No 100 - 1985
The Seventh Hollywood Letter
San Francisco, with its radical hills, is a city with too many horizons. The bridges on the other hand are so vast they appear to vanish into infinity, promising passage to another dimension. Fog frequently covers them and you can’t see more than a few yards ahead. You begin to doubt you’ll ever reach a further shore. On our way to Marin we cross by the Golden Gate Bridge.
Marin Country’s fascination for everyone in the region is that it contains an above average population of very rich ex-hippies, ex-radicals and liberals. Everyone in Marin, the rumour goes, has at least one Mercedes 450 SL and a Teflon nose. When there’s a sneezing epidemic in MarinCounty it rains pure cocaine in the Tenderloin and if the prevailing wind at the weekend is South Easterly everyone in Oakland will be stoned by Monday morning. They are supposed to wear kaftans from Saks, French designer beads, headbands by Miyake. You can tell the bums easily - they’re wearing last season’s Ralph Lauren overcoats.
This is the northern side of the bay, much of which is designated national park, favoured by the legends of the sixties who managed to stay alive through the seventies. Here the discreet palaces of drug-culture gurus, anti-capitalist songsmiths and alternative society movie stars look out over private views, over redwoods, over blue oceans, from the sanctuary of security-guarded grounds. Peace and love still reign in MarinCounty, but at a pretty high cash price.
To be fair, not everyone in this wonderland of pine forests and rocky coves, of marinas and ranch-style beachfronts, is super-rich. Some are merely rich, many are modestly wealthy and more than a few are only ordinarily well-off. I would guess however that not a lot of food stamps get issued in Marin. Our friend Jessie lives in a relatively modest house in Novato. We enter Novato at night. It has its standard neon strips of motels, groceries, filling stations. It seems ordinarily middle-class. I’m rather disappointed. I had expected a kind of gigantic Beverly Hills; a town consisting of nothing but fortress-mansions overlooking townships occupied by serfs providing the services for their feudal lords. This is more like Guildford.
Jessie is planning to move to a mobile home in order to save money. She’s small, fidgety, talkative and I think she’s keen to get Linda’s approval. She’s decided to return to Wyoming, where she was born, and buy a few head of cattle. She’s tired of sex, drugs, rock and roll and weird relationships. Currently she’s having to take extra precautions because her last boyfriend turned out to be even crazier than her former husband. The boyfriend has somehow managed to make keys to her house and when she’s come home from work he’s been waiting for her in the dark. He harbours an
obscure grudge, she says. Linda suggests that Jessie move back to Los Angeles where it seems a lot saner. Jessie folds herself up into an armchair in a kind of yoga position, rolls herself a joint and relaxes. She offers the joint to us but what we really want, we say, is a meal and a drink.
Jessie soups herself into action. She’s plainly tired. She’s pretending to an energy she doesn’t possess. She hopes we’ll stay with her. She suggests we look at her double bed. It’s hardly big enough for one of us. We tell her we’ll stay at the nearest Holiday Inn. Jessie calls them and books us a room. ‘Are you sure the bed’s a real kingsize?’ We can have a kingsize or we can have twin queens. ‘If I had my mobile home there’d be plenty of space for you, Jessie says. A mobile home in California is something which, with a degree of effort, can be moved (often in sections) by means of a massive truck along the public highway and installed in a trailer park where all amenities can be connected within minutes. They have more living space than most English terraced houses. The prime location in a trailer park is on the corner of the lot. It’s not at all like living in a caravan in England (although in terms of status it can mean something similar) and the value of the mobile homes, Jessie tells us, appreciates. It’s more like moving to a good-sized bungalow in Bognor. Once she’s bought it Jessie can either resell it when she’s ready to move or she can get a decent income from renting it.
Driving ahead in her sporty car, Jessie leads us through the bland Novato streets to the hotel perched on an embankment near an intersection of the highway. The Marine County Holiday Inn seems rather dowdy, perhaps in comparison to the rest of the place. We have the impression that this is roughly the equivalent of taking a bed at a Salvation Army shelter. We get a room with heavy double-glazing and a view of the highway. We dump our luggage and rejoin Jessie in the lobby. She already has an idea where we’re going. She’s determined to take us to her favourite bar. ‘We can get something to eat, if all you want’s like a hamburger. But you’ve got to see it. This is real Novato nightlife.’
