Londinium de Los Angeles

“It is as though London stretched unbroken from St. Albans to Southend in a tangle of ten-lane four-deck super parkways, hamburger stands, banks, topless drug-stores, hippie hide-outs, Hiltons, drive-in mortuaries…all shrouded below the famous blanket of acrid and corroding smog.”

–James Cameron wrting of Los Angeles in the Evening Standard, 9 September, 1968


Like it or not, most of my adult life can be pinned to a map of the Southern California coast. The privilege of the emigrant is to know home through absence, perhaps better than those who’ve never left.  I have been researching 19th century California history, a quixotic and surreal endeavor as I sit in my London flat overlooking a street where a Morris Minor and black cab park nightly, a street with a pub which plays the footie and a green that was quite recently glowing with daffs.

The friends and lovers from the past were all tied to the Southern California beach.  There was no place else to go.  Drunken nights, wandering, the ocean was always there cradling us, setting an infinite boundary to our boldness. Cruising up and down PCH, all of it was ours.  And then I left.

Like Dick Whittington and his cat of the pantomime, I heard the two-syllable bell of Lon-don tolling for me.  I packed up Lemmy-cat (and my SoCal husband) and crossed the ocean.  I know many of my fellow ex-pats have surrendered certain aspects of their Americaness– they have closed themselves in that London po-faced way or have let the tumbles of immigrant life smooth their broad accents to something rounder and more placeless. But the longer I reside here the more American I become, or, even more West Coast.”…to speak in superlatives, to live out-of-doors, to tell tales…to believe what isn’t true, to throw dignity out the window, to dress dramatically, and, last but not least, to tackle the impossible.” I have embraced Lee Shippey’s list of California traits without knowing it.  And more and more I am struck by how completely UnLondon it all is.

London, in its present manifestation, is a hard place of fiscal facts, of interiors and conformist decorum.  Increasingly it has become, for me and probably most other writers and artists working here, a place defined by the narrow possible.

I find myself perpetually in a mind of two maps; the jagged, golden coast twisted round the M25.

The fierce urgency of now

I began considering leaving the US during George W. Bush’s first term in office.  After spending years organizing against the wars in Iraq and for reproductive rights, his presidency was a cynical seal on my activist burnout. As he was sworn into office for a second term, I was booking a flight to the UK and dealing with visa paperwork.

If I could have put any quote on my American Passport it would have been Woolf’s  “As a woman, I have no country.  As a woman, my country is the world.”

But the years I have spent in England have taught me a great deal and probably the most complex lesson has been that I am at heart an American and will always be. I didn’t come to London because I’m an anglophile or even because London had charmed me, which on previous visits it had not.  I came because it seemed of all the places in the world, London would have me.

Landing in Heathrow was a bit like jumping from a cloud.  My four years here I have wondered at all the people who have been there to catch me in various ways, regardless of where I’d come from or why.  This is why I love this place: in London, everyone gets a second chance, though you may pay dearly for it.

For the first three years here I tuned out American politics.  I took a long sabbatical from doing the cassandra song, reacting to Bush.  I couldn’t bear the sound of his voice, his brutal misuse of language, the chaos he seemed to court while America went to hell.

With the election just two weeks away I’ve turned my ear back to politics, gingerly at first– and now rather voraciously.  I first heard of Obama in the context of the anti-war movement.  His speech in 2002 to the crowd gathered at the Federal Plaza in Chicago were the first brave, true words I’d heard about the war from a politician.  He was one of the first mainstream politicians to not treat the anti-war movement like the the madwoman in the attic.  Yeah, the dems wanted our vote but could we please just play nice and tick boxes?

I also remember Hillary voting for the war and feeling betrayed– it’s why I couldn’t get behind her in the primaries.  Could she look me in the eye as an activist and shake my hand or would the ones who do the grassroots work still be at the kiddie table, being told to be quiet?

I remember hearing Obama’s speech in 2002 and thinking, “He should be president”– but it seemed some crazy thing that would never happen.  I’ve had my hopes dashed at election time before, always settling for the lesser of two evils, but there’s one thing that’s different this time.  Obama is a fighter.  Read his speech from 2002 and it’s still relevant today.  People say he’s all rhetoric but after 8 years of Bush’s misuse of the language, what is wrong with wanting someone who can use the language in all its power to reassure, persuade and embolden?

For the first time in my life there is a candidate who speaks directly to me with immediacy and relevance, making me consider again the potential of innocence.  Not the innocence of ignorance but that of hope.  To be free of cynicism, to believe in renewal. I recall, without apology, that this feeling is exactly what it is to be American.

