If you grew up in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, and you love movies and rock’n’roll and American literature, then your relationship with the US is complicated: you can see why half of Europe spends half its time complaining about America’s cultural hegemony and its occasionally scary foreign policy; at the same time you know that only the USA could have produced Springsteen and Vonnegut, Marvin Gaye and Martin Scorsese, Raymond Carver and Muddy Waters. It wasn’t complicated back then, though, when I was a child and a teenager. Back then, I wanted everything that Americans had: cheap hamburgers, the X-Ray spex advertised in the back of Marvel comics, all-day television, films that wouldn’t arrive in London for a year, and wouldn’t be showing in my town’s cinema for another six months after that. I wanted to be American. I didn’t want to be English, very much. Our 1970s was a time of repeated power cuts and savage confrontation between unions and their employers; our fourth – fourth! - TV channel started broadcasting in the early ‘80s. If you stayed off school for a day, you could watch the test card, a picture of a little girl standing by a blackboard which served the purpose of allowing TV salesmen to demonstrate the sharpness of the picture on their sets. I lived in the suburbs, but I read enough and watched enough to know that your suburbs had more than ours. Our suburbs were grey, cold, dull, empty, a land full of nothing. Yours, I would later find out, had malls containing a branch of Sam Goody’s, which sold Bobby Womack albums I’d never seen for 99 cents.
And since then, lots of things have changed. For a start, we now have what you’ve always had; we see the same movies at the same time, watch the same TV channels, millions of ‘em, and eat the same bad food. And most of it turned out not to be worth coveting - “Everything”, it turned out, was overrated. The more I look at Zoe Strauss’s sad, wry photograph, the more complicated it seems: it’s not just a picture exposing the lie America has been telling itself over the last couple of hundred years (the few remaining blue letters in the sign are only just hanging on in there). The promise of everything was impossible to fulfil, that much is clear; more importantly, it was also a promise that wasn’t worth making in the first place. This might indeed be a store that sells everything – who knows? It’s just that everything turned out to be not as much as we thought it was going to be, once upon a time.
- Nick Hornby
- Nick Hornby