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.
Aruck and aroil with the non-stick brain-frying sexuality Ms Collins has made her stock-in-trade, liberally peppered with allusions to the glorious flotsam of American life (Hägen Dazs, Hill Street Blues, Madonna, Phil Donahue, Aids), Hollywood Husbands has one foot in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart and the other in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Cruising shark-like beneath the main story, which chronicles the showbiz mores of a bewildering galaxy of cartoon characters – Silver Anderson, Mannon Cable, Jack Python, Jade Johnson, Whitney Valentine – lurks an italicised sub-plot. This tells of an unnamed victim of sexual abuse who falls into the quite plausible routine of torching her abusers to a charred crisp in their own homes. When Ms Collins moves to end her book, she simply causes the inflamed sub-plot to collide with the inflammable main story, discreetly averting her gaze while the whole thing self-destructs. As if she hadn’t done enough already, talkshow host Jack Python choppers down to ravish the divine Jade from the very brink of nuptiality while her husband-to-have-been, the gutless Lord Mark Rand, gnashes his titled English gums helplessly. Given his class and country, the chances of Lord Mark not being scheming, weak, pale and under-equipped are nil.
Lucky, Married Men, Sinners, Chances, The Bitch: Jackie Collins’s oeuvre, which now extends to a dozen titles and over ten million copies in print (Hollywood Wives with a 2.9 million-copy paperback print run is so far the flagship of the line), captures the spirit of Britain’s cultural quasi-capitulation to the American base at the sheepish top of its arc. Ms Collins’s clear favourites in the novel are, in fact, TV star Silver Anderson, modelled on sister Joan, and stud-barman Wes Money, deracinated Brits who through accident and sheer professional and sexual doggedness come together and find happiness in the City of the Angels. How do they feel about it? Just ask Mr Money: ‘He felt a building excitement. Maybe he’d just lucked into a whole different lifestyle.’
It was in the hope of lucking into a whole different lifestyle, or at the very least forestalling financial and emotional bankruptcy, that the distinguished Science Fiction writer Michael Moorcock fled from England to Los Angeles in the late Seventies, jumping at the offer of big money to write a no-frills adventure flick. Letters from Hollywood, written mainly between 1979 and 1982 to his chum J.G. Ballard and presented here with a touch of editorial licence, is the record of that sojourn.
Moorcock is perhaps best-known as the bearded midwife of brave new worlds for a generation of dreamily disaffected and drug-stunned bikers. He certainly knows his clientele: ‘Some years ago the owner of a shop in London asked me seriously: “What are you doing to your fans? They come shambling in here wearing filthy jeans and studded jackets, knock down a rack of books, retch over the magazines and open their filthy palms with fifty-pence pieces in them. Their red eyes roll up in their sockets. You know what they want but you wait for them to mumble the words anyway: NEW MOOR-COCK, MAN.” ’ I suppose most Science Fiction writers are driven by a desire to complete in the mind cataclysmic transformations already under way. The travel writer and memoirist, on the other hand, has some vocation to commemorate, and the two impulses – to change utterly and yet to preserve – are not naturally compatible. Yet they come to a perfect accord in Mr Moorcock’s subject, the plus ça change capital of modernity, the civic centre of cultivated transience, where the principle of change has been raised to the level of memorialised routine. Los Angeles, says Moorcock, is ‘the first real city of the future’.
Mr Moorcock writes from within a powerful experience of loss beyond repair. The understated force of the book comes in part from his cheerful willingness to meet the future half-way and in part from his ability first to perceive and then to exploit these converging estrangements. Without being in the least coy, he has mastered a nice trick of registering in his writing the pressure of things absent from it: rumours of the chaotic emotional and fiscal insolvency that propelled him to California flicker menacingly on the horizon of his story, without ever taking the foreground. Focused almost entirely on Los Angeles, the book reverberates with the spatial, temporal and emotional distances across which it was written, and the technique is aptly suited to his material: Southern California, the place of displacements, a trompe l’oeil culture in which creativity and abandonment, ingenuity and trash, are figures each for the other.
