What makes Coney Island more mythic than Southend?

24 August 2008

Took the N train from 42nd street to Coney Island today, reading Riders On The Chariot by Patrick White and luxuriating in the most glorious day of the New York summer: perfect weather, a cool breeze blowing through a pure blue sky, great scallions of sunlight over the rooftops and skyscrapers, the train creaking and squeaking its way to the sea. As Theo and I wandered around Coney Island eating our Nathan’s hotdogs, paddling in the glittering sea, watching the poor of the city relaxing on the beach (there no Great Gatsby types out here) I wondered: what makes this place have a mythic dimension? It isn’t just my touristic romantic imagination that is projecting this, it is the American people themselves who see Coney Island as emblematic of the triumph of pleasure, the pleasure of terror, the insouciance of rainbow ices and cool beers on the beach. The fact that the amazing rollercoaster ride, The Cyclone, is a national landmark, protected by the Federal State is symptomatic of this. It is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most historic rollercoaster in the world, built of wood, and remaining, despite a whole host of far bigger modern rollercoasters, the most terrifying: I’ve been on it, and I can testify that no modern rollercoaster has the rocky, juddering, creaky feel of The Cyclone. The drop is jaw-droppingly frightening because of the battering your body receives going down. Similarly, Coney Island has the most famous ghost train in the world, Dante’s Inferno, which was made into a great Spencer Tracey film(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026262/) Theo and I went on the ride: it was rare for a ghost train in that it was a proper little mini rollercoaster, but the scary exhibits disappointed me, seemingly to lack any reference to Dante. Theo loved it though.
We visited the Coney Island Museum where the marvellous artist Marie Roberts (http://images.google.co.uk/images?hl=en&q=marie+roberts+coney+island+pictures&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&resnum=1&ct=title) took 99 cents from us and told us to look at a Mutoscope they have in the museum, which is a horrific flickering photographic account of how Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy the elephant, who was executed for killing her owner, who tortured her by putting lit cigarettes in her mouth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bowA1xUZpmA) Marie explained that the developers want to knock the mythic Coney Island down and turn it into something like Southend is now, a corporate, miserable affair. Perhaps though that’s why Coney Island is mythic: there is a genuine sense of pride in the pleasure industry here, a pride which the English could never have because for the English pleasure is not something to be taken seriously, to be enshrined in the national culture, it’s a dirty secret. Only the homes of Lord and Lady Muck or of workers merit mythic status in the UK.
Finally, we piled back onto the N train and groaned and screeched back into Manhattan.

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