BritWeek Celebrates 50 Years of Britain in Los Angeles



British Writers Love Los Angeles

An article by Bob Peirce, the British Consul General in Los Angeles


Brits love Los Angeles. Even those who don't start off loving it.

Aldous Huxley visited in 1925 and wrote a snooty essay called Los Angeles. A Rhapsody, with observations of assembly-line movie-making, strange religions, "gargantuan profusion" in restaurants and the search for cocktails under the jackboot of Prohibition. "Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy", he wrote, "and conversation is unknown". But twelve years later, in 1937, he settled in Los Angeles. He had changed his mind, and not only because Prohibition was over.

The poet Christopher Isherwood arrived in 1939, eventually settling in Santa Monica, where he lived until his death in 1986. His first comments were less than exuberant. "Perhaps the ugliest city on earth", he wrote in his Diaries. He was "amazed at the size of the city and its lack of shape".

But Isherwood found it entrancing, and not least because he immediately found himself at parties with interesting or amusing people such the Huxleys, Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht, Tennessee Williams (who wrote The Glass Menagerie while living for a while in Santa Monica), Bertrand Russell and Charlie Chaplin. He recorded meeting Greta Garbo at a picnic, to which she brought her own special diet in a basket, and wanting to save her from herself. Christopher Isherwood came to love Los Angeles, and famously said there was no point in trying to explain to people why one lives here, because "either they understand it's the only place or they don't".

Reyner Banham loved Los Angeles before he ever came here. A prolific and radical architectural critic, Banham was professor of Architectural History at the University of London. He was drawn to Los Angeles originally by the movies, enthralled by it in fact as he explains in his wonderful and quirky 1972 BBC Documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. With that documentary, and with his 1971 classic book Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Banham transformed the way in which many people saw Los Angeles.

The Getty Center, paying tribute to Reyner Banham in 2005, said of him "Long before Los Angeles' contribution to modern culture became widely recognized, British architectural historian Reyner Banham proclaimed it one of the world's great cities". John McPhee has even compared his importance to Los Angeles with that of Pericles to Athens. If that sounds like an overstatement, one has to recall that in the early seventies, not long after the Watts riots of 1965, the conventional view of Los Angeles was of a dysfunctional sprawling mess. Then came Reyner Banham and he declared "I love the place with a passion that goes beyond sense or reason".

Like Reyner Banham, I was in love with Los Angeles before my first visit here in 1974. And that was because I had seen and read Reyner Banham. It took Banham to stand up and call attention to the beauty, the style and the architectural gems that are all around the city. And also to explain why Los Angeles had developed as it had and why it was right to have done so.

Jan Morris, the British travel writer, made a similar point when she visited a few years later in 1976 and wrote an article for Rolling Stone called Los Angeles: The Know-How City. She wrote that Los Angeles "sprang from it's own soil". It was "inconceivable anywhere else". It was "true to itself". She noted, rightly, how hard people work here, a necessary observation given the contrary impression that people from the East Coast or Europe often have of life in Southern California. Certainly it is a great place to mix business and pleasure. But make no mistake, business is what drives the place.

Jan Morris commented that "the Los Angeles ethos is intensely infectious, and transmutes everything it touches". I think that captures it rather well. Los Angeles is a fount of ideas about everything: art, entertainment, media, science, business, architecture and lifestyle. These ideas go out from Los Angeles to change the world.

I think that ethos explains why many Brits, especially creative people and entrepreneurs, are drawn to the place, even those who are a bit confused by it when they first arrive. LAX doesn't help with the first impression, as another British writer Pico Iyer described in an article Where Worlds Collide in Harper's Magazine in 1995. But LA is not the only great city to have a major airport problem.

The car culture is also a bit of a hurdle for some. As a car nut, I am not one of them, but Reyner Banham memorably said that he had "learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original". David Hockney, the artist who more than any other has become the iconic painter of Los Angeles life, also had to learn to drive when he arrived here in 1963. Or, at any rate, he had to pass a driver's test. Like many Brits to this day, he was amazed that this consisted of a few very easy multiple-choice questions and virtually no evidence of any skill in handling a vehicle. He set off tentatively from the test center in his newly acquired Ford Falcon and drove all the way to Las Vegas and back - not a bad test run.

There are many other Brits who have written about Los Angeles. Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One (1948) was a hilarious send-up of the funeral industry here, filmed by Tony Richardson in the sixties. I am not sure whether, under the surface, Waugh had any affection for Los Angeles (or, for that matter, whether he had much affection for anything at all).

The British writer most closely associated with Los Angeles was one who most people probably do not think of as British at all. Raymond Chandler was raised and educated in Britain; he was born in Illinois but moved to London with his British mother when he was a small child. He worked in the Admiralty for a short time before moving to America in 1912, and starting a new life in Los Angeles stringing tennis rackets and picking fruit. In the thirties he began writing the detective fiction which, for many readers (and viewers of movies such as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye), defines the ambience of the darker side of Los Angeles in his time. He also inspired other LA writers who followed him, such as Canadian Ross MacDonald.

Today Los Angeles gives opportunity and inspiration to many British writers - screenwriters, journalists, novelists - continuing a long tradition of British creativity here, and contributing to Jan Morris"s "infectious ethos". This great beautiful beast of a city seems set to cast its allure over the Brits for many years to come.

Bob Peirce. August 2008