Where Fools Fear To Tread — A London Snapshot

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Last year, 2015, I visited London for the first time. I’m only getting around to writing about it now because I’m leaving for Mexico in a few hours. I wanted to write about visiting the UK earlier but it just seemed so unnecessary — a bit like writing a book about World War II or making a documentary about the Beatles. There’s probably not that much to say about London that hasn’t already been said — and by far more insightful writers than me — so I’ll try to keep it short.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of major cities in the world. Naturally I’d like to visit them all but unless something radically changes,that’s not likely to happen so I have to be selective when planning my international trips. London is 8,750 kilometers from Los Angeles — roughly the same distance to Tokyo, Asuncion, or Dakar. Given my preconceptions about the UK, flying all the way across an ocean just to go to England seemed to me a bit like trekking across the country to eat at a Red Lobster or TGIFridays. In other words, England and London have always been low on my list. 

My preconceived notions of London were largely (de)formed by film — especially the sort of bad British-Hollywood co-productions that Anglophiles love, because they falsely portray the British capital as a sort of quaint backwater populated entirely by passably charming, white English men who invariably fall in love with either American girls or British girls played by American actresses. And that accent! That characterless RP accent common to all ancient humans (regardless of their native tongue), all authoritative aliens, and all fairy-folk.

Before I first visited Los Angeles I had a similar distaste for that city, mostly on account of cinematic representations. The realization finally arrived that mainstream cinematic depictions of London might bear as little resemblance to the real London as Hollywood depictions of Los Angeles do to Los Angeles. What if London, in other words, is the Los Angeles of Europe? And why did it take so long for this thought to occur?

I chalk it up to my “England problem,” which I was born with when I inherited the family name, “Brightwell.” It’s a fine name as any, I suppose, but throughout my life people have seen fit to address me as “Mr. Brightwell” in an affected, unpleasant English accent with depressing and disappointing regularity. I’ve never encouraged it, having as I do the grown-ass-man’s natural aversion to all varieties of Ren Faire/Cosplay nonsense. I also resent the fact that people with equally English surnames like Smith, Jones, Taylor, Williams, and Brown are spared this indignity. I suppose that people might think that I enjoy it because I’m also regularly and just as wrongly assumed to be an Anglophile.

I can’t point to anything I’ve done to promote this misperception either, but I also generally don’t waste too much time in refuting it because the problem, as I see it, lies with Anglophiles and Anglophila, not me. I can eat every sort of cuisine on Earth, watch films from every country, read books in every language, and listen to music from every culture and Anglophiles will still assume that I’m one of them, I suppose because amongst the many things I like are are the inevitable British products and for Anglophiles there are only two countries in the world, our embarrassing one and the wonderful one we stupidly fought a war of independence against.

I can add that I have never spelled words in the British manner, I’ve always resented the fact that some of my brain cells are devoted to an even casual awareness of the British royal family, I’ve never worn or owned anything with a Union Jack (or any other nationalist emblem of empire), I don’t enjoy most comedies which depend on cross-dressing or funny voices for laughs, have never had nor especially wanted to have low tea, and I have banished antiquated and stupid British Imperial Units from my usage… but my protestations inevitably fall on deaf ears… and all Anglophiles have deaf ears, because how else can one explain their love of Oasis?

Funny enough, many of the the English things that I do enjoy, things like 2-step, Free Cinema, World of TwistWilliam Morris wallpaper, English Folk music, Go-Kart Mozart, porter, Liberty London, the pre-Raphaelites, chav-watching, English cuisine, and The Wind in the Willows are not things I associate with Anglophiles, who tend to listen to bad music and wear style-less Lonsdale T-shirts, which being adwear, is as tacky as American Eagle, Aeropostale, or Abercrombie & Fitch but for Anglophiles is invested with a cultural capital which requires the recognition and approval of other Anglophiles because otherwise it’s just a dumb T-shirt with words written on it.

But again, what if London, like Los Angeles, bears little resemblance to the cinematic portrayal and tourist experience? What if London is the Los Angeles of Europe? The best way to know a city is aimlessly ramble around it so that’s what I did — and although I came away thinking it’s the most Londony-place on Earth, it did end up reminding me more of Los Angeles than any other city I’ve yet visited.

*****

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There are differences and similarities between London and Los Angeles worth noting. London is old and new. Unlike museum cities whose final chapters seem to have been written decades ago, London continues to show signs of life — breathing, growing, and changing. Londinium may’ve been founded by the Romans in 47CE but they left and it wasn’t again resettled until the Anglo-Saxons arrived in 886 and re-named it Lundenburh. After that it was erased and redrawn over and over by fire, the most notorious being the Great Fire of London, which left nothing of pre-1666 London but the pattern of streets. Modern London really took off in the 18th Century, when it began expanding in all directions and absorbing neighboring towns which became its neighborhoods.

