Leaving Los Angeles
I’m leaving Los Angeles. Not tomorrow, not next week, not even later this year, but tempus doing the fugitting thing it does will mean that it seems scarily soon. At any rate, it’s something I’m working towards, and that’s a good thing in my life. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion, looking back at the last ten years, that I just haven’t really made it here — not in the Sinatra sense, but merely in terms of not having properly settled emotionally.
Maybe I never could have. I’ve already lived here longer than anywhere else except my childhood home, and all the other places that seemed like the perfect place at first grew not to be sooner or later. I’m not sure I’d call it wanderlust, exactly, but I do seem to feel a need to move around. I have a nagging fear somewhere in one of my mind’s rummage drawers that it’s not so much wanting to experience all that the world can offer, and more that nowhere really feels quite right enough to call home. The north-east of England is my home in the sense that it’s in my bones, and where the voices are the most familiar, but is it home in the sense that it might still feel like the centre of the universe? Not sure. Maybe that’s a price of a peripatetic life: home has to be something of a virtual construct — wherever you lay your MacBook.
LA is an odd city for Brits. Our images of it from a distance are all pop-culture icons and movieland, beyond which it’s a bit of a blank. Actors who decamp to LA are either swallowed up and assimilated, or return older and wiser, as if from the belly of one of Joseph Campbell’s beasts. It has a very different bauplan from the European cities of my experience and mental model. Rather than the bell-curve accretion of historical strata, LA’s purpose is to be a clean slate onto which people can write and rewrite their stories: actors, musicians, immigrants. There’s a conscious LEGO-brick impermanence about both the flat, gridded architecture and the accelerated cycle of modular renewal.
None of which is intended to mark the place out as anything less than a great city. David Rieff’s encapsulation of Los Angeles as the “Capital of the Third World” might be a backhanded compliment, but it does capture its significance, and hints at some of the city’s strengths: massive diversity of culture, food, and the arts; as well as the sense that its constant remaking allows for all contributors. It’s not a place petrified by centuries of tradition into massively vertical feudal structures.
But more and more there’s something I’m missing. Los Angeles isn’t a bad place, but I think it’s the wrong place for me. It’s a bad fit. Many of the city’s strengths are things that aren’t especially important to me (great, cheap ethnic food; cinemas everywhere; the Pacific Ocean just down the street), or are actually a problem to some degree (a climate which, while reliably bright and cheery, means I have to cover almost every inch of skin or burn to a very British lobster-pink), and some of the city’s weaknesses loom quite large. With some minor exceptions — though even these are quite compromised by that burning sun — LA just isn’t a walkable city, public transport is patchy (and cripplingly dependent on overworked buses), and there are no significant communal spaces which are not shopping malls, sporting arenas, or bits of deliberately undeveloped desert. There are no great parks, no great plazas, not even any iconic behemoth department stores. An inevitable consequence of LA’s profound cultural diversity is its cultural fragmentation: it’s closer to a dozen far-smaller cities beneath a thin administrative umbrella than it is to a single metropolis, so it misses out on the grand civic gestures that can bind city-dwellers together.
What brought me to Los Angeles was a relationship, rather than the city itself, and that was a new experience. Before that move I’d had the self-indulgent freedom to choose places to live which themselves felt right for me at the time, in addition to being where the right job was, or the right education. I might have underestimated the importance to my emotional health of living in the right place, but I think I was always a bit sceptical that Los Angeles would feel right — just reluctant to give in to the safe and familiar, and to make that more important than love. It was an adventure.
What I miss — what I’m hoping to move (back?) towards in the next couple of years — is partly the specific practical logistics and feature list I’d willingly given up, whose warm glow turns out to be more important to me than that of the LA sun: public transport, parks, communal civic spaces, and so on. It’s also a longer-term escape from feeling held hostage by the every-man-for-himself of US healthcare. And it’s also — and not insignificantly — a strong desire to spend a lot more time with my family, to whom I’ve been a pretty terrible son and brother for too many years; I’m just not good at all at maintaining relationships at a distance, and have to stay aware of that.
But I can’t avoid the fact that something I miss rather profoundly is Britishness. Not a twee half-remembered expat Britishness of faux patriotism, but the stuff that’s so much a part of who we are that we don’t even see it until it’s not there. I miss cynicism, and taking the piss, and the fact that dark and dry humour runs through everything we do. I miss public service broadcasting done right, and the shared cultural experience that comes from that. I miss wild green space that isn’t managed and manicured and doesn’t have sprinklers embedded in it. I miss that pies are meat, and bacon is back. I miss Greggs, for fuck’s sake.
A danger here — and I’m quite aware of it — is of comparing the worst of today’s realities with the best of yesterday’s memories, and there’s probably some of that mixed in, but only some. I’m aware that Britain sucks in many ways. Another danger is the re-emergence of the complicating effects of a long-distance relationship. When I moved to Los Angeles I (very willingly) took on the weight of dislocation from family and culture. Moving — in my case — back to Britain would amount to me asking A. to take on that weight, and I’m aware of the size of the request.
There is even a kink aspect here. Though my kink was forged by my cultural Britishness, I owe a huge debt to US culture — and the US scene — for bringing it out into the light and allowing it free expression. I never felt especially comfortable in the UK’s Janus-world patriarchial scene of moustache-twirling men, its shady legal position, and the rank hypocrisy of a press which sells kink stories while tut-tutting at its participants (and, for that matter, a public which buys kink stories while tut-tutting just as hypocritically). If I could take the wondrous openness and pan-sexuality of a San Francisco spanking party A. and I attended, and the hard-earned legitimacy of Shadow Lane, but mix in the iconography and tone of the British scene, I’d be very happy.
So I’m leaving Los Angeles. It won’t be an uncomplicated move, either emotionally or logistically, but it’ll be a move in the right direction, at this point in my life. Moving back to Britain, specifically, feels like an adventure to my own country, and there’s no better reason than that to have been away for some time.