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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.