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I've always had a problem with New York. Not with Chicago, San Francisco, Washington or Boston, all of which I like a great deal; just with New York. It has always been a bit too pleased with itself. It's the kind of place people expect you to say, 'How wonderful!' when they tell you they live there
If this sounds sour, it's because I have been, ever since May 1963. At the age of 19, I arrived there after travelling steerage on the Queen Mary, with £300 in my pocket. In those days £300 could have kept me going for months in London, but New York prices were so high that by the end of my third week I was down to sleeping in phone booths (they had seats in those more leisured days) and eating food I bought with the rejected coins I'd found in the slots. If it hadn't been for the generosity of a family in New Jersey I would have been in serious trouble.
So for nearly 50 years I've been a grouch, a naysayer about New York, irritated by all those songs that keep on telling you how wonderful it is. I appreciate the attractions, but I'm inclined to see the downsides. And although I've had some excellent times there, I'd always rather be on my way to somewhere else in the US.
Now, though, New York seems down at heel: the reverse of what it was when I first arrived. In those days it seemed unthinkably rich and advanced, offering a new and better way to live. That's really why I didn't like it, of course, because it was so superior to anything I'd known. And now that many other parts of the world have caught up with it, I hadn't got round to changing my view.
Then, the other week, the chance came to spend a week there with my wife Dee, who is as pro-New York as I have been anti. The understanding was that she would try to convert me to it, and with a combination of skill and remarkable luck, she managed to grab the last table left in the Café Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel on East 76th Street, on a night when Woody Allen would be appearing there with his jazz band.
Some people find Woody Allen predictable, overrated or generally difficult to laugh at. Not me. I have a habit, irritating to my friends and colleagues, of quoting lines from his films, each of which I have seen several times over. 'Your ex-wife you have forever'; 'You're so beautiful I can scarcely keep my eyes on the meter'; 'You have no values. With you it's all cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm...' 'Hey, in France I could run for office with that slogan and win' — that kind of thing. But there's something beyond and beneath the jokes: a healing, regenerative quality. Someone in Broadway Danny
Rose talks about the need for 'forgiveness, acceptance, and love'. There are worse philosophies of life.
Still, I'm not a worshipper; I just enjoy his films. At the point when we went to New York I didn't even particularly like the way he played his jazz: all those clarinet squeaks and squeals, entirely authentic of course, but sometimes a bit hard to put up with for the full length of a CD. We had decided to stay at the Carlyle itself: a delightful 1930s place with an interesting history. Our room, though scarcely large,
had views over New York's chaotic sprawl on two sides, and even I couldn't help exclaiming about the sunset over the city.
We dressed quickly and were shown to our table. It was right in front of the band. Mind you, the place was small, so just about everyone's table was right in front of the band: just not quite so much in front as ours. The food, handed out by skilful waiters, was excellent. So were the creamy sauces; we could have been in old Vienna. I liked the other diners, too: old-fashioned upper-middle New Yorkers, a family of Brazilians, a sprinkling of smart 20-year-olds.
And then Woody Allen was among us, small and a bit frail-looking now, in neat nondescript clothes. He came over to greet the people at the next table, then looked at me in a puzzled way, his hand half-extended, as though he couldn't remember where he'd seen me. I know that look well. It meant he watched the BBC. I shook his hand, but there was no answering pressure. Woody Allen doesn't apparently kiss his luscious leading actresses, so why should he grip the hand of someone he couldn't quite remember?
The music was superb, unforgettable, and I was completely won over by the authentic quirks of his clarinet playing. (The clarinet itself was a 1920s model, lovingly cared for.) He and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band played Dippermouth Blues and Wild Man Blues and In the Evening, and half a dozen other numbers; and then Woody stayed on and played for a while on his own, and chatted pleasantly and unselfconsciously in between, seeming not to mind the people who kept wriggling in front of him to take his photo. He was nothing like the neurotic, difficult Woody Allen of his films.
It was as enjoyable an evening as I can remember, and over the next few days it worked away on my 50-year opposition to New York. After all, a city that contains such delights has to be pretty good. And by the time we went to Grand Central Terminal and had Oysters Rockefeller at the bar a few days later, I was convinced.
There was one last duty to be performed over the oyster shells. I turned to Dee. 'All right,' I said, 'I do like New York after all.' She gave me the kind of kiss actresses don't give Woody Allen. Not on screen, anyway.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.