All I want is a swimming pool
The writer is a BBC high-up comic novelist and archetypal suburbanite. He loves Wimbledon so much he writes of little else. Last summer, he took his wife and three teenage sons on a trip to California. None of them had been to the United States before. ...
Saturday 17 June 1995
At first, people in London were not impressed.
"Gavin," I heard them say at parties, "has gone to Hollywood! What a waste!"
I think I imagined, at first, that he would soon be back. When he showed no signs of returning, I scanned the credits of imported American films to see if I could see his name. When his credit finally did appear, it was on a work of such banality that I couldn't possibly connect it with the sensitive soul I had known in SW15.
"He'll be back soon," I said, "he can't seriously be happy making films like that. Where is the wit, the sensitivity, the intellectual rigour and the passion of that wonderful half-hour play he did for the BBC in 1981?"
I did not of course mention that the play had been written by me.
And then I happened to glance at Variety in someone's office, and noticed that the film on which Gavin's name had appeared had grossed hundreds and millions of dollars. It had been shown in Austria, Hong Kong, France, Indonesia, Russia, Malaysia, China, Finland, Norway, and almost everywhere in the world apart from Iceland. It had even made its way to Wimbledon.
"Gavin," I said to people, "has sold out."
A couple of years passed. I was emboldened to hope that the man had had the decency to have some kind of permanent breakdown. He was perhaps, I decided, an alcoholic or in the throes of some unhappy love affair, preferably with someone of the same sex. Perhaps, I told myself, he had made a follow-up and the studio had decided not to release it.
Imagine my surprise one afternoon when I took my family to UCI Whiteleys and, as I was settling into my seat, the first thing I saw on the screen were the words:
a gavin simpson film
Gavin Simpson is not, as you may have guessed, the man's real name. I do not wish to give him any more publicity than he has already received.
I knew from that first moment that there was something wrong with the piece. Those four words had sharpened my critical faculties to a Leavisite pitch.
It was a "comedy". A comedy of such crudity that I could scarcely believe anyone apart from Simpson's immediate family would be prepared to watch it for longer than ten minutes. There were cute kids and wacky grannies and kind moms and dads, and somehow or other, towards the end, there was Christmas. As I shifted further down in my seat, I squinted along the row. My family and I would soon rise from our seats and slip out into the street below. We would soon have forgotten all about this "Gavin Simpson" film. To my surprise I saw that they were laughing. They were squirming around in their seats and stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths. Jack was slapping his thighs and calling for more. Suzan's shoulders were shaking with laughter. As presumably, in the weeks to come, shoulders would be shaking from Botany Bay to the Straits of Gibraltar.
Over the next few years there were more films de Gavin Simpson, and each one seemed to gross more than the one that had preceded it. The man, it seemed, could do no wrong. Presumably, by now, the studios were falling over each other to offer millions of dollars simply for the privilege of being in the same room as him. I was amazed, I told myself as we drove down Sunset Boulevard to our next port of call - the John Paul Getty museum - that I had not in the months that followed ripped his name out of my address book. But there was still some fight left in me. As I dialled his number from a payphone in the museum, I cast around for a suitable opening line.
"Are you still in films?", or "Are we ever going to win you back for art, Gavin?"
It was important not to let the man know he was getting to me.
The young man who answered the phone said -
"Gavin Simpson Incorporated." I'm not entirely sure that that is what he said. It might have been "Gavin Simpson Limited" or "Gavin Simpson Conglomerates" or "Gavin Simpson plc". But whatever it was it suggested that Gavin Simpson was about as well known over here as Colonel Sanders.
"Is um...er...Gavin Simpson there?" I said.
"Gavin is out at the moment," said the young man, "but this is his assistant speaking. May I help?"
This was a bit more like it. Presumably Gavin Simpson Incorporated was not a five-storey building with its own parking lot and Gavin Simpson's name all over the front in letters 16 feet high. It was presumably one room and a fridge in North Hollywood. Simpson was probably in the same room as his assistant, signalling at him wildly. He probably assumed I was one of his many creditors.
"It's an old friend of his here," I said, "from England."
When we got back to the Chateau Marmont that evening there was a message from Gavin. He would be delighted to see us, he said, for brunch the next day.
"Come up," the message ran, "and bring your trunks." Harry said he thought this was an odd thing to say.
"Are we going to the Leisure Centre?" he said.
I said through clenched teeth that Gavin Simpson probably had his own swimming pool. Harry seemed impressed by this. I said it was nothing much. There was a man in Barnes, I said, who had his own swimming pool. If he was so desperate about it, we could have our own swimming pool. Suzan gave a kind of snort.
"Yes," she said, "if you want to get back that small, inflatable one I lent to Marjorie Parsons!"
When we drove up there next morning, there was quite a lot of discussion about the pool. Harry wanted to know if there would be a jacuzzi. "Of course there'll be a jacuzzi," said Jack in terms of great contempt, "there are always jacuzzis."
