British Airways mislaid my luggage somewhere en route to Heathrow. My wife and I didn’t know it had been lost as we came down over the just waking country at 6:00 o’clock in the morning. Over the gently rolling hills, the orange glow of lights lay arranged in circular patterns along the suburban lanes and around the circles of round-abouts, although I didn’t know that’s what they were then.
The landscape in the early morning light was green and organized and as it should be. In contrast the descent to Sea-Tac Airport, over the suburbs south of Seattle, reveals the gash of strip malls, highways, neon motel signs, jumbled street lamps, and lit parking lots scattered in chaotic sprays. Coming down into England was like coming down into a nation-sized golf course.
I spoke in a soft voice to the woman at the desk in her blue uniform and hat. She tried to listen to me, but couldn’t hear me because I didn’t want to speak loudly enough that she could hear my accent. “Pardon me?” she asked. I didn’t want to complain with my American voice. While in England, whenever I did speak, which I did as little as possible, I spoke very quietly. I silently filled out a form and slid it across the desk and said, “Thank you.”
At the passport gate, the customs officer examined my card. “Word Processor?” he asked. This was my profession. “In the UK that’s a machine.”
“I do my best,” I said.
Passing along the concourse to pick up our luggage, a man behind me said, “Your left shoe lace is untied, if you are at all interested.”
My wife’s grandparents had invited us to visit at their house in East Grinstead, a village about thirty miles to the southwest of London. We were going to catch the train into the city from their house and spend our days wandering through the British Museum and Camden Town. We didn’t know what we were going to do, but my wife had grown up in the UK and hadn’t been back for years. She was happy just buying candy from the newsagent.
The cab driver, who wore a neat haircut, glasses, and tie drove us to her grandparent’s house from the airport. East Grinstead was partly an older village that to me looked like a well-designed outdoor mall meant to look like an English village. It’s a matter of course for buildings to be several hundred years old in England. This was pointed out to me frequently while visiting the UK. Two hundred years ago, in 1802, Seattle wasn’t even a lean-to on Alki. This comparison, generally, used to point out how new and unproven the United States is compared to England. Instead it just illustrated the energy of American cities. While a two hundred year old English structure (and two hundred years is hardly a mark of longevity in England) in East Grinstead dutifully sat on its corner and people lived in the building clocking out their lives by the breakfast, tea, lunch, tea, dinner, tea they consumed — in America a plot during the same period was 1) appropriated by pioneers; 2) clear-cut; 3) turned into farm land; 4) re-appropriated by an expanding city in the form of some building; and 5) this structure was ripped down and replaced in its entirety every twenty years until the current time, when a Land Use Proposal billboard appeared on the corner.
My wife’s grandparents came out to greet us and they hugged the cab driver because he was wearing glasses and a tie. “Sorry. This is my husband,” my wife said, and then they examined me, a little shocked by my stubble, my cow licked hair, the indeterminate stains on my T-shirt gathered from the daylong international flight. They took us inside, and plied us with tea.
The Purdys had a tiny little house with a spare bedroom where we would stay. They had a tiny little yard that was full of tiny little tomato plants, peas, and a frog that occasionally hopped through. A spider web hung from the rafter on their front porch and Mr. Purdy spent a great deal of time inspecting the construction of the web. He’d been an engineer, although he wasn’t inspecting the properties of the web so much as the drama of the spider’s project. His childhood portrait, a large, black and white image in a gilt frame hung on the living room wall under the tea service. In the photograph, he had long, flowing hair and wore a dress. At dinner that night they doled out half of a boiled potato to each of us and a sliver of ham. These weren’t potatoes like heavy, Idaho russet potatoes, but golf ball sized, new potatoes, seasoned with a shaving of butter and a little salt and that was it. Mrs. Purdy asked after I had eaten dinner in a single bite, “Do you want a whole potato?”
I wanted about fifteen whole potatoes is what I wanted.
We rode on the train into London during the day. Mr. Purdy, a very old man, drove us through East Grinstead at a breakneck pace — 70 miles an hour down the narrow country lanes. He slowed reluctantly for hairpin turns and stopped abruptly at the train terminal. We climbed into the train and rode to London. As the train drew closer to the city, the houses grew into tighter spaces until they were long rows. We passed a few places with graffiti and then past the Battersea Power station — which I knew from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals — and finally, to Victoria Station. We came out onto the London street, then, and I realized that the suburban quality of East Grinstead was a quality of the entire country. Although in the train station, we did pass a young man carrying a beer can and he drank from the can just like someone at the Greyhound bus station in Seattle might drink from a coke can, that was the sole sign of seediness, of any kind of recognizably decay in the city. London is not a busy city the way New York or even Seattle is busy. And unlike Seattle and New York, it is clear that people actually live in London. They have business and they are meeting friends for lunch. In downtown Seattle or midtown Manhattan the only business going on is business. This lived-in feel to London, this slow pace, made the whole thing seem secure. Although statistically I was more likely to find myself knocked over the head and mugged in the UK than in the United States, it was less likely that I’d also get killed. This feeling of safety pervaded the country to the point where I began to miss, in just the two weeks I was there, the edge of living in America, and in Seattle in particular. The fear that always chewed away at me, a fear I’d become accustomed too like a bad knee pain, was gone. I often felt that something inexplicable and horrible was about to happen to me or someone I knew — that some deranged killer would drag me into a stand of Weyerhaeuser seedlings, hog tie me with nylon rope, and after inflicting various sexually motivated injuries, bury me. Such things happen in the UK, too, but to me this is about the same as saying that Seattle has old buildings, too. Certain things are part of a place. Old buildings belong to the UK. Violent, inexplicable death belongs to the US.
Which perhaps explains in an odd way why I was unable to find any evidence of a literary subculture in London. I wanted to find rare and odd zines from the United Kingdom. At bookstores I kept asking if they had any zines. “Pardon?” they said. I didn’t want to go into a lengthy explanation in my American voice. They didn’t know what I was talking about. At a few stores, I changed my tactic and asked if they had any underground magazines. They checked to see if any of their co-workers had heard what I asked, and if their co-workers had heard, they wouldn’t say. “You might have luck at the newsagent,” one said. “We don’t stock that kind of thing here.” I realized, then, they thought I was looking for smut. At least this was a point of commonality between the two countries; it was easier to find a skin magazine than a literary magazine. I could find no evidence whatsoever of a literary subculture in England. I realized while looking through the newly released books on Charing Cross Road, that the reason I couldn’t find something like this in England was because the mainstream culture accommodated it — the mainstream culture in England was the literary subculture and the mainstream literary culture at the same time. There wasn’t this stark delineation between mass culture and subculture that is in the United States. The UK, in part, lacks mass culture on the order of the United States. So everything mingles into a kind of hodgepodge of serious and trivial literature.
I read the Best of the Young American Novelists published by Granta after reading the second edition of the British version. The authors included in the British edition wrote about just about anything. They were, too, generalists in their educations; and not all of them had undergraduate degrees. Only a few had advanced writing degrees, and those from only one school, the University of East Anglia. Their writing style tended toward the loose and informal and slap-dash. Their stories lacked formal precision and many of the clips didn’t have any formal structure at all, just bravado. While it didn’t make for the best of reading, each writer didn’t seem too much like any other writer. In the American collection, however, all of the authors not only had advanced degrees in writing but also jobs as writing professors. Their writing demonstrated formal precision and the generally careful handling of every element of their “craft” from the studied lack of commas to the calibrated metaphors until they presented a monotonous, unified front.