Reflections on the Real #4: California, San Diego

Ten-gallon hat and thick sheepskin jacket over his lumberjack shirt. Cocks his cowboy boots up on the open fireplace as we sit under the tormentuous trees one night in Ocean Beach, San Diego. The weather is never like this here, they all say, the serene niceness of California upset by a violent windstorm sweeping in off the sea, tearing fronds from palm trees become lethal weapons, several stories high and launching missiles of strong sharp fibres. San Diego is never like this, they say, uneasily under their smiling exteriors.

The Sheriff, who hails from somewhere in the interior of the state, turns to me after some moments of silent contemplation of the flames, and I’d swear his hair shone silver round his temples. He tells me Ocean Beach was once a theme park which eventually fell into ruin, as at that time it took two hours to get here from San Diego. So we are sitting in the ruins of a theme park. Sounds like Dismaland. There’s a Seaworld right around the corner, and I hope the stormy night will set the sea monsters free into the now empty Pacific.


shamu escaping

Attractions at Dismaland

It still takes about two hours to get from here to central San Diego, taking the rather vestigial bus system. I meet the characters, for few people get public transport here except those incapable of driving themselves about in cars. Some issue upbeat chipper statements, such as “Laughing, hysterically” announced by a middle aged woman apropos of nothing, as though it were the culmination of a long story, looking hawkishly around at us all. The state fails to offer unemployment compensation, shelter and medicine, I complain to the Sheriff, which might keep people from ending up on the streets. Its the hypocrisy of the whole thing that drives them crazy.

The Sheriff starts to channel hatred against the weaker or indeed against the self of the self-justifying wild west and responds that those in prison get all these state comforts for free. Shouldn’t they all just be killed? The ones on death row. Get on with it. And if everyone who raped or stabbed someone was killed wouldn’t that get them out of the way too and teach people not to do it.

Our other companion, Easy, presents the more sympathetic element of  confused California, calmly recounting the story of a childhood friend whose father had an accident and was paralysed from the neck down so his son, though he was an intelligent boy, had to leave school and join the army, this being the only way they could support themselves. Of course there were no state benefits, so they turned to the army which had employed his father, that vast and always hungry industry employing even unskilled schoolchildren. So he was sent to Afghanistan and came home insane, was seeing a doctor up north somewhere for PTSD, wanted to escape, and came to see Blake, turning up a the door ten hours after a spurious invitation was issued over Facebook. He proceeded to arrange their armchairs in optimal sniper firing positions, and several weeks later showed them a car full of high-tech weapons (which of course are legal here). All this with a continual air of fear and aggression. There were no social services to call. They went to the police who said that if he hadn’t committed a violent act (yet) there was nothing they could do. Nothing the state can do until it’s time to put them in prison. It is the only social service.

I’d love you to read my tarot, says the blonde girl who comes and sits by my side, arm around me sweetly. She reminds me regularly though it’s too windy and dark and eventually I get out the cards and open them and out comes the world card, culmination of the deck, and I start to talk to her about what it means, it is the aim of the tarot. At first she claims to understand and speaks over me, is suddenly standing somewhere far away. I am startled, and wonder what I’ve done wrong.


Well when the wood burns down we leave for the Sheriff’s house, and look out on cacti waving their scales in stony beds in the still stormy night. On a side table  stands a lovely model globe, golden hued, with the relief etched in. I spin it and it lands on the vast expanse of the Pacific, covering as much as I can see of the sphere. What motivated people to set out from Peru or wherever it was into that vast unknown, and how did they ever manage to find the tiny dots of islands, each some hundreds of miles from the next? The Sheriff, son of Scottish immigrants, is certain they set out in drunken abandonment, not caring whether they lived or died, but hoping they might find some more booze. And with the law at their backs. And it was a good gamble – there were palms to make wine with everywhere across this sea already.