Suzan, who had not brought her swimming trunks, said that there were also liable to be a lot of thin, young, brown women. Ned asked what was wrong with thin, young, brown women. They were, he said, in short supply in Wimbledon.
Gavin's house is somewhere in the Hollywood hills. I'm not going to say where in case you all hot-foot up there next time you're in Los Angeles and bang on his front door claiming to be a friend of mine. The first thing I saw as I turned into his drive, which runs off a narrow road on the crest of a hill, was a small blue sign on which I could just about read the words:
I braked hard and read the small print. It seemed to suggest that there were people in the bushes with orders to shoot anyone without an appointment. I asked myself about the status of the message Gavin had left for us at our hotel. How seriously was I expected? And what kind of armed response might one expect if I wasn't? Were we talking small arms? Sniper fire? Or was there the odd Vietnam Vet with a bazooka crouching up there in the stony ground under the twisted trees?
"They probably only shoot at your legs," said Ned.
I said we should probably pin a white flag to the front of the car. Suzan started to mutter darkly about what she would do to anyone who tried to shoot at her. Her hair was well down over her eyes, and her shoulders were at a no-nonsense angle. I inched the Aerostar down a steep track that led away from the road to a grove of small trees, and out on to the hillside.
I had not realised how far up the mountain we had come. We were looking south across Los Angeles. In the distance were a group of huge skyscrapers that, in the brilliant sunshine, had taken on the blue of the sky. Immediately in front of us, carved into a near-vertical section of the hillside, was what must have been Gavin Simpson's house.
I thought at first it was a fairly modest affair. The house front, a broad oak door, a low roof, and to its left a set of fake gothic windows set into a solid, antique wooden frame, seemed to be a bid for the Spanish colonial. But as the road took us down the mountain, below the level of the frontage, we saw that behind it, jutting out from the bare rock, was a confection in wood and glass and steel that had the air of an ambitious greenhouse. Beyond that was a gigantic verandah supported on huge steel columns which went down into the hill below it, and to the left of the verandah was another Spanish colonial effort that was about the size of my house in London. This presumably was where Gavin Simpson kept his dog or visiting Englishmen.
On the verandah were quite a lot of thin, young, brown women. There was a man in a white jacket handing round a tray of drinks, and two or three young men, one of whom was in trunks. As I got out from the car one of them leapt into the air, positioned himself gracefully, upside down about six feet from the ground, and disappeared head-first into the unseen surface below. There was a thud, a splash, and even at this distance (or was it my imagination?) a distant tang of chlorine.
"They have got a pool!" said Harry, his eyes wide. "They really have!"
"They're an awful lot of work!" I said, as the five of us struggled up towards the front door. "An awful lot of work."
We were just at the front door when a well-built, middle-aged man who looked as if he had spent the last ten years playing tennis in the open air stepped out and threw both his hands in the air.
"Nigel!" he said.
Fearing he was about to embrace me, I took a pace backwards. He continued forwards. His face was vaguely familiar, but his voice was not. He was not obviously English, but neither would I have said he was American. I waited for him to say something else so that I could start to pin him down to a particular section of the globe.
"It's fanterstic ta say you!" he went on. Was he Scottish? Or Chinese? There was something completely unnerving about his vowels. Was he, perhaps, not from this earth at all?
"Sich a graet thung!" he was saying, "It's bin yars!"
The drama of each word was almost unbearable. He would start out with Transatlantic dashed with Euro, mutate suddenly into a brief flash of English gentleman, and then come up with a fog-horn-like noise that sounded as if all his vocal cords were being squeezed through a mangle. The facial expressions that went with this - shubunkin-like movement of the lips, an Al Jolson rolling of the eyes, and the arm movements of a Mexican street trader - suggested that his basal ganglia had been removed and he was now operated like a string puppet by someone high up in Paramount Pictures.
For this - unbelievable as it seemed - was Gavin Simpson.
"Coem threw!" he was saying. "Wear owl out b'th pule!"
He still had the look of a man trying to embrace me. His arms were still up in the air. Short of chasing me around the grounds, I had decided, he was not going to get his hands on any part of my anatomy. My body at least was still my own.
We walked through several cool, spacious rooms. There was a copy of Knut Hamsun's Hunger on one of the sofas, and next to that a collected edition of the poetry of AE Housman. Maybe the next film on his agenda was "A Shropshire Lad. A Gavin Simpson Film with Housman's mother played by Demi Moore".
On a huge iron table by a casement window overlooking the garden was a gigantic spread of bagels, smoked salmon, cream cheese, orange juice, coffee and champagne. Suzan moved ahead of us. A faraway look came into Ned's eyes as he looked out on to the verandah. Harry's face, too; his cheeks, eyes and mouth were individually and collectively becoming more and more circular.