Remember I told you I’d discovered where the people who buy the $400 cowboy hats come from? Marin County. One of the big songs at present is I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool. While the British wallow in Royal Family worship and imperial nostalgia, here under Reagan the West is suddenly big again. Not the John Wayne frontier west (which Europeans determine as Reagan’s style) but Loretta Lynn basic-folks West. If John Wayne comes into it at all, it’s the later Wayne, kindly, easy and paternalistic. And the children of the old hippies, the upwardly mobile accountants and lawyers who commute to San Francisco, the junior executives and successful real estate agents, the partners in car-dealerships and restaurant concessions, are all into C&W and Country Dancing. It’s a kind of Frank Capra populism wholly to do with being white, secure and middleclass, reflected in Reagan’s speeches which, as Linda points out in fury, have the sentiments, language and intellectual content of a high school valedictory. This is the conspiratorial conservatism of ‘nice’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘caring’, ‘decent behavior’. Of course the demand for these qualities comes from the privileged who cheerfully support every sort of cut in social services and complain about Reagan only if they think they haven’t had a large enough tax break.
The bar’s called Charlie Bolton’s. It’s country dancing night the way it recently used to be disco night. Jessie thinks we’ll enjoy it. The place is done up in that Victorian style everyone currently favours. There’s lots of polished dark wood, a long bar, mirrors, fake gas lamps. It has a good-sized wooden dance floor surrounded by tables with calico cloths. There’s C&W music playing over the speakers and the dancers have linked arms. Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life…
This isn’t a set from Rio Bravo. It’s more like a pantomime production of Oklahoma. In a big circle the folks of Marin County whoop and stomp and dosey doe to the latest records (many of them manufactured no further away than Sunset Boulevard). It’s a cowboy version of Come Dancing, the steps oddly formalised (as are the shouts and yells), strangely mechanical: a sort of non-violent Westworld. I look towards the batwing saloon-style doors wondering if a Yul Brynner robot is going to come through them and begin some precise and complex folk-dance. Certainly no John Ford Indians (who always attack just as people are beginning to enjoy themselves) are going to start shooting fire arrows through the smoked glass of these windows. The dancers aren’t spontaneous enough to afford the right dramatic contrast, anyway. Their moves are careful and considered. Jessie, who learned to square dance as a kid, joins in for a couple of numbers and goes at it with some style and flair. The others are admiring, asking her where she got her lessons. They all got theirs at the local shopping mall.
The other thing I can’t help noticing about the dancers is that they’re all very plain. These are the dough-faced storekeepers who high-tail it out of town as soon as Gary Cooper starts looking up train timetables; the disapproving young women who feel that Calamity Jane is letting down the tone of Deadwood. Admittedly they’re considerably more expensively dressed than the townsfolk of Cheyenne, but then they’ve had several generations in which, through thrift and caution, to build up the fortunes which the likes of Audie Murphy and Alan Ladd threatened.
Their fancy duds are in fact about the prettiest sight in the whole place. Their blue suede stetsons are decorated with peacock and pheasants feathers; brown leather stetsons have silver dollars around the bands. God knows how long or how many Mexican women worked in their various basements to make those hats and embroider those pastel silk cowbow shirts. In Colorado City once I was taken down into just such a basement, a peculiarly Western sort of sweatshop, where Mexican and Indian women were producing the elaborate beadwork for the C&W singer’s shirts, putting the fancy motifs on the yoke-back jackets. They were crowded into a space as dank and badly lit as any East End cellar of the 1900s (or, indeed, the 1980s). The Marin dudes and dudesses lift their plump legs and pirouette first to the right, then to the left. They wear Calvin Klein bootjeans, their soft leather divided skirts swirl with an elegance only money can buy; the alligator and snakeskin boot which Nudie’s in West Hollywood sells to rock stars from $500 a pair come clattering down on the newly varnished boards. Any of this clothing would immediately spoil if exposed to a mild shower of rain. I wonder if any of them have pigskin chaps or gold spurs mail-ordered through Executive Services.
