The trouble with driving into the city is nostalgia. Manhattan Island looms into view and it still has the same effect of wonderment as it did long ago. Once walking the streets, however, reality sets in with a bang. And it is a bang! Manhattan is one big building site, cement mixers and drills having replaced the soft tunes of Tin Pan Alley that I first heard when walking to Broadway and 47th Street. Back then it was the haunting voice of Jo Stafford singing ‘No other love can warm my heart’, or Buddy Clark’s mellow tenor voice letting it all hang out in ‘It’s a big wide wonderful world you live in. When you’re in love you’re a master of all you survey…’ Boy, what tunes, what words, what a city — now there’s nothing but noise and ugly people like Bono posing as artists and lecturing us from a stage.
We used to play a lot of touch football in Central Park every Sunday morning. The hangovers and arthritis have put a stop to it, and the signs saying don’t do this and don’t do that are no help. It seems everything’s verboten by the city except for very ugly people with very long hair getting on platforms and making unendurable noises with electric instruments and loudspeakers. They call this obscenity a concert in the park. Still, the city that never sleeps brings back some wonderful memories of a wonderful life that once upon a time seemed it would never end. The first southerly winds of spring, women shoppers full of bundles at Christmas time, trick or treat at Halloween, girls sunning themselves in bikinis on rooftops in summer, stolen kisses on 5th Avenue, afternoon assignations at the Plaza, dancing until closing time at El Morocco.
Nostalgia is nothing but a memory of pleasant times, and the sight of a baronial old brewery or the smell of a certain perfume — not to mention a tune — trigger it. The Flatiron building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler building, my old rooms that I can spot from a mile away on the 14th floor of the Sherry Netherland’s façade, all have that effect on me. I often wonder why Edward Hopper didn’t paint the Flatiron, but in his 1942 ‘Nighthawks’ perhaps he did. In between modern horrors, I sometime spot the elegant Italianate box of brownstones, still standing after a century and a half of progress. Back then it was brick and brownstone and my favourite, limestone. Now it’s all glass, and the ghastlier and taller, the better.
Gazing southward across Central Park early in the morning, where I go to clear my head, my eyes used to be gratified by the sight of Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, even Nine, 57th Street, the ski-jump building next to Lord & Taylor where my father had his penthouse offices. That southern view is about to change for ever, as the greedy types have won the day and 1,000ft and more towers are going up quicker than people like the Candy Brothers can ruin London views. For 90 million greenbacks some Chinese dirtbag has bought the penthouse of One, 57th Street and has already put it back on the market for 120. It’s called flipping it, but I prefer another name not suitable for this magazine. The aesthetic cost of these billionaire beanstalks is never mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg, a Napoleon wannabe who has sold the city out to the richest bidder, in a manner lots of very short and ugly people like himself tend to do. Despite having 22 billion, Bloomberg is still insecure as hell, the way he should be. (He obviously never got the girl when young, never wore a Marine uniform to make him look less ugly, never heard the cheers on a Saturday afternoon.)
Tall and chunky curtains of glass do not for a graceful skyline make. And it’s mostly the Chinese who are buying. In fact Central Park South will one day allow only Chinese to enter, with Chinese coppers doing the policing of the place. These horrid nouveaux riches have no idea about grace and beauty — bigger and taller is all they understand — and the Russians are right behind them, flipping penthouses whose windows do not open because of the violent winds quicker than you can say olighastly.
Higher and higher is the order of the day, with a 1,550-footer going up soon, plus one on my very own Park Avenue, the car-melter himself, Rafael Vinoly, putting up his own horror. Vinoly is to parked cars what Bomber Command was to Dresden, the concave shape of his buildings reflecting the rays and melting everything that stands in their way. At least we all now know what global warming is all about: ugly concave glass buildings, all glass buildings in fact. Why the relentless shift from beautiful masonry to ugly glass? That’s like asking why an ugly piece of filth such as Russell Brand is a film star. Bad taste, that is all, my dear readers. And while I’m at it, a bit of bad taste on my part. I wish to thank Jeremy Clarke for describing me as a Greek Rhett Butler two weeks ago, and I pledge to replace the priceless malt that I ruined when I mixed it with cognac for the sainted editor, but as always it wasn’t my fault. It was The Spectator’s own Circe, the deputy editor, who seduced Jeremy and myself into a drunken stupor and she did it in order that we leave her alone. Cerebral Circe.