocents but not hippies, the yuppie-crowded Upper East Side – “the zone” – but not Wall Street or, really, any of the downtown area. (Gershwin is a kind of ideal – a graduate of Tin Pan Alley, immersed in the French art song and Austrian modernism, who wrote jazz and "folk opera".)

At the end of Manhattan, Allen names eleven things that make life worth living – a hodgepodge that reflects his arbitrary high-low aesthetic. Seven of them are strongly associated with New York: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Brando, Sinatra, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, “Tracy’s face.” Even Cézanne’s "incredible" Still Life with Apples and Pears is housed at the Met.

The gentrifying processes that occurred during Ed Koch’s administration made Manhattan-worship a more obvious pastime – and an easier position to maintain. There were fewer problems of the crime-and-garbage variety, although it’s possible Allen over-stressed the revamp. Less overly romantic than ManhattanHannah and Her Sisters (1986), which concerns the extended circle of an Upper West Side family, prompted the charge of white-washing. Even Mia Farrow’s mother, Maureen Stapleton, who appears as the matriarch, said that the film was so beautiful “it almost makes you forget all the dog poop on the streets.”

Allen has said that his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors was intended as a retort to Hannah and Her Sisters, in which, he felt, he’d been too easy on the characters. (His original title was Brothers.) But there are also signs of Allen becoming tougher on his setting. Early on, Clifford Stern (Allen) and his niece emerge from a screening of Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith and confronts “awful”, rain-lashed Greenwich Village, the real city diverging from the sparkling pre-war paradise.

And if the city's economic revival had done something to bridge this chasm and return Manhattan to its pomp, it had its downside – no, not the escalating rents but the influx of vulgarians, responding to the re-found hipness. As Allen softened on artsy types, he redoubled his aversion to the airhead. In Hannah and Her Sisters, there's a young record company executive – Dusty – whose approach to art collection is entirely determined by size and colour scheme. And in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford’s brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a television producer with a “closet full of Emmys”, a dyed-in-the-wool Los Angeleno, is considering a move to the city, a place he describes, in one of many pseudo-epigrams, as “thousands of straight lines looking for a punchline.” (Allen’s twin bugbears, philistinism and prentension, are perfectly combined in Lester’s reference to a university course on “existential motifs in my situation comedies”.) Husbands and Wives (1992) revealed more fears of a total Californification of the city's tastes and habits, the full list of pathogens that had blown eastwards including charity galas, long speeches, astrology, aerobics,  golf, health food, cocktail dresses, awards fever–and architectural bad taste.

The chief representative of these changes – the vulgarian-in-chief – was Donald Trump, another immigrant from the outer-boroughs (Queens, in this case) who as a boy had made saucer-eyed visits to Manhattan. To the adolescent Allen, New York was the place depicted by Hitchcock in Mr and Mrs Smith, the formula he lovingly re-created in the film within The Purple Rose of Cairo (1986): tuxedos, evening gowns, white telephones, theatre trips. For Trump, it was the Midtown bustle and neon that made New York feel like “the center of the world.” Allen, starting out, aspired to be like S.J. Perelman, or Groucho. Trump emulated his developer hero Bill Zeckendorf. Fred Trump did most of his work in the outer boroughs. (He even inspired a song by another Woody, Guthrie, who was appalled by the segregation policies in Trump senior's housing projects.) But in The Art of the Deal, Trump recalls that he had “loftier dreams and visions” and couldn’t shake his determination that Manhattan was where the action was – or would be. He claimed that though the city was at a low – “suffering from a crisis of confidence” – it didn’t keep him “up nights”.  Things “ultimately” had to turn around. In the meantime, “I saw the city’s trouble as a great opportunity for me.”

In 1971, the year he became head of his father’s company, Trump Management, Donald Trump moved into a run-down flat on the Upper East Side – with the coveted 10021 zip code – which he jokingly called his penthouse. Meanwhile, Allen was living barely three blocks away in a penthouse duplex that Dick Cavett likened to the hero’s home in the 1930s New York film The Man Who Played God. But Trump soon caught up in the grandeur stakes, nabbing the penthouse triplex atop the Trump Tower, and a Park view from 57th and Fifth rather than 74th and Fifth. Allen was chauffeured round the city in a cream Rolls-Royce, Trump in a silver Cadillac (with his initials on the number plate). With Ed Koch being perennially single, Trump and Ivana competed with Woody and Mia as the leading couple of 80s Manhattan – both relationships lasted the whole decade before hitting the buffers in similar tabloid style – but they represented altogether different versions of the new New York. 