Jessie explains the specific atmosphere of the place. Tonight is singles night at Charlie Bolton’s. Not all singles nights in all the bars across America are like this. Not all singles nights have such a preponderance of rich young gimps. Jessie finds herself laughing at the strangeness of the situation. Pretty pinks and blues swirl past. If he could see them now, Bob Hope’s Paleface would be singing a slightly different song. The severe classical styles of the East are in clear contrast these days to the silks and satins and buttons and bows of the Far West. Soon we’re all so close to giggling that we finish eating as quickly as we can and leave. On the street we can still hear them stomping, clapping, whooping. It reminds me vaguely of a bunch of middle-class English tourists in a Greek nightclub. What is it that makes the bourgeoisie so hungry for other people’s vitality?
We go back to the Holiday Inn and our double queens. In bed we watch the TV for half-an-hour. A Lee Van Cleef Western is showing on Channel 6. It’s strange how these myths keep regenerating. Everyone’s aware to some degree now that the cowboys were strongly influenced in their lifestyle by the fiction coming from the East. After The Virginian was published one cowboy was reported as saying ‘If we didn’t talk like that before Mr Wister’s book came out, we sure do now.’ The likes of Jessie James and Buffalo Bill Cody began to act like their fictional selves after reading Ned Buntline’s dime novels. Country singers dress not like their forefathers but like their forefathers are depicted in films by Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. The new country songs are frequently based on movie ideas. Even many of Bob Dylan’s story songs are versions of the same simple tales whose conventions are repeated ad infinitum on TV and movie screens, in comic books and genre novels. The echo of familiarity we hear is frequently no longer drawn from authentic experience but from memories of what we’ve read or watched. The amazing thing is, I suppose, is that from the anonymous Ballad of Jesse James to the fully-credited Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid the myths still occasionally manage to retain their power.
In their morning we follow Jessie’s car south on 101, back towards San Francisco, turning off before the Golden Gate to drive out onto a peninsula through gentle, landscaped hills. At the tip of the peninsula is Tiburon where we’re going to have lunch. Tiburon looks like another rich people’s colony to me; a concept town recalling the late 19th century West again, with lots of cosmetic weather-boarding, red and gold signs lettered in Egyptian Expanded, false fronts on the stores, wooden boardwalks, creosoted pine panelling, with expensive jewellery and clothing shops housed in buildings got up to look like the stables and saloons you saw in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Again I’m surprised by the number of sea-changes these images have made, being at once so close to their originals of seventy years ago and so far removed from them. Would a Westerner from the turn of the century even recognise them as the same? This is a mining town out of Bret Harte’s Roaring Camp, via Ford’s Poker Flat, via Peckinpah’s Cable Hogue and with a distinct smack of C’era una volta di West. An expert could probably trace every specific period of movie influence in the town. There are the usual blow-ups of old photographs, bits of ancient farm and mining machinery, fancifully nostalgic names to stores and restaurants: another successful example of some clever property developer’s understanding that ‘old’ is today equated with ‘security’. This town could be seething with the actual murderers, shysters, conmen, holdup artists, pistoleers, pickpockets, pimps, pluguglies and drunken miners who would have made up a high percentage of its population a couple of generations ago, yet still modern people might not notice. The false-fronted stores and hitching posts have come to mean the very opposite of what they once meant to horrified travellers who took the trains from the East to see what the booms were all about. In such enclaves, which exist throughout California and other parts of the West, the wealthy feel far less threatened by the immigrant hordes - distinguished now by colour as well as culture - who represent to them the criminal poor. In a town like this a hundred years ago you were in some danger of being massacred by Indians. Now the threat is from elsewhere. Middle-class blacks are rare in these communities of one-time liberals who have abandoned San Francisco to the gays, the financiers, the tourists, the students and the people of other colours and languages. As we take our seats on the little deck overlooking the tranquil bay and order our drinks, well-dressed men and women in the kind of casual clothes one associates with international wealth (mink jeans jackets, leather boleros, cashmere pullovers, pricey espadrilles) relax with cocktails and schooners of beer. There’s a marina, of course, with yachts. Save for the fact that we’re not on a lake and that the language and currency is different, these discussions of property value and the prospects of favourite stocks could as easily be taking place in Geneva. And but for the weather and the pines, the water, the hovering gulls and the excellent quality and relative cheapness of the drinks (also the friendliness of the service) one might also be in Kings Road on a Friday evening.
