Sunday, January 27, 2008

15 Things to Miss about Southern California

In which we wax nostalgic for a barely-explored place

1. Cleavage

Call them materialistic. Call them shallow. Call them what you will. But L.A. girls know how to flaunt it. They have no shame for the simple reason that they don’t know, want to know, nor do they need to know, the meaning the word. Shame’s for chumps.

L.A. girls are also terrific flirts. They understand and appreciate the differences between men and women far better than women in places with allegedly more enlightened outlooks. Most importantly, they understand that their allure, next to their intelligence, is the most vital component of their power.

2. The chirpy, vapid, anchors on Fox11’s Good Day L.A. morning “news” show
They chair dance, they sing, they interrupt each other and play practical jokes and they’re hardly ever serious. They don’t pretend that what they’re offering is anything other than entertainment wrapped around a lightly packed core of
newstrafficweather. And Jillian rules.

3. Hollywood
Everyone pretends to hate Hollywood but for those who seek it out. I grew to love it as a physical place and also as an idea. Living in Hollywood’s greater orbit – the showbiz industry – I learned a whole new appreciation for the movies, how they are made and the extraordinary people who make them happen, from the workaday key grips to the half-sane producers. Hollywood’s funny little secret is that Hollywood is not really run by stars or moguls. It is run by enthusiastic nerds like the master stop-action animator, Ray Harryhausen, who do it solely for the joy of being a part of it and seeing their visions come alive. Let the rest of the world make its films. Hollywood makes pictures and tells stories.

4. Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach

I’ve always loved beach towns and Venice Beach, adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier, is the queen bee of them. A little seedy, a lot showy, the peer and the beach walk offer a human spectacle extraordinaire. One of my favorite things to do was just sit for an hour at an outdoor table at one of the many cafes and watch the endless parade pass me by.

5. Cool, crisp, clear winters
It’s hard to describe what L.A. goes through between December and March “winter” exactly. People from the east always complain about it. But who cares what people from cold places think? It’s a splendid thing.

6. The Mojave
The vastness of the desert stretches away seemingly to infinity, but it is far from empty. Ghost towns, mining camps, off-roaders, prospectors, eccentrics, mad-men – these dot the dusty, windy, dramatically surreal landscape like so many crazy, half-remembered dreams during a hard night’s sleep. You never know quite what you will find in the desert.

7. Hollywood Hills houses
I used to walk in the hills every weekend, exploring new roads and streets each time. The choices seemed endless, as did the architectural styles these hill-dwellers enjoyed. From the crazily modern to the wildly eclectic, the hills offer architectural fantasies from every era as well as from eras yet to be discovered.

A Catalan Castle

A hobbit house

John Lautner's Chemosphere (photo by Julian Shulman)

8. Mountains and canyons
My heart has always been in the highlands and the highlands are surprisingly close to you in L.A. Nine-thousand foot peaks were just a half-hour’s drive from The Grotto. Glorious canyons ripe to explore were even closer, winding up between the craggy peaks. Beware the rattlers, though.
9. The ranch in the sky

At the top of the Hollywood Hills, where Runyun Canyon meets Mulholland Drive, overlooking Sunset Boulevard, is a little ranchette complete with stables, a pair of horses, a goat pen, a charming red farmhouse and, of course, a silver Airstream Trailer parked out back. The owners have thoughtfully provided a dog-watering trough for the many pet owners who hike the canyon on the weekends. The ranchette was always one of the goals in my ramblings about the Hills, as the sight and sound and smell of this little barnyard always made my day.
10. The Arclight Cinema
Nowhere is it more apparent that L.A. is an entertainment industry factory town than at the Arclight Cinemas and Cinerama Dome. The Arclight is the best place in the world – at least in the world that I know – to see a picture. The screens are vast and curved, the chairs are plush and they serve booze. (Check, check, and bingo!) In addition, it’s a great place to people-watch (as well as celeb watch), or get into a heated cocktail conversation about whether Robert Evans really is a genius or just a coke-fueled asshole.

