On my first trip to London my plane landed at Heathrow in the late afternoon. By the time the classic black London cab had taken me from the airport to where I was staying — animator Richard Williams’s flat in Belsize Park — it was dusk. Richard was in Los Angeles working at his studio there and he had graciously offered me the use of his London home.
|Richard Williams's home in London|
So I was on my own in making my way up to his second floor flat (on what we in America would call the third floor). This I did by dragging my over packed and heavy bags up the narrow stairwell in total darkness, as the lights seemed to be out and there were no windows to let in outside illumination, not that there was much of that in any case. This dark situation also existed on the second floor, and I had to feel my way along the walls to find that there were three doors to three flats on the floor. Three doors to choose from, and I could not see which was flat A or B or C. Not being a smoker, I did not even have a match or lighter to illuminate myself out of the potentially embarrassing situation of sticking Richard’s key into the wrong door lock. After a moment of panic and a few moments of scratching my head I came up with the bright idea of taking a Braille-like approach and feel for the letters. This, of course, was only going to work if the letters were raised metal attached to the doors, and not flat printed jobs or, worse, painted onto the doors. Fortunately, raised metal they were. I got the key into the lock, opened the door and was greeted by light streaming through the front, street-facing windows from a large street lamp just outside. I greeted it right back.
A few minutes after arriving, as I was unpacking, there was a knock on the door, which probably made me jump. With caution I opened the door and there stood a man from one of London’s utility companies standing in the wonderful illumination of incandescent light. I could see the doors to the other two flats quite well now and assumed that the light in the hallway had just come back on. The utility man was there to check something in the flat. I asked him in, shutting the door behind him, and had a pleasant chat with him while he was doing whatever he needed to do. When he was done I saw him out, opening the door to a blackness only slightly abated by the light from Richard’s flat.
I apologized to the utility man, saying I guessed they were having problems with a circuit. He looked at me in that way certain Brits like to look at certain Americans — the dumb ones — and reached over to a button on the wall I had not noticed before, and hit it with a “Let there be light” flourish. And there was light. It filled the hallway and the stairwell. “It’s on a timer, Mate,” he said as he dashed for the stairs. I stood there for a moment and, sure enough, as I heard the door to the street open and close, the lights turned off and I was again in the dark.
I was not happy to have had my lack of international travel — this was my first substantial trip anywhere — and my naïveté pointed out, sparking some worry and concern about the evening ahead.
I was scheduled to have dinner with Clare Kitson, a programmer at the National Film Theater. She wanted to take me to a restaurant in Soho and feed me whitebait, which I had absolutely no idea what that was. She also expected me to make it there by subway, which she, of course, called “the Tube.” “Catch the Tube at Chalk Farm and take it to Tottenham Court Road,” she said casually as if she was talking to someone who had a familiarity with cities as large as London, had ridden subways on his mother’s knee, and wasn’t intimidated by dark stairwells. I decided to keep her in the dark, maintaining a pose of sophistication I copied from James Bond films. I showered, I dressed, I ventured forth — and, following instructions Clare had given me, found the Chalk Farm tube station with no trouble.
That — and the feel of London I got just walking to the station — boosted my confidence. Still, I needed to descend undergro und and deal with buying a ticket, finding the right train, getting on it and not getting mugged. All of which I did quite well — including not getting mugged, thank goodness. I had left quite early as I had no idea how far Belsize Park was from Soho. As I studied the convenient map of the tube line in the interior of the train,
and carefully noted each station as we came into them, I soon knew that I was going to be at least one hour early. I made a quick, impulsive decision (you know, like James Bond might do) and got off the train at Goodge Street, the stop before Tottenham Court Road. I was determine to explore the unknown and maybe rub some naïvety off in the process. Emerging out of the tube station into a beautiful spring evening I started walking down Wigmore Street, trying not to look awed that I was in this city that had figured into many of my aspirations. Muggers, you see, look for people who look awed, so don’t. On a trip to a large unknown city, the naïve should always strive to look like the native.
