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

los-angeles-ca-1932

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.

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.