San Andreas Bay
Back from a flying visit to friendly, overheated Britain, we begin the annual migration north. Like thousands of other Texans, we are escaping our terrible weather. Some of us go to Maine, others to Oregon. My wife, Linda, and I go to northern California. It’s a radical change of political climate, too, and we have to cross a desert or two to get there. The drive from Texas to California can still stir romantic chords: hundreds of miles of semi-desert relieved by an occasional distant butte. This She Wore a Yellow Ribbon territory was once commanded by fierce Apache tribes, like the Chiricahua, who gave us Cochise and Geronimo. It’s easy to understand the terror in which those masters of strategy were held as they became pretty much the last fighting nation to go down before encroaching settlers and a cavalry consisting largely of Irish conscripts enforcing American rule with a genocidal ferocity which the Apache respected. The Apache and Kiowa combined deep spiritual beliefs with a philosophical understanding that total war was the only way to survive in an unforgiving land.
Hundreds of grey spindly-legged tripod windmills, rotors slowly turning, march over barren hills into the distance. Martian invaders from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Welcome to California. They are de-electing a governor. Just as important is news that Pirates of the Caribbean, a movie based on a Disneyland ride, sweeps the box-offices with the campest naval performance (by Johnny Depp) since Charles Hawtrey. A few lacy bosoms being chased around the mainmast and Disney will have a great new series to carry on through the new century. The desert behind us, our spirits lift. We are thoroughly exhausted. As you grow older, driving hours have to be adjusted to allow for a certain diminishment of stamina. I have a wounded foot, so must sit in the back seat with my legs stretched out on the folded-down front seats. Beside me are our amiable cats, disdaining cages. The inside of the car resembles a mixture of first world war field hospital and mobile menagerie. Clean and considerate, the cats love travelling, investigating every new motel with relish. Beds are swiftly selected as territory. Having been confined all day, they spend the night at play, which adds to our exhaustion. One night we take an adjoining room for them. Our tempers improve. The Promised Land of peace and plenty lies only a matter of hours away.
Leave the Bible Belt behind and the number of evangelical Christian radio stations actually increases. Maybe they aren’t needed in Texas, where even the most politically liberal people tend to be regular churchgoers. In California it’s hard to find a station that isn’t preaching at you. We settle for National Public Radio when we can receive it. Until times like this, you tend to forget what a cultural treasure the BBC is. Much talk of lies and deception over the invasion of Iraq. On the motel’s television I watch White House advisers being questioned by Congress. They resemble the old commies and Trots one argued with in the 1950s and 60s. They have learned the power of the dialectic. They can do the Q&A. Anything you ask they have heard before. Anything which opposes their rote logic is sentimental or naive. It makes you wonder if those old sf stories about the authoritarian takeover of the US are actually coming true. Of course, that’s where I’ve read it all before! In Dick and Bradbury, in warning fables published in 1950s American magazines with titles like Amazing, Astounding and Startling. Sadly, not so amazing or startling these days.
Here in liberal northern California, as in Hampstead, a lot of people think they’ve found the moral high ground just because they can afford to live on top of the hill. My first long dinner subject here was crop circles. My second was consumerism. Most people up here own houses worth at least a million dollars and aren’t expecting wolves at the door come winter. Chain stores, such as WalMart, are disdainfully excluded from the county. You have to travel almost to San Francisco to find a Toys ‘R’ Us. My friends sneer at consumerism, which they identify with a mall culture which has seen shopping become America’s only leisure activity. Straight-faced, Linda complains that this year the boutiques don’t have any clothes she wants. Immediately, our friends begin telling her about the best places to buy shoes and frocks. Sometimes you wonder which brand of hypocrisy is the most preferable, Southern Baptist or Secular Liberal?
Of course, we’ve travelled from a world where George Bush is a popular hero to one where he might as well be the Antichrist incarnate. We go from being the only ones in town with an ‘Americans for Peace’ sign in our front yard to the only ones in town who believe that there is anything to be said for the old anti-imperialist Republican tradition, as represented, for example, by Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who has spoken out against the administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that I could vote Republican (if I had the vote, which, as an Englishman, I do not). As far as Democratic presidential candidates go, my money’s on Howard Dean, because he talks a good, realistic game. I believe that even if he doesn’t get to be president – and I think his chances are slim – there will be a large enough vote for him to show that millions of Americans still hold American democratic values and share a growing repugnance for ugly and violent rhetoric which has no place in this wonderful country’s politics.
I’m here mainly to retreat, to work on the last book in the sequence I’ve been writing for almost 30 years, beginning with Byzantium Endures. It’s taken four volumes to show how many millions of individuals conspired in the Nazi holocaust. My disagreeable and paranoid narrator, Colonel Pyat, is now experiencing some of the realities which led to Hitler and what followed. He’s getting chummy with the likes of Mussolini and Röhm.
On Tuesday we arrived at the pale, balmy beaches of San Andreas Bay, where the shore is smooth and virtually deserted, the surf is gentle, the sea is blue. There are no touts, no commercial pressures of any kind – unless you count the squawk of the seabirds – and all I have to think about for the next couple of months is the random movement of a few tectonic plates.
Michael Moorcock’s latest books are London Bone (Scribner) and Firing the Cathedral (PS Press).