This week, I learned more about Dylan Thomas than I did throughout my whole school and university careers.
Celebrating the centenary of the poet’s birth, the Welsh gathered at various venues throughout New York City, where Dylan died on November 9th 1953, at just 39.
In Wales, we grew up in the knowledge that Dylan was a drunk, and often not a pleasant one. While I admired his prose style, I was less of fan of his poetry, which I thought to be verbose and rather immature in its excessive use of alliteration.
This week, a poetry reading by the brilliant Michael Sheen at Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue, reminded me of the richness and depth of some of Dylan’s better work; likewise, Sheen’s participation in Under Milk Wood, from the stage where Dylan first performed it. I felt privileged to be there.
Also in the audience were writer and director Richard Curtis and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm. The latter caused a particular flurry of excitement among the ladies, and I could barely contain myself having my picture taken with him.
Visiting the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan used to drink, was also an uplifting experience, and I did the upmost sentimental act by putting Tom Jones’s Green Green Grass of Home on the jukebox while filming the surroundings on my iPhone. Call me an old softie. Call me Welsh. I also bumped into two holidaymakers who know me from the pub quiz in the Butcher’s Arms in my village in Cardiff. Weird.
It’s taken me a while to find my feet in New York; it’s the same with every big city. It helps that it is the most friendly city I have ever visited; it also helps that it is very easy to get around, either on the subway or on foot. I have my local haunts, there is a great food truck on the corner of my street, and an excellent wine store.
Unlike LA, where drinks are snatched out of your hand come 2am, loads of hostelries stay open until 4am (although still too early, in my book). So far, I’m not missing the LA weather, because it was a perfect, mild summer here, and autumn is dry and warm with just that little bit of crispness in the air that to me is always a hint of Christmas.
I miss the quiet of LA – yes, really. They really like their sirens and car horns in New York. When I watch Law and Order: SVU, which is filmed in the city, I marvel at how any of the actors manage to make themselves heard above the constant racket. It’s not even worth attempting to sleep beyond 7am, when work on construction sites begins, and sleep comes with difficulty owing to the warning beeps of the UPS vans reversing into their lot throughout the night (warning to everyone: never rent an apartment overlooking a UPS car-park).
I miss being able to walk the streets without bumping into somebody dressed as the Empire State Building, but then as I chose to live near to Times Square to be close to the theatres, I have only myself to blame.
I miss the showbiz vibe of LA: the huge billboards of Hollywood and the surrounding areas shouting about a new TV series or film; the showbiz bollocks you hear in every restaurant and bar (as I’ve always said: it may be bollocks, but it’s still the best bollocks in the world); the out of work actors, all filled with such hope (having said that, there are enough of them in New York, too, although there seem to be a lot more in work here).
I miss my LA friends, although I seem to acquire several new ones on a daily basis. In fact, I have made so many, I am already having to start sacking some of them.
It’s very easy to be a 50-something woman in New York, something I couldn’t say about LA (where men want to talk only to hookers or stick insect young women) or London (where women of my age are deemed eligible for the scrapheap of life). Here, everyone talks to everyone, irrespective of age. The waiters are not patronising and it is not unusual to see a whole row of single women sitting at a bar. If you tip well, you also get complimentary drinks. That happened to me just twice in five years in LA.
If I manage to sell my house in Wales, I would still like to reside on both the East and West coasts. I can’t see me making it through a New York winter, and although I could head south to Florida for some sun, it’s the rigor mortis state for me. Miami is more lively, but definitely not a place for women of my age; last time I went, I felt like everyone’s granny.
People who have lived here for years tell me that New York is a hard place, but I really haven’t found it so. Having lived in London for over 25 years, I am used to big city life. And far from finding the enormity of the buildings intimidating, I am struck at every turn by their beauty. There is such variety: shapes, glass, angles. It is proud architecture that, as with so much else, feels ever strong and hopeful, having endured so much.
And I love the openness of New Yorkers. While I enjoy showbiz bollocks, I also love non-bullshit, and you get it by the bucket-load here. What New Yorkers say is what they mean, and I am always stunned by the number of men talking openly in bars about the state of their current relationships. Where Angelinos dream of fame, New Yorkers dream of love.
At the end of the Dylan Thomas celebrations, I am excited to have met so many new people and been introduced to many more aspects of the rich cultural life here. It’s a very different place from the New York I visited 30 years ago – and which I hated. I was in my twenties, had never travelled, and was terrified.
It’s my birthday on Wednesday, and I’m 56. I can’t believe it. But as I watch the exquisite sunsets over the Hudson River at dusk, I’m grateful that even though it’s late in the day, at least I made it here: at least, literally.
Making it here in the other sense will hopefully be the next chapter.