And so I find myself in California. Readers of last week’s column will recall that I left the shores of my home country with the deepest misgiving and reluctance. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to travel on United Airlines, who charge you for your drinks. I didn’t want to go to Los Angeles, which is a brutal, godless and culture-free hellhole with a distinctly third-rate public transport system.
However, things turned out slightly differently from what I’d expected. I found myself decanted into a charming cottage in Laurel Canyon, a bosky place up in the hills from where one can look down on LA in all its glory. We’re a hop and a skip away from Mulholland Drive, and if you remember the film of that name you will remember the view of the city at night. Readers, it was not a special effect.
I’d been to Los Angeles before, getting on for twenty years ago, joining a team of about thirty Harley-Davidson riders who were going to Mexicali and back. I came off on the freeway near Chula Vista at sixty miles an hour and earned the nickname “Crash”. I suffered a mild abrasion to the heel of my hand and a hole in the knee of my jeans. Which means either that I am incredibly lucky, or that there is someone up there with a soft spot for me; or that I died then and there and everything I’ve experienced since has been my death reverie.
So, my associations with the city have been slight and painful. I must say I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it, as I have done now, nor indeed to fall so hard. That has come as rather a surprise. I thought I had inoculated myself against the place, but the magic of the very names of the streets has undone me. Travellers who return from the Holy Land invariably report how staggered they were to see buses with the words “Bethlehem” or “Nazareth” on them. The names round here have the same effect on me. Sunset Boulevard. Beverly Hills. Laurel Canyon. And countless others, lodged in the brain ever since Bogart or Bacall or whoever spat them out to a taxi driver or a gumshoe. The effect is dazzling, and there is no getting away from it. There’s fairy dust sprinkled here, ankle-deep. I looked down at my feet on Hollywood Boulevard and, knock me down with a feather, but they really do have stars on the pavement with actors’ names on them. I was standing on Errol Flynn.
And this is a company town. Everyone here is either in the film business or very keen on getting into the film business. That’s no myth. The difference here is that it’s not a closed shop, not as far as I can see. People are free and helpful with their advice. The place is full of people giving each other a hand. I compare this to the literary scene in London, where we wouldn’t piss on each other if we were on fire. (Talk of cosy metropolitan cliques is way off the mark.) The other day I went to a party given by a firm of attorneys. Now imagine a party with American lawyers. Got a mental picture of that? Well, unless you imagined extremely attractive lady attorneys having a great time with jello shots and lashings of free bourbon, you’ve imagined it wrong.
And the people aren’t stupid, or uncultured. On the contrary. When was the last time you went to a party and had a chat about Upton Sinclair, or found yourself in conversation with James Ellroy’s ex-lover?
The people here also like it if you clearly like the place. At one point someone put an arm around me and said, “This man is clearly an expat-in-waiting.” I take that as a compliment.
However, at the end of the day, all this comes about only because a writer has put in some long hours, and that is what I am here to do. I’ve been whisked off to Lake Arrowhead, a place in the mountains where there is nothing to do but fish and write – and I don’t fish.
I am in the slightly surreal position of filleting my previous columns for this magazine and turning them into a script. I’ve even given (and here, we’re travelling at speed down the rabbit hole) Jason Cowley a few lines of dialogue. Well, why not? And last night the man who has locked me away here asked me who I think might be a good person to direct it. This is the kind of question that gets asked round here. (I said Kathryn Bigelow, because I have a huge crush on her.)
Hollywood joke: Q. How many writers does it take to change a light bulb? A. I’m not changing a f***ing THING.
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special