Richard Godwin transplants to Los Angeles, the city that conforms to its own clichés.
When you put it about among your friends and acquaintances that you’re moving to Los Angeles, you tend to receive two responses: condescension and/or jealousy.
Condescension because there is a certain British snobbery that always attaches itself to Los Angeles, city of stars, cars and spontaneous big-band musical numbers straddling five-lane freeways (La La Land was a documentary, didn’t you realise?) Hell, there is a certain American snobbery that attaches itself to Los Angeles – which most of the rest of the United States sees as a licentious suntrap of botox and socialism.
“The thing about L.A. that you have to understand is that everyone here believes their own bullshit,” as one New York transplant put it. But then again, L.A. is full of New York transplants. And it’s also full of British transplants, and French transplants, and Brazilian transplants, and pretty much every kind of transplant you could hope to go boogie-boarding with. So there must be something in the bullshit. It’s good fertilizer, bullshit.
Jealousy because I’m afraid that the episode of Fawlty Towers with the American tourist couple is correct. It’s sunny here an obscene amount of the time; it’s full of hot bodies in yoga-wear and you can literally go skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon (though to be fair, it is awfully tiring). Simply spending a couple of hours around Venice Beach will enhance your Instagram feed by a factor of 100. Oh look, a palm tree silhouetted against the Hollywood sign. Check it out! It’s a wannabe model taking a selfie on Abbot Kinney Blvd. Check it out! It’s wannabe model taking a selfie on Abbot Kinney Blvd. Check it out! It’s a wannabe model taking a selfie on Abbot-Kinney Blvd. So deeply embedded is the city’s iconography, you can point an iPhone and the crummiest donut joint and it looks like something from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The truth is L.A. conforms to its own clichés so willingly, it’s almost quaint. I am yet to visit an L.A. home that doesn’t contain at least a few crystals with apparently mystical properties. People have fairly gross dogs that they expect you to find cute. Everyone walks around with a cup of liquid in their hand and the contents of the cups form a de facto class system (from the reliably blue-collar Gatorade up through Taco Bell soda, Arrowhead water, Starbucks coffee, Intelligentsia coffee, cold-pressed kale juice, micro-brewed kombucha, turmeric and macadamia latte. It is illegal to drink alcohol in any public place, so people put a lot of thought into their non-alcoholic drinks).
You will also meet lots of people in – or more likely, trying to get into – the film business. All the Uber drivers are wannabe actors; all the people you thought were intimidatingly successful jangle with insecurity and I once saw Jesse from Breaking Bad in Chateau Marmont. Also, if you hang around in the sort of place you can buy a turmeric and macadamia latté ($5 from Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Blvd, delicious) you’ll find an assortment of writing duos, discussing what to do with the pilot episode of their sitcom.
“Hang on a minute… Do you think we should make one of these characters Asian?”
“Oh yes. And maybe one of them should be like trans?”
“Cool and we should give one of them a normal job – they shouldn’t all be creatives?”
“Why don’t we make Roxy a personal trainer?”
“Awesome! [LONG SILENCE] How are you doing for time by the way, I got a Flywheel class at four.
If you’re not in the movie industry, this is all part of the local colour and it needn’t get you down. There are plenty of people who are designers and chefs and even personal trainers if you want to mix things up a bit. Or jewelers. At this precise moment, I’m in the Tower Bar of the Sunset Hotel which is where the movers and shakers of Hollywood come to move and shake. It’s awards season (in the absence of marked meteorological cues, the seasons go: Awards (January-February), Pilot (March-April), Beach Party! (May-September) and Pumpkin Spice (October-December, encompassing Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas).
On the table next to me, three women are eating avocado on toast at a table arrayed with jewelry. I think they’ve brought the jewelry here to sell to someone, possibly each other, possibly to someone attending the Oscars. One of them is talking about her healer. Healers are the new therapists. This particular healer encouraged her to sway backwards and forwards in order to reveal her aura. The aura revealed that there was a lot of tension in her life right now. Another one is talking about her plastic surgeon. Apparently the surgeon has big plans for her face. The others half-heartedly discourage the meeting. “Oh she’s going to chop it up real good.”
There’s also the famous head-start that a British accent will give you (any accent will do: Scots, Scouse, Brummie, Norfolk, it’s all Helen Mirren in The Queen over here). Of course, the advantage is a little diluted by the fact that the place is rammed with perma-tanned trustafarians from the Home Counties trying to launch their virtual reality start-ups from the Malibu Beachhouse, but still, it’s not insignificant.
