Saturday, July 6, 2013

Los Angeles/Santa Monica

Welcome to California - we're bankrupt!

We didn't spend much time in LA.

When we visited Glasgow I thought it was a city with more history than it could maintain. Dozens of grand Victorian constructions disused and decaying. LA's road system felt like that. Not that it was in disuse (though we never saw a real LA traffic clusterfuck) but the feeling that the city has built itself a burden that, in less affluent times, it can't maintain.

You hear commentators talk about "America's crumbling infrastructure." When you drive around the roads of LA or parts of New Jersey, you realise how literally true this is. You get used to the constant ba-dump badump on the freeways, like you're travelling over speed-bump lines, or the rattling concrete slabs or worrying potholes. Maybe this is one reason SUVs are so popular - to insulate the occupants from the state of their roads; to prepare for the day they are just driving over potholes and rubble.

Nobody ever closes a road though. Trains, hospitals, buses can be closed even if they're still used, but a road is never deemed 'uneconomical'.

At the rental lot Amy unsuccessfully tried to find out which car got the best MPG while someone reversed into me. We drove out without a map and she meandered aimlessly (but competently) before seeing a sign for Santa Monica and going "I know that place! Let's go there!"

My first California beach town was notable for two things. First, the sharp drop down to the beach and the fancy beachfront properties - one looking something like a pink Barbie Dreamhouse. Apparently one season of America's Next Top Model contestants may have stayed here, or on Venice beach.

Second, the homeless. Apparently authorities from across LA county dump their homeless in Santa Monica, but after seeing more of the West Coast it seems a much bigger problem. The simply seem to be more vagrants and homeless people here than anywhere else I've been.

The architecture in LA was often quite pleasing, with squat, hispanic designs mixing with more conventional US American style buildings. Downtown, it's noticeable how much more modern the skyscrapers are compared to New York. Manhattan is still dominated by stone 1920s designs and flat-sided office blocks. LA probably starts with the mirrored-glass towers of the 1980s before postmodern design quickly begins splitting form from structure and the buildings morph into new geometries.

Travelling in LA made me think - anachronistically - of Hotline Miami. It was the unfamiliar shapes of the trees. At night I found them especially strange - tall trunks topped with a clump of foliage, their silhouettes looming above the landscape.

There was more unfamiliar nature in the Huntingdon gardens. Tiny Rufous Hummingbirds zipped about amid the trees and bushes. Although happy to flit between flowers or perch while you trained binoculars on them, it was never long before another hummingbird encroached on their territory and a high-pitched chase call.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


I don't think I've ever been anywhere like Heathrow Airport, and maybe I never will. Where else in a European country do you find such a large built-up area dedicated to a single enterprise? You enter the sprawl of roads, car parks, service buildings, vents, trains, coach stops, terminals, radar towers, and everything around you is centred on a single activity. I don't think even a nuclear power plant or oil refinery would match the scale - there's not the same system of businesses supporting them or trying to make money from the people who pass through.

As soon as you enter this huge system you're channelled and controlled. It starts well before the security line; the airport's transport system extends arms outwards. When you're on foot, it's not just the worry about being late that keeps you from deviating and wandering around the airport. Maybe the no entrance, no trespassing signs aren't everywhere, but you know you're not meant to stray - it's not what the airport's there for.

Past the security theatre, airports are modernist icons in a postmodern world. Futuristic international modernism has begat postmodern nowhere places. The business of moving people and things around is now distinctly old-fashioned; the wireless internet and LCD-screen ads are a facade over the top of this. (And perhaps they highlight the point that greater telecommunications make people travel more rather than less.)

My favourite airports (as I am a seasoned traveller) are those where the boarding tubes don't seal completely, or you disembark onto the tarmac rather than straight into the terminal - as you move between sterile, air-conditioned worlds it's a little glimpse and breath of the outside, and the place where you are.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Bullshit Mayor for Bristol

In his essay/book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt suggests that one of the reasons that there is so much bullshit around today is because of democracy. Spreading power and responsibility around encourages, or even makes it necessary, for people to hold opinions on things they know little about.

I feel like that about the Mayoral elections in Bristol, that I know almost nothing about the candidates or the issues, and that casting a vote is pretending that I do. Charlie Brooker describes approaching current affairs if you haven't been paying attention as like tuning into episode 803 of the world's most complex soap opera. That applies just as much to local affairs as national or international ones.

Somehow local issues seem harder to decide on than national ones. Maybe it's because for all the managerialism of contemporary politics, there are still matters of principle on show at the national level. Or maybe it's just because I know more about national politics. Living in this city doesn't mean I know anything about what's going on.

The main issue in Bristol is transport, but I'm damned if I know the pros and cons of rapid transit vs buses vs increased rail services vs trams vs cars vs rocket packs vs cycle lanes. I'm still not entirely sure what "rapid transit" is - I think it's just buses with special dedicated "bus lanes". The only thing all that time playing sim city taught me is that subways are fantastic, but you've got to plan ahead and leave space for the stations.

Maybe if I'd been paying attention to local politics for, say, the last decade, I'd know who some of these people are and what they're like. Instead, my only conclusions about the candidates are:
- one of them looks like a very manly muppet (or a very muppety man)
- one of them makes me think of one of the toads from Bucky O'Hare
- the libdem really looks like a libdem.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quick Film Reviews #6

More old film reviews.

