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WILL SELF: My tour of duty in the republic of self-indulgence

Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California.. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images) - Credit: BBC News & Current Affairs via G

Writer WILL SELF finds an ‘artificial paradise’ on his holiday high in the Hollywood Hills.

The six-seater SUV – which No.2 Son has already christened ‘the Gorgon’, on account of the Medusa stare of its huge, unlidded headlights – sweeps between the rustic-effect gateposts of Hollywoodland, and No.3 Son observes approvingly: “That’s the cutest realtor I’ve ever seen…”

The American vocabulary is site-specific, but also true to a single context that Multicultural Man (and his multicultural family) know only too well: namely, arts-and-crafts inflected suburbia, out of Morris and Ruskin, by way of Ebenezer Howard and Norman Shaw. Suburbia built with some socially-inclusive – even utopian – aspiration, but long since declined into brick-built dormitories, in which the wealthy doze away their elongated lives.

The realtor in question does occupy premises half-way between Tudorbethan and Medieval fantasy: dinky, turreted, half-timbered, its windows diamond-mullioned. Definitely the right location from which to flog the locations hereabouts: villas and cottages, many of which are further divertimenti on the theme of Merrie England, when knights were bold and social relations were happily organic… Yes, yes, I know – those of you who absorbed MM’s vitriol on mittel England the other week will be familiar with my revulsion from just these privet-lined precincts – yet here I am, yet again, preparing for two weeks’ holiday in Los Angeles’ surgically-enhanced version of my own natal cleft: the Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London.

As Poly Styrene so rousingly declaimed: “Identity is the crisis of today!” And that was back in 1978, when any self-respecting pogo-er wished culture swept away altogether in a great anarchic tsunami of spittle and sweat.

In the increasingly tetchy public arena that’s followed the Brexit referendum of 2016 (did you like the ‘tetchy’? It’s my stab at English understatement), so-called patriots have slugged it out with their foes, the hated nationalists; at issue is the greatness of each other’s love for the actual body of Mother Britannia – her fleshy sod, her bony rocks. I often wonder, as a man who’s walked hundreds, if not thousands of miles through Britain: its built environment, its agricultural factories (also called ‘countryside’), and its state-designated ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ – whether it might be absence that makes so many patriotic and nationalist hearts beat so strongly.

I once walked from the North Downs to Newhaven, and encountered more people on mobility scooters than I did on foot. The British say they love Britain, but mostly they love watching Britain’s Got Talent and eating custard creams. I don’t love Britain in this raw physical sense any more than I do Sicily, or Sarawak for that matter – what I can’t help returning to, though, as a bourgeois dog returns to its propetarian vomit, is the sort of suburbia I grew up in. It’s this that’s my true nation – my homeland, meine heimat, ma patrie!

JG Ballard once wrote a short story about all the British holidaymakers in the Mediterranean receiving notice from her Maj’s Government that there was no necessity for them to return at the end of their fortnights: their contribution to productivity being marginal, while they took up too much space. And it’s not just the Brits – all the north European sunseekers receive the same notice. But far from the loss of their homeland troubling these touristic exiles, they decide to found a new nation on their beaches – one thousand miles long but only a couple of hundred yards deep, and dedicated to sybaritic pursuits.

In the Hollywood Hills this republic of self-indulgence reaches its true apogee: up on stilts, exiled from any meaningful interaction with the smog-occluded world below, the pampered bourgeoisie await the apocalypse. Will it come in the form of wildfire, earthquake, or – according to president Trump – a tidal wave of economic migrants flooding across the drought-drained Rio Grande? Who knows: in this artificial paradise, irrigated into existence, the Latino day-labourers clip and blow-dry the sprinkler-soaked gardens, while the Selfs stretch and breathe. “Honour your place,” intones Gloria, the yoga instructor, “and harness the energy of that place.” Inhaling, I think back to my suburban childhood – and how I was desperate to escape this atmosphere.

Finishing the session with prayerful hands and a susurration: ‘Namassste’, we explain our group dynamic: My partner is French-Armenian, my children English – I myself am Anglo-American. As for Gloria, she only came to Los Angeles recently – from Alabama; and her mother is African-American, her father French-Canadian. Neither nation nor patrimony is what unites us – but affluent suburbia. When, years after her death, I finally visited Kew Gardens, the ‘hood in Queens, NYC, where my mother grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, I found exactly the same melange of red brick, hedge and lawn. Poly Styrene’s more famous fellow-travellers ranted about cheap holidays in other people’s misery – but this, surely, is the fruit of any success I may have had in life: I can now take my expensive holiday in other people’s complacency. Albeit not my own.

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