Katherine Rundell: how a snowy New York inspired my writing | New York holidays


‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the outdated joke. “Practise.” Unless you’re an elephant, through which case the method is completely different. In 1934, an elephant stepped on to the stage of Carnegie Hall. Exactly what it did as soon as there’s not recorded, however its arrival was celebrated in print, earlier than and afterwards. An article from 6 August 1934 within the New York Times learn: “Circus in Carnegie Hall … Elephants, ponies, canines and different acquainted points of interest of the tanbark will probably be seen in Carnegie Hall this season, with the presentation there of a real indoor circus.”

Kate Rundell.
Kate Rundell. Photograph: Nina Subin

The circus, it stated, was “provided in cooperation with the United Parents Associations of Greater New York”. Which implies that, beneath the formidable will of the dad and mom of New York, an elephant walked via Manhattan, up Seventh Avenue, and (up the steps? Through the artists’ door on the again?) into one of many world’s most well-known live performance halls.

The final time I went to Carnegie Hall, a few years again, it had snowed so arduous that the pavements had turned slim avenues, banked all sides with shovelled heaps that got here as much as my waist. It had fallen the night time earlier than so had not but turned rat-grey, and everybody was nonetheless enchanted by it. The complete theatre, with its pink velvet chairs and lavishments of gilt, smelled of drying snow – a form of illustrious wet-dog scent. People carried newspapers with photos of the Statue of Liberty, her robe and flame and the fretwork of her crown lined in a dusting of white.

Pedestrians struggle through snow in downtown Manhattan.
A snowy Manhattan. Photograph: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

I used to be within the US as a result of I had written a play, primarily based on the ultimate days within the first world struggle trenches of the author Saki (HH Munro), and it had transferred to the tiny Fourth Street Theatre. Some nights have been a success: one lady laughed so arduous she choked and needed to be introduced a paper cup of water; one other left a little speckling of pee on her seat.

Other nights have been very a lot not – audiences so silent and unimpressed that you possibly can have eaten the environment of icy indifference with a spoon – a bracing sort of expertise. It was on that journey that I started the analysis for my most up-to-date youngsters’s novel, The Good Thieves, which is about in New York within the Nineteen Twenties. It was then that I learn concerning the circus, and went to see the huge ceiling, over 25 metres excessive, beneath which the elephant would as soon as have bowed her head.

Carnegie Hall interior
Carnegie theatre with its pink velvet chairs and ‘lavishments of gilt’ Photograph: Alamy

The Good Thieves is a heist: a woman named Vita, confronted with a infamous conman who has ruined her grandfather, decides to steal again his rightful property for him. She places collectively a crack group of kids to assist her: a pickpocket, a trapeze artist, an animal-whisperer. The latter two are travelling within the circus that has simply arrived, elephants in tow, at Carnegie Hall.

I write slowly – partly as a result of I make so many scratches and errors, and partly as a result of I’ve all the time liked analysis. When I’m not writing youngsters’s books, I work on the poetry of the English Renaissance at All Souls College in Oxford, and I really like the accumulative, building-block, bricks-and-mortar really feel of the analysis course of. I’ve all the time needed to put in writing books which can be full of untamed, improbable-but-just-possible adventures, bolstered by a world of correct element; I needed Vita’s New York to be as actual as I may make it, and to be stuffed with the locations I really like most.

New York City Library Hall.
New York City Library Hall. Photograph: Alamy

One of these locations is the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue and forty second Street, and I went to work in it throughout that week of huge snow. The two lions which have flanked the steps as much as library since 1911 wore snow hats and snow jackets. They are named Patience and Fortitude; each appeared haughty and short-tempered, however stone lions all the time do: it’s to do with the eyebrows.

The library is likely one of the most fantastically lovely within the US: the mural on the ceiling is of a cloudy sky, and chandeliers hold low over desks set with bronze lampshades. I needed to plan a scene through which the 4 youngsters break into the library at night time, looking for papers saved there within the archive, and are chased by the night time porter. I consulted librarians over the precise format of the constructing in 1924; I learn a guide concerning the tunnels beneath the town, that have been used throughout prohibition to retailer unlawful moonshine: a doable escape route for my youngsters. (The library, in all its wonderful high-windowed loveliness, did make it into the guide, however the chase scene didn’t. I confirmed my mom a draft. My mom: “So: they should learn among the library’s papers, and they also break in at night time, by way of the basement?’” Me: “Exactly that.” My mom, infinitely affected person: “The factor about libraries, darling, is that if you wish to learn something, you simply … ask.”)

Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall. Photograph: Gordon Bell/Alamy

The youngsters within the guide race throughout Manhattan: from the Plaza Hotel, the place the ladies pitch their voices low and eyebrows excessive, to the Bowery, the place a hundred years in the past a man named Dick ran Dick’s Bar and Grill, a speakeasy that served turtle livers (a element I stole), into the Dakota constructing (the place Lauren Bacall as soon as lived) and previous Central Park Zoo. I went, mid-snow. Central Park Zoo stays open even in blizzards, until they get greater than 26 inches in 24 hours. I went to see the seals leaping into white-flecked water, and the snow leopards, which have heated rocks to lie on. The macaques have scorching tubs heated to 40C. I fearful concerning the lemurs.

Harry Houdini performs a trick in New York’s East River.
Harry Houdini performs a trick in New York’s East River. Photograph: Getty

Mostly, although, I stored considering of the elephants. New York has seen many, in its time. Houdini carried out on the Hippodrome in 1918, and every night time magically vanished an elephant referred to as Jennie. Nobody is aware of how he carried out the phantasm. It was a arduous life for her, although he fed her sugar to coax her to cooperate, and boasted that he didn’t whip her. Jennie outlived him by at the very least twenty years, and would have handed via the streets on parade greater than as soon as.

Good Thieves

It is a thought to make you shake: the skyscrapers, stretching just like the calligraphy of a significantly flamboyant god – and strolling beneath them, amid the motorcars and kids and stray cats, the elephants. In 1955, the New Yorker printed a poem by Rosemary Thomas referred to as The Elephants Pass Carnegie Hall.

There, ready by the curb for a taxi, we heard,
like rustle of taffeta (however coming in direction of us)
the uncanny quash-squash, quash-squash of unshod
animal toes, large, square-toed mastodon toes
shuffling down the road as if it have been
essentially the most acquainted forest path …
… A ton of elephants, ten tons of elephant

funnelling down West 57th Street


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