From a place called Kentucky…

photo by rhythmzslave on flickr

I am a quiet American. At least compared to most Americans in London who, even to my ears, sound loud.

Recently a British friend said to me, “Americans like to talk, don’t they?” and I didn’t know what to say. I never really thought of it like that. Americans here are more extroverted than your average Brit. I will risk generalization and say it’s not so much that we like to talk but we are spared that shy awkwardness that marks the Londoner’s public face.

I have learned this face well and am mostly silent. This is interesting, especially when the idea of “the American” comes up. I have heard everything from “eating meat is in their blood” to “they have no right to be in England. Why are they here?” (said a knitter who glowered over her clacking needles while tsking the deportation of two of my fellow ex-pat knitters.)

Any American that doubts that we are hated the world over should do a bit of traveling. We are easy to dislike simply because so few of us do travel and those that do are often obnoxious. We come from a service culture where even if you have little money, you can go to a restaurant and eat well and be “taken care of” in a way that is unheard of in the UK or Europe. And that’s why so many people travel to the US, to partake of this hospitality. It’s also the reason that most of Europe and the UK find American tourists obnoxious– Americans are hoping for the service and value they find at home, and here that is reserved for the ultra wealthy. At a recent job I had to attend a seminar on “customer service” where many presenters apologized for the idea which they said was “very American.”

Of course, if one is an American living in London, there is a good chance you are one of the ultra wealthy– it is quite difficult to obtain a visa to live here unless you are rich, highly skilled or married to a Brit. Very few people here know what range of Americans actually exist. They fail to understand that most Americans, just like your average Brit, are struggling to make a decent life for themselves against a government that has stacked the odds against them. And we both love American movies, American shopping and American food too. Maybe there is some small comfort in the monoculture being exported. We now all have something in common.

In the gym locker room today I heard a few ladies discussing rude customs officers in America, and they began to generalize so that soon it was the entire nation that was thoughtless and gluttonous and rude. One woman said, “Well, if you were American, you wouldn’t want anyone to know because everyone would just hate you and slag you off.” And there was a hum of agreement. Another said, “And can they eat! They are like pigs! Eating enough for a whole family for one meal! The portions!” And they then went on to describe the many holidays they had taken to different parts of America and the food they had eaten there, and how marvelous it was but the drawback was having to eat it with so many gluttonous Americans. (More tsking). Finally I said, “I miss those big meals– especially a nice big salad. Or having a great big drink when you’re thirsty. You can’t really get those things here, unless of course it’s beer.”

And they looked at me wide eyed and then agreed that Unlimited Refills ™ was a revelation, and why don’t they have them here? Another woman mentioned what a great time she had at Sea World where she bought a cup with a whale on it that she could fill as often as she liked. And someone else had gone shopping in New York, and another had stayed at some posh hotel in Vegas, and wasn’t it a bargain?

And then another girl said, “And the KFC there is better. The biscuits aren’t sweet and crisp like here– they are warm and fluffy and so good.” Here in London there is a KFC on every high street, and countless “Yankee Chicken” clones which I have happily avoided for the past three years, but most people here seem to live on this stuff.

Another went on to wonder, “Why can’t they make those biscuits here?”

And someone else said, “Because it’s from there, innit?” She looked at me for affirmation.

“Yes. It’s from Louisville.”

Blank looks.

“Louisville, Kentucky. It’s in the South.” I thought about grits with butter, and the familiar twang of my great-aunt’s voice when she would say, well, good night! when something amazed her.

But they were already on to talking about lobster in New England.

I gratify my malice through quiet neutrality

I have just returned to London from a short visit in Los Angeles where it is entirely possible to make a hobby out of spotting the rich and famous. The only catch is that one must be fully engaged in popular culture to partake of this type of safari, and I am not.

Flying out of Los Angeles is particularly amusing as the rich and famous are paraded in front of you as they pre-board in first class. Before entering the limbo of missing time that is transcontinental air travel, I watched the privileged show their passports as proof out of monkey class. Some were obviously British– in Saville Row suits and semi-ironic haircuts, some were strategically unkempt but inoffensive– obviously from some Coldplay clone band I know nothing of. And there was one who boarded after them made who eye contact with me, sliding his sunglasses down his nose as if to say, “I know you know who I am,” and offering me a half-smile, like a crumb to a duck. Except I didn’t know who he was beyond his shiny ginger shag and suede blazer which screamed rich Topanga hippie.

As I peruse the dry array of businessmen boarding, someone bumbles up to the front of the line looking disoriented. He pulls up his dirty track pants which were riding low, and shifts his weight in plastic clogs. He coughs up a lung cookie before he can state his business to the staff. I thought, dear god please don’t let this crazy man be seated next to me please. As the staff examine his documents he smooths his dyed black hair with girlish care. And then the staff wave him through to first class. He was uncannily familiar. Who was he?

