British Writers Love Los Angeles
An Article by Bob Peirce, the Chairman of BritWeek
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.
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
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".
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
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.