I have been working in the States again - I know, I know, "There he goes, the cowboy boot-wearing, Mustang-driving son of a gun wannabe Yank" - but wait, please, because my point is just how foreign the place is to British eyes. It's the small things that make it so. I grew up in suburbia, in a world of carriage lamps and corner plots, fancy lawns, bird tables, lawnmowers, Sunday best and paper rounds. Over the thousands of hours spent playing in the culs-de-sac and avenues around our home and the miles I cycled weekly to deliver the papers to my neighbours, I grew familiar with the cues and clues that bristle across the suburban sprawl.
Attached, semi-detached, detached, terrace, town house, maisonette: a spread of ranks as obvious as uniform insignia. But then the subtler clues, the white flecks in a tarmac drive, the wishing well in a corner-plot lawn, the double drive, double garage, sun awning, broken porch window, bottle-glass bay and permanent patio barbecues that marked out those with a bit more, a bit less or who were a bit different. But different or less or more only within the tight confines of what suburbia made available to us. Suburbia becomes a language in itself, as complex, subtle, closed and coded as any other language. Which is why, running through Beverley Hills, I came over all dizzy with disorientation.
The clues were there, I was aware of them; some houses had sprinklers on the lawn, some had them working on the grass outside their property, some had low walls of fancy stone, or huge, wooden doors, or a basketball hoop over the double garage. The clues and cues bristle just as energetically as they did in suburban Solihull where I grew up; but I couldn't read them. I don't speak American suburbia, and so anything they might tell me about the residents' status, past, careers or ambitions was lost to me. What does a balcony with a cast-iron railing signify? And is it ‘correct' to have furniture permanently in place on what looks like a veranda overlooking the road, or is it a sign of slovenly sloppiness as telling as an old refrigerator in the hedge outside 22 Acacia Avenue, Swindon? And this whole language barrier is more baffling outside of the houses and the estates. Because if suburbia is hard to read, it is, at least, only one specific type of territory that is closed to the outsider. Cars, though, are everywhere, and the American carscape is as baffling and coded to us outsiders as its suburbia, but it's more far-reaching.
I don't know what I can assume about the driver of a white, US-made minivan, beyond that they might need some space for stuff, kids probably. What can I tell about a young male driving up a mountain road in an old German saloon, a middle-aged woman in an orange Jeep Wrangler in the city or a college kid in a brand-new Korean SUV? These people are doubtless signalling things about themselves as frantically as a middle-aged accountant driving through London with the roof down on his Jaguar XKR, but I don't know what they're saying.
I don't believe there is a single aspect of our lives into which we pour more effort and concern with what we are signalling to others than we do with our choice of car. Whatever our budget, it's a hardened soul indeed who opts for a car on practical grounds only, without giving a thought to what it might tell others of their status, style, aesthetic, environmental concerns, physical prowess or potency. And in seeking out a car that signals nothing at all, they will have projected something about themselves anyway. Which makes cars a powerful insight into people around us.
We pull on a pair of jeans or a shirt or a pair of work boots without thought, they're just what we have to wear to get on with our daily life. Yes, clothes are subject to fashions, but that just has the effect of restricting the choice of jeans, shirt, suit or boots available to us in the high street. Fashion being the fleeting, flimsy thing it is, we can toy with an idea, try out a flowery shirt or a different skirt and then decide it did, or didn't, work and move on. A car though, is a far more significant purchase; it's likely to be around for a while and we're going to be stuck with whatever message it sends about us through our time with it.
No wonder that we become paralysed with fear and paranoia. We sift through whatever car options our budget permits us and are, on rare occasions, even so misguided and scared as to listen to muppets such as us on Top Gear for advice on what would be the ‘right' car. I've had to use a hire car while over here, and it's a Chevrolet something or other SUV in white. It has aircon, 4WD and an auto, of course, but what the hell does it say about me? What am I telling the world as I merge with the traffic to queue out of town, trying to instil some concept of lane discipline among the drivers around me? That I'm a Brit working abroad and haven't a clue how things work round here? Got it. Told you; you're always signalling something with your car, even when you're trying not to.