- Leaving Brooklyn by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Minerva, 146 pp, £4.99, December 1990, ISBN 0 7493 9072 7
- Surrogate City by Hugo Hamilton
Faber, 197 pp, £12.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 14432 2
‘Write about what you know’ is one of the routine prescriptions handed out to aspirant novelists. The advice will doubtless have an odd ring to anyone who has lived in a province. After all, what could you know that might conceivably interest them? There is a tendency among people who have never lived in a metropolis to suspect that the ‘real’ world exists somewhere far beyond their own pinched horizons. Faced with what they assume to be the thumping banality of their own experience, they are tempted to write about what they’d like to know.
Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991
‘There is a tendency among people who have never lived in the metropolis to suspect that the “real” world exists somewhere far beyond their own pinched horizons,’ writes Anthony Quinn (LRB, 21 February), regretting the misconceptions endemic to ‘anyone who has lived in a province’. It’s nice to know that that good old phrase ‘the provinces’ still has a singular form – OED please note. Quinn may have difficulty finding ‘anyone who has lived in a province’ to confirm his thesis, though. For myself, I have lived in an outer South London suburb, a village in South Wales and Manchester. In ‘the provinces’ all, but only in the first does anyone suffer from ‘the thumping banality of their own experience’ and a sense of being outside ‘the “real” world’. A sense of being condemned to a provincial purgatory is a common reaction to living with your nose pressed to the glass of the ‘metropolis’; most of the country is free from this malady, however. When you actually look, ‘the provinces’ are remarkably difficult to locate.
Provincialism is rather easier to find. Asked to write about Britain, many writers will come up with a precise and vivid image of one city together with a vague and featureless periphery. Oddly enough, this cognitive failure generally passes for normality: after all, everybody knows London. Consider Margaret Drabble’s England. In the South there is London, picked out district by district; in the North there is, not Nottingham or Newcastle, but the entirely imaginary ‘Northam’. Only the metropolis could supply horizons as pinched as these.
Anthony Quinn’s remarks do, however, throw some light on the question of whether English literature is itself too provincial, too much oriented towards the place England rather than the language English. I would suggest that England itself has ceased to be an issue: the real division is not between Bradford and Glasgow or Manchester and Toronto, but between London and (as the pillar-box says) ‘All Other Places’.