I’m sure you’ve guessed this isn’t an aspect of California which attracts me. Even Ronald Reagan’s somehow better than this. Actually I’m feeling homesick for LA where, perhaps by chance, I never encounter this specific experience. There are of course rich wankers of the same kind in LA, but they’re somehow more mixed in with the rest and a lot of the rich wankers are movie people, media people who are somehow more easy-going ‘and sardonic. Beverly Hills has its share of snobs, of course, as bad as any in New York or Boston, but they’re a minority easily avoided in LA. In Marin, these refugees from Falcon Crest are the majority. Even Jessie, who doesn’t give much of a damn for anything, has started to talk investment almost as if she feels obliged to. Linda remarks on it. Jessie becomes defensive, repeating that maybe it really is time she went back to Wyoming. Linda thinks this step too terrible. ‘Why not just go back to LA?’ Jessie either can’t think of an answer or is too polite to offer one.
After lunch we say goodbye to Jessie who returns to Novato. Passing San Quentin, we head for the Richmond Bridge, intending to cross the Bay at the narrower part and avoid downtown San Francisco altogether. We cross from the semi-rural wealth of Marin into the somewhat depressed industrial landscape of Richmond. This is a port, consisting mainly of commercial yards, half-ruined dockside warehouses, big trucks, a few container ships. She’s a livelier port than London, but she still has some of Tilbury’s air of dereliction. These places were built to process a lot of shipping, thousands of tons of goods and material a day, and their bigness emphasises their present lack of use. We pass a couple of battleships, some small freighters, rusty derricks, tin-roofed huts, bulldozed rubble, stacks of empty oil drums. In the heat of the sun, with the stink of rubber and stagnant water, with its few slow-moving human figures, this could as easily be some South American port. In England the era of steel and railways and ships has gone completely. Its death is at least being accepted. Here there remains a ghostly image of an only just vanished past. As in several industrial parts of America we are witnessing an area which still cannot believe it is dead. Richmond seems frozen in the moments immediately before her final realisation that her age is over. The new age flourishes not far away in the high-tech optimism, the busy signs and cheerful slogans of Silicon Valley.
There’s no need for us to return to San Francisco at all. We follow Highway 80 through the hilly, pleasant, sometimes run-down streets of Cerrito and Albany - ordinary places - into Berkeley. We have lots of good friends this side of the bay. I’m rather regretful that so many of the people I like, including several I’ve known for twenty years or more, choose to live here. I feel guilty for being so uneasy. Berkeley and Oakland are pleasant enough places but they seem a bit like Marin in that they hold a specific sort of reality - the kind of reality I prefer to maintain contact with - at arms length. Maybe I mistakenly detect the sort of complaency, the chauvinsim I associate with the English Home Counties, which Linda, too, associates with Mississippi. Their inhabitants frequently assume they are living in the best of all possible worlds and, however unconsciously, equate their choice of geographical location with their own moral superiority. Nowhere’s more decent; nowhere’s more rational, nowhere has better taste, is more liberal or full of good will.
New York advertises herself as the Big Apple and LA is the Big Orange, but San Francisco calls herself ‘Everyone’s Favourite City’. Strangers you meet in a bar will say ‘You should settle here’ while strangers in LA will ask
you why you should want to live in a town as crazy and full of crime. There’s a sense of common experience there which I don’t find in the Bay Area where I feel beset by born-again Christian missionaries: ‘It’s the ideal place to live. It has everything.’ Well, it’s got too much for me. The thoroughfares where union organisers and criminals, immigrants and small-time entrepreneurs, whores and evangelists pursued their dreams - often violently - are now bland walkways full of tourists. Even the Tenderloin has shrunk and become a touch more artificial, resembling present-day Soho with its strip-joints and glintzy restaurants. Chinatown looks as if it was built last week by Disney Enterprises and Union Square now contains nothing but international boutiques; it could be West Berlin. It’s hard to find much of the radical atmosphere the city possessed in the years up to WWII when its political tensions were the most dangerous of any city’s in the USA. Then it was vital, cosmopolitan, cynical, careless. Today its streets are an urban version of the nature trail.
