Editorial Director Tom Walker visits the New Yorker Festival
My first trip to New York City, made last week, was sadly by plane rather than my hoped-for QM2 cruise liner. Landing at JFK airport was underwhelming: even the border police seemed sleepy, even chirpy, rather than filled with the humourless anger of their caricature. And the subway ride in was functional – no buskers, no larger-than-life Yoikers. None of this prepared me at all well for emerging into Manhattan a few hours later. The scale really is awe-inspiring, the colours feel painted and, yes, there was even steam rising from a manhole cover hit by that perfect slant of sunlight. I was smitten. With Jan Morris’s Manhattan ’45 tucked under my arm, I walked the streets until my jet-lagged brain could direct my legs no further.
I was there, primarily, to meet with The New Yorker, with whom we have been partnering recently in various guises, including being a sponsor of the New Yorker Festival being held that weekend. The debate at the Festival was on the same scale as the rest of the city – monstrously ambitious. At the first talk I saw a panel on ‘Mother India’ engaged on issues as diverse as family, poverty, local Indian politics and international perceptions of development. Malcolm Gladwell’s lecture the following day on ‘The Tolstoy Problem’ turned out, in fact, to be a dissection of truth-telling in US society, and I was deeply moved by the physician Atul Gawande’s sensitive and uncompromising take on mortality and what meaning can be present at the end of one’s life. The standards were simply extraordinary across the board, as though every speaker had an audience full of New Yorker editors ready to critique and push every line.
My highlight, though, was meeting the musician and author Patti Smith at the signing of our new edition of Wuthering Heights (at McNally Jackson bookstore). I’m still not quite sure how we persuaded her to write an introduction to it, but I do know that as with the Festival speakers, she had an unbelievable determination to craft and hone every line of her piece until she was ready to submit. And then craft and hone some more. My kind of writer. She was as gracious, kind and professional in person as I could have hoped, and as the many Folio readers found out when she personalised each message in their books.
‘Half the city’s skill and aspirations seemed to go into the propagation of motion,’ I read in my Jan Morris. Well, the other half, at least for that weekend, seemed to have gone into constructing the most thoughtful literary festival I’ve been to. I’d even choose to fly back rather than take the boat, if it meant I got there quicker.
Explore the new Folio edition of Wuthering Heights here.