Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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"There is Only One Good use for a Small Town"
Here’s a cliché I’m a bit tired of. A book or TV series is set in a small town, the protagonist being a native of that town who has moved away to London and been called back by some crisis – perhaps a death in the family, or (depending on genre) a murder. The inhabitants of the town are all painted in various shades of yokel with small-minds and prejudices to match, and are given to remarking on the lah-di-dah ways the protagonist has picked up in the big city (e.g. dressing in stylish clothes rather an anoraks and wellies, knowing how to use GPS on their phone, etc.). The subtext is that the protagonist probably has unfinished business of some kind, and this trip back to childhood (small town) from adulthood (London) allows those unresolved issues to be addressed before they can move on.

Well, of course, many people who end up writing TV drama do move to London, and I rather suspect many tend to describe this act to themselves (and each other) in terms of busting out of the stifling cocoon of Hicksville and spreading their sticky rainbow wings in the metropolis. There’s a similar phenomenon in New York city, I believe. It’s a comforting myth, which can easily solidify into a comforting worldview. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, says the song – though in most of the relevant professions these cities are actually by far the easiest and in some cases the only places to “make it”. (Build a career in national television, a national newspaper or as part of the “literary establishment” without leaving your small town, and then I’ll be impressed.) Still, everyone is the hero or heroine of their own Bildungsroman, and this is a very understandable move: the protagonist crosses the threshold, à la Joseph Campbell, into the world of independent adventure, with which the big city is metonymically identified. From Dick Whittington to Andy Warhol to Kelly Clarkson, it's a common story.

What bothers me is when this changes from personal Bildungsroman to normative myth, a transition that’s particularly easy because it runs pat with the narrative grain of so many fundamental stories. As a thought experiment I’ve been trying to imagine a story that works the opposite way, in which a native Londoner spends his early 20s living in a village in Somerset before a crisis calls him home to Hackney. He occasions much comment with his tweeds and brown shoes, and his habit of finding his way through the city by reference to the sun and which side of the plane trees the moss is growing…

But of course this doesn’t really work, in part because there’s already a stock narrative about Londoners moving out, only it belongs to a later time of life, and comes with the matching baggage of incipient middle age. And no, Somerset twenty-somethings don’t generally dress that way. The economics kick in too, in terms of realism: there are relatively few drivers taking young people from London to rural Somerset, and plenty sucking them in the other direction. People go with the line of least resistance, and why not? That's not to say that moving out (wherever you're moving from or to) doesn't take some courage. But staying put can, too. And trying to make a go of life in your small town can be at least as heroic a challenge as packing that spotted hanky.

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There's a lot of it about.

Oh, yes, "Stonemouth" for example. You are so right.

I saw a piece on The Guardian website or something - in fact I've seen two - with the incredulous premise that "Londoner moves out of London". Ha. Let's see how long they last in the Real World beyond the tube network.

I admit it was Stonemouth that prompted this post, but only because it galled a spot already sore from numerous prior chafings.

Sometimes you just gotta run.

I know, 'cos I did.




Indeed. (That song takes me back!)

Edited at 2015-07-01 03:20 pm (UTC)

It came a little later than my own running, but it certainly struck a chord!

"What bothers me is when this changes from personal Bildungsroman to normative myth." Yes, that's what's irritating about it. It's the "everybody is like me" perspective. I've even seen the "everybody is of my generation" perspective in irritatingly nostalgic stories, Ellison's "Jeffty is Five" being one.

Yes, there is a similar narrative built in American culture around New York City (were you aware that Hicksville is the name of an actual town outside NYC?), though my limited awareness of US television suggests that the opposite narrative you mention later (the middle-aged moving out of the city) is more common here. However, as NYC doesn't dominate the idea of urbane America quite as heavily as London dominates that of Britain, we also have a regional tension between "the coasts" (read Boston to Washington plus LA, San Francisco, and [more recently] Seattle) vs. "the heartland" (read: everywhere else), plus a sort of regional subgenre in which cities like Chicago or Atlanta take the central place (Alexander Payne even uses Omaha for this purpose). I'm not aware of British narratives in which country folk go to Bristol or Manchester, or even Glasgow, as the Big City, though perhaps I have missed them?

plus a sort of regional subgenre in which cities like Chicago or Atlanta take the central place (Alexander Payne even uses Omaha for this purpose).

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City."

I have read at least one Scottish-country-boy-goes-to-Edinburgh-to-become-a-doctor book, and I suspect there are others. ("Country boy" seems quite the wrong term, but I can't think of another with my head full of Oklahoma.)

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City" is actually a mockery of the regional-city-as-urban-center concept. Why, those hicks from Oklahoma are such yokels they think that Kansas City is the epitome of urban development. (And also that 1907 is the acme of modern times. We here in 1943 know better than that.)

