Home and Away: Walsall vs. LA
“Born in Walsall” to “Live and die in LA.” SX-70 Polaroids by Michael Simon Toon
was born in
Walsall.” Many of us from Walsall say that with pride.
For those of us that were born there, it’s a part of our
identities, perhaps even more so than people in the surrounding areas.
We know the city yet we remain proud, and not just
because we feel lucky to have survived being born in the local
hospital, which has the highest mortality rate in all of the UK. An
described Walsall as “Ceaucescu's Romania with fast food
outlets.. in the middle of one of the largest and most depressing
contiguous areas of urban devastation in the world.” Welcome
Model sailboat and boy pilot (obscured by an unusual lens flare), Walsall
Wharf, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
this was Theodore Dalrymple writing for New Jersey-based
publication, New Criterion. He described
Walsall as “possibly the ugliest town in the
world.” He was
promptly responded to with a message from Walsall, via the
press. That message was this: “Don’t ever come to
Walsall,” which is sound advice for absolutely anybody
that’s not from Walsall themselves. The locals are able to
people are from other areas. They see something in their eyes, perhaps
faint presence of hope and innocence still remaining. Whatever it is,
they will sense it and prey on it.
rainbow houses in Bristol, nowhere near Walsall, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
were born in Walsall are much safer within its borders. We’re
a collection of feral children, huddled together
for comfort. A magic cloak protects its inhabitants for the most part,
but not always. In 1996, my mom’s boyfriend had acid thrown
face, just outside of our home. His skin fused with his clothes, and
later, he had to have one of his eyes removed. When I was asked, who I
thought had done it, I said only that,
“It could have been anyone.” He got drunk every
and never had a job in the time that I knew him. He
somebody. Even so, I’d have never wished that upon him.
at night, Birmingham, second city of the UK, (on the southern border of
poorer places in the world, countries where there is war, bloodshed,
famine and economic collapse. They may still have a
better view, or at least nicer weather.
In the Midlands, the temperature ranges from below freezing to never
quite warm. The sun
is constantly shielded behind a white blanket of impenetrable cloud -
perfect conditions for the damp and mold
which destroys the buildings and souls that live in them.
It’s not the
worst place the UK. It ranks only third place for crime and
unemployment. Highest ranking is Moss Side in Manchester. On the other
of Happiness and Fulfillment, Walsall, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
Walsall’s spectacular run of dubious record breaking, it is
the location of one of the most polluted sites in all of Europe. I have
no idea what it takes to qualify a site for that kind of title.
Perhaps an old factory used lead or mercury for manufacturing. Maybe
imported toxic waste, I don’t know. Walsall people do seem to
have skin that is twice as thick as a normal person, and it’s
home to one of the highest performing high schools in the UK. If what
doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, is it possible the toxic
pollution is producing a race of super humans? Probably.
through a bus stop, Walsall, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
I spent a lot
of my youth
sitting at bus stops, day dreaming. I never thought about how to escape
Walsall particularly. I never thought that there was a better place out
For those that listen to Morrissey or The Smiths, you
haven’t heard it in its original context, unless
you’ve heard it on a personal cassette player while sitting
bus stop in the rain, in Walsall, or a place like it. Morrissey
himself is from Manchester (also birthplace of Joy Division),
which has almost the identical
landscape. Music with such melancholy and despair is, in
part, born of its environment. It provides comfort.
on ceiling of our Melrose
apartment, (previously the La Luz De Jesus Gallery), Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
its own stars too: Boy George,
Goldie and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Zeppelin’s
comes from neighboring West
Bromwich. Steel Pulse
is from nearby Handsworth,
half a mile away from my mom’s house, The
Specials are from neighboring city, Coventry,
and Lemmy of Motörhead
from also nearby, but somehow picturesque, Stoke-on-Trent.
I’ve lived in
Sheffield, renting a room from Jamie
the world’s strongest man in 1992, who carried me between bars if
I drank too much. In
cut my design teeth with Duran Duran’s Roger
Taylor, and I’ve lived in Ozzy’s
on coffee table in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
At 19 years
went to Los
Angeles, inspired by a casual suggestion from my Dad.
probably like it out there,” he said. “You could
get work as
photographer.” That was all I needed to hear. It took me just
a few seconds to fall forever in love with
Angeles. It was a different world. The colors were brighter, the air smelled sweeter, the people seemed happier
and kinder, and the food tasted better. I wanted to hug the
city, I loved it so much. I had never
been so happy, as I was during those first few weeks in Los Angeles.
month after arriving, I found a job, working as a graphic designer.
chairs in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
don’t live in America, Los Angeles needs describing.
Americans take for granted their comprehensive knowledge of their
largest cities. For most foreigners, LA is just a city in
America. If they are particularly knowledgable, they might know that LA
is in California, which, is on the left
side of the country.
English people can be just as oblivious to geography outside its own
borders, as America is, or even any other country. It’s only
on what’s in front of us. I never gave Los
thought before I went there. To me, it was not Walsall, and that was
its main selling point.
toy and Elvis in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
Los Angeles, the simple act of watching movies, music videos,
shows and advertisements is an entirely different experience. I
“I’ve been to that restaurant,” or
lived on that street,” and “I’ve driven
down that road.”
Hollywood is in Los Angeles, and all the largest
production companies in America are based there. The Hollywood
entertainment industry broadcasts its message worldwide, and naturally
they use their own
backyard to make movies. Wherever in the world you are, switch on the
TV and you’ll see Los Angeles.
Wars figures in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999
movie-making that makes me love LA. California is the final
frontier, the wild west. Pioneers still come from all around to
stake their claim. It’s the birthplace of the personal
surfing, BMX bikes and skateboarding. It’s the home of Facebook and TED. It’s the media capital of the
western world, but it has less obvious merits too. For me, Los Angeles
another more important quality that makes it welcoming. For every one
you meet in LA that was born a Los Angelino, you’ll meet
that just wanted to escape their home town, to find a better
place. That makes it feel like home.