Swimming in Story

Our big trip for the summer was a visit back to Britain. We hadn’t been over there since Christmas 2010 – almost four years. It was going to be the first time we tried to travel around the country a bit with the boys*: we had a short trip down to London planned, although we were still going to be staying largely in the North.

Being a tourist in the west of the US seems to be about traveling large distances to see attractions**. You can spend a few days in one city of course, or go to a resort like Disney, but for the most part you are going to be (usually) driving a long way between things. Between the things there tends to be a lot of landscape: farmed fields in some areas, mountains, deserts or forests in others. The stories are concentrated: Lewis & Clark’s camp at the mouth of the Columbia or fossil discoveries in the John Day fossil beds, for example. Often, the point of the excursion is the landscape itself: a national park full of canyons in Utah, or hiking a wild and wind-blown coast in Oregon.

Britain feels different from that. You find things to look at, but the story you seek is often on the other side of other stories on your journey. Travel to a museum in London and you can’t help but have a conversation about the tube map on the way (“why are all these stations named for different words for a dock?”). You walk past so many things to do on the way to your destination that it seems impossible that anyone could ever see everything.

Even the museums seemed more narratively focussed. At the Natural History Museum, many of the exhibits are arranged to tell a story of how a particular lineage of animals would have developed, or how the Earth has changed over the eons. I’ve not seen that kind of story-based exhibit so much in US museums – exhibits tend to be grouped by subject or time, in my experience.

But story is everywhere there – mills reused as artist’s studios; follies built as a chimneys for factories miles away; an attempt (apparently successful) to put up the world’s longest string of bunting***; a 900-year old abbey destroyed by Henry VIII. There is a density, a layering, of story that I just haven’t seen in the States****.

Even though I grew up there, It seems strange to me now.

[*] there would have been no trouble doing this the last time we visited because the boys were certainly good enough travelers then, but moving around Britain at Christmas time is miserable enough without piles of snow all over the shop as there were at the time.

[**] hence the American concept of the road trip.

[***] up Cragg Vale on the Tour de France route.

[****] although, as I implied, I have not been to the Atlantic coast.

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