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.

Asylum Walls

Today I had to go to Ealing Hospital to get some blood work done.  The hospital is huge, and I don’t think there is a more dire looking place in all of London.  It’s a concrete mass with all pedestrian entrances hidden amongst abulance ramps. It seems made of perpetually rain-wet, pebbly cinderblocks.  In back of that there’s an old 19th century pauper’s asylum backed up against the canal– it was at one time the largest asylum in the world.  The wall separating the asylum from the canal contained an entrance which has been bricked up, and that segment of the wall is a stone’s throw from my house.  The asylum is now run by the West London Mental Health Trust and my partner does assessments there.

The place has the agitated grimness that comes from trapped ghosts.  (I am not the only person who sees this, no doubt– the place has inspired a LiveJournal  fiction community and fake wiki page complete with a TB outbreak and a serial killer hide-out).

In 2008 the Hospital was rated the “Worst Hospital in England” based on patients’ ratings, which makes sense now that I’ve been inside its grim, seemingly windowless maze.

The pathology room has a number system, like a deli.  Multiple numbers are called at once and there’s a rush on the phlebotomists, who are all parked in a little room– ladies with needles making chit chat or glowering.  I always remind myself that even though I live in London, I still have time to be polite and thoughtful, to make room for the aged.  You’d think I would have learned by now: elbowed out of the way be pensioners who had the numbers after mine, I was told to wait outside, and then scolded for not coming up when my number was called.  I realized too late why the one pensioner had pushed me out of the way– she got the friendly one.  If I left the room I would never be called, so I stood there stupidly, as if I didn’t understand what was said to me.  Brazen obliviousness– I’ve used it on more than one occasion.  Eventually one of the mechanistic needle-weilders took me.

I didn’t feel a thing.

Or grasp the ocean with a span…

My building is on the right.  Taken with my mobile phone.
My building is on the right. Taken with my mobile phone.

I have a job in the very heart of the city, across the green of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This morning I sat alone on the steps of the cathedral, before the rush of commuters and tourists, listening to the slap of water on the steps. Bucket after soapy bucket the water coursed down, and the man who washes the steps of St. Pauls smiled at me.

My job isn’t very glamorous. There are moments where the monotony can get to you, and your life flashes before your eyes. You have no choice but to luxuriate in the emotional channel-surf/reverie. It’s almost like being high. Or you can look at it that way.

After work, I went to a birthday get-together for a dear friend of mine. The pub was a trendy place full of media professionals. All the people who showed up for the shindig were were fashion designers and fashion-industry media types. I had just come from work sporting my Marks and Spencer synthetic suit, my best attempt at faking a professional face. The men were wearing bespoke suits that cost more than I made in a month.

So I met the social challenge with gusto– I stared at the wall. I was happy the walls were entertaining– filled with posters, a rhino head and naked ladies embroidered on hankies in a faux naive style. I read with irony a green 70’s poster in a circus font:

Tis true my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God. Could I create myself anew, I would not fail in pleasing you. If I could reach from pole to pole, Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul, The mind’s the standard of the man.

a poem attributed to Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”.

I looked to my lap and was mortified: in this crowd of fashionistas, my fly was open.

A man sat between my friend and I and I decided I’d had enough of the freeze outs from the table; I introduced myself. He asked me what I did, which is the rudest and most suspect of questions a stranger can ask. I told him, I needed money so I got a job in the City. He persisted, “but what do you do.” I said I worked at (insert name of multinational investment banking firm here), and this impressed him. He rubbed his fingers and thumbs together in the universal “moneymoneymoney” sign. I told him the best part of my job was that I got to go to the Tate during my lunch break and I as mumbled something about Cy Twombly I could tell he wasn’t listening anymore. He said, “That doesn’t sound good. The best part of your job is your lunch?”

I think most of the people working in the city could say that, frankly. A lot can be fit in an hour. A lifetime if you try. I make every lunch a pilgrimage. I go to the Tate and visit the Francis Bacon paintings. I sit in the church yard of St. Pauls. I watch detritis go by in the dirty river from my lichen-covered perch on the bank. Tourist season is waning, and I take my lunch late. On gloomy hours like this afternoon, the city and I have bit of privacy. If I listen closely enough it whispers endearments like a stubborn, proud lover.