We drive back along Highway 101, which is faster but much duller than the Coast Route. We plan to stay the night in San Luis Obispo - at the Madonna Inn again.
101 crosses the wide flat farming valleys Steinbeck wrote about. Salinas is to be our first stop. Sometimes you pass a vineyard but the chief features of the landscape are the distant mountains. There are few trees. The valleys have long since been rationalised - vast fields of artichokes or pumpkins. Mexican contract labourers, men and women, file out from pickups parked at the side of the road and go to work. Their coloured shirts and shawls bring relief to the monotonous scenery. A silo or two, a well-kept farm, a few cows. It’s hard to understand how Steinbeck got so sentimental about it, for there are no sodbusters challenging nature in the Big Valley now. Nature knows its place and the monstrous machines help make farming a multi-million dollar enterprise - and none the worse for the majority of people who live by it. The highway cuts straight through hundreds of miles of cultivated fields. We play the Country station, hardly needing to keep awake. If you touch me, you’ve got to love me... The first band I ever played in was a C&W trio called The Greenhorns. We wore big pale grey stetsons and bootlace ties. I played banjo in those days. An English friend of mine whose own band more recently had a strong country influence (they were going to call their second album When It’s Teatime on the Prairie) told me that they had some old Nashville musicians playing with them on one of their albums. That’s where he learned the Nashville musical terms for those little preliminary notes you hear on so many country numbers, usually played on the fiddle. They are called nicks and noos. Musicians agree they’ll open with, say, two nick-nicks and one noo. I’m haunted by and hungry for your love.
Occasionally one passes bits of poor scrubland, an arroyo or two, a dead tree, but one has to look to the hills for any sign of wilderness. Yosemite, that magnificent national park, full of dramatic cliffs and canyons, bears and buttes, is now north of us. Death Valley, where the desert briefly flowers once a year in astonishing variety and brilliance, is to our east but we’ve no more time for detours. This car costs a small fortune to rent and we want to get it back to Beverely Hills by tomorrow. In fact if we don’t they warn you that the FBI will come looking for you.
As I noted on the way up, the other major industry of this area is John Steinbeck. I’ve never seen so much exploitation of an author associated with an area. It’s as if every pub in Stoke-on-Trent had been renamed after Arnold Bennett novel or character. In the Lake District many consider Grasmere’s few references to Wordsworth excessive. In Oxford, Mississippi, there isn’t even a sign for Faulkner’s House (in spite of Rowan Oak now being a museum) and you’d never know he had lived in the town or used it as the setting for so many books. Even in self-important, tourist-conscious San Francisco it would be hard to discover much in the way of references to Saroyan, Harte, Stevenson, Bierce, Hammett and a dozen others who lived and worked there and used the city for their stories. I suppose Steinbeck is to Salinas County what R. D. Blackmore is to Exmoor where it’s hard to find a pub, trinket-shop, teashop or view which doesn’t claim association with the Doones.
The house where Steinbeck was born is now described as a gourmet luncheon restaurant. There are fancy restaurants called East of Eden, Tortilla Flats, The Wayward Bus and a bar called The Grapes of Wrath. The land and the people whom Steinbeck romanticised and celebrated have received from him as great and as permanent a reward as they gave him by way of material and inspiration. It seems a reasonable arrangement and if I feel faint disapproval of the whole thing it’s probably not much more than inherited snobbery. Nobody, after all, is losing. It took an army of dime-novelists and film-makers to develop the legend of the Old West - it only took one decent writer to create the myth of Salinas and Monterey. If the romance and the characters and the folklore wasn’t there before, it certainly exists now, albeit a little waxy with preservative or glossy from good living. People find what they want here and what they want is at least a hope of justice and human kindness rather than the sensation of violence sought by those who visit Boot Hill and the OK Corral or want to know exactly where Wild Bill Hickock was shot.