Los Angeles’s origins also lie in pre-history. The Chumash lived in and around the Los Angeles Basin as early as 11,000 BCE. The remains of the so-called Arlington Springs Woman, found on the Channel Islands (of California, not England’s), are the oldest human remains found in all of the Americas. When the Tongva arrived around 1,500 CE, the Chumash had abandoned the basin and for the coast and offshore islands. The Tongva established many villages, including Ya’angna, near which their Spanish conquerors chose to establish El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles in 1781. Just as with pre-modern London, the ancient roads are among the few reminders of the ancient past. Modern Los Angeles was really born in the 1880s, however, when the population exploded and the city soon after began expanding in all directions, aided by the world’s largest-ever interurban rail system, and absorbing neighboring towns which became neighborhoods.

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London and Los Angeles are thus similarly sprawling. Greater London’s area is 1,572 km2 whilst Los Angeles’s is 1,302 km2 — both are the center of much larger metropolitan areas. In London there are about 514 recognized neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, there are neighborhoods, unincorporated communities, and Los Angeles County municipalities which from the perspective of the explorer are pretty much the same thing and number collectively at about 467. Both cities are served by a developed transportation network. London’s train and bus network are amongst the best in the world and Los Angles’s is pretty good and, by sluggish American standards, improving rapidly. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is a comparatively comfortable place to bicycle, criss-crossed with about 1,000 kilometers of dedicated bicycle lanes and an average of 329 days of rain-free days per year.

London’s diversity is primarily limited to humans. All of England is temperate and London is a  flat city, located within a bowl and centered bisected by a major river. Southern California, on the other hand, is a biodiversity hotspot with a variety of biomes, climates, and microclimates; and Los Angeles has the greatest variation in elevation of any city on Earth — but also is primarily located within a bow-like basin bisected by a major river. Glaciations and human activity have left England with zero endemic species of mammals and most of the countryside consists of dull or charming (depending on the individual or time spent in it) Midwest-like farmland, with stone walls in place of barbed wire fences. The most fearsome creatures found in England’s wild woods and suburbs are foxes and badgers. In Southern California, by contrast, the landscape includes deserts, forests, mountains, swamps, grasslands, scrubland and in Los Angeles, coyotes and raccoons roam the streets; run-ins with bobcats, bears, and panthers aren’t uncommon.

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Both cities have highly diverse human populations, though, with hundreds of languages spoken and large percentages of foreign born and those descended from foreign born. The majority of Angelenos primarily speak a language other than English and half of the most-spoken languages in Los Angeles are East Asian. By contrast, only 22% of Londoners primarily speak a language other than English and roughly half of the most-spoken are South Asian. In both cities, that diversity contributes to an amazing culinary scene which help cement their reputations as the cultural capitals of their respective countries. Both cities are also overrun with bearded bun boys in yoga pants and blue-haired young women in wide-brimmed hats, both essentially dressed like sidekicks from ‘90s sitcoms whose sartorial mistakes we’re apparently doomed to repeat.

*****

Given my desire to do nothing so much as ramble around South London, pursuing whims, following instincts, and popping in and out of pubs, I was less than thrilled that my London-based hosts insistence that we visit Big Ben and the London Eye, the world’s fourth tallest Ferris wheel, with measurement conveniently provided in Coca-Cola bottles. What the fuss is about completely alludes me although the same can be said of Hollywood and Highland, Los Angeles’s equivalent tourist polo ground, where hordes wearing tennis shirts emblazoned with large horses hold selfie sticks aloft like polo mallets and have apparently bathed in celebrity-branded scents worse than anything they’re designed to cover up. I often tell visitors to Los Angeles to start their visit at Hollywood and Highland, choose a direction at random, and then begin walking because it will all be uphill from there. I will now apply the same advice to London and its shirime.

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After getting that out of the way we stopped at a pub — my one request. None of my hosts, though English, had ever been in a pub, preferring soda to adult beverages and fast food to pub grub. I later found, with equal shock, that none of my hosts (despite one living in Tipton, where the very air tastes of it) had ever had curry. There is a sad Yankophila too, it seems, a disorder just as sad as Anglophilia, and one which is contributing (if the always hyperbolic British media are to be believed) with the death of pub culture. If that’s true, it would be a shame, because pubs were my favorite aspect of native Englishness and where most of my happiest and fuzziest memories were made. Although I was told that pubs were closing left and right, there still seemed to be one on every block and could scarcely imagine a pubbier place on earth.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I returned with a desire to see bar density — which would aid the exploration and formation of community as much as our relentlessly sunny days and expanding rail network. I’ll hopefully return to England someday. Hopefully the trains to Manchester will actually run that time, hopefully I’ll be able to see parts of Liverpool not connected to the Beatles, and maybe I’ll even have another go at making sense of Birmingham — but a visit to London will be a given… and the pubs had better still be there.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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