At lunch, I perch on the bank and watch tourists wobble over the bridge
At lunch, I perch on the bank and watch tourists wobble over the bridge

An antiquarian for the people

On the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, there is a passage mound called the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s called this because several sea eagle talons were found inside along with the remains of over 300 people.

What makes this site distinct is the fact that it was excavated by a farmer who had waited 18 years for the officials to do it, and, after finding a passage in the law that allowed him to legally do it himself, he took matters into his own hands, seeking the advice of archaeologists who were excavating a nearby site.

What this means is that the visitors center is staffed with people who are personally involved with education, actively reading the newest research on Mesolithic people and sites. It is a labor of love for the farmer, Ronnie Simison and the guides in the center. They have done their best to make the cairn accessible– even providing wellies and waterproof coats and trousers if the weather is proving to be dismal, which it was when we visited. Also at the site of the tomb itself a skateboard and rope are provided for those who can’t or won’t crawl in.

tomb of the eagles

What I liked most about this place wasn’t just the ‘tomb’ itself, which was as breathtaking in its construction as the others we’d seen, but the trust put into the visitors to value and respect the site.

Me in the ‘tomb’ in rain gear provided (free) by the visitor centre.

While we were at the tomb there were a handful of other visitors, but no official tour guides. You get to experience the place without any official narrative, and you must make your way inside on your own terms. There were a few people who refused to go in (women who were dressed in high-heeled boots and expensive coats). When I crawled in I heard others behind me say, “She’s just crawling in there!” and not long after, others followed. There was something humbling and empowering about the site– situated on the wild, windy cliffs of the island– I felt a little of the eagle-character of those ancients rub off on me.

Most of the people crawling into the tomb that day were grey-haired women, and a few men they’d brought with them. How alien these women would have seemed to the people that built this place, most of whom would have been teenagers. I had this warm feeling for these hardy women who were willing to go into the darkness, and also for this archeological center, the vision of one generous farmer, where everyone is treated as a potential antiquarian.

On Your Knees, Pilgrim

Years ago I walked the labyrinth of Chartes. I didn’t go on my knees, which would have been the authentic way, but I wasn’t alone walking it. There was a woman on crutches behind me and I just thought that doing it on my knees would have been in bad taste. But before I belabor this too self-consciously, let me make my point– sometimes crawling is the only way to go.

The narrow passage of Wideford Hill.

Such is the case at the many portal “tombs” across the Orkneys, the most famous of which is the spectacular Maes Howe. Though archaeologists call these structures tombs, very few remains have been excavated from them– in some, none at all. The word “tomb” as been a reductive name for these structures that were more most probably sacred– perhaps calendar machines, astronomical observatories, or sites of shamanic seclusion. This argument has been put forth in the compelling and fantastical Uriel’s Machine. Like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, it is more wish than fact, but with so much prehistory, this is what we have to go on, and it is enough.

Now that Skara Brae (a stone-age, subterranean village) and Maes Howe are World Heritage Sites, tourists are herded in and jokes are made about The Flintstones and Vikings, who used the tombs as hide-outs, having a “lads night in”. These distinctly spiritual places are reduced to fun-facts and family entertainment. The official line is that these were, basically, stone age mausoleums. To the predominantly Christian world-view that currently describes these sites, the lives of these people who built these places resemble our own lives in the most narrow way, and their ideas of the cosmos are reduced to naive superstition.

carved_stone_objects_skara_brae.jpg

For instance, these are “stone things” found at Skara Brae. These are in a display case at the site. The viewer is not reminded of essential ideas here– that these were made by people who we have considered to be cavemen. And they were made without stone tools. These powerful objects and indeed verything about these sites argues that they are more mysterious and alien than what the official Scottish Heritage line will let on.

The chambered cairns were designed to be entered via a “creep” or narrow passageway in the earth. The womb analogy is inevitable here, though in all the writings on the subject I have read, only Julian Cope seems to notice this. And, with all due respect for his tireless work on increasing awareness of Neolithic pagan heritage, he sees Mama in everything.

