On listening to the ever-excellent Cerys Matthews blues show on Radio 2, I learned that Tony Joe White had died on the 24th of October, a day after I linked to his "Rainy Night in Georgia" in my last-but-one blog post.
I've never used one, to the best of my recollection, but for a few years I did have the option, as the Claremont Tower in Newcastle - where I studied - featured a paternoster elevator. There was almost certainly a normal lift (as well as stairs) as although I took many classes in the Claremont building, I never remember using the paternoster. I do however remember being strongly disinclined to use it by virtue of a story that was in circulation. The gist of that story was that someone had died while going around over the top, something you were not meant to do. That always struck me as worrying, because what if you simply neglected to get off at the top (or bottom) floors? Never mind the business of getting on and off the thing.
Years later I reasoned that the story must have been a carefully engineered rumour designed to stop people using the elevator in a way that wasn't intended, not because of the risk of injury (or death) but because it caused problems with the mechanism, perhaps leading to the elevator shutting down or needing maintenance. I could well imagine that the authorities would "leak" a story like that just to stop students larking around and causing expensive breakdowns.
But (being a grisly sort of fellow) the File777 article prompted me to read up a little bit more paternosters and their history of accidents, and rather shockingly the first such account I read about was indeed one in the Claremont Tower, in 1975:
I'm sure paternosters are much safer, per journey, than many forms of travel I gladly accept. Nonetheless, I'm not at all sorry I never used the one in the Claremont building (which, as it happens, was involved in another accident the year after I left, and then dismantled).
In January 1992 I made my first trip to the United States. I was 25 and had been consumed with the idea of visiting America for most of my life, a desire that had only hardened as I grew into my teens and twenties. It had begun, I think, with an almost indecent fascination with American cars - the big gas-guzzlers of the sixties and seventies - as featured in such period cop shows as Cannon, Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud, The Streets of San Francisco and so on. Toy models of British cars were alright but what I really wanted was a Lincoln Continental like the one Frank Cannon drove. It was something about that rakish overhang at the front, a feature lacking or much less evident in British cars.
American TV shows, and American music, shaped and coloured my mental geography of the United States. America was The Banana Splits, Ironside, Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, the Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files - all of which had more exciting title sequences and theme music than any British series of the period. By the Eighties, I was consuming shows like ChiPs and Hill Street Blues, but still no nearer to visiting America. Part of the attraction of a career in science, though - especially astronomy - was precisely the opportunities it offered for travel. It wasn't a TV show that came to mind when I thought of Georgia, though.
It was Tony Joe White:
Years earlier my dad had made me a tape of a Tony Joe White album and "Rainy Night in Georgia" was now imprinted on my mental soundtrack.
I can't tell you how thrilling it was to finally make it to the States. It was cold but crisp when I arrived in Atlanta for a science meeting, and I took a short train ride from the airport to the hotel and convention complex where I was staying. At that point, I doubt that I'd stayed in more than a dozen hotels in my life, so it was with some amazement that I checked in to the astonishing Marriot Marquis, a building like no other that I'd seen. It (and much of the surrounding part of Atlanta) was the work of the architect John Portman, as documented in this recent Guardian article:
What I didn't realise at the time was that this building was already iconic, and a popular location for film shoots. Later on the same trip I went to a reception in an art gallery across town and had the prickly feeling that I'd been in the building before. How was that possible? I asked around and it turned out that the location had been used as Lecter's prison in Manhunter, the 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. When I got back to the UK I rented Manhunter again and realised that the Marriot Marquis was also in the film, although it obviously hadn't registered on first viewing. Atlanta (see that article above) was and is a popular shooting location, especially because so many of Portman's designs still look futuristic, in a sort of retro-seventies way. Indeed, another film - the not very good Freejack, with Mick Jagger - was shooting in Atlanta when I was there.
What of it, now? I haven't been back to Atlanta since 1992, but the hotel did have one lingering influence on my work which that article prompts me to mention. Those swooping interior elevators left a big mark on me, and when I came to write Revelation Space - which I started later that year - they became the model for the elevators in the Nostalgia for Infinity, especially the part where Ilia Volyova's elevator plunges through the vast interior of the cache chamber. When, in Chapter Two, Ilia's elevator announces its arrival at the "atrium" and "concierge" levels, that's all down to the Marriot Marquis. I'd never been in an elevator that spoke before.
As for Tony Joe White, it was with some enjoyment that I did indeed spend one rainy night in Georgia. That was just before the full-on blizzard that forced us to de-plane and spend another night in airport hotels. If anyone ever tells you it doesn't snow in the South, don't believe them.