11. Studio City
It’s like a small, leafy town full of character – as well as character actors – in the midst of the big, concrete-and-asphalt city. My neighbors included William Shatner, Ron Glass (Detective Harris from “Barney Miller” and later the Shepherd in “Firefly”), Steve Landsberg (Detective Sargent Detreich on “Barney Miller”), Jon Polito (“Miller’s Crossing”) and Burt Young, of Rocky fame. I first met Burt at the Daily Grill on the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon one lunchtime while I was visiting my favorite flame-haired bartendress, the divine Stephanie (who later quit both bartending and acting to start her own doggie daycare service). Burt’s got one of those faces and voices you can’t help remembering (which is no doubt one of the things that has made him a success as an actor). I couldn’t place where I had seen him, but I knew he was in pictures. We were the only two seated at the bar and so we chatted. That was at about the time of the last Democratic convention, and the bar TV was showing a few snatches from Bill Clinton’s speech. We talked for a long time about the relationship politics and personality and I found Burt’s down-to-earth wisdom and clipped east coast brogue utterly charming. I often saw Burt after that, at my local, Maeve’s, or about town. He had a smile for everyone. Still does, I reckon.
12. The Grotto
My little apartment house in Studio City, The Grotto’s real name is “Vineland Villas.” But The Grotto is more apt. Built in the 1940s, it was an old building for L.A. and, unlike most L.A. apartments, is covered in foliage and flora – pine, trees, palms trees, ivy, flowers and a profusion of plants impossible for a lay person to identify. And it was full of delightful eccentrics and cranks, making it a kind of Melrose place for misfits. I’ll especially miss Winter and Karin (who I always describe as “my hot French-canuck neighbor).
13. Maeve’s Residual$
My most local bar, Maeve’s Residual$ is named for its Dubliner owner, Maeve and for residuals – checks actors and writers get when their work is seen in syndication or is otherwise licensed. Bring in a residual check for less than $1 and you get a free drink. It was quite a living room, this place, with an…er… eclectic mix of barflies. I especially enjoyed my long, deep world affairs conversations with Seth, Maeve’s master mixologist, before the evening rush. I’ll also miss adorable Vanessa and the “President Game,” in which we’d pick a president and the one who came back a week later with the most obscure information about him would be declared the winner. Sunday afternoons with Brian, a master of voices and accents and who is gifted with total movie recall, were a hoot. And there’s Justine, of course. Honorable mentions go also to Zane the Insane and Barry, the ribald expat intellectual.
14. World-class museums
The Getty, LACMA, the Huntington Library, the Norton Simon, the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage… Sorry, but San Francisco museums just plain provincial and unworldly by comparison.
15. Sunshine
What more need be said?
Friends have often asked me why I haven’t written more Southern California culture and the differences between it and San Francisco. The answer is that, mostly, I haven’t had anything to say about it that I thought particularly compelling or original. The place is what it is and seems to have few pretensions about being anything else.
But I will relay something someone said to me about the differences between L.A. and S.F. very soon after I moved there. Tim Armitage, a branding expert and a fellow former ‘fish, had this to say (I paraphrase):
San Francisco is the City of the Senses. It’s the kiss of the fog on your cheeks early in the morning. It’s the amazing food, a city with one restaurant for every 40 people. It’s the Folsom Street Fair and concerts in Golden Gate Park. It’s all about texture and taste and sensuality.
L.A. is the City if the Big Idea and the Blind Ambition. It’s the actor who dreams of being discovered; the young director wanting to see his vision made real. And it all runs on ideas backed by an ambition that will stop at nothing. L.A. dreams in a way both ruthless and virile.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Postcards from 'Frisco

In which we take in some views from the 'ol town, plus some fauna
Alcatraz from Pier 39. Turn that eyesore over to the Indians and let them make it into a casino, for crying out loud.

