steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

"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.
Tags: books, maunderings
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