New York: A Sideways Bite of The Big Apple

By: andrewbowman

August 16, 2010

You may remember a while ago we ran a competition for a place on an exclusive press trip to New York with Virgin Atlantic. The running was eventually whittled down to five influential bloggers whose interests ranged from design and photography to childrearing, from fashion to science to, er, stationery and chocolate.


After some hard and even dirty canvassing on Twitter, James Ward was our eventual winner. Yes, the funny stationery and chocolate guy.


Somewhere in-between ash cloud delays and a recent brush with street violence, James was able to enjoy his trip and write us a guest post about his his time in NYC.

We knew – partly because he told us – that James’s interests lie “in the most mundane, trivial and often overlooked details of everyday life”, so we had a feeling his guest post would be as unusual as it was humorous. Here he takes his obsession with minutiae away from the everyday and into the realm of global travel, examining the souvenirs we find on our holidays – and what they really say about the place we’re visiting.


Here then, we present James Ward, with the first installment of…



“In many ways, the cities of London and New York are very similar. They both have lots of buildings. The names of both cities contain letters. Men and women walk freely in the streets, occasionally crossing roads or getting the bus. There are shops.


And yet, the cities of London and New York are also very different. One (New York) is in the United States, the other (London) is in the United Kingdom. In London, people say “pavement” and “lift” and pluralise the word “math”. In New York, they say “Eh, I’m walkin’ here!” and “Are you talkin’ to me?” and “Later that night I got to thinking that maybe Miranda was mistaken”.

But, perhaps the clearest way to illustrate the many and varied differences between London and New York is by studying the souvenir pens on offer in the two cities.

James Ward on a boat on the Hudson River, New York City

James Ward on a boat on the Hudson River, New York City


As any connoisseur would know, there are essentially three main genres of souvenir pens, all of which deserve their own consideration, examination and celebration. At the most basic level, you have the “pictorial” pen. Beyond that you have the “floaty” pen. Finally, the most elaborate of all souvenir pens – the “sculptural” pen.


The Pictorial Pen

Pictorial pens represent souvenir pens in their most basic form. Essentially, they are nothing more than a pen with something (usually a picture) printed on the body.


Interestingly, the actual physical form of the “pictorial” pens available in both New York and London is identical, all that differs is the imagery printed on the pens themselves. This chosen imagery illustrates the different ways in which the two cities view themselves. New York souvenirism is very confident – it is aware of the city’s own iconic status and celebrates itself (pens dressed as yellow taxis, dollar bills, the Statue of Liberty, etc). Where nostalgia is allowed to creep in, it is only in the most heroic of circumstances – the Twin Towers still thrust themselves into the skyline in the world of souvenir penship.


Pictorial pens by James Ward

Pictorial pens by James Ward


On the other hand, London souvenir pens desperately grab on to any idea of history in an attempt to justify their own existence, regardless of how valid that claim may or may not be. Consequently, one pen I bought in Bloomsbury celebrates “Historical London” on the lid, yet alongside images of St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge; also includes pictures of the London Eye and the Gherkin (buildings which can’t be much older than the pen itself). One area in which London obviously trumps New York is with regard to royalty (I am in no way ignorant of global affairs but I genuinely struggle to think of the name of the King Of America). Even in this obviously anachronistic field, the souvenir shops of London specialise in a desperate kind of historicalism – the Queen Mother and Princess Diana dominate the scene.

NEW YORK:   3/5

LONDON:  2/5″

"Desperate Historicalism"? the Princess Diana pen

“Desperate historicalism” The Princess Diana pen


So, New York City’s self-assurance wins out this time, but how will London fare in the “floaty” and “sculptural” rounds? Check out Part Two now.

For great deals on getting to New York, visit Virgin Atlantic for daily flights from London to NYC.

Do you have any interesting, outrageous or simply baffling tokens from your travels? Why not take a picture and submit it to our new vtravelled Flickr group, tagged with the word souvenir. We’ll offer our own secret souvenir prize for the best one.