motorcycles

Three months in….

I’m sat on my big blue sofa at the end of a long day. One of the dogs is curled up next to me making horrendous smells, the other is in the bedroom with my wife. I’m surrounded by all the same stuff we’ve had for the last few years but the location is different. 

Three months ago my wife Anna and I arrived in Los Angeles on a one way flight from London Heathrow. We had 6 huge bags, a pair of Permanent Resident visas and a vague plan to create new lives for ourselves in California. The California Border Patrol treated us kindly and within an hour of stepping off the plane we were sent on our way, finding ourselves outside the terminal, giddily taking selfies by the taxi ranks at Terminal 2. We’d gone from living in a several hundred year old country cottage in deepest, prettiest, rural Kent to winging it in Los Angeles. Talk about getting out of your comfort zone….

We arrived on a Monday. By the Friday we’d seen a stack of houses in the various areas east of Downtown. We trekked round Eagle Rock, Highland Park and our favourite, Pasadena, looking at places and by the Saturday we’d put in an offer on a very nice Spanish style home built in 1922. The offer was accepted by the Monday and the clock then started ticking on the 6 weeks required to complete the sale. Putting in an offer on a property is a serious business in California: your agent has to prove that the funds are available and if an offer is accepted, the deal is legally binding (albeit with options to can the deal if there’s a structural problem, or to pay a financial penalty to the other party if you walk away without good reason). It’s a great system, and we quickly started the process of the various property inspections secure in the knowledge that the deal was safe if they showed no major issues. 

We spent some time in hotels & motels and then spent a delightful 3 weeks in a house owned by our realtors in Lake Arrowhead, a town in the mountains north of San Bernardino. Our very good friend Michael came to visit and we were finally able to eat at home, catch up on work and curb the weight gain we’d been experiencing since arriving. Soon enough we were moving in, sleeping on a second hand mattress in the lounge whilst we waited for out furniture to arrive and for some renovation and decorating work to be completed. We’ve been in here six weeks now and the place is lovely. Anna has painted it inside and out – even during a heatwave when temperatures were well over 100F during the day – and has done a load of garden work. In England we had a white cottage with roses and box hedges; here we have a pink house with succulents and Agave. Anyone for Tequila?

Pasadena is a great city. Old Town is the centre of sorts, a great place to eat, drink and shop, with 90% of everything you’d ever need on or near one long street, often in lovely older buildings. Our house is in an area called the Historic Highlands and is full of older homes and lots of mature trees. The San Gabriel Mountains are always on view somewhere here and act as a natural perimeter to the sprawling mass of LA – with another natural barrier to the west of Pasadena in the form of the Arroyo, a valley right at the western edge of Pasadena where the Rose Bowl Stadium is located (and where Paul McCartney has a big house). Crime is relatively low and everything is a little more spread out than in the areas south and west of here. Within a few days we’d met most of our neighbours on our block as they dropped by to introduce themselves. All the stereotypes of laid back Californians were confirmed in those first few days as we received bunches of flowers, invites for dinner, drinks and parties and a nice banana and walnut cake. We’re something of a curiosity, being the odd English couple with the skinny dogs and the odd old cars. 

The English accent goes a long way here. A few nights ago we went out for some sushi and did the thing none of the white, middle class people do here, which was to catch the bus. LA Metro has a great network of trams and buses that are really handy but almost exclusively used by Black and Hispanic customers. As a result the buses aren’t always busy outside rush hour and our Sushi Shuttle only had two other people on it. When we got off, the woman driving the bus heard our accent, stopped chatting with the other two passengers (friends of hers) and parked the bus in the bus stop for a while whilst we chatted about who we were, why we were here and what we were up to. Weird, but really nice and unexpected.This place continually surprises us and challenges our expectations in some really fun ways.

Some things are very different. There is a protocol to conversation that feels quite unnatural to “Brits Abroad” at first, even those who are well travelled: the use of polite greetings and enquiry in conversation: “Hello, how are you today?” It feels similar to the way French people say Bonjour to each other at every available opportunity (I’m reminded of visiting my friend Cheeko in France and going to little village bars where a new arriving customer greets and shakes hands with everyone in the place when they walk in before getting stuck into the beer). The nonchalance of British social interaction betrays a reserve that doesn’t exist here. At first it feels false but when you tune into it, it’s more authentic and pleasant than you might at first assume. Brits chill out and are nicer to each other when the sun shines; here the sun shines 330 days a year. It’s not rocket science to work out why people are relaxed and nice to each other here, and whilst I know we’re in a nice part of California and I’m sure that plays a part too, but have yet to meet anyone who is an all-out arsehole even in the rougher parts of town.

