We were driving to New Jersey the other night for a barbecue (a truly horrendous drive from Long Island, but that's another tale) and The Doctor asked me to put some music on. Scrolling through the MP3 player, I noticed the Pet Shop Boys' greatest hits and was inspired to put on Suburbia.
"Well," I told The Doctor, "It seems appropriate, as that's where we are going."
Now, don't get me wrong, the part of New Jersey we were going to is very nice - leafy, wooded, with decent-sized houses and pristine hydrangea bushes in neat front yards. But it does epitomise suburbia - and in fact the recent story about Russian spies living in American suburbia involved a couple who were esconced in that very area.
I read an interesting New York Times article about the spies, making the point that it wasn't actually very odd that they were living in suburban settings, because that is where the majority of Americans live. If they were trying to live low profile lives and merge into the community anonymously, they chose the right place to do it.
And one thing that has really been driven home to me during my year in the US is that Americans are Really Good at suburbia. I never imagined myself living in the suburbs, but so far, living in a suburban American street has been far more enjoyable for the Littleboys than our London street. No-one has fences, so the boys play day and night with the neighbours' kids. Teenagers practise baseball in the street after school, or go sledging in the winter. All the kids on the street take the same schoolbus in the morning, so they all know each other well and are constantly popping in and out of other people's houses. There's a sense of community that I never experienced in London.
Driving around London suburbs, I usually felt depressed by the endless sprawl and tightly packed houses, and didn't envy the commuters their dismal journey on crowded trains. Whereas here, I tend to admire the clapboard houses and well-kept gardens, imagining their occupants having huge weekend barbecues and heading off to to the beach with a carload of stuff.
Perhaps it's because Americans tend to celebrate suburbia - think of nearly every American family film and TV series, from The Wonder Years to Back to the Future, and it's set in an idyllic suburb with white picket fences and neat front lawns. Whereas the Brits satirise it- think The Good Life or Abigail's Party. (OK there was American Beauty - but wasn't that directed by a Brit?)
Whatever, the Pet Shop Boys' 'suburban hell' in which teenagers stand 'by a bus stop with a felt pen', does seem to be a peculiarly British portrait. Here, they'd be more likely to be being ferried to hockey practice by Mom, or playing basketball outside in the ubiquitous hoop. Or perhaps finding out that their neighbour's Dad is a Russian spy......