At the Beverly Wilshire

Ric Burns

  • Hollywood Husbands by Jackie Collins
    Heinemann, 508 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 434 14090 2
  • Letters from Hollywood by Michael Moorcock
    Harrap, 232 pp, £10.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 245 54379 1
  • Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir by Cyra McFadden
    Secker, 178 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 436 27580 5

Any boy scout strolling down Sunset Boulevard with his ears unwaxed these days could be forgiven for concluding that America invented Southern California in order to compensate Britain for the loss of Empire. For some time now, there’s been a certain kind of Englishman and woman for whom America, and especially the American West, holds the promise of the lost Indies – for whom there is no greater ambition than to live and die in Santa Monica. ‘If I ever get the choice,’ Michael Moorcock declares, ‘that’s where I would cheerfully end my days.’

This is simply the most recent turn in what has proved to be one of the greatest tragic-comic intercontinental love stories of all time. Not too long ago lucred Yankee cognoscenti fled the parboiled American plains for the amenities of English civil life. Henry James dined out on transatlantic discrepancies until they nearly killed him and to this day there is still a kind of American for whom England is an America. But increasingly, these are the disoriented few. Something that never really was – money springs to mind – is gone for ever from the American’s view of England, and now you hear mainly catcalls and complaints. American distaste for the English has reached a kind of zenith lately in the views of Lyndon Larouche, the extreme right-wing politician whose platform is based on the belief that skulking behind most of the world’s ills is the English royal family, a dynasty of deranged drug-dealers dominated by fantasies of homosexual rape.

As Edmund Wilson, who hated all English people except his last wife, towards whom he was pointedly uxorious, once observed, ‘the English Revolution took place in America, and since then there have been two parallel social developments that more and more put each other out.’ Like many of Wilson’s distended aperçus, this one has a Quasimodo-like hunch, and yet like Quasimodo it still rings a bell. Even so, few Brits could have imagined, as they outstayed an early North American unwelcome so egregiously as to become unrecognisable to themselves – hence 1776 – that England would now be playing a dying Antony to America’s fatal Cleopatra – herself perhaps even now applying the asp to her own abundant breast.

There have been four distinct phases in the English attitude towards America:

Phase One, 1600-1776. England is the base of empire. America, as yet merely a reflex of European cultural will, is seen as a super-structural amenity, part prison, part investment opportunity.

Phase Two, 1776-1914. Colonial superstructure begins to put down own roots. As the old base breaks off, American tail begins imperceptibly to wag European dog, although for a long time only Alexis de Tocqueville seems aware of this fact. During the period, England affects to view America with complete indifference as a passing phenomenon. Favourite American region: the South. Favourite institution: the Confederacy.

Phase Three, 1914-1945. Phantom-limb phase. Old English base is amputated leaving superstructural British superiority complex twitching uncertainly in place. English hatred for Americans spikes upward, while a suspiciously timely wave of Yankee affection for the ‘mother country’ sweeps the United States.

Phase Four, 1945 to date. England now a cultural superstructure in search of a base, and with the latter alive only in memory, many Britons instinctively gravitate to offshore vacation spots where the weather is nice and the distinctions between economics and fantasy, base and superstructure, have been annulled. Hollywood and Southern California acquire the Empyrean hues with which they shimmer in the English mind today.

Jackie Collins’s new novel, Hollywood Husbands, continues her maniacal Frankensteinian attempt to effect the imaginative transfer of the American base to a British brain. As in much of Ms Collins’s writing, there’s a strange mixing of classical levels here, a hallucinatory superimposition of the unlike, as if the Queen Mum woke up as a character on the back of a Cheerios box. Accidents can happen when a cultural superstructure goes snorkling in someone else’s base, and no one will be surprised to learn that the issue here is an amorphous mass of glistening pulp pornographically close to both the steamy centre and the tawdry surface without any discernible substance of its own.

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