I live with my girlfriend in a bungalow in Venice, a few blocks from the Pacific - the Ocean, as they call it here, as if there weren't another; a few important blocks also from the shrinking Oakwood ghetto, the major concentration of black poor outside South Central LA. Often, at around 4.30 in the afternoon, I hear gunshots. That's when the kids get out of school. The other week, a mile or so away, four 16-year-olds in a stolen Ford were stopped by the police. The kids had an AK-47, loaded. The story didn't make it into the LA Times. It's just a feature of life here, which is otherwise easy and comfortable, warm, much cheaper than London.

Last Sunday began as a commonplace enough day. In the morning a dense fog rolled in and by the afternoon hadn't quite rolled out again. We had brunch and went to the movies. In Los Angeles there were three murders - about average - 27 shootings and 500 arrests. There was controversy concerning the patent ownership and overall efficacy of the latest health craze, a cream containing the asthma drug aminophylline, which apparently reduces the size of the upper leg, just melts away thigh fat. Ads for it can be seen all over the city, on buses, on buildings still abandoned after last year's riots, even on the freeways. No need to go near another exercise machine] No wonder the product is expected to make billions. People here aren't obsessed with fitness per se; they merely want to look good and stay young, for ever.

That night I actually dreamt an earthquake was happening. It must have been a pre-shock, or else California is getting to me more than I thought. Then I was shaken out of dreamless sleep by the quake itself.

I knew it was bad.

The air itself seemed to be liquid. It shook and jiggled, making it hard to see. The noise, the rumble and reverberation of the quake was so loud that I didn't hear shelves falling, books tumbling, glasses and marble counter tops as they smashed. The floors and walls of the room were moving, not fast, almost dreamily, just wafting, rippling and swaying as if they were paper. The noise and the shaking went on and on. Ten seconds? Thirty? I didn't know how long. I knew this was worse than the last bad one, a 6.3, two years ago. I didn't get out of the house. I didn't reach for shoes because of broken glass, or go stand under a door frame, or do any of the smart things. I hugged my girlfriend tight and for a short time thought I was going to die.

The earthquake made me very little.

Then it was over. A brief silence was the next impression. Then noise: house and car alarms, dogs barking, sirens 30 or so seconds later. Outside it was ghostly. There was a low, wispy fog. Looking up, I'd never seen a starry sky like that in LA. It was so dark. Lights flickered on and off again. Flashlights began to beam all over the neighbourhood and people were shouting, asking each other if they were all right. No one around us had been hurt. I realised I was standing on the back step, naked.

The phones were out. We had no power, therefore no television, no radio, no way of knowing how bad it had been. Aftershocks, many of them worse that any I'd experienced, continued through the night.

Earthquakes, or 'temblors' as they're called (derived from the Spanish) are another feature of life here, along with the AK-47s, the drive-by shootings, riots, and devastating brush fires fanned by 100mph Santa Ana winds. There had been a cluster of temblors during the previous week, including a 5.1 centred out in Santa Monica Bay. That happened while I was sitting in a groovy Westside coffee shop. People went quiet while the building shook, then immediately turned back to their cappuccini and in-progress screenplays. One fellow looked at me and smiled: 'Hey, LA.' The place, with all its disasters, fosters a protective detachment. It has to. Who wants to count on catastrophe?

But Californians do speculate, somehow almost with amusement, about The Big One. Even newspapers call it that, The Big One, as if to diminish not the likelihood, but the dread. An 8.3 flattened San Francisco in 1906, but seismologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) up in Pasadena, had calculated that 7.5 or 7.8 would pretty much do it for Los Angeles. Even a 6.5 could be catastrophic, they said, if centred downtown, among the densest congregation of high-rises and freeway intersections, on a weekday morning.

The earthquake that occurred at 4.31am last Sunday was 6.6 on the Richter scale. Its epicentre was in suburban Northridge, up in the San Fernando Valley, eight miles north-west of central LA. People had died, they didn't know how many, and were trapped still in an apartment building. A motor-cycle cop had fallen to his death, sweeping on to a freeway intersection to find the ramp no longer there. A woman had slipped on a toy as she rushed to check on her child, striking her head on the crib. A man had thrown himself from the sixth floor of a downtown hotel. Gas mains were leaking and exploding. In Pacoima thousands of gallons of crude oil had spilled into the street. Not The Big One, then, but bad enough.