We go on a mission to the supermarket so the Sheriff and I can get some ice cream, scotch and cigars. I have to call Easy in from the car park when we get to the counter as he is the only one with means to pay for any of this, much to the amusement of the security guard as I exit wearing one of their Christmas hats over my own. As we are standing in the entrance a woman comes over as if blown by on the wind, circling in around us then gone again. They are both struck by her. It was as if she came and smelt them, they say, ethereal and animal-like. She wears a Mexican hoodie, of the cheapest type. For me she is everywhere, she is all the poverty stricken people stringing the streets, yet they have only just noticed her. When we return they try to explain how this character has moved them, and their housemate stares uncomprehendingly- “what, a bum?”

There is a city of tents in San Diego, where those who wonder the main streets sleep, like the man who pushes the trolley full of empty US army mail envelopes  – for there are huge army and navy bases in this city, the largest concentration of military personnel in the world, The homeless are ignored by the majority and state. There is no net to catch people here if they fall, middle class families go bankrupt if their children become seriously ill with clauses the insurance doesn’t cover, and there are many more who might otherwise otherwhere have had some money and a place to live, even the kinds of care they need, in a more sympathetic country. Yet here we have to hate them for not being able to make money for themselves and still convince ourselves that we are having a nice day. It is the disparity between this cheeriness and brutality perhaps that keeps people issuing random chipper statements as their lives fall apart about them.


The young lady emerges from her room with some enthusiastic empty Californian, all surf and redwoods, who leaves the house immediately. I think I scared him away, she says. Come and sit down with me, I say, we’ll work it out with the cards. She tells me that she wanted to be out here chatting to all of us, but every time she said this he kept telling her how beautiful she was and urging her to stay with him, and that in the end by leaving- she scared him away. I think it sounded like it was exactly the reverse. But he had you trapped right? You felt trapped? Yes. The first card she pulls is the eight of swords, feeling trapped, and then the three, which are all stabbed through one heart, negative cooperation. Then Judgement, next to last of the deck, just before the world. I start to talk to her about what it means, to leave behind what is heavy and weighs you down. She would love to travel and teach people how to think, she says. I try to explain that travelling is more about learning from the people we meet, and – looking at the mess around us- what can we have to teach others, really. She looks confused, and says something about wanting to be outside and the background music being too trippy and so I go out and sit on the terrace. I usually leave people after tarot readings feeling satisfied yet I realise I have not got through to her at all and wonder how I have failed.

Miranda - The tempest, by John William Waterhouse
Miranda – The tempest *oil on canvas *100.4 x 137.8 cm *signed b.r.: J.W. Waterhouse / 1916

There is a space of emptiness in their eyes when they look at me, I can’t tell whether they like the story I am reciting or not, the Tempest. I went through the first act and make her feel like Miranda, up there on a rock with me (her father) while the storm raged, howling about the darkened house, ripping apart a ship on the rocks as she watched, suffering with those she saw suffer, her heart torn with sadness. And then I whip round to see if they liked it, yes, I was there on that rock with you, she says, eyes wide with amazement. It’s an amazing story, Shakespeare’s telling of the Tempest. Shall I go on then? Yes, they say. So I lead us through the enchanted mists of the isle full of music, making them desperate enough to reflect on their crimes under the careful auspices of the magician Prospero, who has Caliban the earth spirit colonised, and is with Ariel conjuring and enchanting wondrous landscapes into being. The handsome Italian nobleman and her young self, who had never laid eyes on man before but her father, (as was hoped for) fall in love, yet the man is made to undertake due trials so that she seems not lightly won, and a marriage ceremony is enacted with visiting spirits in a multitude of colours bearing fruits and flowers, even Proserpine herself, it seems. At its finest moment the tableau is ripped apart  by the return of the slave Caliban and his motley crew, comprising the drunken sheriff who we know is stumbling around somewhere, and the spirits are revealed for actors and air. The magician  eschews his enchantments, as he comes to the realisation of his and their common humanity, which is exactly what he needs, in fact, to- “You don’t have to keep on talking, people talk a lot”, she suddenly says, in the same anodyne voice. “Silence is nice, listen to the silence”.


