Monday, October 16, 2006

The Other America

Mark Twain once wrote that “It was wonderful to have found America. It would have been more wonderful to have missed it!”

He was, I suspect, joking, but it is true that most of the tourists who visit do, in fact, miss it. Or they miss what I think of as being the real America. Even the old Greyhound bus slogan of “See America First” doesn’t seem to have cut much ice, and California and Florida must still be the only truly favoured destinations for both Americans and overseas visitors.

This is a great pity since the United States is a wonderful country – especially the parts that the tourists don’t visit!

I was very lucky in my time there as my work took me to every state in the nation, including Alaska but regrettably missing out on Hawaii, something that I think few Americans (other than politicians) can claim to have done.

Once my duties took me to what is derisively referred to as the rust belt of the nation, Detroit, a city which I found to be much maligned and which I understand, has now experienced something of a renaissance. I must admit I didn’t have much desire to live there, however, and thus removed myself a good many miles westward – and found the real America.

A small town in the old Mid-west is like a time warp – and a very pleasant one – so far removed from the popular concept of a brash America and, by this somewhat devious route, I reach the subject of today’s pondering.

A little undiscovered gem of American daily life is National Public Radio, which must rank as the most intelligent station on the planet (sorry BBC, but you’ve lost it in recent years). Clearly the authorities have forgotten about it, otherwise they would surely have closed it down years ago as being too erudite for their citizens well-being.

And one of the brightest stars in that firmament of radio must surely be Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

This regular feature (although I know not if it is still running) detailed events in the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota and, to me, was not only highly entertaining with its wry and gentle humour, but gave a marvellous portrait of an America far removed from big city life and still retaining the sort of old-fashioned values that even the slickest of city slickers still envy secretly. I always feel that when the scriptwriters of “The Golden Girls” were thinking of Rose’s home town of St. Olafs, they must have subconsciously had Lake Wobegon in mind.

Garrison Keillor himself was a most unlikely looking star, and it says much for the intelligence and foresight of NPR that they took a chance and ran the programme, which ultimately acquired a huge cult following, including, you will note, this cynic.

Sadly, I don’t think the programmes have ever been broadcast outside of the US, but there is still some hope for the rest of the world.

For Keillor has also been a prolific author, and for anyone who has only visited tourist traps and New York, Washington, Miami or Los Angeles and think they have been to America, I adjure you to hasten to your nearest bookstore or fire up Amazon on-line, and grab a copy of one of his books.

The town I lived in was not a Lake Wobegon but it was close enough to bear more than a passing resemblance. I spent a good many very pleasant years there, living in what I still feel was the only genuine America, populated by genuine Americans.

As Mark Twain said, it was wonderful to find America, as I did, but it might have been as well to have missed out on some of the other parts. Whoever would have thought of putting a capital city in a place called Foggy Bottom?

Mind you, the resultant limited vision there could account for some of the decisions coming from the White House, I suppose.

I think it a pity that Garrison Keillor is unlikely ever to become president. Someone like him would do so much for the image of the United States in the eyes of the world.


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