It took him awhile, but Leo Lewis has finally settled down. Of course, in his case, the definition of “settling” is relative. At age 66, he still zips between Los Angeles and his house in Oxnard, auditioning for acting jobs. He still smokes, sails and generally stays on his feet until coerced into taking a rest. But compared to his younger days — which included transatlantic boat trips, rendezvous with the rich and famous, careers that would change with the direction of the wind and marriages that would come and go almost as quickly — these are halcyon times for Lewis, marked by personal and professional sturdiness: a solid occupation, a solid home and, perhaps most importantly, a solid relationship.
On the patio at one of his favorite local haunts, Bernadette’s in Downtown Ventura, Lewis is enjoying a turkey sandwich and cup of coffee. His wife, Karen, is seated next to him. To hear him tell it, though, she is actually everywhere. When they wed seven years ago, Lewis knew he was entering into more than a union with a woman he loved. He was consummating an affair that began decades earlier.
“I married America,” he says. “And it’s the smartest thing I ever did.”
But Lewis maintains a close friendship with his ex, the United Kingdom. As a columnist for the Union Jack, a monthly publication that boasts of being “America’s only national British newspaper,” the England-born Lewis is, for the paper’s estimated 220,000 readers nationwide, a link to life in the Golden State — and, since moving to Oxnard in 2007, to life in Ventura County. In “California View,” which he co-writes with Illinois-bred Karen, Lewis covers, in his words, “whatever I want.” This involves everything from pub reviews to previewing events to reporting on visits from prominent Brits and namedropping area businesses such as Island Packers, Bernadette’s and Ventura Jaguar.
For Lewis, the column is the culmination of a cultural push and pull that has been occurring within practically from birth. Growing up in Dartmouth, a small town in southwest England where, according to Lewis, “nothing has happened in 1,000 years,” he got his first glimpse of America through the movies he’d watch at the city’s single “pathetic” theater. Craving something greater, he left home at age 15 in hopes of becoming an actor. After struggling in London, he relocated to Torquay near his hometown around the time when “hamburgers were just coming in” and opened a coffee bar he claims was frequented by the likes of Donovan, the Beatles and Dusty Springfield. Bitten by the rock’n’roll bug, he soon sold the bar and went into concert promotion. Then he decided he wanted to travel. He “pranced around Europe” for a time, picked up sailing and, naturally, voyaged across the Atlantic to the United States. He spent four years alternating between chartering a ship to the Carribean and “teaching screaming Jewish kids in upstate New York how to sail.” When that period ran its course, he briefly joined a carnival before purchasing a “hippie bus” (appropriate for the “flaming red hair and beard” he was sporting) and driving crosscountry to Hollywood to take another stab at acting. He landed a role alongside Malcolm McDowell in 1979’s Time After Time, nearly secured a recurring part on Cheers and was supposed to be in a film with Dudley Moore that was ultimately shelved. In the late 1980s, having (again) exhausted his actor cravings, Lewis returned to Tolquay to open another pub, but found himself missing America too much. So he came back, transitioned back into concert promotion, opening an agency on Hollywood Boulevard, where he met Karen, who became his fourth wife. When the chance arose to contribute to the Union Jack, he leapt at it and — surprisingly — has stayed for seven years, because he’s “getting to the age where I don’t want to start a new career.”
After all that, writing a monthly newspaper column does seem rather mundane. But Lewis insists it is among the most rewarding things he has ever done.
“It gave me the opportunity to be of service for the first time in my life,” he says, “and stop being so selfish.”
As with most things English, the Union Jack’s origins can be traced back to the country’s national religion: soccer. “There was absolutely no soccer news from Britain in U.S. papers,” says editor and co-publisher Ron Choularton, 58, who moved from the U.K. to San Diego in the mid-1970s. In the technological dark ages preceding the Internet, Choularton and his brother, Jeff, would break their backs trying to keep up with their hometown team, Manchester United. With his background in production — he previously worked for the Guardian in London — Ron figured a soccer-oriented newsletter would fill a void for a lot of fellow expatriates.