"Goes to Edinburgh to become a doctor" seems closer in form to "goes to Oxbridge to university" than to "goes to London to experience the bigger world," but they're surely related phenomena.

There is, of course, Glasgow boy goes to rural Yorkshire to become a country vet as in James Herriot.

There's that, but there's no sense of escaping the city in Herriot. He finds that the countryside is richer and more rewarding than he thought, but not with a sense of its superiority to the city, which is what the "leaving the city to find yourself" genre demands.

I remember a few passages where he sounds rather down on cities. The anecdote about a Yorkshireman who said he couldn't even walk properly in such a crowd, but had to take "big steps and little 'uns" to get around people, clearly resonated with him.

Well, it was more like becoming a doctor and realizing his mission was helping people in the slums or something, so he stayed in the city. (The details are all very vague now. He may have ended up in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh, but it was definitely not London.)

I know about Kansas City being a mockery; that was kind of my point, that the regional city thing was a phenomenon that was recognizable enough to be mocked.

I've been racking my brains trying to come up with a good counter-example for Britain, but no luck so far. I mean, I can come up with examples where country folk go to cities - Jim Hawkins goes to Bristol, for example - but for a specific purpose, not because of a general sense that it's the land of opportunity simply by virtue of being the Big City.

One of our first LJ exchanges was on the "everybody is my generation" question, in the comments to this post. Où sont le rants d'antan?

I didn't know about Hicksville.

This can, possibly, come down to the way stories exists as social tools. Retelling circumstances and methods is both a recording tool and a way of creating certainty in certain actions and behaviors. Unfortunately, in this case, it is also a marketing tool being overused, possibly because the writers want a "sure bet" when coming up with a meaningful storyline. Getting back to my original point, though, the story is being told because some have done it, know all the details, and are able to pass that knowledge on to others who haven't done it yet. I also find it annoying and potentially useful for only certain young people, yet the pattern can tell us something: if we want more stories of the other type, where people leave the city to grow themselves, we should look for a particular type of motivation.

People go to the city for economic reasons, primarily, which makes it an easy story transition if the goal is financial security. If we want a story where someone young moves from the city to the country, or lives successfully in the country and makes a visit to the city, it will come from a couple of situations: one, their family has an existing, multi-generational establishment in the country, perhaps a vineyard, farm, etc; or two, the person is self-sustaining, prefers solitude for personal reasons, and is content with their living. The latter of the two has more options as far as what caused this lifestyle - anything from strife in their early years to wanderlust. Since neither of these are terribly common, we may claim that a lack of this type of backstory is due to a lack of people finding themselves in these circumstances.

It is also possible to argue that this type of backstory doesn't exist because it would require a strong base-knowledge of the mind of the individual who comes from these circumstances. There is an absence of peope who can eloquently and deeply describe why this type of person finds more value out there, let alone transcribe it into a story. Or perhaps it is simply a lack of writers who find value in coming to understand this type of person's story.

Finally, it may simply be that these characters are unrelateable to "city dwellers;" if a storywriter is looking for a sure bet, they will find a story that is easily understood yet still a little mysterious. They underestimate their audience and believe that something as soul-searching as an individual who spends most of their time with themselves, their own hands, and the world around them would be too foreign. Perhaps, too, that sort of storywriting would bring the writer a little too close to something within themselves that they haven't addressed, and thus they avoid it.

Not saying that all writers do this, of course; this is a discussion observing what has become commonplace. But if the irritation being expressed in the posts above is in fact a desire to change the commonplace, then discovering the roots of the alternative and bringing it forward would be a good way to challenge this overused story arc.

Lots of interesting thoughts here - thank you.

There is of course a longstanding tradition of books about people who take time out from their city existence to experience the world beyond - everything from Walden to Eat, Pray, Love might conceivably be shoehorned into that category (though it's a stretch to call Concord a city, I guess). And while it may not be relateable to city-dwellers in the sense of reflecting their own experience this does represent a powerful and appealing daydream to many. Against all the Small Town songs mentioned before we might set something like "Baker Street":

He's got this dream about buying some land
He's gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands
And then he'll settle down
In some quiet little town
And forget about everything

But that kind of story will always be in the minority, I think, partly because it's easier to write about the kinds of things you've actually experienced (and the kinds of people who get things into print, onto the screen, into albums, etc. have more commonly migrated to the city), and partly because people want their life choices affirmed.

What I hate about this kind of story is that it makes the city story about a non-native who makes good, relegating those of us who actually, you know, are from here to supporting players in the triumph of some of wet-behind-the-ears out-of-towner. The real-life effects of this are to be seen in the numerous times when I was young and one of my peers would ask me where I was from, and I would say here, and they would say where, and I would specify my neighborhood and they would say something like "Oh...I didn't know...people came from there."

Right. No, it's just a theme park we open up so you can go drinking, never mind.

Sadly, this is the fate of any aboriginal inhabitant of a place romanticized by others.

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