My first thought was, he sure looks a lot like Mario the Plumber from Donkey Kong. I forgot about it until we boarded the plane and I heard this guy in back of me call his cousin in India to discuss this. He said, “I do not like to admit how I know this, but I have seen a famous pornography actor. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? I have seen Ron Jeremy, the famous actor from pornography films. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

I have never understood this impulse to report– though one could argue I am falling prey to it right now. I find the obligatory acknowledgment of the famous a kind of indignity, especially if they have done something I can’t respect, which is usually the case. I rarely see anyone I admire. Though once I did see Stephen Merchant at Shakespeare’s Globe before a performance of The Merchant of Venice. I indulged in a moment of crushed-out glee at the solitude and sheer height of this man who has made me laugh, and then I hated myself both for not saying anything to him and for wanting to.

Ron Jeremy as Shylock. There’s a thought. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Ah, to be back in London, where anonymity and the enormity of history levels all, the famous and obscure. What a relief it is.

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.

Too Close to Home

Shovlin Last Resort

Shovlin’s “The Last Resort/The Black Room” acrylic on canvas.

America– and particularly the post-Sixties pop culture of the American west coast– is the tint that colours everything. Here is a hall of mirrors. Look back at 1980’s suburban England…and you find strange reflections of Woodstock and Altamont, the Sunset Strip and the American Dream…

–Ben Tufnell in the Introduction to A Dream Deferred.

On certain occasions culture shock can take the form of Chinese boxes– an other looks at the otherness of another looking at the familiar in some other place. And this was the feeling I had looking at Jamie Shovlin’s A Dream Deferred at the Haunch of Venison.

I had a similar feeling when I saw a window display in a Primark which featured tee shirts that said “Sunset Beach Summer Camp,” “Seal Beach Sports Club” and “Humbolt Surf Team” (ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea). Basically, the place I come from is marketed here as a fantastical, semi-ironic holiday destination.

Before seeing this show I was unfamiliar with Shovlin’s work and understood him to be a sort of young, art world prankster. While he was nappy-clad, crawling around in suburban England I was riding my bike around suburban Chicagoland, blasting AM radio playing most of the “classic rock” he riffs on in the current show. I begrudgingly grant him his nostalgia, simply because I would like someone to do the same for me, should the situation arise that I become, say, melancholy about France in May of ’68.


Shovlin’s “The Flag on High!” enamel on unprimed canvas.

I admire this play on the Op Art movement of the 60s, coupled with a nod to the sacred maze, superimposed over an Eagles album cover. This was the first album I ever owned, and this fact makes me terminally uncool. I saved up my change, and I remember walking into the record store in my clogs and hand-me-down rayon office lady shirt and laying down sweaty bills to buy it. The guy behind the counter frowned at me and even then I knew myself to be a rock-and-roll failure. But for a year or two this record gave me a solitary joy, which is all a suburban girl can ask of her vinyl.

I guess this is what troubled me about the show– I sensed nothing of Shovlin in it. It was as if he were yearning for other people’s memories. Even the title– A Dream Deferred– borrowed from Langston Hughes, is a kind of second hand bitterness. In America one would not “sample” Hughes and ignore race, but here it’s acceptable?  Reviews of the show and the eloquent introduction by Ben Tufnell seem to paint it as some kind of elegiac gesture for the Death of Hippie– not unlike the well loved film Withnail and I. To be honest I don’t see it.

And I don’t see the British gaze or context. Maybe I’m just too close to this material, too literal and possessive about it all.

Or maybe there just wasn’t enough there– I was most interested in the giant album cover paintings, and I wanted rooms full of them, in a kind of Christian-Marclay-esque, record geek fun house. I wanted them to reveal something, or perhaps start some dialog with the boomer generation, the children of the sixties, many of whom are still alive and well and who blew it– all that revolutionary potential– big time. To quote Hawkwind, “we’ve used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.”

And the hangover gave us the grand cheeze of classic rock. I found the Foreigner album cover rendered in pine tar and terpentine entitled “At Home Abroad” to be particularly pithy in this regard. And strangely relevant to my own nostalgia for British hippiedom. (I did just quote Hawkwind, didn’t I?)

Only in “A Ghost is Born”, the hand-drawn reproduction of Abby Hoffman’s obituary, is there any sense of personal longing. Or maybe I’m projecting again. After all, Hoffman described himself as an “orphan of America” and this is a feeling I know well.