The other day, we were sipping rosé with some English friends at a rooftop pool as our three-year-olds ran around the place screaming. I was so proud when a man looked up from his sunlounger and said: “You know if those were American kids I would’ve drowned them by now – but they’re so adorable.”
Which is not to say that life in L.A. is without its maddening aspects. In fact, serene bliss punctured by moments of insane infuriation is the default mode here. Most of these moments happen on the freeways that criss-cross the county – since thanks to an idea of urban planning that made sense in the 1930s, the notion of walking five minutes to buy a pint of milk is an anathema and pedestrians fall somewhere between terrorists and Mel Gibson in the popular imagination. No, you must drive 15 minutes to buy a gallon of milk. Then afterwards spend a further 15 minutes trying to park. The whole business of driving takes on the status of the weather in Britain – the predictable but unpredictable fluctuations of traffic, the reliable conundrum of where to park and the specific combination of freeways the reliable points of commonality.
In L.A.’s defence, the municipal authorities have cottoned on to the fact that climate change is bad and a functional public transport system is not a sign of weakness. And there are advantages to spending lots of time in the car. It’s convenient. It’s picturesque. Almost any song that comes on the radio sounds cool with an L.A. backdrop. What remains surprising to me is why everyone still drives as if they’re Alicia Silverstone in Clueless when they spend so long in their cars. The daily traffic reports are apocalyptic: “We got a fender bender on the 405 coming out of the Valley; there’s a truck fire taking up three lanes of the 110 and what looks like a rapture happening on Sunset Boulevard and La Brea.”
Once you’ve seen how people drive these daily horrors are unsurprising. Need to send a text message? Why not do so at a seven-lane intersection! Nasal hair getting a little long? Why not trim it at 70mph while consulting Google Maps! And the general carnage is not helped by some eccentric traffic rules. You’re allowed to turn right on a red light for some reason – and yet, if you turn right on green, you’re liable to run into all the pedestrians also crossing on green. If you slow down to be sure you don’t, for example, kill a family of four, the person behind you is liable to honk at you. In fact, if you cause anyone else to so much as touch the brake: HONK. HONK. HONK. “Asshole!” To retain sanity, you must imagine that anyone honking you is simply saying hi! Thanks for driving safely!
Then there are the surprises. L.A. has some of the best public libraries and book shops I’ve ever been to. It has a peerless radio station, KCRW – sort of like Radio 4 with amazing playlist instead of the embarrassing radio plays – and fantastic museums. While it has some of the worst architecture in the world, it also has Spanish villas and Googie carwashes and Gothic mansion blocks and Frank Gehry concert halls. It has actual canyons and mountains in the actual middle of the city, with cougars and rattlesnakes. The vegetation is WILD. Despite what I said about the sun, when it’s cold it’s really cold (it’s the desert after all) and this means there’s a palpable undercurrent of melancholy that heightens things just so. It is at once completely futuristic and weirdly old fashioned: the fabled Chateau Marmont looks and smells a bit like an old people’s home when you go up a few floors and lots of people still dress like it’s 1976. People refer to eating as working. For example, if there is a half-eaten croissant on your plate when a service person comes to collect your coffee cup, they will say: “Are you still working on that?” I’ve also heard people refer to taking drugs as “work”. As in: “I did a little work with hallucinogens but these days I’m mostly working with nootropics.”
I’ve realised that most of my favorite movies are set in L.A. too and in fact love letters to L.A.: Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, L.A. Confidential, Jackie Browne. I live in hope that I will run into Lana Del Rey at Whole Foods.
Isn’t everyone superficially upbeat all the time? Yes! And what’s wrong with being superficially upbeat? Here, to be upbeat is both a survival mechanism and a basic form of politeness. Most people in L.A. came from somewhere else and there’s a sense that it’s your duty to gee one another along. It’s nice when someone asks you how your day is in the elevator or says “Cool shoes!” as you stroll down Melrose Avenue. If it’s not entirely sincere, who cares? When I returned to London it struck me that our own native downbeatness is not entirely sincere either. “Oh God was it awful?” “It’s murder out there” “Yeah, it’s alright I suppose.” This is one of the reasons you travel that you may know whence you have come. Though if you ever see me in a baseball cap, you have permission to slap me.