As the hours passed it was relief I came to feel, more accurately exhilaration, a blast of pure oxygen that said I'm alive. I was glad to be here. I wanted to see what it was like, LA after the earthquake.

In Santa Monica the outer wall of a long, two-storey building on 4th Street had crumbled, just peeled away. Rooms were revealed as if in a doll's house. There were beds, desks and shirts hanging in the closet. An orange armchair was hanging over the edge. On Santa Monica Boulevard there was smashed glass everywhere. Most of the shop windows had gone and weren't yet boarded up. Joe Cummings, the mustachioed owner of a hardware store, surveyed the crowd thronging in front of his counter and said: 'Today's going to be my best day, my best day ever, you wouldn't believe how much I'm going to sell today, my dear.' Another hardware store up on 16th Street had been flattened, put out of business.

Radio Shack had been looted. Five dollars 3,000 telescopes and 50 or so cameras had gone from Mico Cameras on Third Street. A few jeans and T-shirts had walked out of Urban Outfitters. Other areas of the city were being looted, but it was sporadic, small beer compared with the spree that took place during the latter stages of the riots.

The tower of the Pilgrim Lutheran Church had toppled, littering red brick debris on the sidewalk and one lane of Wilshire Boulevard. The marquee on a movie theatre advertised a Stephen Frears film: The - -a-per. The most impressive, most extraordinary sight, was on Fairfax. Seven massive pillars that supported the freeway had collapsed. The street was littered with concrete lumps the size of boulders. Overhead a 50-yard-wide section of the Santa Monica freeway was suspended, shaken loose and hanging down, steel reinforcements sticking out like antennae.

Many had moved their belongings out of damaged apartment buildings. The sidewalks were covered with beds, sofas, prams and pushchairs. As the day went on there were more and more pick-ups on the streets, and U-Haul lorries, taking people to friends for the night, or out of town, or to local parks where they would camp out for the night.

In a press conference on the radio Mayor Richard Riordan; the police chief, Willie Williams; and California's governor, Pete Wilson, together with various other federal, state and city officials normally at odds over issues of public funding, did their best to present a harmonious front, dishing out praise: to citizens for their response in this crisis, but mostly to each other. 'Thank you most kindly for those words, Pete,' said the mayor. 'Most kindly. We all like to think that LA is a can-do city.'

At that moment it seemed more like a city in shock. At the Lucky Market on Lincoln the parking lot was mayhem, cars bumping into each other in slow motion, horns honking. A guy in a red Cincinnati baseball cap wheeled a loaded trolley, telling no one in particular: 'Tonight's gonna be The Big One.' Inside there was no water left. All the milk was gone, all the bread. Some people shuffled aimlessly, in a daze. Others set to, arguing in check-out lines 50 or 60 deep. 'Hey, man,' said one beefy fellow with a pony-tail, helping himself out of someone else's cart. 'That's not cool. You've got two gallons.'

There was an atmosphere of expectation and fear. People glanced about, looking at each other, whenever there was an aftershock, and there were plenty. In the Duck Blind Liquor Store on Montana the floor was swimming with liquid and broken glass, heavy with the stink of booze. The shopkeeper, an Arab, quite casually and in the friendliest possible way, charged me a dollar over the regular tagged price for half a pound of coffee. Across the street two kids in white karate suits smashed fallen tiles.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew had been imposed. By midnight the death toll had risen to 33. The next morning I took the 405 and went through the Sepulveda pass into the San Fernando Valley, to Reseda Boulevard. Outside Northridge Meadows, a long brown stucco building squashed flat like a cardboard box, the 16th - and last - body had just been wheeled out and loaded into an ambulance. The crowd was huge. People were shooting with video cameras. The professionals carried press badges, the amateurs were distinguished by the length of their hair or baseball jackets with 'Righteous Riders' on the back in diamante studs.