This is the moody and charming Wideford Hill cairn. Unlike the other cairns we visited, this creep was too narrow to crawl through. One must climb in from the top, where the cairn was busted open durning (Victorian era?) excavation.

But for those visitors who are not content to be merely bussed to the major sites and herded around the perimeter, there are myriad cairns that can be explored on their own terms. Using an OS map, M and I were able to locate several, each with its own kind of darkness. Outside each cairn there is a wooden box containing a torch whose batteries are either dead or dying.

But it’s the ritual of crawling that gives the place meaning– knowing that everyone who entered (save the brutal Victorian archaeologists or Viking raiders who came in through the top) had to do it on all fours.

Here I am in the Fairy Knowe, or “tomb of a dog cult”– 24 dog skulls were found inside, but only 7 human skulls. This cairn was on Cuween Hill, just up the road from our cottage. The stone-age masonry– like at Maes Howe– is amazing. You can see it behind me. The creep of Fairy Knowe is 18 feet long– I scampered in and found the darkness warm– the shadows ocher colored. Inside was a feeling of safety, and wild information there for the taking, if one were to crawl further into one of the rooms. But I didn’t. You really have to be ready to do that, and I wasn’t.

But tomorrow…what happens when a farmer excavates a tomb himself? And what does this have to do with pensioners on skateboards?

All I ask is a tall stone and a star to steer her by…

M and I have returned from the Orkneys, and now that I have internet access, I can write about it.

We spent 10 days traveling around Aberdeenshire, visiting standing stones and traveling around the Orkney Islands. There, we ate the local bread called bere bannock with mild Orcadian cheese and lots of amazing local beer. We also crawled around a lot of neolithic tombs.

Once you get the hang of finding neolithic sites on OS maps, there is a danger of being a sort of trainspotter about it. Traveling by car, one can easily forget these ancient places are part of the local imagination– living, distinct and fantastical sites.

But on occasion there will be a stone circle that will remind you of this– one such circle was outside an abandoned farmhouse in Aberdeenshire. There were the usual territorial bulls about, but what bothered me was something else. Once, while I was climbing a hill fort in the South of England, I had the strangest sensation of something riding on my shoulders– an odd little gleeful being, only slightly malevolent. It was a disturbing feeling, and I didn’t shake it until I’d reached the roadside.

This circle had a similarly sinister, fey aspect. In the long wet grass surrounding the circles– which were now in wild disarray– no flowers grew, but inside the ring flowers bloomed in nodding white and yellow bunches. Charming, if there weren’t such a forlorn feeling pervading the place. I think often when Neopagans visit sites they infuse them with something, new folklore, new stories and hopes. And I think these things linger. But some circles are hardly visited at all, except by the things we can’t see or know. This circle belonged to such things. Approaching it I felt a cold pull inside, and a dizzy feeling. I decided to hurry back to the car, my skin all gooseflesh, but M went on without me to the recumbent stone circle, climbing over barbed wire to get to the next circle beside it, and I watched him go, uneasy.

Of course nothing happened. Except that while I waited cows called pathetically into the wind. This is beef country and I find it difficult to reconcile the sufferings of these animals, even if they are not being factory farmed.

Some stones are visited by too many people– overly husbanded by the National Trust. Stonehenge is the worst example of this. Other stones are visited mostly by creatures, and still others are kept company by the alien and “conquering” faithful. Christians. This recumbent stone circle, pictured above, had a churchyard built around it, despite or perhaps because of its horned stones flanking the altar. In Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, he describes this circle as looking like the horned good surfacing from the earth, and that’s no lie. It makes the the brittle headstones around it look like chessmen lost on the board of a forgotten game.

I’m sure this is why I keep coming to these places and why they haunt me– that sly feeling of triumph. Everyone wants to be affirmed by an iconographic landscape, something that codes your beliefs into the land and makes them bigger than the notion of the self or even of time.

All around this country, lichen covered blood-red stones count the stars, and they have marked our travels.

And, tomorrow, it’s on your knees, pilgrim