Thomas Patterson: America’s Next Toff Model
We limeys have a peculiar position to keep up, you know, Barlow. They may laugh at us a bit – the way we talk and the way we dress; our monocles – they may think us cliquey and stand-offish but, by God, they respect us. Your five-to-two is a judge of quality. He knows what he’s buying and it’s only the finest type of Englishman that you meet out here. I often feel like an ambassador, Barlow. It’s a responsibility, I can tell you, and in various degrees every Englishman out here shares it.” – Sir Ambrose Abercrombie discussing the Englishman’s place in Los Angeles in ‘The Loved One’ by Evelyn Waugh.
For my sins, I am an Englishman who has spent the best part of a decade living in America, first New York, then LA. Last week, for reasons too tortuous to go into, I found myself in a bar in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a tiny no-horse town situated somewhere outside the middle of nowhere. A bartender asked me a question that took me by surprise:
“So, where are you from?”
I hadn’t been asked that question for quite a while and not because my accent has dimmed since living in the US. On the contrary, partly to stop my speech from wandering into a mid-Atlantic burr, but mostly as a (semi) successful ploy to pick up women, I developed an accent plummier than Lord Frobisher Midgely-Smythe or whatever he’s called from Downton Abbey. I put the question down to the bartender’s regulation small talk, but over the next week, as I travelled across the American Midwest, I was asked that same question again and again. In small towns and big cities, fellow travellers, shop assistants and a man called Earl, the foreman of a tire factory, all wanted to know where I was from. “England,” I’d reply with mild surprise, and without exception they’d reply, “Cool!”. One girl added that it was:
“Supercool, because my dad’s from Lebanon,”. Which is a non-sequitur I still don’t pretend to understand.
Whether Midwestern politeness or genuine interest in an outsider’s accent, it brought up a question I’d been pondering for a while: why don’t people in LA give a damn that I’m English? Even in New York people occasionally ask me about my background. But in LA, I can count the times on one hand. But aren’t the English supposed to be intriguing and exotic out here? We’ve been in Hollywood since Chaplin but we can’t have worn out our welcome just yet. We’d cornered the market in bad guys and love interests. We’re still James Bond and Helen Mirren dressed up as The Queen, and now we’re also playing every American superhero going. We’ve saturated the market and… Ahhh.
There’s the rub: saturation. There has always been a significant enclave of us in LA but the past decade has seen an explosion in our numbers. According to British consulate statistics there are now over 200,000 Brits living in Los Angeles, making it one of the largest ex-pat populations in the world. From the swankiest restaurants to the diviest of bars, we’re there. In every coffee shop and club across the great city, you can’t miss our voices demanding lah-tays and lar-gers – and I can guarantee you, the barista or barman won’t give a toss.
It was once so different. When I first visited LA in my early twenties, my accent, when deployed with a bit of charm, could get me into the most exclusive of clubs and out of the most precarious of situations. Anglophilia was at its peak and though Brits were plentiful we were still just unusual enough to warrant it. Now I can’t go to a dinner party without meeting a dozen fellow countrymen. The clubs are full of cast members from Hollyoaks and EastEnders and even BAFTA LA, once so easy to join that they let in hairdressers and brickies with only the vaguest of connections to the film industry, has pulled up its drawbridge to keep out the hordes.
Yes, brickies. Plumbers, builders, salesmen, journalists, porn stars – Santa Monica, the beach neighbourhood most densely packed with Brits, is thronging with them. And why not? The weather is good, property is cheap, taxes are low and unlike moving to the Med, you don’t even have to deal with foreign-speaking natives.
Sadly, the net effect is most Angelinos are now noticing that the old-fashioned vision of the Englishman as David Niven meets Cary Grant is actually the veh rare exception rather than the rule. We’ve always known that we’re actually nothing like Hugh Grant or Hugh Laurie or Hugh Dancy or Hugh Bonneville or the new chap playing Superman whose name currently escapes me but I suspect is Hugh. Unfortunately LA’s rumbled our ruse and we’re now as alluring as a head-butt from Vinnie Jones (another Brit who has stamped his bootprint across this town, alongside ex-Sex Pistol, Steve Jones). Our gold star status is gone.
I shouldn’t moan. I’m a relatively new arrival too, and my complaints ring hollow, like an over-the-hill pop star whining about a younger group snapping at his heels. Hollywood will always remain the land of possibility and with so many Brits still making it big out here, it’s hard to begrudge the throng waiting their turn – as long as they don’t expect their Britishness to do the hard work for them. That train has rolled. And If it doesn’t pan out for any of them in LA, I know a truck stop in Cuyahoga Falls where a girl with a Lebanese father will take a deep interest. And if you find out why, do please let me know.
Thomas Patterson is a Journalist and Screenwriter. His areas of expertise include Psychedelic music, NASCAR, G.K. Chesterton and Louchery.