I soon found myself in a section called Marylebone and I turned a corner, walked some more and soon I was standing in front of St. Marylebone Parish Church. I am not that fond of churches, but I am of history, and this looked like an old church that must have figured into some history.
|St. Marylebone Parish Church today|
Then I saw a sign, discreetly posted in the church yard, that informed me that this church, the very church I was standing in front of, served as the model for the church in the baptism scene in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.
The great thing about Great Cities is that they are great! My first night in London, a reader, a budding cultural snob, naïve and intimidated but so wanting to be knowing and sophisticated, and I suddenly and delightfully come face-to-face with history and literature and the history of literature. It was a great moment, a floating out of one’s skin moment, a merging of the past with the present moment, making them things to be embraced. Life suddenly seemed reasonable and rational and well worth living.
An experience like this could rarely, if ever, happen to an out-of-town visitor to Los Angeles. Not that we don’t have a subway, we now do, and not that visitors don’t use it. I once ran into a couple from Germany popping up out of the North Hollywood station looking to find out how far it was to walk to the Chinese Theater. Los Angeles does have a history, but not one of long duration or one that has entered the minds of out-of-towners (or most Angelenos, for that matter). And as there is a Literary London, there is a Literary Los Angeles, but on a scale somewhat akin to the scale weighing the difference between London’s history and L.A.’s. A check with Wikipedia will give you this:
Los Angeles's literary history includes legendary authors like Raymond Chandler, whose hard-boiled detective stories were set in pre-war and immediate post-war L.A. Ross Macdonald carried on the Chandler tradition into the 1950s, and in the 1960s and 1970s blended it with themes of classical tragedy. Walter Mosley, James Ellroy and Joseph Hansen are among the local successors to Chandler. Nathaniel West's book, The Day of the Locust, depicted a raw side to the Hollywood dream. Ray Bradbury wrote science fiction after moving to the city in 1934. Actress Carrie Fisher has found success as a novelist. The best known local poet was Charles Bukowski, who mostly lived in Hollywood but in the later part of his life lived in San Pedro. Tens of thousands of screenplays have been written by L.A. city residents, and the movie business has attracted many authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and William Faulkner.
How Wikipedia missed Helen Hunt Jackson's influential 1884 novel about Los Angeles's mission era, Ramona, I have no idea.
Although it is not true that people in Los Angeles, whether native or naïve, do not walk (they just do not walk much), when they do they are not likely to suddenly come upon a sign pointing to some literary fact, delight or point of historical interest.
I, however, have found one.
My daughter, Miranda, and I were in Venice (not, unfortunately, the one in Italy) a while back looking for a spot — a square, a street, a circle — that might be a good place to lobby being officially named after Ray Bradbury, once a resident of this Los Angeles beach community. We were looking for the two addresses Ray had lived at: One, 670 South Venice Boulevard where Ray moved to as a young man in his twenties when his father rented a house next to a small powerhouse from the utility company he worked for, the other, 33 South Venice Boulevard, where he and his bride, Maggie, lived. We had no idea if the original houses still existed or what might now be at those addresses if they didn’t. A 7-11 minimart perhaps, or a gas station, or a legal medical marijuana dispensary?
If you have read Ray’s writing you know he is an honestly sentimental writer, and if you know Ray you know he is an honestly sentimental man. These houses, long after he had moved from them, maintained a hold on him, as has the small powerhouse at 660 Venice Boulevard, which he could see out of the window of 670’s garage where he had set up a writing space in a corner. This is where he wrote most of the stories that became The Martian Chronicles. Ray is a man of metaphors, possibly the man of metaphors, and this powerhouse, surging, quite naturally, with power, became a metaphor for his own creative power, indeed, the metaphorical source of that power as he sat looking through the window to the brick building, imagining the power within and imagining it flowing into him to help him imagine Martians. Later on in life, whenever Ray was feeling reflective, often during those passages of life we cannot avoid, he would have his driver take him by “the old house” and the powerhouse. It must have been great to view them, to smell their breath, the scent of his youthful creative life, and take in the passage of time in one gulp, appreciating the whole even if parts were less than desirable.
Miranda and I found that 670 no longer exists. Not the building, not the address. It has been subsumed by 660. However there is a sign! Indeed, there is a plaque.