'It seems ghoulish,' said one of the photographers, himself a pro; he must have been because he was festooned with Nikons and wearing a black T-shirt that said 'Oakland Tribune - Masters of Disaster'. 'And lots of people are here to take a peek. But it's not just a show. It's a way of dealing with it.'

It was hot up there in the valley, with smoke and the smell of frying plastic from a nearby fire and a hot Santa Ana wind sending the temperature up to an unseasonably hot 85 degrees. A woman was led away crying. People were either hysterical, or busily professional, or else looked on in a dazed torpor. Someone tried to make a joke and I saw that across the street the yellow sign of the Jolly Jug liquor store had been smashed. A body bag had just been taken away.

In the car going back there was a psychotherapist from Granada Hills Hospital on the radio. 'You must express your dread. Typically, male patients think they're supposed to be stoic. They're into denial. But they have to access their feelings,' she said in a bland and soothing voice. 'Beer and drugs are not a good idea.' Well, well. 'And for those of you who can't go home, or don't have a home to go to, and who'll be sleeping out tonight, I want you to try to think of this as a camping trip. Build a fire and gather round it and tell each other the story of what happened, tell how you survived.'

I wondered what Latino immigrants, some used to crisis and busy setting up tent cities in local parks, would say to that: a camping trip. It didn't seem exactly commensurate with what was going on. But perhaps there was no adequate response, no right way to deal with this.

Later I heard a traffic report that said: 'The Santa Monica Freeway is gonna be closed for weeks and months to come folks so we gotta get used to Pico and Olympic and Washington, we gotta get used to those alternates.'

Alternates. They're what LA is all about. You can't be Madonna? Take classes, write a screenplay, if that doesn't work try something else, wait tables while it's waiting to happen, buy a car, be a bus boy, dream the dream.

In England there is the idea that wealth, power and permanence somehow go together. Los Angeles, on the contrary, is premised on change, evanescence. It might have been cold weather that emptied the Midwest and filled up California, but people have kept on coming, and staying, separated by a continent from New York, by more than that from Europe and the past, swept along by the promise of absolute and imminent change. It seemed not daunting, but thrilling, this acceptance of fire, flood and an altogether more flexible interpretation of the words terra firma in exchange for warmth, neon violet sunsets, and unbounded possibility. 'The future always looks good in the golden land,' wrote Joan Didion, 'because no one remembers the past.'

Didion wrote that back in 1967. The events of the past 20 months have been so extraordinary, so vivid and compelling, that the golden land has grown a memory, added scars to its subconscious. When I first came to Los Angeles, in the early Eighties, it was unlike any city I'd been to, in a state of growth and up for anything. It worked. Now it remains unique, its splendours unrepeatable and unprecedented, but has passed into decline, a state which, LA being what it is, will probably be explored spectacularly.

The death toll for the 1994 earthquake is still rising (47 at time of writing). Estimated damage is dollars 30bn or more and it's clear that LA, slower than the rest of the country to emerge from recession, is going to be more dependent on federal government than ever before, an offence to the state's notions of wealth and pride and independence, totally un-LA. Food lines are growing at disaster and assistance centres and tens of thousands are still camped out, worried about forecasts of rain over the coming weekend. People complain that they can't sleep, or don't want to, for fear of nightmare. A woman I know says the slightest movement at night has her out of bed, grabbing her glasses and reaching to turn on the television. If there's no immediate information, she's on the phone to Caltech. 'Was that a 5.1, a 5.3?'

Other prosperous Westsiders give dinner parties because restaurants and diners are closed and they want to be with people. They're already pretending the earthquake didn't happen, because the implications don't bear examining. They've been frightened more, shocked more, by this than by either the riots or the fires, precisely because it was so beyond their control and seems to question the validity of the entire Southern California premise.

'It's as if we've all been told that the plane might crash. We've been given a chance to get off,' said a friend, an English film producer, and the most enthusiastic booster of LA I know. 'But who wants to give up the faith?'

(Photographs omitted)