postcard from the edge
Everything they say about LA is true: you might as well not exist if you don't have a car; every barman and waitress is a screenwriter or actress; if you tip America on its side, all the freaks roll West.

On a good day, I am amazed at the possibilities for surreal drama in this city. But mostly I stay on my guard, avoid dark streets, and drive around by following the contour lines on the map - the higher up you are in Los Angeles, the safer the neighbourhood. Am I paranoid? Perhaps. Then again, death always seems close at hand. Every morning I see twisted wrecks by the roadside - Los Angeles has more road fatalities than any other city in the developed world. And there are 800 or so deaths from gunshot wounds each year.

Maybe this city and I were never meant to get along. On one of my first visits, before moving here last November, I checked into a respectable- looking hotel in Hollywood, certain that I was safe behind bolted doors, only to leave the next morning as a key witness in a murder investigation. At 2am, I was woken by a loud rapping on the door. Two police officers greeted me. "When did you last talk to the desk clerk?" one of them asked. "Why do you want to know?" "Because he's been shot once, straight through the heart."

But life here is not all fear and loathing. Take the other day. Because Los Angeles is so vast, and bereft of natural landmarks, I had asked a fellow expat, Kevin Smith, if it would be possible to give me a tour of the city from the air. Kevin spends a lot of time flying over the nicer parts of Los Angeles. Five years ago, he was just another ambitious hack in London, chasing naughty vicars and dreaming of the big time. Now, as a founding partner of Splash, a news agency staffed exclusively by Brits, he is, according to a local magazine, one of the 100 "coolest" people in Los Angeles. Certainly, he's among the most notorious.

It was Splash which put together the first newspaper account of Michael Jackson's alleged child abuse, and got the first pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and husband Larry Fortensky on their way to see the singer in Singapore. In an age when tabloid values have seeped into every corner of the globe, the Splash lads are now so busy they don't even have time to watch the Oscars.

Kevin tells me to wait for him in the Splash offices, on the tenth floor of a high-rise overlooking Santa Monica. He drives me straight to Santa Monica airport in his vintage Porsche. Nonchalantly, he says we'll be going up today in a small Cessna. He's spent just 14 hours in the air, I soon discover, and had a near miss on his first solo flight.

Thankfully, Kevin will not be flying solo today. Rob Dunn, a flying instructor from Yorkshire, is the co-pilot. We buckle up, idle on to the runway, and a few seconds later, Los Angeles sprawls below us, an endless mosaic of freeways and parking lots, as we head for the coast. Above Santa Monica pier, we take a right turn and fly north, our destination The Colony, a "terrace" of houses on the Malibu shoreline, home to several A-list stars and producers.

A mile or so from The Colony, Rob points out Richard Gere's pad, nestled in a wooded area. "It's a bit of a wooden shack," says Kevin, who tells me the average price of homes in this rich man's ghetto is $2m. Planes flying at low level, paparazzi dangling from their fuselage, don't add much to property values. Kevin chuckles when he recalls one welcome he received a couple of years ago. As he swooped down to snap a celebrity wedding, he saw the words "fuck off" written in the sand.

"Demi Moore's house is right down here," he adds, pointing to a whitewashed beach house. "Cher's house is to the right. You can tell it from the others by its skylights."

We pass over a secluded cove where several couples lie sunbathing. "Isn't that a nudist beach?" asks Rob. "It can't be - they've still got their kit on," says Kevin.

He points the Cessna's nose towards the Santa Monica mountain range looming on the horizon. "There it is!" he cries a few minutes later.

Below us is a sand-coloured building surrounded by high fencing. We spiral down to get a better view of Pamela Anderson's new home. A few weeks ago, from a crouching position on a nearby hillside, a Splash "snapper" got the first pictures of Pam with her new baby. They were a little fuzzy, given the long range, but well worth the two weeks which the Splash photographer had spent scrambling through bushes. This scoop could net tens of thousands of pounds when world sales are totalled.

Suddenly, a car leaves the Anderson compound. Kevin orders Rob to give chase. For ten minutes, we follow the car as it weaves through Topanga canyon, and, when it joins the Pacific Coast Highway, Kevin instructs Rob to get as close as possible. We fly parallel. It appears that none of the Anderson family are in the vehicle. Kevin sighs, and calls off the chase.

But there's still time for a swift half at the King's Head, a mock Tudor pub in Santa Monica. Old English habits die hard

This is the first of four columns by Alex Kershaw