On my first trip to the Big Apple in 1975, I was in time (just) to see Jack Dempsey's joint on Times Square, which I believe was the original for Mindy's in the Runyon stories

There can be no stage musical with a more romantic opening song than Guys and Dolls with Nicely-Nicely Johnson prodding his racing paper and bellowing into the auditorium:

I got a horse right here,

Its name is Paul Revere...

In his sensational revival of the show, due to occupy the National Theatre's Olivier stage for the next three months, Richard Eyre sets the scene for this poignant ditty with a galerie of Runyonesque characters as devious as their adopted home turf of Broadway, the only thoroughfare on Manhattan which refuses to conform to the island's rigorous grid-plan. (It follows the course of an Indian forest track.) The stage pollulates with flim- flam artists, gunsels, thimble-riggers, corner boys, crap-shooters, hookers, sidewinders, geeks, stumblebums, hustlers and gorillas, all chivvied along by a trio of New York's Finest.

But what took my breath away were the dozen or so neon signs which glow feverishly above this frantic menagerie. In the theatre programme, Eyre says the idea came as "divine intervention" one day in Paris when he discovered a book called Let There Be Neon by Rudi Stern, who declared, "Neon is writing with light". As well as providing illumination, the staccato urban poetry of the adverts is perfectly in tune with the fast-talking characters of Runyon's Broadway: "Planter's Peanuts: A bag a day for more pep", "Take the Rock Island Rocket to Chicago" and, best of all "I'd walk a mile for a Camel". This appears above a working replica of the famous "Smoking Man" which, for many decades, puffed real smoke into Times Square.

Seeing this phenomenon in operation, while on my first trip to the Big Apple in 1975, I was surprised by two things. Firstly, the figure was dressed in modern clothes (I had only ever seen photographs from the Thirties), and, secondly, he blew smoke-rings - a refinement beyond the technical capabilities of the National Theatre. I was also in time (just) to see Jack Dempsey's joint on Times Square, which I believe was the original for Mindy's in the Runyon stories. It had already closed down and, in Manhattan's unsentimental fashion, was shortly to be demolished, but the pugilist's name still gleamed over the shuttered door in art moderne stainless-steel lettering.

The milieu which Damon Runyon stylised so brilliantly and romanticised more than somewhat can be glimpsed in an exhibition of photographs from New York's Museum of Modern Art currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum. One of the stark works by the lensman Weegee shows a guy apparently slumbering in the front seat of his car on a suburban street. But the presence of several great-coated cops and a photographer wielding a bulky Speed Graphic camera hints at the drama revealed in Weegee's terse caption: "Harry Maxwell Shot in Car, 1936". Another snap, "Cafe Society, New York, 1943", reveals the sort of smoky, boozy, rackety nightspot where Runyon would have felt much at home. "The idea of Cafe Society was all right, except for the cafe," recalled a fellow denizen. "What actually ruined the whole goddam thing was alcohol and noise." Similarly, Runyon himself was a far less appealing character ("cruel and steely-hearted", according to one study) than his stories suggest.

When Mrs W first visited New York with me five or six years ago, I knew she would not be disappointed - there is no more electric place on earth - but, nevertheless, I was slightly concerned that the modern city might prove a trifle staid for one who was well-versed in the adventures of Sky Masterson, Harry the Horse, Rusty Charley et al. I needn't have worried. Even before we emerged from the airport bus into the ghastly Port Authority Terminal on 40th Street, we saw half a dozen policemen, equalisers in mitts, in hot pursuit of some miscreant. "Wow," exclaimed our New York friends, when we reached their Upper West Side apartment, "we've lived here 17 years and never seen a policemen pull his gun. How lucky can you get?"

One of the earliest American photos in the V&A exhibition is an eerie study by Edward Steichen of Rodin's statue of Balzac. It may have been this monumental casting, 12 feet in height, which a BBC team was almost sent to film sometime in the Eighties. One of Balzac's sprawling human comedies had been adapted for TV and the producer thought that Rodin's portrait of the great man would be ideal for the credit sequence. Tickets for the US were purchased, visas obtained, bags were packed, when a secretary happened to remark that she believed there was another casting of this masterpiece in her home town. Instead of heading stateside, the film crew were less than overjoyed to find themselves dispatched to the Kodak Building in Hemel Hempstead.

Though by no means Tony Blair's biggest fan, I found my feelings warming to him last week when he was filmed in a south-London joinery workshop sawing away at a lump of two-by-four. Intended to be a wholly innocuous photo-opportunity, it inadvertently revealed that the champion of New Labour is no horny-handed son of toil. "That bloke," sniffed Mrs W, "hasn't the faintest idea how to hold a saw." While some may see such cack-handedness as something of a defect in the leader of the People's Party, I view it as an incomparable asset. Tony is clearly one of us, the maladroit gang for whom wood is always chock-full of knotholes, chisels are imbued with deceit and mallets ingrained with perverseness.

Insanely, I was forced to learn the dread trade at school. "Come on, boysh," the sibilently challenged woodwork master would urge, "plane and shet-shquare." No matter how long I planed my lump of timber, its corners would never conform to the 90-degree authoritarianism of the set-square. Shavings piled up around me, while my classmates would cackle: "Sir, sir, Weasel's making a pencil." Even in the simplest exercises, my dove-tail joints flew apart, my mortice-and-tenons were less than tenacious.

After two years, I finished my first piece. While everyone else was presenting their homes with toilet-roll holders or foot-stools, I proudly delivered four pieces of wood formed into a square (to be honest, more of a parallelogram) with three holes on one side. After admiring the varnish, my parents asked what it was. "A test-tube rack, of course," I squeaked resentfully. Though my father bravely tried to use it as a pipe-rack, the object proved to be irredeemably unstable. A year later, when others had graduated to staircases and bookshelves, I produced my second, equally pointless creation, a pen- tray. After that, I switched to chemistry. I have never since laid hand on plane, vice or fret-saw and I'd advise Mr Blair to follow suit. All he needs to do now is reveal a detestation of sport and a pathological untidyness, and I'll know he's a true soulmate.

The January issue of John Kennedy Jr's political monthly George (it's to do with Washington, you see) comes in a choice of two covers. For Democrats, Claudia Schiffer pouts winningly while wearing nothing more than a Clinton- Gore sash. The Republican version has Claudia as a luscious loser in a Dole-Kemp sash (with a black polo-neck) and dabbing at a glycerine tear. Inside, the supermodel gives readers the benefit of her political wisdom in a Q & A page entitled "If I were President". To the question "Your greatest weakness would be?", she gives the bizarre response: "I'm a fool for Kissinger's accent." In fact, the ponderous strategist talks in an almost impenetrable Teutonic growl. Like him, La Schiffer is a child of the Fatherland - you don't suppose she speaks the same way, do you?

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police