The liberty ship, U.S.S Jeremiah O'Brien, with a rare wiff of smoke coming out of its funnel. Guess they must have been tuning 'er up. Funny the memories these things bring back. I hade almost forgotten the time I went to a dance party in the hold of the ship and ended up tending bar all night. I made several hundred dollars that night. It was so humid, what with all the gyrating dancers, that it actually began to "rain" inside the hold. Yes, it was gross, but I wouldn't give up that experience for anything.

The conservatory, Golden Gate Park.

The Chinese Pagoda, Stowe Lake, G.G. Park.

Rocket J., a squirrel, near Stowe Lake.

Buffalo in G.G. Park.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Em... Yaar...

In which we talk a little pirate
A fan of swashbuckler films, I've always had a thing for pirates. I've had several pirate-themed birthday parties and annual Talk Like a Pirate Day is my fave holiday after San Francisco Fleet Week. Pirates of the Carribean is my favorite Disney attraction.

But I don't take it half as seriously as Piranha Swann Kidd of the Crew of The Buccaneers of Tortuga and her partner in crime, Armand Bordeux de La Garge.

I took this pic last Sunday, the same day I took the snap of Justine, below. Turns out that Mlle. Kidd and M. de La Garge and their crew of pirates were on hand at Maeve's to help their friend celebrate his new pirate-themed tattoo at the parlor around the corner. Not incidentally, Studio City Tattoo is pirate-themed. And no, I'm not kidding. See for yourself.

But wait, there's more. The area also boasts its own Pirate Shop, Enchanted Deva's in North Hollywood. And did you know that The Pyrate's Way was America's "preimier premiere pirate magazine?" Me neither.

I guess pirates really are the New Black.

The Captainess Kidd and her crew will be hosting PyrateCon in New Orleans later this year. If you happen to be in the Big Easy stop by for a little grog, matie!

Monday, January 07, 2008


In which we share a little sophisticated cheesecake

This is Justine. She works behind the bar at Maeve's Residuals, my local hang-out until I move next week. It's called Residuals because, this being Studio City, if you bring in a "residuals" check for less than $1, they comp you a drink. (A residuals check is a check that an actor or actress receives from a program or commercial in which they have appeared that is in syndication.)

It's the sort of place frequented by struggling actors and actresses, post-production folks, and crew members, like key grips, best boys, and so forth. It is entirely without pretension.

I photographed Justine as part of an effort to better record my experiences in this remarkable and suprising place -- and because she's pretty easy on the eyes. Like many people in Studio City, Justine is also an actress. Besides being that and a rare beauty, she is also the daughter of the redoubtable character actress, Marriette Hartley, who older readers may remember from "Star Trek," and other shows and younger ones from the recent series, "Dirt."

Hartley, now in her 70s (though she looks 20 years younger at least), recently underwent intestinal surgery. Justine tells me that she should make a full recovery. Nevertheless our thoughts go out to her for her for a swift and painless recuperation.

God, I am really going to miss my little town in the Big City.

Parting Shots from the Master

The following essay by George MacDonald Fraser recently appeared in London's Daily Mail. I re-post it here entirely without permission.

Through the Seventies and Eighties I led him on his disgraceful way, toadying, lying, cheating, running away, treating women as chattels, abusing inferiors of all colours, with only one redeeming virtue - the unsparing honesty with which he admitted to his faults, and even gloried in them.

And no one minded, or if they did, they didn't tell me. In all the many thousands of readers' letters I received, not one objected.

In the Nineties, a change began to take place. Reviewers and interviewers started describing Flashman (and me) as politically incorrect, which we are, though by no means in the same way. This is fine by me. Flashman is my bread and butter, and if he wasn't an elitist, racist, sexist swine, I'd be selling bootlaces at street corners instead of being a successful popular writer. But what I notice with amusement is that many commentators now draw attention to Flashy's (and my) political incorrectness in order to make a point of distancing themselves from it. It's not that they dislike the books. But where once the non-PC thing could pass unremarked, they now feel they must warn readers that some may find Flashman offensive, and that his views are certainly not those of the interviewer or reviewer, God forbid.