But there were other, weightier issues that spurred the Choulartons to found the Union Jack in 1982 — particularly the American press’s coverage of the conflict in Northern Ireland. According to Ron, much of what was written stateside about the ongoing multi-sided strife leaned in support toward the Irish Republican Army. “There was a distinct misunderstanding of what Britain was doing there,” he says. “We thought we could level the playing field politically as well.” To their knowledge, there was only one other paper in the country geared toward the British diaspora at the time, run out of Los Angeles by former Guardian and Times of London reporters. It fell apart quickly, Ron says, and he and his brother knew they could do better. But they recognized in order to be successful, the journal needed to extend its reach beyond San Diego. After expanding its distribution into L.A., the Union Jack eventually spread into each state, publishing of its La Mesa, Calif., office and, until recently, Florida. Even with the media growth of the last decade-plus — making soccer scores and balanced international news far more accessible than they were 26 years ago — its circulation is 75,000, with a pass-along rate of about three, meaning it maintains a readership of nearly a quarter million. Ron admits Union Jack has had to adjust its content to adapt to the changing media landscape, going in a more magazine-style direction and improving its Web presence, but he insists the print edition of the paper remains crucial.
“We are still sensitive to the older sector who don’t access the Internet,” he says. “We can’t say, ‘Forget about you, we’re modern now.’ ”
Leo Lewis joined as a contributor in 2000. He and Ron met at a stage production of The Importance of Being Earnest Choularton was starring in, and the two discovered they had more in common than nationality and acting. Both sailed across the Atlantic to visit the United States for the first time, both traveled across the country in hippie vans, and both profess a deep, profound love for the concept of America. And, because of that, even though part of their job is to maintain a connection to their homeland, both confess to feeling more American than British these days.
“I feel like a stranger when I go back home, like a tourist,” Ron says. In the three decades he’s been gone, the monetary system has changed, as have the dialects. And maybe it’s just because he’s lived here so long now, but he says the pervasiveness of American culture in England has also become more noticeable. “The Americanization of the British is obvious to me. They’ve stolen all the good things from America and used it. It’s fantastic.” Adds Lewis, “I like the insanity over here.” Bernadette Rowe, owner of Bernadette’s on Main, has been familiar with the Union Jack practically from the moment she set foot in America, which was nearly as long ago as when the paper first started. She says the paper gives a view of what’s happening back home that she doesn’t even get from the BBC. “It feels like when a person knows a little bit about a lot of things,” she says. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time [reading], and you feel homey again. It’s too hard to sit on the Internet [and read]; there’s no time for that. This paper is just right.” And since Lewis moved to the area — his wife, who works for a self-storage company, transferred here last year — the plugs he has given to her business and others has given the Union Jack added importance. “Wherever [Leo] lives, he wants to be part of successful place. We all get into ourselves and become insular, but it’s nice to see someone who is interested in having everything happen right for everyone.
“Of course,” she adds with a laugh, “he’s a bloody pain in the ass, too.”
Although he has slowed a bit from his youth, Lewis maintains a busy schedule. He is right in the middle of assisting with events for BritWeek, a two-week celebration of all things British culminating in a British Celebrity Soccer Match at Home Depot Center in Carson on May 80. He is also helping the American Tall Ship Institute to raise $100,000 to buy a classic schooner called the Bill of Rights, which would be docked in Channel Islands Harbor and used to introduce local children to the joy of sailing. Coupled with his commitment to the Union Jack, Lewis hasn’t had time to return to England for three and a half years — which he doesn’t appear to mind. After all, he’s on the phone with his British connections most days, and all they seem to talk about is how cold and rainy it is there. Besides, he’s got work to do on this side of the pond.
“Our job is to leave the planet better than we found it,” he says. “I don’t waste a minute. I can run circles around these youngsters.”
For more information on the Union Jack, visit www.ujnews.com.