There’s a brief, almost perfunctory moment in Manhattan where Isaac notes a group of construction works pulling down an old building. “Can’t they have those things declared landmarks?” Mary asks, and Isaac reflects that the city’s “really changing”. The next film Allen made in modern New York, Broadway Danny Rose (1984), was supposed to have a 1940s setting, but Allen said that he couldn’t find “a half block” of Times Square that hadn’t been “junked up”. In Hannah and Her Sisters, an architect whose own work strains to respect the atmosphere and proportions of the surroundings does a tour of local charms which ends with a concrete, hole-punched slab on the Beaux-Arts-heavy East 62nd Street, an edifice that the journalist Joe Klein described as resembling a cheese grater. “What’s permitted in this city is just terrible; it’s a crime,” Allen said, the year the film came out. (In Annie Hall, architectural inconsistency is strongly associated with Beverly Hills: “French next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese.”) By the time of Husbands and Wives, he had a character who worked for the Landmarks Trust. A magazine editor played by Liam Neeson tells her, “I don’t believe in capital punishment except for certain New York developers.” (Preparing the way for the Tower, Trump had refused to preserve – in fact, cosigned to the jackhammer – the bronze grillwork and a pair of art-deco fifteen-foot-high bas-relief of goddesses dancing over Fifth Avenue.)

Trump had received a name-check in Crimes and Misdemeanors when Lester says into his dictaphone: “Idea for series: a wealthy, high-profile builder who’s always trying to realise grandiose dreams à la Donald Trump, to be shot in New York.” Though the idea is supposed to reveal Lester’s frivolity and self-absorption – he's mid-conversation at the time – it’s telling that even he shows a hint of scepticism. 

Then came Celebrity (1998), the satire which to date remains Allen's final statement on modern New York. The film is a reply to Manhattan, its use of black and white and an opening onslaught of New York locales seeming darkly ironic – as if this hell-hole is worthy of monochrome and montage! Although the central character, the journalist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), seems to be writing the same book as Isaac in Manhattan, this time the city fails to come through. At one point, a mad young movie star (DiCaprio) takes Lee to the Trump Marina in Atlantic City for a boxing match and a foursome. Later, Lee’s ex-wife, a teacher-turned-TV host, wanders around a fashionable restaurant, Le Bijou, making small talk for the camera with an estate agent to the stars, a disgraced senator, a gossip columnist – and Trump himself. It was an inspired manipulation of available resources. Le Bijou was really Jean-Georges, which is based at the lobby level of the Trump International Hotel and Tower–an attack on New York in the 90s could hardly do without one of his branded buildings – and Trump often demanded an appearance in films that made use of his buildings. (Ed Koch’s cameo, in the short film Oedipus Wrecks, came at Allen’s request.) Here Trump reports plans – invented, but only just – to erect a "very, very tall and beautiful building" on the site of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The new fame-and-lifestyle obsession is aligned with the desire to dislodge a priceless monument in favour of a shear-wall phallus.

Manhattan could only have been made during a very short period.  It’s a snapshot of a city in transition, at just the point when the horrors of the 70s were beginning to fade and the horrors of the 80s – by Allen’s lights – had yet to declare themselves. For the next twenty years, even as he yearned to idealise New York, Allen couldn't ignore the new realities, and Celebrity marked the point at which the scales tipped. Since then he has sought alternative routes to a romanticism of place, setting his films against an unspecific, attractive New York movie-backdrop (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda), venturing to Europe (London, Barcelona, Paris, Rome), and travelling back in time. Starting with Zelig (1983), he has paid half-a-dozen visits to New York’s hallowed past. After all, the decades of greed, kitsch, and indifference to history furnish varied opportunities for nostalgia. His next film, Wonder Wheel, concerns a Coney Island amusement park, and takes place in the late 1950s – just moments before Fred Trump started work on Trump Village, the twenty-plus-storey apartment complex that overshadowed Steeplechase Park and dwarfed its prize ride, the Parachute Jump, the so-called Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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