I find the disclaimers alarming. They are almost a knee-jerk reaction and often rather a nervous one, as if the writer were saying: "Look, I'm not a racist or sexist. I hold the right views and I'm in line with modern enlightened thought, honestly."

They won't risk saying anything to which the PC lobby could take exception. And it is this that alarms me - the fear evident in so many sincere and honest folk of being thought out of step. I first came across this in the United States, where the cancer has gone much deeper. As a screenwriter [at which Fraser was almost as successful as he was with the 12 Flashman novels; his best-known work was scripting the Three Musketeers films] I once put forward a script for a film called The Lone Ranger, in which I used a piece of Western history which had never been shown on screen and was as spectacular as it was shocking - and true.

The whisky traders of the American plains used to build little stockades, from which they passed out their ghastly rot-gut liquor through a small hatch to the Indians, who paid by shoving furs back though the hatch.

The result was that frenzied, drunken Indians who had run out of furs were besieging the stockade, while the traders sat snug inside and did not emerge until the Indians had either gone away or passed out.

Political correctness stormed onto the scene, red in tooth and claw. The word came down from on high that the scene would offend "Native Americans".

Their ancestors may have got pieeyed on moonshine but they didn't want to know it, and it must not be shown on screen. Damn history. Let's pretend it didn't happen because we don't like the look of it.

I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn't present the picture they would like.

My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing. Fine, let them be so depicted, if any film maker feels like it; better that than insulting, inaccurate drivel like Braveheart.

The philosophy of political correctness is now firmly entrenched over here, too, and at its core is a refusal to look the truth squarely in the face, unpalatable as it may be. Political correctness is about denial, usually in the weasel circumlocutory jargon which distorts and evades and seldom stands up to honest analysis.

It comes in many guises, some of them so effective that the PC can be difficult to detect. The silly euphemisms, apparently harmless, but forever dripping to wear away common sense - the naivete of the phrase "a caring force for the future" on Remembrance poppy trays, which suggests that the army is some kind of peace corps, when in fact its true function is killing. The continual attempt to soften and sanitise the harsh realities of life in the name of liberalism, in an effort to suppress truths unwelcome to the PC mind; the social engineering which plays down Christianity, demanding equal status for alien religions.

The selective distortions of history, so beloved by New Labour, denigrating Britain's past with such propaganda as hopelessly unbalanced accounts of the slave trade, laying all the blame on the white races, but carefully censoring the truth that not a slave could have come out of Africa without the active assistance of black slavers, and that the trade was only finally suppressed by the Royal Navy virtually single-handed.

In schools, the waging of war against examinations as "elitist" exercises which will undermine the confidence of those who fail - what an intelligent way to prepare children for real life in which competition and failure are inevitable, since both are what life, if not liberal lunacy, is about.

PC also demands that "stress", which used to be coped with by less sensitive generations, should now be compensated by huge cash payments lavished on griping incompetents who can't do their jobs, and on policemen and firemen "traumatised" by the normal hazards of work which their predecessors took for granted.

Furthermore, it makes grieving part of the national culture, as it was on such a nauseating scale when large areas were carpeted in rotting vegetation in "mourning" for the Princess of Wales; and it insists that anyone suffering ordinary hardship should be regarded as a "victim" - and, of course, be paid for it.

That PC should have become acceptable in Britain is a glaring symptom of the country's decline.
No generation has seen their country so altered, so turned upside down, as children like me born in the 20 years between the two world wars. In our adult lives Britain's entire national spirit, its philosophy, values and standards, have changed beyond belief.

Probably no country on earth has experienced such a revolution in thought and outlook and behaviour in so short a space.