Easy and I leave for the veranda, where we sit smoking. She reminds him of someone he knew who was abused as a child, he says. There is a veil which falls, something closes, people become incapable of self-reflection when something happens too early that hits them too hard, he says, and they have been unable to carry on beyond it. They are like fruits that we caught with a chemical storm early in their lives which will never really ripen, picked and packed onto supermarket shelves still green. Perhaps it happens to everyone to some extent, creating a line between everyday niceness and suffering of so many here, a sort of sinister calm. Statistically America has twice as many children die every day of abuse or neglect as the next industrialised country, between 4 and 7 a day. Easy draws my attention to the Juggalos as a mass expression of suffering and creation of the idea of family in response.


Is something wrong, she is saying when we come back in. “I would love to travel the world and read tarot”, she says, to seem to come closer, to seem to make contact with me. Yet she is not there. So I take up the golden globe again and set it in front of her, then place the crystal contact ball on the neck of the whiskey bottle before it in the candlelight. I tell her it is her telescope to look on the world and that she might do whatever she likes with it in my absence, and leave her the cards furthermore, and retreat outside again.

She ignores it all for the vapid Californian who has decided in an empty and impersonal way that he wants to have sex with her, and she decides to accept his heaviness, the weight of materiality and to eschew the attempt to be anything other than a sweet little article for their consumption. They sit together increasingly close on the sofa, I observe, for I have taken a stool set it in view of the window among the stones, staring mainly at the cacti, traveller’s hat hiding my eyes. They cannot cope with the strangeness of this haunting spectacle and soon leave the sofa. There are two categories in their minds; ‘normal’, which is smiling consumption, and ‘other’, the weird, which is the zone of the ever-popular horror movie, as well as I suppose of tarot. Once one enters this anything can happen.

Easy has a fixation with corgis, and suggests we might be living in a computer simulation of a world, Matrix style, having retreated from reality into a computer simulation of the same. Plausible, I say. Yet I feel there is still a real somewhere, that something still exists despite the rejection of reality to sink further into a screen world, where our emotions are sold back to us as spectacle. The sinking is a dark and ever present force yet it inheres more in some places than others and I fear here it is everywhere, they are already as the simulations of people sans heart sans eyes sans head sans all.


The sheriff takes over again, to smooth the narrative strand. I’m not much good at telling stories, he says. Oh go on, we urge him. Except this one, except this one time, he ruminates, circling, then takes the floor, as well as the coffee table, leaping on and off it to illustrate the action, and tells us of how when he was a boy of twenty his friends took him to a strip club in Mexico and made him take the stage  with women who for his sole edification went through motions of the most apparently sexualised yet somehow strangely desexualised nature. These are unlike yet like the French strippers of Barthes’ Mythologies, where the myth is of having them, for the moment they are revealed in true simple naked humanness, free of their disguises of feathers and fans, they disappear from the stage. These ones by contrast were for more conspicuous consumption yet still it is not perhaps what one wanted, if one was looking for the wonderousness of women, and every time he tried to escape he was dragged back to learn how a moneyed young white Californian must act towards the subjugated ‘other’, the female and the less white world, and his clothes increasingly dragged off until he stood naked in a corner.

I show him some Scottish music, and Demons echoes around us in intricate symphony of light and dark. We sit out on the small terrace and hold onto the timber frames and stare out into the heart of the storm whipping in across the sea, where the whales smash their tails in vicarious freedom and an escaped starfish shoots by on the winds. It’s never like this here, says Easy again, wishing to impress upon me the strangeness of southern California experiencing such a disruption to the even keel of its weather and  sunny temperament, and I say I have brought it with me and with it the voices of the Scottish sheriff’s ancestors who went out to sea on one such stormy night and found this wild land, who are even now maybe urging him to come home to somewhere they treat women with respect, and he says I talk a lot.