Steinbeck was a New Deal American and whatever his excesses of sentiment, he at least believed in equality of race and a genuinely democratic society where no one was either victim or tyrant. A controlled anger gave power to the story of migrating dustbowl farmers just as a genuine love of individuality provided the charm of Cannery Row. Nonetheless one can’t altogether forget that many of these local landowners waged a particularly vicious war against Japanese immigrants only a few years ago, even going so far as to pass special laws depriving them of their citizenship, to burn their homes, lynching, beating and raping them in an effort to drive them away from the rich farmlands they owned and attempted to work. What was going on in the 19th century Wyoming of Heaven’s Gate was happening here right up to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. In 1941 it then became possible to round up and intern almost every Japanese in California. The Japanese had good reason to suspect the United States of intended aggression and treachery - enough, certainly, to justify their own conduct which led inexorably to what many have seen as the most cynical act of genocide of the century, the dropping of the Atomic Bomb.
And the Klan, of course, still occasionally shows up in these parts. Only recently they bull-dozed a black family’s house down while the family was still in it. The blacks had moved into a middle-class white neighbourhood. And the Oakies whom Steinbeck saw exploited have done okay, being replaced by wetbacks coming in illegally from Mexico and (nowadays) San Salvador, Nicarague or Chile. The old nostalgic lie of easy times and good comradeship has probably always been told in every country of the world, yet here in California it’s still possible to believe that one day the myth has a better than average chance of becoming reality, in spite of all past violence and bigotry.
We stop only briefly in Salinas, a rather sleepy, pleasant town at this time of year. We have a snack in a friendly little health-food restaurant in a local mall (the East of Eden is closed until evening). If this were an English country town I’d say it was early closing day. Salinas is trying to look modern and enterprising, but its main appeal to me is that it retains much of the atmosphere I recall from my reading of Steinbeck. This is still essentially a place where farmers come to buy and sell. Tourism hasn’t yet made Salinas disappear up its own legendary arse. Even some of the storefronts are unselfconsciously in the Western style; many of them actually from the earliest days of the town’s foundation. In tourist England - particularly the West Country - the English Village Theme has gradually emerged as the predominant attraction. So far there isn’t much of an equivalent here. Small Town America is a powerful folk memory, of course, and Walt Disney has embodied it in Main Street, USA, but Small Town America isn’t based much on the image of a rural market town. Rather, it draws on an idealised semi-industrial middle-sized trading and manufacturing settlement for its inspiration. Even Monterey, on the coast, doesn’t quite fit this bill, though it’s closer. Even Ray Bradbury admits trolley-cars into his dreamworld. You wouldn’t find too much of that in Miss Read.
Soon we’re in the hills again, back on route across the lower slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, passing Soledad, King City and Paso Robles, doing a steady if slightly frustrating 55-60 mph, sometimes joining faster-moving convoys of CB equipped trucks - monstrous semis glittering with chrome and bright electric colours, lovingly cleaned from end to end by their drivers who sometimes have their names enamelled on their cabs in flecked gold or silver - Charlie Stokowski, Kansas City, Mo., William Flynne, Portland, Or. - but more frequently they’re the names of haulage companies specialising in farm produce, carrying the wealth of these great valleys from State to State, to the supermarkets of New York, Chicago, Boston. To me the truck represents my own permanent love affair with America: the romance of long-distance travel, magnificent scenery, thousands of miles of highway, magical cities. Momma hated diesels so bad. I guess it had something to do with dad. First time I saw her cry was when one of them things rolled by… A Big Mac truck in certain circumstances can produce in me tears of emotion. Most of my attempts at photography involve me leaning from a moving car. Most of the prints are somewhat blurred, but they mean a lot to me. The trunk which was the villain of Duel was my hero.
Gradually the convoys start to slow down. We’re coming into San Luis Obispo, where Highway 1 meets with Highway 101. There are more trees now, more hills. It seems strange that you can’t see your destination several miles ahead. You feel slightly confused, though you know Santa Barbara, 135 Ventura and Oxnard are only a couple of hours away, and beyond them, Los Angeles. At Oxnard 101 turns back into 1 and goes on to Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice.