Moorcock knows America not with the expert’s familiarity but with the friend’s – intimately, that is, but also casually. He will sometimes wonder aloud that most US railway terminals are called ‘Union Station’, for example, without bothering to find out why (they were begun during the Civil War by the Union-mandated Union Pacific Railroad). But on the whole the observations are entertainingly sharp. Some, for example, those regarding the efficiency of the American banking system, will be familiar to British travellers (‘After my cheque was thoroughly in their hands they then told me it would take ten days to clear’). Others clearly depend upon an authority other than Thomas Cook’s: tattooing (the design gets a ‘crust of dried blood on it and sometimes it itches badly’); chemical recreation (‘in the main the higher up the social scale you are the worse and more expensive the drugs get’); and the character of San Francisco (‘I get the impression sometimes that San Francisco is a city consisting entirely of anal retentives. It’s here you expect to find societies for the preservation of defunct societies’).
The central episode documenting Moorcock’s hapless turn as a Hollywood scriptwriter is the book’s glibbest, least successful part. Moorcock’s attempt to limn his lightly disingenuous account with mock-Nathanael West lines goes awry (‘The fact is, Jimmy, I am no longer completely sure who I am’). Working for director ‘Ike Welper’ – a man with ‘the imagination of a tub of coleslaw’, ‘the creative gift of a cockroach’, ‘the emotional age of a nine-year-old schoolboy’ and ‘the power to summon up millions and millions of dollars’ – does sound hazardous to mental health, but it’s the old Hollywood saga of gibbering all the way to the bank.
Behind even the throwaways, however, is the pressure of Moorcock’s vision of California, ceaselessly rehearsing the ironies of its Westwardism: the dream of new beginnings. Of the recent Southern Californian vogue for Down Under, Moorcock remarks that ‘once everyone went West in pursuit of the Dream. Now that the Dream has gone sour on the furthest shore of the subcontinent the same people or their immediate descendants make preparations to cross another ocean, just as their forebears crossed the Atlantic. I wonder how many generations it will be before they wind up back in Europe, a wandering tribe of yearning optimists who know that the promised land exists and are prepared to make great sacrifices in order to find it.’ Like most people writing from abroad, he keeps up a constant cross-referential patter: Australia is the new Malibu, Valley Girls are like Sloane Rangers, Steinbeck and Salinas County are more like R.D. Blackmore and Exmoor than like Shakespeare and Stratford, and so forth. Comparison here becomes a mode not only of expression but of perception, quickening a poignant sense of inevitable crossings-over. It’s also the verbal equivalent of the style he so admires in Southern California, inventively crossbred mismatchings and impossible hybrids, like the Casino on Catalina Island off the LA coast, ‘built in the Twenties in a kind of Tutankhamun Romanesque style’. This motley culture, feverishly begetting itself upon itself, is, Moorcock says, the ‘land of my dreams’ – not least, one suspects, because the wistfully eager form of its frantic fecundity alludes to the very loss it purports to supply.
In the end, of course, there is always an end, and Mr Moorcock goes back home. He takes his friend Linda with him, and she’s surprised by the degree of anti-Americanism there. ‘It’s no reassurance to her ... that the British, when they were the dominant nation, were also regarded as demons of crass materialism. She points out that England reminds her too much of Mississippi, where she was born, in its narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Maybe that’s why the myth of the Old South is so popular here.’ Meanwhile Mr Moorcock is biding his time, waiting to return. The call of the wild to the mild remains strong. Indeed, what makes these California reflections so quietly powerful is Moorcock’s ability to live frankly within the unresolved ironies of the Anglo-American gap. ‘It won’t be long before I’m back ... I can’t think of a better place from which to greet the 21st century.’
At one point a friend of Mr Moorcock’s, a musician in a country-esque English band, tells him they’re thinking of naming their second album When it’s teatime on the prairie. To anyone with a penchant for romanticising the American frontier, I recommend taking Cyra McFadden’s slim, simple and extraordinarily sad memoir of her father and mother as a postgraduate course. Ms McFadden’s first book, The Serial, spun the hilariously gripping saga of Marin County, the well-heeled exhippoid San Francisco bedroom community that turned itself into a laboratory for up-market high-tech experiments in alternative living. Acupuncture for dogs. Avocado face-packs, Vitamin E-enhanced avocado face-packs. Buddhist-oriented crisis-counselling for owners of vandalised BMWs. That kind of thing. It is the California Mr Moorcock hates.
Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir explores a rather different and less illusory facet of the American West. Ms McFadden’s father was the renowned Cy Taillon, the impossibly handsome King of Rodeo announcers, a golden-voiced charmer who ‘looked like Spade Cooley and sounded like the Reverend Billy Graham’. Her mother was the rather less well-known Pat, sometime singer-dancer for the Missouri Rockets – ‘One of the Finest, Most Versatile Choruses to Ever Set Foot Behind Footlights’. They met in 1931, ‘instantly recognised their similarities – two peacocks in a world of mud hens’ – and were hitched within 24 hours. Passionate about clothes and each other, they were vain and unfaithful and for a few gloriously punishing years they drank, cheated and fought hard from Butte, Montana to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, careening from rodeo to rodeo in a yellow Ford Sedan and then a slick blue Packard with baby daughter Cyra in tow. ‘Unlikely candidates for parenthood, they made the best of it’ – which wasn’t all that good. ‘She was a soubrette, not a housewife,’ he was always one step ahead of the bill-collector and their fights got worse. One night, Cy ‘unhitched the trailer from the Packard and drove away’. Pat called Cy’s best friend, Roy, who came and hitched his own car to the trailer and drove Pat and Cyra off to Missoula, Montana. Roy had been in love with Pat for 12 years.
Nothing went right for Pat after that. ‘Her idea of hard labour was shaving her legs’ – and that didn’t suit the miserly, hypochondriacal and jealous Roy, who could never make her forget her Cy. While Pat, Emma-like, slipped inexorably into the fog of her High Plains Yonville, Cy found Dorothy, who had first seen him perform in the window of a music store in Great Falls when she was 14 and made up her mind. She dried out the lady-killing drunk in him, becoming her stepdaughter’s greatest nemesis along the way.
There is a lot more here, told in a simple style just jaunty enough to make it persuasive that Ms McFadden has survived. There is the well-meaning Ila Mae, Pat’s sister, who ‘saw the world through morose-colored spectacles’, annotating the minatory clippings (‘Six Burned to Death in Car Wreck’) she included in her letters: ‘Isn’t this terrible?’ There is Ms McFadden’s short-lived first marriage at 18. ‘Ila Mae gave me two sets of sheets and pillowcases she had trimmed with embroidered borders, a lecture on sex along the lines of “we all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes” and two dozen blank thank-you note cards.’ There is her increasing estrangement from her father, partly because of Dorothy and partly because her hair won’t curl. There are her mother’s increasingly frequent nervous breakdowns, called ‘malaria’ by Ila Mae and Roy, and then later on there are deaths of just about everybody, including Ms McFadden’s second husband. Surrounding it all is the conservative, gristly back-culture of the American West.
In a coffee shop in Montana just a few years ago, I heard one man in cowboy boots tell another that England ought to ‘stop pussyfooting around and bomb the living shit out of the Falklands’.
I leaned over the leatherette booth between us and asked why. He told me that you had to stop the Commies somewhere, little lady, and apologised for having said ‘shit’.
With the loss of Britain’s political dominion came the break-up of another, linguistic empire, and by now it’s an irreversible fact. Sometime just after the Second World War a great lingual shift occurred and America emerged as the dominant world influence on the English language. Robert Burchfield, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, recently pointed out in the opening segment of the engaging BBC/PBS series The Story of English, that the centre of gravity of American English has itself shifted in the last generation from the East to the West Coast, and even now may be heading farther west, out over the Pacific, blasted thither by the gale-force trade winds of the Japanese economic miracle. A rising tide of ‘Japlish’ notwithstanding, America for now sits prodigiously athwart the English tongue and the English tongue, so to speak, is just going to have to face it – ‘barring some cataclysmic change,’ as Dr Burchfield noted ambiguously in his contribution to The Story of English: ‘for instance, a nuclear winter in which virtually all Americans are turned into blocks of cindered ice’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.