Chilling Out with Kim

I’m currently sitting opposite the Pacific Ocean in one of the most pleasant and laid-back places in the world — Santa Barbara’s beachfront. However, I’m not doing a touristy travelogue and my enjoyment of the relaxed atmosphere is interspersed with virtual panic-attacks about the amount of money it costs to be here.

But I’m here because this place (as very attentive readers of this blog may have realised)  is somewhere that’s ingrained in my psyche as I spent an academic year here as part of my undergraduate degree course — although it wasn’t here in chic downtown Santa Barbara (see photo below — taken from my hotel balcony) but the more rough-and-ready student ghetto of Isla Vista.

Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara
Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara

Isla Vista is a community of at least 10,000 students (possibly many more) and very few other people. I ended up living almost in the middle of it — in an apartment that bordered on its central business district (if that’s what various student bookshops, liquor stores, fast food businesses and so on can be called).

While this sounds quite anarchic and hedonistic, I probably reacted against it all to a large extent when I arrived — for one thing I was so young that it was illegal for me to buy alcohol, which was something very constricting for someone on the third year of a British university course.

I’m quite astounded now at how I managed to cope — aged 20 — being deposited on the other side of the globe in the days before the internet and e-mail. This was when phone calls home were so expensive you made them once a month and when national news came via the reading room of the university library’s periodical collection rather than a few clicks on a computer.

Perhaps, if anything, this experience of being transplanted between cultures has given me an appreciation of what British culture looks like from the outside — which is perhaps a theme of the novel.

Moreover, while it sits at odds with my northern English upbringing and redbrick (British) university roots, there’s always going to be something in me of the chilled-out Californian. I spent the best part of a year with the TV stations I watched most being the local KEYT Santa Barbara ABC franchise but also the local Los Angeles stations — while the names of suburbs in LA might seem a little random to many with a superficial knowledge of the area, I’ve gained mine from effectively being a local for a year.

Not that this has much to do at all with the profoundly English themes in my novel but hopefully the work I did here in Santa Barbara (especially the screenwriting courses) will seep subconsciously into the novel — or perhaps more overtly as I’m wondering about converting a character into a Californian.

Santa Barbara from Stearn's Wharf at Nightfall
Santa Barbara from Stearn's Wharf at Nightfall

And Santa Barbara (or Montecito — the other end of town to the university) is home to large numbers of movie, and other, stars. In a very tenuous Kim connection apparently the second biggest celebrity wedding of the year took place a mile or so up the road — Kim Kardashian who’s apparently very famous for being famous married a basketball player. This is all the sort of stuff that Emma disdains interest in but by which she’s actually fascinated.

So, appropriately, it’s on to Hollywood and Beverly Hills today (where, ridiculously, the internet costs extra in the hotel so I may be quiet a while).

And I’ve been very slow in picking this up but perhaps the biggest subconscious influence of all is how my novel’s title is an almost literal translation of the biggest city in California — Los Angeles — the Angels.

My Dissolution and the American Canon

Over Christmas I came across a box of old books that had been gathering dust in an attic ever since I left university. A lot were pretty useless, except as curiosities — a book on American foreign policy that goes up to about 1982 would give quite a rose-tinted perspective.

However, I managed to pick a good dozen or more novels that are taught just as regularly now as they were a couple of decades ago.

1980s Paperbacks
1980s Paperbacks

Quite a few books (Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, Rita Mae Brown, Richard Wright) probably date back to a course I did on American literature at the University of California Santa Barbara, which probably should have been more accurate called Afro-American literature. It was taught by a lecturer called Elliott Butler Evans who saw the whole canon of American literature through ‘cultural semiotics and ethnicity’. (The quotation is taken from this page on the UCSB website, where he still appears to be teaching.)

I must have learned to read literature to take into account the Afro-American perspective reasonably well as I think I got a B+ on that course.

There’s also quite a few books by 19th century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. I did a year-long course in my final year at Birmingham taught by Brian Harding, this country’s greatest expert on the writer (at least at the time), who’s since edited many editions of Hawthorne’s work.

1980s Paperbacks
1980s Paperbacks

That was in the days when we were taught in a weekly tutorial for five students — all sitting in Dr. Harding’s office (at the time the one next to David Lodge’s) around a big table: great for in-depth discourse on one of the most influential authors developing the American literary tradition but not so good if, like me, you’d been in the pub instead of reading the works beforehand.

Somehow I managed to get a decent mark in my finals on Hawthorne but the enduring image I retain from that course was when an attractive but quiet female student called Gill (I wish I could remember her surname) once turned up in fishnet stockings and leather boots. I still remember watching her, quite stunned, walking down the English department corridor.

1980s Paperbacks
1980s Paperbacks

The Orwell ‘1984’ as well as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ came from another UCSB class — taught by Professor Frank McConnell who was the most popular lecturer at the university. He was described as being  ‘known for his renegade lifestyle and his love for teaching’ — unfortunately this was in an announcement made by UCSB when he died in 1999 aged only 56. Sadly, his renegade lifestyle probably contributed to his early passing away. I remember him doing Roger Daltrey impressions, swinging his microphone in front of a huge lecture theatre full of hundreds of students — rather different from the Hawthorne seminars.

There are other iconic books in the pile — Steinbeck, Updike’s ‘Rabbit Run’, Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. I don’t have any recollection much of what’s between the covers of John Dos Passos’s ‘U.S.A.’ — I was never going to let a book that thick stand between myself and the student bar or pub.

The Tom Stoppard play was one I appeared in when I was in the sixth form — not sure how that got in the box.

Any guesses what subject I studied at Birmingham?