Other lands have known what seem to be greater upheavals, the result of wars and revolutions, but these do not compare with the experience of a country which passed in less than a lifetime from being the mightiest empire in history, governing a quarter of mankind, to being a feeble little offshore island whose so-called leaders have lost the will and the courage, indeed the ability, to govern at all. This is not a lament for past imperial glory, though I regret its inevitable passing, nor is it the raging of a die-hard Conservative.

I loathe all political parties, which I regard as inventions of the devil. My favourite prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing. This would not commend him to New Labour, who count all time lost when they're not wrecking the country.

I am deeply concerned for the United Kingdom and its future. I look at the old country as it was in my youth and as it is today and, to use a fine Scots word, I am scunnered.

I know that some things are wonderfully better than they used to be: the new miracles of surgery, public attitudes to the disabled, the health and well-being of children, intelligent concern for the environment, the massive strides in science and technology.

Yes, there are material blessings and benefits innumerable which were unknown in our youth.
But much has deteriorated. The United Kingdom has begun to look more like a Third World country, shabby, littered, ugly, run down, without purpose or direction, misruled by a typical Third World government, corrupt, incompetent and undemocratic.

My generation has seen the decay of ordinary morality, standards of decency, sportsmanship, politeness, respect for the law, family values, politics and education and religion, the very character of the British.

Oh how Blimpish this must sound to modern ears, how out of date, how blind to "the need for change and the novelty of a new age". But don't worry about me. It's the present generation with their permissive society, their anything-goes philosophy, and their generally laid-back, inyerface attitude I feel sorry for.

They regard themselves as a completely liberated society when in fact they are less free than any generation since the Middle Ages.

Indeed, there may never have been such an enslaved generation, in thrall to hang-ups, taboos, restrictions and oppressions unknown to their ancestors (to say nothing of being neck-deep in debt, thanks to a moneylender's economy).

We were freer by far 50 years ago - yes, even with conscription, censorship, direction of labour, rationing, and shortages of everything that nowadays is regarded as essential to enjoyment. We still had liberty beyond modern understanding because we had other freedoms, the really important ones, that are denied to the youth of today.

We could say what we liked; they can't. We were not subject to the aggressive pressure of specialinterest minority groups; they are. We had no worries about race or sexual orientation; they have. We could, and did, differ from fashionable opinion with impunity, and would have laughed PC to scorn, had our society been weak and stupid enough to let it exist.

We had available to us an education system, public and private, that was the envy of the world. We had little reason to fear being mugged or raped (killed in war, maybe, but that was an acceptable hazard).

Our children could play in street and country in safety. We had few problems with bullies because society knew how to deal with bullying and was not afraid to punish it in ways that would send today's progressives into hysterics.

We did not know the stifling tyranny of a liberal establishment, determined to impose its views, and beginning to resemble George Orwell's Ministry of Truth.

Above all, we knew who we were and we lived in the knowledge that certain values and standards held true, and that our country, with all its faults and need for reforms, was sound at heart.

Not any more. I find it difficult to identify a time when the country was as badly governed as it has been in the past 50 years.

We have had the two worst Prime Ministers in our history - Edward Heath (who dragooned us into the Common Market) and Tony Blair. The harm these two have done to Britain is incalculable and almost certainly irreparable.

Whether the public can be blamed for letting them pursue their ruinous policies is debatable. Short of assassination there is little people can do when their political masters have forgotten the true meaning of the democracy of which they are forever prating, are determined to have their own way at all costs and hold public opinion in contempt.

I feel I speak not just for myself but for the huge majority of my generation who think as I do but whose voices are so often lost in the clamour.

We are yesterday's people, the over-the-hill gang. (Yes, the old people - not the senior citizens or the time-challenged, but the old people.) Those of ultra-liberal views may take consolation from this - that my kind won't be around much longer, and then they can get on with wrecking civilisation in peace.

But they should beware. There may well be more who think like me than the liberal Left establishment likes to think. When my views were first published in book form in 2002, I was not surprised that almost all the reviewers were unfavourable. I had expected that my old-fashioned views would get a fairly hostile

Au revoir, mon ami!