It was a bit confusing. The plaque reads that Ray, “...lived in this house...,” but the structure it was on — a modern brick building — was certainly not a house, especially one that Ray would have moved into in 1947. 660, the powerhouse, was still standing, but was now being put to a far different use. Both buildings were now connected by a one story concrete and glass building. It was not a 7-11 minimart, or a gas station, or a legal medical marijuana dispensary. I was delighted to find that it was an art gallery, L&M Arts, the L.A. branch of a well-known New York gallery.
|L&M Arts - you can just see the plaque on the modern building as a square just above the line of the fence|
I walked into the gallery and asked at the reception desk about the plaque. They said that it had been on the old clapboard house they tore down to build the annex to the main gallery formed out of the shell of the powerhouse. They believed the owners of the gallery placed the plaque on the new building.
|Where Ray's house had stood|
Very Los Angeles — the tearing down of the old to build the new. Not that this house had any great architectural significance — and buildings of architectural significance have been torn down in Los Angeles — but it had that old standby, sentimental significance to a man, as well as deep literary significance to a legion of readers who love him. It was deeply satisfying to know that the place where Ray’s house had stood is now as dedicated to art as Ray had, in the same location, been dedicated to his art, and that that location and it’s literary history is marked for passersby to see. Of course, it is on a wide Boulevard traveled rarely on foot and so not likely to be a pleasant surprise to a city wanderer, but this being Los Angeles, that may be the best that could be expected, and if the owners of the gallery had not had the good sense to remount the plaque, we would not even have that.
Where, though, did the plaque come from? I hoped to find out when I went to visit Ray, assuming he might very well be aware of the gallery and the plaque and the history of both.
I was very fortunate when I went to Ray’s to find also visiting, Jonathan R. Eller, Professor of English and Co-founder of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. Jon will publish two important books this year, one being Becoming Ray Bradbury (the University of Illinois Press), which covers Ray's early career through 1953. He’s also working on a sequel volume, to be titled The World of Ray Bradbury, which will cover the middle years of Ray's career through the mid-1980s. The second book, of which he is the Textual Editor, will be The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, a unique volume of Ray’s stories in the chronological order in which they were written and including, I believe, recovered text from the pulp-published stories that had been edited, plus different versions of stories reflecting changes Ray made throughout the years.
Ray was delighted to see that the plaque had survived the demolition of the house, and, more important I think, that the powerhouse, that powerful brick metaphor, still stood — and that it all was now a place of and for art.
Jon filled in some gaps:
The plaque had been put up by some friends of Ray’s (listed on the plaque), at their expense in 2005. In 2007 the then current owner of the house put it up for sale, but no one knew the approaching fate of the house.
When it became known that the house had been sold, Jon, on one of his visits to L.A., took Ray and a couple of his friends and rushed to the house and found it empty with a locked fence around it. The powerhouse was in the same condition. They could get no information on what the plans were for the structures, but they feared they would be torn down. Becoming a literary commando, Jon jumped the fence (along with Jason Marchi, the original sponsor of the plaque, and a long-time Bradbury bibliographer, Donn Albright) and took exterior and interior photos (see below) to make a possibly last document of the structures. Sadly, they found that the plaque was missing.
|The powerhouse as Jon and Ray had found it, It had recently housed a printing business.||Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
|The empty interior of the powerhouse. Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
|The house Ray moved to with his parents and the garage where he had his workspace. Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
|A wider view. Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
|Jon Eller at the front door holding an earlier doorplate. Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
|Jon with Ray looking at his old home for the last time that evening in October 2007. Photo courtesy of Jon Eller|
Later Ray's friends found out that the house had indeed been demolished. No one wanted to tell Ray. Would you? But one day, after a visit to the wife of a good friend who had just died, one of those sad passages of life, Ray told his driver to take him by the “old house.” There he discovered the house gone, and although the powerhouse was still standing, Ray feared that it too would be destroyed. Sadness upon sadness.
That is all that Ray, Jon, Ray’s friends and family knew until I came with the report of what had happen to the house, to the plaque, to the powerhouse.
I have never in my life been such a happy messenger.