We return inside and I start to dance around, arrayed in skirt of many colours and swinging scarves, spinning in circles to the Scottish band and falling theatrically and necking tequila and skipping to subtle music in a whirl of colour, and I see him looking at me as if I am because I dance therefore for his consumption and it shakes me in my movements. I dance but I am not for your consumption. When we consider things for our consumption we are suddenly alientated from their true nature. He knows only how to act the lord of all, yet strength can only come in men through realising the strength of women, and how to compliment and care for rather than consume it.

So I ask him about the Ayn Rand book on his shelves and he responds that back in the day it was alright to hit women if they talked too much. He objects to her feminism, and used to argue with his ex about it. I object to her capitalism, and cannot find anyone who wants to argue this with me. She exemplifies the creed of twentieth century self-fulfilment and happiness as the exclusive aims of the individual, who is free to earn them according to his/her capacity to work. That sounds alright, one of them says, defensively. But are you happy, here on Sunset Cliffs? No, we are not happy…

I am excited because I have never known anyone own this book before but remember Adam Curtis’ wonderful documentary account of it and its connection to the subsequent arrival of computer powered neoliberalism. I knew the book became the creed of Silicon Valley. The internet was to be a radical form of freedom. Computers, says Curtis in his masterful monotone voiceover, it was hoped would connect people so that government was rendered unnecessary. We stumbled towards realising the internet linked minds in a collective consciousness, yet somehow came to use it to commoditise our own selves, swapping them for screen sensation and emoticons. Meanwhile some used the technology to manipulate the stock market, becoming vastly wealthy and systematically sucking money from the state and society, speading out across the world. Companies managed to colonise new countries, using an influx of consumer money to support an ailing system every time it stumbled, getting the IMF to bail them out whenever the investment bubble burst. In 2008 they did the same in England and the US, having colonised our own countries by boosting consumer credit, and convincing the government to put in public money to save ‘the financial system’, or their own investments, when the market went through one of its periodic and seemingly uncontrollable fluctuations, waves we cannot seem to prevent.

We are in fact slipping into an abyss of slavery, for all the vaunted freedom. Easy sees the stupidity of the incessant adverts chattering away chirpily to which he contributes with his filming, yet he has to pay his debts. They charge him hundreds of dollars every month for the medications he needs to stay alive. And more again for his vast student loan, and his car. You can’t move round in southern California without a car, as there is once again an absence of the state or any service to support people, though they pay twenty per cent tax same as we do in England, for which we receive for free all the things they must work to pay for. It amounts to little more than a system of debt slavery where one must keep working continually to keep repaying debts- to who are these debts really owed?


Globe theatre

The next day Easy takes me to the park for a change of scene, and here is the Globe theatre exactly as it stands in London, both replicas of the same one Shakespeare designed, furnishing with its simplicity of pillars and firmament any setting from a forest to a banquet hall. Beside it is a metal version of a Victorian greenhouse, which as Easy remarks was made perfectly without computers, for in this world things rapidly succeed one another and there are few structures made before the age of technology. He tells me it is the model of another such structure, which was closed in, an experiment to see if people could live in such environments and so endure missions to space and colonise environmentally hostile planets. The inhabitants were unable to stand one another and it failed drastically.


When climatic changes force us to retire into biospheres, when we are unable to survive in the elements whipped up into a storm, maybe the escape into artificial computer simulated worlds will be the only way of standing one another until the end of time, trapped inside on a stormy at the night of the world, where the odd person crouches alone in the darkened corridors as others sleep and sleep. As we leave the park, walking into a still scented rose garden, I look round and see the sunset in amber fading into- I want to say turquoise, yet here I have a suspicion of the very concept of the colour. For no feasible reason there is a flash of turquoise every day as the sunset in San Diego, clearly visible from such outrageously named locations as Sunset Cliffs. We have started to live in a world shaped for our consumption, even the sunset and sky and cliffs are not free of it, as the turquoise, so often my favourite colour, now looks merely vapid, my chosen screensaver to everything here.

oilspill Ocean contaminated by oil spill


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