"She's got no bra on!" he whispered. One of the young, thin, brown women was in the state he described.
I gulped, coughed and began to make brisk conversation with Simpson. I did not ask him why he was talking like a duck or whether he had rented this house or these people for the day simply in order to humiliate me. I found myself saying "Great to see you!"
"Grrat t'see yew!" he said. "Wanner swam?"
"Sure," I said. "Lass swam!"
"Yeah!" said Harry, "Lass swam!"
And pulling off his clothes he ran towards the swimming pool, and the young, thin, brown woman smiled at him and he smiled back.
Gavin took the rest of us (Ned, after a few careful glances in the direction of the young, thin, brown women, had decided to swim later) to the edge of the verandah.
"The guys hew bilt thiz, right?" he said, "worked fer aboet a duller a dae. Whach is wat is so incredibble oebaat Amurka. It's glory or grovel!"
He told us how the workers had had to dig the foundations of the house by hand, since the hillside was too steep to get excavating equipment in place. They were all Hispanic, he said, probably illegal immigrants. They worked from eight in the morning until ten at night, for hardly any money.
"It's like the Pharaohs!" he said, lapsing suddenly into English. "It's like ancient Egypt!"
We looked across at South Central. When the riots had happened, he said, all the neighbourhood houses lived in by agents, stars, directors, and sometimes even writers, had got together and formed a posse. They had barricaded the road that led down from the hillside into the rest of town. They were all armed, he said, and prepared to fight for what was theirs.
"Well," I said, "I think I would fight to defend this."
"Knarr!" said Simpson, "and to think it waz arl paed for by..." Here he mentioned the name of one of his films. I hoped he wasn't going to ask me what I thought of it, but it had been very clear very quickly that one Englishman's opinion of a film that had wacky grannies, cute kids, caring moms and dads, and of course Christmas, would be irrelevant. What was one voice among so many?
And sitting with him by the pool, I found myself wondering whether my convictions about culture, made up as they are of too much bitterness and too much reading, really did matter. I like you, says the cured homosexual in William Burroughs's book, and I like apple pie. That is the American equation. It lulls your senses to sleep. It calls, silent like, to your twisted English soul and says relax, don't fight it, relax...
We were drinking and eating and talking. Ned, who had got into his swimming trunks, was lying face down talking to one of the young, thin, brown women. An American with a beard, who turned out to be a screen-writer, was telling us how he found England cold and unfriendly. And we were telling him that we found Americans warm and helpful and direct and honest and open. And we believed it, for in the sunshine and the champagne, the country seemed all-of-a-sudden anxious to please again.
"You can bring my breakfast to me!" called Harry. "I'm in the jacuzzi."
I was to learn that America does that. It's like an unpredictable guest. One minute you have your arms around each other like old friends, and the next you're banged up with a screaming madman who seems to be trying to kill you for no particular reason.
"When you see Ernglish pibble orff the plane at LAX, they bob out like that y'kno, saying I've been a gud buoy, c'n I have my pension naow. You think its incradibbly smorl and dull and -"
I laughed. England was incredibly small and dull. It was probably, if you like, incredibly smorl and daell. Later he took us to see Rick and Jane, who lived on Coldwater Canyon. Their house had its own recording studio, and the pool had underwater windows so that the porn king who had owned it before them could watch naked ladies swimming past while he sipped his after-dinner brandy. Harry had his tea in their jacuzzi. Gavin and Rick and Jane talked about projects. At any moment, I found myself thinking, Marlon Brando might be dropping in. Then someone said he actually lived next door. Afterwards we all went off down towards the coast to see an English actor, where we drank Californian white wine and looked across from his pool at the ocean. Harry had his dinner in his jacuzzi. He said the actor had the best jacuzzi. I said it wasn't the most expensive jacuzzi. Harry said that money wasn't everything. By this time I was rather drunk. I put my arms around Gavin Simpson, and the two of us looked out at the Pacific.
"Do you miss England?" I said. Simpson looked across at Rick and Jane and the American screen-writer and the English actor. Then he looked at Suzan and Ned and Jack and Harry. Ned was talking to one of the young, thin, brown women in Italian. Jack was reading David Copperfield on a lilo in the pool.
"Not really," he said.
"No," I said. "Neither do I."
He pointed out that I had only been away from the country for two days. I found this an astonishingly witty remark.
"Seriously," I said, "I could live here."
Gavin Simpson folded his muscular arms. He put his head to one side and looked at me quizzically. Then he smiled, his teeth as big and white and strong as everything else about him. He took in my Marks & Spencer shorts, grubby with travel, my Millets hiking boots, my dirty T-shirt and my shabby uncombed hair. When he spoke he was the London boy I had known ten years ago - to the life.
"I don't think so," he said; "not really."
`From Wimbledon to Waco' by Nigel Williams is published by Faber and Faber on 3 July, price pounds 12.99. It will be serialised on Radio 4 from 24 July
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