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Under Big Ben's Gaze, Boorishness Rules

A Brit returns to gloomy London only to discover that life in sunny L.A. is so much more civilized.


When I arrived at Heathrow recently on a visit to London after 18 months in Los Angeles, the grayness was almost welcome. The overcast skies meant no squinty eyes, no battle to escape the permanence of the California sun. Even the $80 cab ride couldn't dampen my excitement.

But by the time we reached the city's center, this was starting to give way to feelings of mild gloom and anxiety. The streets, strewn with litter and uncollected bin bags, were filthy in comparison to the mostly pristine ones of L.A. Thinking that maybe I had just become too soft, I studied the crowds on the uniformly packed pavements; they were made up of hundreds of unsmiling, sullen faces. The atmosphere was brittle, as though people were expecting something terrible to happen. By the time we reached Covent Garden, a full hour-and-a-half later, after negotiating traffic that suggested a state of siege was in progress, a full foreboding had set in.

When I left London and moved to L.A., some of my friends saw it as a cause for concern. In choosing L.A., I was abandoning the wellspring of cool creativity, the center of the fashionable universe, for a place that represented the epitome of crass--a cultural desert in the middle of a literal one. I was forsaking civilization for a place besieged by violence, dominated by intolerable stupidity and aggressiveness, and hurtling decadently toward an inevitable apocalypse. "You're going into a war zone," a supportive friend assured me.

I was well used to sweeping condemnations of American culture from those whose dislike of it was matched only by their obsession with it. The image of Los Angeles in particular was, I suppose, in part understandable, given the press the city has received over the last decade due to recession, rioting and earthquake. I would be back in London within six months, I was told, my British subtlety and sense of irony having seen me through the onslaught. But 18 months later, I am still entrenched, unmugged, yet to be caught in cross-fire and, most importantly, my brain hasn't turned to jelly. Angeleno friends, encouraged by heavily promoted images of Cool Britannia, are eager to visit London, and I'm finding now that the warnings given me last year about their city will in fact be far more helpful to them, should they make the trip.

Los Angeles, it seems to me, is no longer the provincial town it once was and is achieving a sense of its own importance, over and above its domination by the entertainment industry. But there's no doubt that the well-chronicled machinations of Hollywood have given it its reputation as the world capital of fakery and insincerity. While you will certainly find some of the most cynical, subhuman examples of the species working in that industry, it's far from being the whole picture. I have found L.A.'s cultural life to be vivid, new and aspirational: The L.A. Opera, now headed by Placido Domingo, is world-class, Frank Gehry's spectacular new concert hall is rising, and the art scene downtown is reminiscent of New York's SoHo in the early '80s.

In L.A., you can be passionate about what you do. Made constantly aware of its supposed cultural poverty, it allows an optimism and an almost naive sincerity about new ventures--artistic, architectural or otherwise--which is nothing short of liberating for one coming from London, where a complacent smugness is overwhelming. During my visit back home, it was clear that the stranglehold that irony has had on London life for some time has finally forced any remaining lifeblood out of it; the only safe way to live there now seems to be within quote marks. The possibility of actually expressing a strongly held view, or admitting to being genuinely moved, is more or less unthinkable.

L.A. is undoubtedly a dangerous city; even though the crime rate, including homicides, has dropped in line with that of other U.S. cities, there's no question that you can far easier get a bullet in the head in certain areas than in the whole of London. But what is totally absent here is the atmosphere of civic hostility that permeates my home city, and which struck me during my trip back as having intensified and hardened. Whether walking in the West End, or on a suburban high street, I felt a palpable sense of resentment and incipient violence between perfect strangers.

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