Los Angeles: a few prejudices shattered and a Scottish hero remembered

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The university campus had become a tented city. Under the shade of sub-tropical trees, eucalyptus and Australian fig, the avenues of bookstalls had been set out. The famous American and European publishers, the small publishers of California, the book shops of Los Angeles and every pedlar of ideas and ideologies in the city were all there.

And the people of Los Angeles came, a dense, peaceful, good-natured flood of families crowding about the stalls, hunting for famous authors, eating picnics on the grass. The freeways clogged up and the parking lots were overwhelmed. Southern California was "Celebrating the Written Word".

I had supposed that in California the written word was an endangered species. Last weekend, as a guest at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, I discovered how wrong I was. This is the second festival; last year some 75,000 people came, and this year the crowds numbered more than 100,000. Friends on the Los Angeles Times, which dreamed up the event, were almost as amazed as I was.

This is not so much a book fair as a Volksfest - the sort of family day out which is usually about horse-races or fun-fairs rather than novels and biographies. The nearest thing to it I have seen was the old Fete de l'Humanite in Paris, the huge open-air party of eating, dancing, music and speeches run annually by the Communist Party daily paper. But the very success of their idea sets problems for the organisers.

What happens if 200,000 or a million people and their cars want to come next year? Even more difficult, how should the fair develop? Because it has grown so big, there will be pressure to turn the festival into America's answer to the Frankfurt Book Fair - a week-long rally of the world's publishers whose purpose is serious money: the trade in book rights and contracts. That would kill off Los Angeles as a happy, open celebration at which readers come to enjoy books and writers.

In a line of little booths, prize-winning authors sat in relays to sign their books. For some, it was hard work. The affable Frank McCourt, whose Angela's Ashes, a memoir of childhood and poverty in Ireland, has become a best-seller, faced a queue of many hundreds winding across the lawns. Each clutched a copy of his book; each wanted not only a signature but a conversation about literature. They asked the authors the most direct of questions: why did they write, what did they write with, and how much money did they make?

My own queue was tiny but select. A dozen or so Angelenos wanted me to sign my book Black Sea, and three of them settled down to talk about it. One was a wise Armenian, preoccupied with the genocide of his people. The second was Jewish; his father had fled from the Black Sea shores in Ukraine, and he wanted to talk about multicultural Odessa. The third, a dental technician with a name he described as "Samogitian", launched into a discussion of the Slav nature of the mediaeval Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

So we held our own history seminar, as orange-bellied squirrels searched the grass for shreds of pastrami and sourdough bread. These sudden friends were overflowing with two very Angeleno needs: to know everything instantly, down to the darkest secrets of the past, and at the same time to open themselves recklessly to others. "Look at me - this is who I am and how I am! Enjoy!" I realised that this had become a two-way process. I had signed my book for them; now they were signing their own books for me.

All three were children of disaster. Terrible events around the Black Sea or in eastern Europe had whirled their parents into the air and set them down on this final shore. Beyond the tall palms and the flowering oleanders is the Pacific Ocean. You can't get further away than this.

Then I remembered what a Californian friend had said to me the day before. He had been talking about Los Angeles, proudly and defensively. "You Europeans all think San Francisco is so great, because it looks like what you understand by a city. But the true city - the place of vigour and encounters and transformations - is this one. D'you think San Francisco or New York could run a book festival like this? They are so smug about culture, so exclusive!"

He went on accusingly: "How could you write that book and not get it? You said that the richness of the Black Sea world was because people after people had come out of Asia and reached a sea. They could go no further, so they had to learn to live with each other. And you are in exactly that sort of place right now, right here."

There is something in that. But on my first visit, Los Angeles seemed no more than a landscape of freeways striding over millions of villas and bungalows, a skyscape of telephone poles and scrawny palms, an inhabited plain without an urban centre - in short, the negation of a city. Here Southern Californians examined their own navels until they felt good about them, and forgot the rest of the world.

That world can still seem a long way off. "Like this money you brought from England, whaddya say it's called?" asked the elegant lady in the bank. "Pounds, huh? Bear with me ..." She spoke in Spanish to her colleagues, and with much delicious laughter eventually gave me dollars. And yet she was part of the change coming over the city. Soon you will need Spanish as well as English to get by in Los Angeles. The television news showed police cars screaming after a truck of illegal Mexican immigrants; it slewed into the crash barrier to disgorge little men who ran in all directions. But the Chicano presence is no longer just an underclass. Men and women from Central and South America are now managing the city's services and commerce; publishing houses like Cultura Latina are centres for an expanding network of Spanish-speaking intellectuals.

This does not make Los Angeles a multicultural paradise. But there is a fresh sense of the public interest which amounts to more than the "war on crime" or the unreeling of new motorways. Money is being spent on the needs of ordinary people. It's recognised that they have minds and tastes, as well as problems.

One of these investments is the new metro, which rattles you down to Long Beach. Here lies the Queen Mary, part hotel and part spectacle, tied up alongside a village of Ye Olde English Shoppes. You enter the old liner, and are at once enveloped in a fusty world of dead privileges and distinctions: First Class Lounges and Second Class Smoking Rooms, staterooms and mere cabins, quarters for officers and slums for stokers. All Europe, and especially all Britain, is here.

On board, I ran into a congress run by the Harvey Milk Institute for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. An auction was being prepared for "your very own personal servant", in aid of Masculinities Drag Queens. Bids were invited for Miss Julie Anne Transfagrag and Miss Daddy Dumptruck.

At least somebody was having fun on the Queen Mary. The rest of the giant hulk was dim and shabby: perky Art Deco paintings half-visible in darkness, deck under deck of cabin corridors stretching away like catacombs. Emerging into the hot California sunshine on deck, I suddenly longed to be back at the Book Festival and strolling among those Angeleno crowds.

In Glasgow, a few years before the Queen Mary was built there, they once asked the workers' leader John Maclean what he wanted. "We are out for life, and all that life can give us," he replied. Browsing for words and wisdom, the Angelenos I saw last weekend could say just that.