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Recently, I happened to be in the bookshop of Huntington Library near Pasadena. On the shelf was a book about Sir Richard Burton’s travels in Arabia and Africa from one of the library’s original manuscripts. Of course I bought it after reading your reference to his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. I still have to finish another piece of travel literature I’ve been reading: The Road to Little Dribbling by that famous American Anglophile, Bill Bryson.
Then, whether or not you can find it in Pasadena, you must get hold of a copy of Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel. He really is a master traveller with the sharpest eyes and greatest sensibilities. In this volume, he compiles the best travel stories and writing that have left an impression on him. No excuse, therefore, for any of us lesser travellers to miss out on the best travel gems, chosen by the best traveller.
But reading about travelling is never enough. We must ourselves continue to move across unfamiliar lands and criss-cross familiar places to bring ourselves up to date. I was just in the US and had not been to Los Angeles or Las Vegas for three years. So I was curious to see what changes I might detect, especially in the wake of the presidential tug of war between The Hillary and The Donald. My humble theory for the Icarian rise of The Donald is that he uses language that is blatantly vernacular, which is why the majority of ordinary people understand him straightaway. Trump speaks without a scintilla of historic or literary provenance; he simply echoes what ordinary folk speak in bars across the country. He repeats their gossip, a word whose etymology I always claim comes from someone going to a bar “to sip” in order to find out what is being said. It is amazing how many people swallow it.
This shift in political language to a lower denomination was exactly what poets such as Dante and Wordsworth did with their choice of common language in order to reach the masses. Indeed, Walt Whitman’s central importance in US literature is deliberately rooted in his democratic use of language in describing the greatness of America. You should listen to a remarkable recording of him reading the simple words from his poem “America”.
I found LA to have become even more glamorously vulgar, with beachfront restaurants in Malibu at which only a mega-name or Machiavellian social climber can book a table successfully. Diners sitting down look around in their secured placement with grinning satisfaction, as if they are at a convention of Cheshire cats. While waiting — a tedious 50 minutes — for my table at the mighty Nobu, I strayed into an area that was apparently retained by a private party. A waiter soon confronted me with alarm and rebuked me for my intrusion. “Excuse me, this is a private party, and you are not allowed in here,” he barked.
“Are you speaking to me like this because I’m Chinese?” I retaliated with maximum counterforce in that holy land of PC. He was rightly flummoxed.
Beverly Hills has not, however, much changed. The peculiarly large mansions with abortive Palladian proportions set behind disproportionately short front lawns kept appearing by the kerbside. Behind their net curtains, I was certain that those who lived in them were worshippers of plastic surgery. How right I was as I sat down for lunch at The Ivy, one of my favourite restaurants in the world because of its simple food and wonderful paintings on the walls. At the next table were 14 women, each of whose faces had clearly been sculpted by a plasterer. Maybe even the same one, for they all looked similarly amazed, not being able to blink naturally. There were cheekbones in the wrong places and lips bulbous enough to be used as inflatable loungers at a swimming pool, while the surface of their skin would have done justice to Madame Tussauds.
Nonetheless, one has to admire the glorious weather of LA, although I soon find it monotonous. The prevailing climate of the entire place is as artificial as its Hollywood glamour, fuelled by an industry of cut-throats, grease bags and Plutus disguised as Mickey Mouse.
As for Las Vegas, that citadel of obesity, I discovered there the greatest luxury in America. I was able to smoke a cigar playing roulette in the casino. Everything else that is wrong, awful, ostentatious, tacky, phoney, gross and jejune about Las Vegas is, as far as I am concerned, totally forgiven. I love Vegas.
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Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters
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