Friday, January 04, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser, 1925 — 2008

In which we lament the passing and celebrate the works and life of one of the giants of historical fiction

More than anything else, George MacDonald Fraser was a man.

He was best known as the author of the "Flashman" series of books, about a ne'er-do-well officer in British Army who somehow manages to scrape through the greatest battles of the century with nary a scratch. But Fraser was also a redoubtable journalist, a talented screenwriter, historian and a great warrior, having served in the Scottish Border Regiment in the Burma campaign — one of the bitterest and most brutal of the war — and later as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders in the Mid-East and North Africa.

The Flashman books, as well as his other novels, such as Black Ajax and Mr. American, have given me and other fans countless hours of pleasure. But it is his memoir of the Burma campaign Quartered Safe Out Here that most captivates. It begins with the wholly un-PC phrase, "The first time I smelt Jap… " and continues to take the reader on a ride through the almost surreal landscape that was war against an implacable enemy in a trackless jungle.

In his opinions he spared none, and asked no quarter.

The best of the Flashman books — there were 12 in all — was Flashman at the Charge which takes our wiley anti-hero, Harry Flashman, from the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava into the heart of southern Russia, through the Caspian and Ural seas and finally back into British India. His descriptions of the semi-feudal Russia in the Wintertime in the 19th century are magnificent in their detail.

In addition, Fraser wrote the screenplays for both "The Three Muskateers" and "The Four Muskateers" (directed by Richard Lester and staring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway and Richard Chamberlain) two of the best and funniest swashbucklers films ever produced.

As a writer, Fraser seemed never to be concerned about appearing literary. This unpretentiousness was one of his great strengths. What Fraser had was an ear and flare for the English language as it was spoken throughout Britain, the Empire and in America. He also had an uncanny ability for showing history through the eyes of both fictional and true-to-life characters. In fact, for 20 years Fraser's work has spurred me to learn more about history in both the British Empire and in America than any textbook ever did. In Fraser, history came alive.

His last book, The Reavers will appear posthumously in the U.S. in April.

This one's for you, George. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Blood for Oil

In which we celebrate one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed

Seeing as the name of this website is "Travels West" it's a pretty safe bet that its author, me, has an interest in things Western — places, history, folklore and so on.

The saga of the American West is an epic tale of competing interests in which there was very little black and white. Most Western movies show tales of romantic cowboys, Indians, gamblers and the cavalry — rancher vs. farmer, cowboy vs. Indian, gunslinger vs. sheriff.

But what brought real, large scale development to the West was mining and the promise of wealth pulled straight out of the dry desert earth. Gold, silver, copper, tungsten, borax and the like drew hopeful prospectors by the tens of thousands and still continue to be staples of the Western economic landscape. But West's most valuable earth-bound commodity was not mineral but organic.


At the beginning of the 20th century, ships made the shift from coal to oil, the internal combustion engine began to catch on and individual homes began to be heated by fuel oil. Oil quickly became wealth itself. Today, all the world runs upon it. Control the flow of oil and you control the world.

Until fairly recently, mining has been largely ignored by Hollywood, and what it has produced has tended to focus on the ancillary stories around gold ("Deadwood") and silver ("Tombstone"). Oil has seldom been a part of the landscape of the Hollywood Western.

That changed December 26th with the release of "There Will Be Blood." This is not only the best Western I have ever seen, it is the best film I have ever seen. Period. It is the story of the American West encapsulated in two-and-a-half hours of drama so intense I was unable to tear my eyes away from the screen for even a moment.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel, "Oil!", "The Will Be Blood" takes place in California, on the western slopes of the San Joaquin Valley. (I believe it's supposed to be the area around Kettleman Hills, where the National Oil and Gas Reserve fields are today. You can drive through them along State Highway 33, which runs parallel to the I-5.)

How, in such wide open spaces and with so with much wealth can men become so trapped? See the film for yourself, on the big screen, and find out.