Woody Allen in slapstick mode as a man in a coma revived after centuries. Involves a lot of people running around chasing other people in a comedy fashion. I wouldn't say it's a work of genius, but it's quite funny, though probably more for the wit than the running around.

Demon Seed
James lent me this because it's one of his favourite sci-fi films. I didn't realise until I started watching that it's based on a book by the epitome of airport thriller writers Dean R Koontz. It's vision of a super-intelligent computer and automated house is wonderfully 70s. Proteus does seem to be the Anakin Skywalker of computers though. All that awesome intellect and knowledge of humanity, but absolutely no persuasive skills. Oh, you rebutted my one sentence argument... Then I will have to kill you! Also, let's give this computer a really sinister voice. Or maybe he's the MacGuyver of computers, able to create a reconfiguring, levitating polygon and a tailored embryo using just a laser and a mechanical arm. There's some kind of message about inhumanity and the environment, but I think it got lost somewhere.

Blue Velvet
This is actually the first David Lynch film I've seen, so I braced myself for a baffling story of mysterious symbolism. I was rather surprised to find a linear plot, clear good and bad characters and a neat resolution. It does have a "strange and brutal underside to the normal looking town" theme to it, but this is made less threatening by the fact the two sides are very clearly spatially and thematically separated. The ending is parodic in its upbeatness, even down to the mechanical robins straight out of Mary Poppins. It reminded me of the basic structure of a fantasy story where chance leads the hero into an alternate world, at least until its problems are resolved. (It also reminded me somewhat of A History of Violence.) None of which is to say there's not a depth to the film and its symbolism, and there are a number of very memorable scenes, mostly based around Dennis Hoppers legendary satanic performance.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Books: The Gum Thief

Continuing my attempts to write something about every book I read.  Not as a "review" as such, but to encourage me to think a bit more about about them.  It looks like I can read books faster than I can write about them, as I have a backlog.

I think Douglas Coupland is one of those zeitgeisty authors.  I don't mean that in a bad way.  More that he tackles the modern condition openly.  And by "the modern condition" maybe what I mean is "first world problems".  I don't think I mean that in a bad way.

In case you haven't guessed, the Gum Thief is a story of people in America who feel trapped and unsatisfied with their lives.  I read it on a rainy Sunday when not leaving the flat was a rational plan, rather than something to fight against, and there didn't seem to be anything else to do.  When I started the book I thought "this is how I'm feeling".

I think the moral of The Gum Thief is that changing ourselves is very difficult, but through reaching out to others and trying to imaginatively live their lives, we can find connections and effect some kind of change.  It made me think about the experience of imagining yourself in someone else's position, trying to feel what they're feeling and what choices they might make.  I don't think I've thought about it much before.  It's not something I'm very good at, or at least I don't do it instinctively.  I'm bad enough at imaginatively inhabiting my own life, let alone someone else's.  So I probably go through a book or film, or similar story, without really connecting with the characters the way other people might.  I can't remember any examples of going "that was a particularly convincing character".  Though maybe it's only critics, authors and literature students, who think about these things too much, who say that, as I can't remember anyone I know saying it.

My main problem with the book was that it alternates letters/notes between the characters with sections from a terrible book one of them is writing.  It's amusing, but I don't want to spend too much time reading something that is deliberately terrible (and not deliberately terrible enough to be great).  The whole book's fairly short though, and breezes along, so it's not a big problem.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Books: The Fatal Eggs

Do you want to read some early Soviet sci-fi?  Of course you do.

A scientist's discovery of a ray that increases the growth and reproduction rate of animals leads to disaster when it is unwisely taken out of the laboratory in an attempt to feed the country.  The Fatal Eggs is obviously a satirical metaphor for the experience of Russia, but I don't think I really appreciated it.  Communism is something that should have been cautiously experimented with, but was seized upon by cruder and more urgent men?  At least I can appreciate the detail of early revolutionary Russia, and science fiction from a time when scientists accidentally creating monsters was still a fairly fresh idea.

Books: The Acid House

I'm not sure how I feel about short stories.  I find them very easy to read, but also rather unsatisfying.  This might be because I'm slow to empathise with characters and situations, so don't make those quick connections that are important for short stories.  Or it might be that because they're short and easy they don't make me feel like I've done some serious reading.

I read an essay about Trainspotting once, before I'd read the book, that argued that while the film had its good points, it failed to present Renton & co.'s lifestyle as a viable alternative.  Reading the Acid House, and in particular the novella A Smart Cunt, the contours of this alternative become more clear.  It's a lifestyle designed to enable the acquisition and use of various drugs.  The scale and urgency of use varies, but they are always an organising principle.  Casual work, benefits, itinerancy, canny union reps, the erratic kindness of friends and family, petty theft and dealing, rent and tax arrears.

The characters in Welsh's stories live on the margins but their lives don't seem precarious.  They have no careers, possessions, houses, happiness, dreams or people they really care about that they can lose.  The lack of formal structure in their lives gives them resilience.  The only things they really risk are their bodies, battered by drugs, police, thugs, friends, neglect.