Winter in New York
The weather in New York during December is somewhat erratic. Last week it got as low as -3 degrees centigrade, while a few days later it had climbed back up to +16, then two days after that it was back down to around freezing. The locals tell me this is perfectly normal, but it does involve a degree of planning that I’m not used to. On milder days the
weather is perfect for urban exploring – recently I spent a fascinating day roaming around the Bronx and Upper Manhattan – but when it gets into minus territory either a library or one of the city’s many museums are a more practical option.
Like London, New York is full of museums, and I’ve now visited so many (usually checking-in via Facebook) that friends and colleagues are accusing me of making some up, particularly those devoted to more obscure collections or subjects. Take the Mossman Lock Collection (at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the
City of New York), for example, the Skyscraper Museum or the tiny 'Mmuseumm’, the last of which is housed in a former elevator shaft in a Lower Manhattan alleyway. It has a plausible claim to being the smallest in the US (if not the world), and one of its shelves was devoted to Trump paraphernalia, books, scents and golf balls from the president- elect’s array of hotels, resorts and office buildings.
Presciently, it was added to the always-changing 'permanent’ collection at the beginning of this year. A visit to the modest but absorbing Museum of the Chinese in America also brought to mind recent political events. It included a section on what was known as 'the Chinese Question’ in the late 19th century, and the resulting Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress in 1882. This represented the first time a whole people were barred as a 'race’ from entering America, although the law left loopholes for so-called 'good Chinamen’, merchants, students, diplomats and so on.
Otherwise they were treated as dangerous 'rats’ threatening the virtuous republic, although many Americans seemed quite happy for those rats to do their laundry, much like the modern-day hypocrisy which enable Republicans to condemn illegal migrants while employing them to clean their houses or mow their lawns.
Cinemas – sorry, movie theaters – also offer respite from the winter cold, and any cinephile is spoilt for choice in New York. Recently I saw an engaging documentary, 'Shoot First’, about the Glaswegian photographer Harry Benson, who despite half a century in the United States still hasn’t lost his accent. Best known for capturing the Beatles’ pillow fight during their 1964 American tour, he also has the distinction of having photographed every US president since Eisenhower.
Featured in the documentary is Donald J Trump, whom Benson first shot as a young real estate heir back in the 1970s. It seems the president-elect is a fan of the Scottish photographer, as indeed are many of his celebrity subjects. This led the New York Times to conclude, rather sniffily, that the documentary is 'too worshipful’, although to be fair it does dwell on the ethics of two famous Benson photographs: the 1968 assassination of Robert F Kennedy and an elderly Greta Garbo going for a swim.
When it comes to the former, Benson’s justification is plausible: as a professional his duty to record a tragic historical moment took precedence over what (arguably limited) help he could have offered as a human bystander, but on the latter, his denial of having
behaved like a 'paparazzo’ isn’t very convincing. No one had commissioned him to capture Garbo swimming, but naturally any images of the elusive star proved both memorable and profitable. Many of these photographs are also on show at the private Staley-Wise gallery in SoHo, including my favourite pairing, a portrait of the Washington
Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein below another of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation.
The Electoral College
The backdrop to Monday’s meeting – or rather meetings – of the Electoral College, meanwhile, was news of a Watergate-like break in, albeit one involving Russians and computers rather than Cubans and filing cabinets. For some reason it took me weeks and endless emails and phone calls to establish whether I’d be able to attend a meeting
of state electors near New York, but finally on Friday a helpful press officer in Hartford, Connecticut, told me I was welcome to observe its seven electors in action.
It proved a fascinating experience, both solemn and informal, straightforward and rather opaque. Given that Hillary Clinton carried Connecticut in last month’s election, its electors – like those in all but two states – were expected (though not obliged) to vote for the Democratic nominee. But it was nevertheless odd to hear that she and Tim Kaine had received all their votes for president and vice president respectively. The Honourable Robert D Godfrey, the electors’ chairman, referred in a short speech to the fact that they, rather than the people, 'truly’ elected the next head of state, a feature of the US constitution he said he’d be quite happy to 'do away with’. This was greeted with a smattering of applause, for Hartford is as far from Trump country as it’s possible to get.
At the weekend President Obama referred to the Electoral College as a 'vestige’, but it has now carried out what Connecticut secretary of state Denise Merrill called the 'second phase’ of American democracy, the third and final being the inauguration in a
month’s time. Outside the handsome State Capitol building were a smattering of protestors rather half-heartedly demanding that the Electoral College 'save’ the US and 'stop Trump’, while in an earlier 'invocation’, the Cornwall-born Dr Mohammed Qureshi of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community had asked God to 'protect us from all forms of
dishonesty’. Behind me someone grunted ironically, no doubt thinking of the next president in all his post-truth pomp.