I am so lucky to have a sister who likes doing the same things as me. We’ve just spent four days in New York (again, lucky), and we walked and walked, as we always do. From the Meatpacking District down to the Lower East Side to visit a restored synagogue; along the High Line and around the Whitney; uptown to the Guggenheim and through Central Park; over the bridge from Brooklyn and back up to the East Village.
In the daytime we were all trainers and bumbags, then after dark we found ourselves on a rooftop being serenaded by an era-appropriate soundtrack of “Saturday Love”, “Everything She Wants” and “Club Tropicana”. Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” played in the back of a cab as we hurtled off to a restaurant, the streets looking as much like a film as ever.
There’s also something great about seeing an actual film in the city where it’s set. In an art cinema in Greenwich Village, we watched a documentary about Studio 54. It wasn’t full of new information for those who know the story, but still, there again was that footage of the dance floor and the balcony; the velvet rope and the ridiculous queue; all the wonderful showing off. It’s thrilling to see those gorgeous busboys in shorts, and gorgeous Liza wearing Halston, and if no one in the film talked much about the music, that’s because the focus was more on the theatrics and sex and drugs, and dreams of freedom, however short-lived they were.
The whole mad adventure only lasted 33 months, before owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were imprisoned for skimming 80 per cent of the takings and avoiding tax. The club was sold and then closed down. The Disco Sucks movement reared its ugly head, prompting a bunch of misguided idiots to blow up some of the best records ever made, and before you could blink, history was marching on. Reagan got elected. Aids appeared and that generation of brilliant young men began to die, Rubell among them.
“Young Hearts Run Free” plays over the closing credits as we leave the cinema, just to emphasise the beautiful ephemera of it all. And I’m reminded that we’re here in the States at a funny time. I look at my phone to see a BBC news alert reporting that the US Senate has voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. And outside on the street a woman passes me wearing a badge that reads, “I believe you Christine Blasey Ford.” Then a woman passes me wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Nevertheless she persisted.” And the next day another woman passes me carrying a newspaper, the front page bearing the words, in capitals, “Justice Kavanaugh”.
At the Whitney we see an exhibition entitled “Where We Are”. Various artworks from the collection have been organised around themes expressed in Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”, which he wrote, in New York, at the outbreak of the war. “I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street/Uncertain and afraid,” it begins, summoning up a mood that many may still think is prescient. It famously includes the line “We must love one another or die”, which Auden later claimed to hate so much that he changed it to “We must love one another and die”, although that still seems pretty resilient and affirmative to me. Love won’t save us, nevertheless we persist.
The works on display explore questions of American identity. There are Hopper street scenes, Jasper Johns’s American flag, photos of Harlem in the Twenties, and Alice Neel’s portrait of Andy Warhol with his scarred stomach after he’d been shot by Valerie Solanas.
Afterwards, we walk to Central Park, past the Dakota building, and the Diana Ross playground, and through a street entrance bearing the words “Women’s Gate”. Women’s Gate. It sounds like a hashtag right now.
The weather is unseasonably warm and humid, and later on, the cloud cover comes down low over the city, the tops of the buildings disappearing into the grey of the sky. Trainers on, we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and away over the water the Statue of Liberty sits, shrouded in mist, but still there, and still visible. Just.
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash