What could be better to lick a person into shape than a bracing spring jaunt to New York? I am packing my bags with all the best things I possess: the gold lace dress; the navy pirate coat with sharp lapels; my lucky pendant that spells the word oui; satin polka dot nightwear; a new box of Bic propelling pencils ... Best of all, I am taking my 10-year-old daughter, who has entered into the spirit of things beautifully, waking me with snappy little holiday themed jokes such as: “Couscous, so good they named it twice!”
The first time I realised there was a place called New York and that it was wonderful, I was watching the film On The Town as a child, in Islington in the 1970s, with a tin of Coke and a packet of salt and shake crisps. I had just returned from a landmark tap dancing lesson in which I had mastered that natty little chorus girl stand-by, the step-ball-change-pick-up toe-hop. My teacher Miss Audrey had yanked me from the relative obscurity of the second row and said I now belonged in the front. I felt so happy and shy, even the backs of my knees went the colour of rhubarb.
In On The Town, three sailors are granted 24 hours’ shore leave in NYC with one thing in mind: beauty queens. Actually, two things: beauty queens and sight-seeing. My favourite scene features Betty Garrett as a forward-thinking, madly swerving, amorous female taxi driver called Hildy, trying to persuade her fare (Frank Sinatra) that of all the attractions in New York top of the list is her.
On The Town also features one of the best love songs, “You’re Awful Nice”. I sing it to myself sometimes. “You’re frightening/Frightening when you say that you might go away/You’re boring/Boring into my heart to stay.”
In the film, New York itself starts off in a hazy dawn, down at the docks, then gradually becomes saturated with bright colour – gold, jade green, mauve, cherry red and orange – the whole city crackling with that vast American promise: Anything Can Happen. Even in 24 hours.
My first visit to New York was a complete accident. An aircraft I was on gave up the ghost. There was smoke coming out of the wing, so we made an emergency stop at JFK and we were all told to reconvene at the airport ... in 24 hours. There I was in my very own musical. I was not a sailor but I had an older sister with me who knew the ropes. It was lunchtime and we were starving.
“We must go to the Happy Donut,” she said. It was one of the best orders I have ever received. We sat side by side in the diner marvelling at everything we saw: an old man and woman having a mild argument about cheese slices; a young kid doing some homework and drinking a vanilla milkshake at the same time.
The whole thing felt so meant to be! The warm doughnuts, unspeakably delicious, we ate with the kind of reverence and feelings of transcendence generally reserved for communion wafers. My sister was very cool but really friendly to me. I was wearing a mini-skirt for the first time and a pale grey sweatshirt and a white towelling headband.
Afterwards, my sister bought some jeans and we walked round Central Park in a sort of dream. The light was so strong and fresh that everything we saw – lacy green trees, high buildings, athletic young men in running clothes – looked hyper-real, far livelier than life. Beloved London, for a moment seemed stodgy in the extreme. “What shall we sing?” I said.
Talk about spoilt for choice.
So my daughter and I will board the plane tomorrow morning. We’ll install ourselves in our little twin room, stow our nighties under our pillows, throw the windows wide open and take to the streets in search of who knows what delights. Perhaps we’ll make a pilgrimage to the Happy Donut if it still exists. Anything Goes is playing on Broadway and we have tickets. Our nails are painted in rouge de fête. Friends from all over the world are waiting to see us. We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.
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