Coming to America

In the last year and a half of my PhD, I’ve discovered the Visiting Fellowship – a means by which generous subsidies allow scholars to travel to new and exciting libraries, to research fascinating material neglected and long overlooked, and write like they’ve rarely written before. The only thing that excites me so much as a new library is a new place to explore, and my applications have largely been smiled upon. I spent October 2015 at Chawton House, a woman’s studies research library in a small, perfectly-formed country house that used to belong to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. Now, I’m spending the first months of 2016 studying at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, on a palatial estate dating back to a point when Pasadena and the whole Los Angeles basin was mostly thought of as good grazing land. Of which, more in later entries.

IMG_1065I was asleep while my plane was going over Las Vegas, so the approach to landing in Los Angeles was the first time I enjoyed the lightshow of an American city at night. Most people who get any kind of perspective on LA are struck by how close it seems to the opening titles of Blade Runner. That’s science-fiction, but it ceases to seem very far-fetched after any time in a city where the constellated grids of neon and tungsten spread across the earth, casting a grey and purple glow into a great blank sky illuminated only by the passing comets of airplanes and the shiny silver dollar of the moon. It’s a feeling augmented by the dog-eat-dog techno-futurism of the freeways, where I was heartily glad to have a shuttle driver doing the navigating to my door. It’s a feeling that made it doubly disconcerting when I was dropped off beside a darkened house that looked like something from the cover of a Stephen King novel.

The owner let me in and showed me around the place, which was a Queen Anne house, built in the 1890s and beautifully bought up to date. I cadged myself a room with a balcony, a high wooden headboard to the bed and closet space which would be £500 a month in Central London on its own. This was good, since my jet-lag manifested in under rather than oversleeping, and I spent most of the small hours of the morning reading in bed.

I’ve always loved the morning after a night time arrival, when you finally get to see what the place looks like in daylight. 433 Martelo Avenue didn’t disappoint when I walked out into the new day at 8am. There were the palm trees lining the road whose shadows I’d glimpsed before, and there was the freeway to the south which I’d heard all through the night. There were also rugged, new, exciting mountains to the north of me, and streets and streets and boulevards and avenues of cinematic American suburbia which I wandered through, lost and marvelling. I scrumped an orange from a neighbour’s fruit tree, and it was perfectly ripe and fresh. Further down the road, I took the opportunity of hailing one of Pasadena’s occasional dog-walking pedestrians.

‘I’m sorry to bother you, but this is my first morning in your country, and I wonder if you might direct me to somewhere I can get some breakfast?’

Another ten minutes, and I was sitting down to a bran muffin and a mug of earl grey at Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters on Allen Avenue. It was a good start.


Conversations with Strangers: The Tobey Maguire story

NZ-LA 054It was my last day in LA, at the tail end of my round the world trip, and I woke up at 6am in a hostel in Santa Monica. The jet lag was insistent. I knew rolling over wouldn’t do me any good, so I heaved my carcass out of the top bunk, dressed silently, and headed out to face the day, or as much of it as was currently awake.

There was one girl in the hostel lounge, working on her laptop. I asked her where she was jet-lagged from. Central America, she said. She turned out to be Catherine Shehadie, from Oz, and I turned out to be Tom Tyrrell from Britain. She was a curly-haired girl with mirror-bright blue eyes, and we hit it off – I’d been a sucker for bright eyes all trip. We discovered we were both flying home that day, albeit in opposite directions, and we had the morning spare. We decided to hang out.

December in LA didn’t feel a lot different from the New Zealand spring I’d been running around in for the last few months – at least, until night slammed down at 4pm and the cold winds blew in. Typically, it was the hottest it had been all week, and I was stuck in trousers and walking boots, and my swimming trunks and towel were all packed away till I got home. Instead, we walked along Santa Monica pier, then nipped down to the beachfront.

???????????????????????????????I hadn’t expected much from Muscle Beach, but it had turned out to be a highlight. Instead of over-inflated bodybuilders pumping iron, what you mostly saw were young wiry people swinging down these massive arcades of rings, like Lara Croft or the Prince of Persia in the video games, doing things you never expected to see in reality. To amuse Catherine, I made it most of the way up a rope and swung from a few of the rings – which was easier than it looked, if you didn’t mind looking like a sack of potatoes.

Down the beach was a film crew, filming Pawn Sacrifice with Live Schreiber – or so we were told by a bit part player, an older guy named Pierce, who was looking unpleasantly warm in his 60’s three-piece suit. He handed a couple of the bottles of water they were giving out to the crew, and told us his Tobey Maguire story. It was evidently a well-polished Hollywood tale, but it amused the hell out of us.

“I was doing a Stand Up To Cancer advert with Tobey Maguire and about 500 extras.” he says. “We were all packed into this massive stadium and only a certain number of us can get paid, so I got in the line for that. I get to the front, and the first assistant director doesn’t even look up at me. He keeps his eyes on his notes and he barks ‘Name!’ Just like that.

I’m a little annoyed by this, so I say ‘George Clooney.’ And he looks up, and fixes me with a dirty glare and says ‘Funny. Name?’ So I shrug and I give him mine and then I go sit down, halfway up in this massive stadium. And half an hour later they’re filming Tobey Maguire, and they need someone to sit beside him. So the first AD turns to the crowd and yells through the microphone ‘Hey, George Clooney, get down here!’ At which point this whole audience of 500 people – 200 of them women – starts craning around to look for me. And I had to get up and walk down to the stage, all through them, while they were going Where is he? Where is he? Is that him? Nah, that’s nobody. That was the only time I disappointed 200 women at once. Mostly I do it one at a time.”