The one thing that is in complete contrast to everything I’ve written in the last paragraph is the way people drive. I’ve driven all over Europe: been run off the motorway by a lunatic Belgian driver, hammered along autobahns at daft speeds, been scared witless by Italian bus drivers on the Amalfi coast and jousted with the Frenchies on the Peripherique at rush hour, but nothing, and I mean NOTHING compares to the absolutely terrifying way people drive on freeways here. On the urban side streets the limit is 25mph and the pace is very slow. Main roads move faster but are still pretty chilled out. Get on the freeway and it’s like a switch flicks in every driver’s brain that turns them from calm, attentive drivers to complete nutcases who’ve just forgotten what their indicators and mirrors are for and that consider six feet to be a perfectly acceptable distance at which to to travel behind the car in front at 70 mph. Motorcyclists are no better. They undergo training that’s roughly equivalent to a CBT test in the UK to get their full licence and then spend most of their time whizzing around on 200mph Hayabusas clad in t-shirts and shorts. Occasionally we’ll see riders in shorts and a t-shirt but wearing an expensive full face helmet and spine protector. Odd. I know that a spine is irreplaceable, but I’ve heard that skin grafts can smart a bit and feet sometimes have a tendency to separate from ankles when trainer-wearing riders take a tumble. $200 buys a set of kevlar jeans and a mesh jacket with armour with the lovely cooling airflow of a string vest but no one wears them. Hence the rider injury and fatality rates here are ridiculously high. 

Cars are indispensable here – without one life is seriously restricted. In the early twentieth century Pasadena had the highest car ownership per capita not just in California, or the USA, but the world, so they get what cars are about here and there’s a great respect for the older stuff like the cars I drive but also cars like the Tesla, Nissan Leaf and the ubiquitous Prius (as I write I’m having a real Alan Partridge Lexus/Lexi moment, wondering if the plural of Leaf is Leaves and what the hell do I do with pluralising Prius? Prii? I really should get out more). The Pasadena Art Center College of Design churns out phenomenal car designers that work all over the world and once a month they open the place up to the public and display what the students are working on. The downside to the need to drive everwhere, even with the great bus drivers, is that people tend to think it’s not such a big deal to have a few drinks and drive home. DUI (Driving Under the Influence) is just not perceived the same way as it is in the UK, where I don’t think as many people take the risk. It’s policed by the LAPD and other Police Departments but they actually publish the locations of their DUI checkpoints in advance and always have increased presence on national holidays. Drinking habits are very different to the UK (people drink a lot less overall) but still I feel less safe as a sober driver when the sun goes down. Recently we’ve been using Uber to get around and it works great – book a car on a smartphone, the fare is cheaper than a cab and paid by Paypal so no cash changes hands. I’ve heard it’s just started in London and I fully expect the Black Cab drivers to go bonkers. 

So there we are, three months in and a lot learnt about our new home. We’re still meeting new people and expanding our lives to make the most of where we are and in a few months I think we’ll have a nice balance of work and play that will keep us busy but not so stressed that we can’t stop to enjoy the climate and the beaches, mountains and, above all the diverse culture that’s right on our doorstep. We’ve also spent enough time here over the last couple of years to be able to hit the ground running and we already have a great network of friends and interesting places we like to go which should mean that anyone who cares to visit us will also have a good time (the current room rate is a box of Earl Grey – the proper teabags, not the silly little ones with the string on – and a bottle of Single Malt, thank you very much. Nurofen Meltlets can’t be found here and would be gratefully received as well, if you can manage it; all this unpacking has played havoc with my glass back).

Toodle pip! 

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Fish, chips and Eastenders; the motorcycle club as compensation for fragmented communities

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I know, nothing for months and two posts in so many days. I’m clearly trying to make up for being so slack.

So this evening Mrs A and I went to our local fish and chip shop for a sit down meal. Cod, chips, mushy peas and a Sprite please. All very straightforward, tasty stuff. The place that we’ve been going to during our stay in Bromley has a TV in the corner which usually blasts out whatever soap opera is on at that point in the evening. Nothing too remarkable about that and I guess it is a fairly comforting and familiar background for the mostly female clientele there, many of whom dine alone. An unusual phenomenon.

The TV and the solitary diners got me thinking about the popularity of soap operas and the purpose they serve. These programmes tend to focus on a single, small community in a fixed location. Coronation Street, Eastenders’ square, Emmerdale’s farming village, all are established and confined within strict physical boundaries. Characters come and go in them all but all have certain key long term characters that are familiar faces, anchoring the show to a continuity of structure and by implication, of community. Leave a few years between watching episodes of a particular show and you can bet there’ll be a familiar face when you come back to it: a Ken Barlow, an Ian Beale or suchlike in broadly similar plotlines (an extreme example of Warhol’s opinion that a good film is one you can walk away from for a while, come back, and it not matter). Those characters signify a continuity to life in a smaller community space that is absent in the world in which most of us live: one of long working hours, a relatively transient workforce and expanding urban centres with ever more diverse communities. More people working ever harder and moving around more to earn their pay; household income increases but earners are left time poor. The post-war democratisation of transport had effects that were economically attractive but left us socially depleted. We swapped stable communities for fatter wallets but the craving for those social anchors never went away. The gap is filled in part by the mundane, restricted normality of the soap opera. Not quite “Opium  des Volkes” but not a million miles off.

