Traffic in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Getty
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Will Self: How to let yourself become part of LA’s autopia

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. 

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles,” or so the opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero would have it. For myself, I’ve never seen the least evidence for this, any more than I have that happy families are all alike. Everywhere I’ve ever driven in LA, its inhabitants have cheerfully braided me into their steely weave until I too have merged with their allconsuming automotive abandon.

This time, arriving from Dallas, I was offered for $40 extra per day a retro-styled Dodge Challenger in DayGlo orange with a black stripe running from hood to trunk. This is a reincarnation of the humpbacked shark of a car synonymous with those Seventies belted-cardie-wearers (and sometime crime-fighters), Starsky and Hutch. Without any ado I heaved my plastic, roared off the lot on to Airport Boulevard and passed the Airport Endoscopy Centre – a timely reminder of what a pain in the ass 21st-century air travel can be.

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. In Los Angeles, not to drive is an aberration on a par with being . . . well, homeless. Heading north on La Cienega I passed CAR CASH: Borrow Against Your Car, and pondered the ghastly predicament of those who had sub-prime car loans; at best, driving a car in a big city is a ceaseless calibration of time, speed, distance and money, by which the human psyche is transmogrified into a hideous chimera, part satnav, part spreadsheet. But to have the added anxiety that the rubber matting might be pulled from beneath your feet . . . well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Coming down off Baldwin Hills, with their dipping-prehistoric-bird oil pumps, I passed under the Metro Expo Line and fell to considering the bizarre history of LA transportation. Even now, in 2013, the light railway line from downtown to Santa Monica, some 20 miles distant, is only just about to reach the coast, joining together by public transport two urban centres that became incorporated into greater LA decades ago. True, there was once an extensive streetcar network that covered the entire LA basin, but by the early Twenties – around the same time car ownership reached one per head of the population – the steel tracks began to be pulled up to make way for more tyre ones.

This Eleatic paradox lies at the very core of LA’s polymorphously perverse being: the light railway line halving the distance to Santa Monica and then halving it again and so never arriving, while the Streamline Moderne skyscrapers, chelonian under their copper shells, win the race in a few short years. Looking at photographs of LA in the Twenties, I’m always struck by this technological discontinuity: the buildings so sleekly speedy, while the cars retain the flimsily foursquare aspect of horseless buggies. Narrowly avoided by the snout of my Challenger, a cyclist huffing along beside the six lanes of spluttering traffic is just such an anachronism. Reyner Banham, in The Architecture of Four Ecologies, his Starsky & Hutch-era survey of Los Angeles, coined the term “autopia” to describe the city’s vast concrete graticule of freeways and boulevards.

In European cities, despite the botched bits of Le Corbusier that have been bunged down on them, car transport remains quite at variance with the built environment: the Arc de Triomphe is inexorably eroded by the circulation of Citroëns, but in LA the car is the built environment; traffic reports have the epochal character of earthquake warnings and by night the city’s very fabric ripples in the convection of its own exhaust fumes, so that merging with the freeway one is flipped end over end, a satellite orbiting the daemonic earth.

I concede, when it came to it I probably wouldn’t last five minutes but I still have a childlike passion for Los Angeles, and in particular for its car culture. To be in a place where people say porte cochère with no hint of affectation (indeed, “porte cochère” is about the only thing they say unaffectedly) is some kind of strange liberation for me. Everywhere else I drive the traffic jam presents itself as a vicious instantiation of the human predicament under late capitalism, but in LA it’s just the stuff of a very ordinary workaday madness.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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