But first we have our night at the Madonna Inn to look forward to. We take the turn-off for Madonna Drive and there’s the Inn in all her pink, white and gold magnificence, spread out like a ranch from the merry old land of Oz, with horses grazing in her surrounding meadows. Even the fences and the grass seems to sparkle. In the high rocks at the back of the Inn is a gigantic totem-pole like a blend of Indian and Easter Island imagery, moulded in concrete. The Inn herself, with her Swiss fretwork and wagonwheel baroque railings, her leaded lozenges of glass in Tyrolean windows, her pink gas-pumps, is the first real indication of one’s return to the extraordinary wonder of Southern Californian culture. This and the Hearst Castle, just up the road, reassure me that I’m coming in again. This is what I love and understand. It’s named, incidentally, after its founders, Mr. and Mrs. Madonna.
While Linda waits in the car I walk underneath the stoneclad archway, opening the door to the office where the usual group of middle-aged women wait behind the counter to deal with their customers. A bad-tempered man in gold golfing trousers and a troupe is, at the urging of his fusspot wife, trying to force the clerk to give them one of the sought-after rooms. The woman informs them with disdainful patience that those rooms are booked, like the Caveman Room, often a year to eighteen
months in advance. At another part of the counter a blue-rinsed matron displays a dossier of available rooms (all of which are on individual themes), describing each one to the young man in the canary turtle neck and the camera bag who in turn relays this information to his nervous wife, standing next to him. They like the look of the Wilhelm Tell Suite but they seem to be moving towards Romance - one of the Honeymoon suites. I tell my lady that I’ve already booked. She gets out my card with a photostat of my cheque on it. We’ve gone for the Country Gentleman theme this time. The lady hands me my key, telling me to drive right over to the back and to the left where we’ll be able to park. We’ll see our apartment directly ahead of us, she says. I return to the car and we drive through the central archway, past the original buildings to the two-storey extension which wasn’t, I believe, built when I first started coming here. I’ve no idea if the Madonnas (who came originally from Switzerland) still run the Inn and there’s nobody I can think of to ask.
The Country Gentleman Suite is huge. It has two storeys and is actually 137 larger than my old London flat. The front room, containing couches, a bar, to and various fake antiques (all of them firmly screwed walls and floors) looks out towards meadows and the highway beyond, though the back windows look out onto the flat rock of the hillside. The bedroom has the emperor-size beds with their moulded headboards representing carved wood, like something from the set of Steinberg’s The Scarlet Empress. There is, of course, a mansion-sized fireplace with rolled artificial logs. I think the intended evocation is something like the Basil Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles or Rebecca. It’s a memory of a film-set rather than an attempt to recreate a directly experienced locale. Again this is where one still finds the old, flamboyant Hollywood style. Authenticity is what feels right, not what the historians say is right. The naive anachronisms are by their very nature themselves creative. The less you know, the better you invent. A flight of stairs leads up to another smaller suite, in a more evidently countrified style, like the bedrooms in National Velvet, a sort of Burbank Somerset. This beats hollow Granny’s Bed and Breakfast in Berkeley.
We’re so impressed by this suite we decide to call two friends some 280 miles away in South Gate, which is south of Los Angeles, and ask them if they’d like to come and stay. It seems a shame to waste the beds and we know they’d enjoy the place as much as we do. Parts of it almost verge on good taste. They agree at once and work out how long it will take them to reach us. In the meantime we shower, get dressed and decide which restaurant in San Luis Obispo we’ll eat in since the food at the Inn is rather bland. It’s astonishing how much more relaxed and cheerful we feel. I think if I ever decided to buy a house in California I’d buy it here. This is the borderland between what I sometimes perceive as two conflicting realities or, at very least, dimensions which obey fairly different laws; the marches separating the great Californian city states, dividing a people who still subscribe to the notions of the European Enlightenment, of moderation and balance, and a people who are dedicated to testing every idea, including that of their own society, to its limits. It’s frequently characterised, by English and other European journalists as well as other Americans, as vulgar, trashy, nouveau riche, self-indulgent, childish, laughable, insane and all those other familiar terms of abuse. It could be true, but I don’t think it requires a huge leap of understanding to see that those terms have always been used (especially by the genuinely decadent, the stultified, the moribund) to describe a vital, volatile and highly malleable culture.
If Northern California is a museum to a magnificent past, then Southern California is the showcase for a wonderfully original future. I can almost smell the smog again. By tomorrow we’ll be home.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The