Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Lost Continent

One of the many books I'm reading currently (by which I mean keep a bookmark in) is The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's first travel narrative and a description of his trip across the continental US soon after the death of his father. Like all debut books, I get the sense that it generally sank without a trace at its first publication, a fact he alludes to in his next book, Neither Here Nor There. In fact I believe both books were completely ignored by the British book-buying public until he came out with Notes from a Small Island, which just goes to show that nobody pays attention to you until you start talking about them.

In any case, ignored or not, I end up re-reading the Lost Continent every couple of years (along with In A Sunburned Country, which is published here as Down Under), because I'm fascinated by his take on America at the time, and because he has an amazing gift for metaphor. But in the midst of the current re-read I was struck by something odd: he devotes almost as much space in the book to Philadelphia as he does to New York City, and the state of Pennsylvania gets twice as many pages as all of New York State (yes, I just went back and counted).

Now, part of this is because of the vagaries of Bryson's itinerary. He had access to a car for the Pennsylvania section, but got to New York by bus. This, and his route up the coast toward New England, is why he doesn't have anything to say about upstate New York. But I still found it kind of odd, because Philadelphia, as far as I can tell, doesn't appear to be part of the cultural conversation in any way.

Obviously most foreigners think of New York City when they think of America, which is fair enough because it is, in many ways, the cultural epicenter of Anglophone civilization (some British patriots might say it's London, but London spends so much time trying to become New York that I think it's clear which is the more influential city). They're also familiar with Los Angeles, and in a more nebulous way with San Francisco, although charmingly they aren't aware that the two cities aren't right next to each other, as they appear on maps.

New Orleans and Chicago and Boston are well-known, as is Washington DC, all for obvious reasons. Baltimore is also on the cultural map, because of the Wire, but Philadelphia? It's rare that I hear anybody mention the place these days, except in the context of how they put up a statue to Rocky Balboa (in fairness, there's also the sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but that doesn't seem to be A Thing like the Wire was).

So this was why I was struck by Bryson's description of the place, with unknown treasures and even its own dialect of sorts (I was reminded by the book that Philadelphians call sidewalks "pavements"). I was even more struck by the fact that when he got to New York, he had to introduce key features of it, like Donald Trump or Times Square, and that he was constantly in fear of mugging and/or murder.

The latter can be explained by the fact that he was writing in 1989 or so, which puts it during the late Ed Koch's mayorship of the city. He was about four years off from the Giuliani years, so deep within New York City's dark period, something that I think New Yorkers haven't really recovered from, at least based on my mom's impression of Columbia, way up in the 120s (what she still calls Harlem), when I was going there.

Harder to conceive is the idea that anyone reading the Lost Continent might be unfamiliar with Times Square, or even Donald Trump. Because New York's emergence from the squalor of the 70s and 80s coincided with my awareness of the place, I find it hard to get away from its current glitzy image as a shopping mecca (incidentally, that's why I call it the Anglophone world's cultural capital, not because it's got better museums or art or publishing). Even when I moved here for the first time in 2001, people in London knew about Manhattan, Times Square, all of that stuff - shows like Sex and the City were even then working their way in the cultural consciousness.

But then, I guess that's what happens as time passes (I'm aware this is a subject I've been covering a lot recently on this blog, but please bear with me). We are now almost as distant from the publication of the Lost Continent as Bill Bryson himself was from the vacations he describes taking with his family in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the past three decades the world has grown more interconnected, so that a person in London (or Sao Paulo, or Mumbai, or wherever) actually is familiar with what life is like in New York - or at least life for certain socio-economic strata.

At the same time, though I think it's a shame that the world's image of America has narrowed onto primarily New York and LA. As I hinted in the previous paragraph, we may know about life in New York, but it's mainly from the perspective of rich white people who can afford to live there. Even the polarizing Lena Dunham show Girls depicts a certain class of people who are pretty divorced from life in the Outer Boroughs.

By being so interested in what shoes rich white socialites are wearing, we miss out on seeing what life is like for normal people in places like, say, Baltimore or New Orleans or Philadelphia. When I watch Friday Night Lights, which is set in small-town Texas, it's clear that you aren't seeing the same America that Carrie Bradshaw lives in.

I'd like to see more of it - so where are the dramas set in Philadelphia?