The soap opera shares its origins with the kitchen sink drama – the portrayal of real, gritty lives in working class urban communities, laid bare for us all to see. Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning lives a life of reckless abandon borne from the frustrations of his factory job. He gets his pleasure from booze and illicit sex and wants to escape the drudgery. He doesn’t. But where soap operas and kitchen sink dramas differ is that the latter comes out of the frustrations of young working class people wanting to escape their place in life; they’re about dreams and aspiration. Soap operas amplify and dramatise the normal but rely on character templates from the same locations and class positions as the films. They’re peculiarly introverted, the physical constraints of the set focusing the activity of characters on events in the pub, hairdresser or the launderette; their dreams equally confined. Transgressive characters are the least secure, their expulsion always seeming imminent. Their inevitable return is a threat to the community’s stability. The most frustrated characters are often, unsurprisingly, teenagers.

The key social and economic shifts start to happen to a lesser extent before the second world war and to a much greater degree from 1945 onwards. Urban centres reconstruct and expand after the war (with varying success as high rise living is introduced) and we start to see an increase in the use of personal transport. This of course starts with the bicycle a long time before (see also: the old joke about the enriched gene pool it causes) and in the post war period we see huge increase first in motorcycle use and then cars. Take into account the way London and other major cities were reshaped by German bombs during the Blitz and you can easily see how the combination of a changing built environment, a vast expansion of personal transportation and improvements in pay, employment rights and working conditions start to have profound effects on community and the capacity of an individual to find work further from home than public transport previously allowed. Many of my interviewees cited the motorcycle as a means of getting to work that reduced their commuting time, significantly increasing their leisure time. They could also choose from a wider selection of jobs within a wider radius from home, increasing their earning potential. Travelling further gave them more free time & more money to spend in it, often in social spaces a fair distance from home. Quite the opposite of the typical soap opera plotline with the local boozer as the hub of the community.

So give people a set of wheels in a time of almost full employment and they go out and get the better paid jobs. Stretch that over 50 years and the effect is magnified many times over: You might have grown up in the same place as your parents but ended up somewhere very different. If you have kids, chances are they won’t live near you. I started life in Wigan but soon went to school in Bolton. My first job was in Manchester, where I lived for several years after a year or so in Cumbria. From Manchester to London to Kent then back to London and from here, who knows? Technology changes how and where we work, be it a mode of transport or the laptop on which I’m writing this. And as the idea of our domestic location being fixed in perpetuity wanes, so does our sense of community, the comforting emotional ties to those around us. In fragmented communities we seek stability; an anchor to keep us rooted to the physical space we occupy. Stability takes the form of familiar faces, spaces and routines – and the soap opera fills some of those functions. Routines provide the familiarity that allows people to function on autopilot: the same faces on TV, the same drive to work or bus to the office, the same school run, the same supermarket and the identikit high street where people buy the same brand of underwear and those expensive t shirts that all their friends wear, the ones printed with the name of a town in California that means nothing*.

If we accept that the motorcycle is the tool that takes the young teenager away from their community in the 1960s, it’s equally to remember that it is the catalyst for the formation of new youth cultures. The motorcycle facilitates the formation of new social structures as young people, empowered with unprecedented mobility and earnings, come together in places like the 59 Club or the Ace Cafe. These new communities don’t originate from individuals’ geographical proximity but from a love of the machines that provide speed, freedom and access to new and exciting places full of teenagers from far and wide. Freedom is a powerful drug and can have profound, lasting effects; motorcycles changed the lives of my interviewees, all for the better. Lifelong friendships are forged through shared experiences on two wheels and the feeling of a wide open throttle on a big bike stays etched on the mind forever. Several people talked about how “that time” was special. Each interview had a moment when the individual’s eyes lit up as they recollected a specific journey, a particular bike or even just the magical feeling of being a teenager as teenage cultures began. All night cafes, rock’n’roll, fast bikes, leather jackets that scared the old folks and made headlines. Knowing that your best buddies grew up knowing that feeling too is the tie that has bound many together ever since. It must have been wonderful. 

Motorcyclists dreams are different, their horizons further, and they get there faster. Ride safe.

*Hollister is famous for one thing only, and it isn’t “So Cal inspired” t-shirts : it’s the site of an infamous 1947 motorcycle riot in California on which the Brando film The Wild One was based. I’ve no idea who Abercrombie and Fitch are and, even if you own one of their overpriced t-shirts, neither have you. Ralph Lauren? Bet you’ve never watched polo, never mind played it. You’re consuming brands with a fake, constructed and aspirational heritage, buying a stylistic allegiance to a fantastic falsehood. There’s more integrity in a bag of chips. Try harder. Lose the meaningless logos. You’ll feel liberated.