Friday, March 28, 2008

Chronicles 61 - N'awrleans


Well, that's how they pronouce New Orleans in N'awrleans. I was there for a week with the day job and I realized that I couldn't explore such a visually interesting place as this without capturing some images so I bought myself my very first digital camera. Somehow I'd been meaning to do this for a long time but never got round to it and could never be bothered finding out how my phone takes pics.

After buying the camera, an Olympus FE-280, I quickly got addicted to snapping away and I could see that being 'camera aware' changes your view on the world. You find yourself seeking out visual images to capture and it certainly expands the field of observation. As a screenwriter anything that enhances the visual faculties must be a good thing, right?

The photo above is a typical French Quarter image i.e. the verandas and hanging pot plants. I suspect 'The Quarter' is culturally protected because I didn't see one Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Borders etc in the Quarter itself. A rare thing in modern day America.

I saw a number of jazz bands at places such as Maison Bourbon, Snug Harbour and Fritzel's but the best was a band that played on Royal Street on Sunday afternoon led by an African-American lady, Doreen, who was just AMAZING on the clarinet. Whenever she launched into a solo one just felt the heart leaping with joy as the musical strains rippled into the ether.

Some of the songs were jazz spirituals and somehow, sitting there on the pavement, I had a strong sense of the redemptive power of music, that through the suffering and humiliation of slavery (and racism), the African-American people were blessed with a gift in order to liberate themselves (at least momentarily) from the pangs of bondage, prejudice and hard labour. That gift was blues, jazz, gospel and soul. How ironic that this music, which actually brings joy and elevates the soul, is born out of a system that is inherently evil and anti-human. Somehow this summed up New Orleans for me, a place of opposites, darkness and light, the conservative and the Bohemian, intergration and segregation, wealth and poverty, corruption and purity.

New Orleans has also been home to great writers like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, the latter being one of my favourite playwrights.


Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire in 632 St. Peter between 1946 and 1947. The street is in the French Quarter and very close to Pirate's Alley (formely Orleans Alley) where Faulkner wrote his first novel. In the picture above, Tennessee lived in the second house from the right in the top flat.

A Streetcar Named Desire is set in Elysian Fields Avenue which is just off the Quarter. The actual Streetcar itself is out of commission, has been since the 40's, but it is still in the depot.

I spent some time in a coffee shop on Royal Street reading the play again and I was actually struck by its humour, even though it is a tragedy, and often found myself laughing out loud. Blanche's descriptions of Stanley as an ape, an animal and a survivor of the stone age are very funny. The play ebbs between the humourous, the dramatic, the tragic and there are moments where in the context of the drama that it becomes poetic, evoking timeless imagery. I love this passage from Blanche, one of the great tragic figures in American literature, where she is visited by a young paper boy:

"I'm not a conventional person, I'm so-restless today...Don't you love these long, rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped in our hands?-And who knows what to do with it"

The passage itself hold its own poetic grace but in the context of the drama it becomes layered with additional pathos and sub-text. For Blanche, who is gripped by neurosis, delusion and who is pathetically clinging to the last remnants of her youth it seems that these moments, these little pieces of eternity, are her only liberation from her crumbling life.

So, like the African slaves who found solace in God and music, Blanche finds it in poetry, culture and imagination.

Ciao for now
SWU - swunderwoods[at]yahoo[dot]co[uk]

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