A Tale of Two Cities

I like LA. There I said it.

When Europeans come to America they are supposed to be divided into New York or Los Angeles types. When the English writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood crossed the Atlantic in the late 30s Auden stayed in Manhattan and Isherwood went to LA where he remained for the rest of his life. Auden was the arch New Yorker, restless, edgy, sceptical and cosmopolitan. Isherwood was more prone to mysticism and mellow introspection. When I am asked if I like LA and reply that I do, it is common for my interlocutor to say, “Really? I would have put you down as a New York type.” But you see I AM. I had an apartment in Manhattan for many years, I go there as often as I can. I adore the city. But I love Los Angeles AS WELL. And I have found I can sustain these two supposedly opposite and mutually exclusive affections without tearing myself in two or exploding in a fireball of self-contradiction. In fact I’ll go further, if there’s one thing that gets my goat, curries it and serves it up on a bed of flaming indignation, it is this habit of dividing the world in two. Which reminds me of an old geek joke. “The world is divided into 10 types of people. Those who understand binary and those who don’t.” Pause to allow you to wipe the tears of helpless laughter from your weeping eyes. But damn it bothers me when the choice of one thing is interpreted as a necessary repudiation of the other. People are always doing it. “You’re either a Beatles person or a Rolling Stones person” I’ve heard them say. Tummyrubbish. Balderpiss. Arsegarbage.

A couple of months ago someone asked me what I was up to and I mentioned I was making a documentary about Richard Wagner. “Oh, I would have thought you liked Beethoven,” they said. I was too polite to pick them up by their scruff of their necks and shake them violently back and forth, but I mean WHAT? “Why’ve you got a Norwich City shield on your Twitter avatar? I thought you liked cricket.” “You just quoted Family Guy” – I thought you liked The Simpsons”, and so on and so on. I mean, really.

Another joke. A Jewish boy on his birthday is given a pair of fine silk ties by his mother. He comes downstairs next morning proudly wearing one. His mother looks at him, hands on hips and says, “So what was wrong with the other one?” Imagine if every time you ordered chicken in a restaurant someone said, “Oh, so you hate lamb, do you?”

I like LA and I like New York. And it is the fact that they are so very, very different that makes me like each all the more. They each serve and satisfy a different part of me. As do town and country, wine and beer, swimming and walking. Seems mad to define oneself, to limit oneself, doesn’t it?

One thing that New York can never offer is the sight of a great Hollywood Sound Stage. This is the one I’ve been filming in today. Marilyn on the wall. I mean, what’s not to like… Plus there’s Clarence, the security guard on one of the gates to the Fox lot. Every time I come in he reads me one of his poems and tells me and my driver that he loves us. As does Jesus apparently, which is nice of him. Well I certainly love Clarence – incredibly hard not be cheered up by such optimistic bonhomie and unconditional friendliness. “Oh but Stephen, I thought you were an atheist. How can you like someone who isn’t? Surely that’s impossible?” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

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85 comments on “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. michael says:

    it is frustrating. i always want to explode, not just from liking both of the two, but with imagining all the dozens of other things left away&in the dark by this picture of the world in 2s.

  2. Fryphile says:

    Why do you hate the midwest :P

  3. blaggard says:

    Oooh, I got one..”You like Stephen Fry *and* Hugh Laurie?!”

    I blame the digital age. Everybody is either one thing or t’other. I miss analogue, where I could be many things, sometimes all at the same time.
    I also dislike how people assume that if you state a general liking (or disliking) of something, you will automatically maintain that view for every aspect…so to your example, if you say “I love the Beatles…except for Let it Be”, you’re some sort of freak.

  4. IdeaCollector says:

    As a fan of L.A. and NYC, the Rolling Stone and the Beatles, all animated comedy on Fox (Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad) and people with different religious beliefs from my own who are respectful…I thank you sir.

    I would shake these people violently but don’t….not out of civility but out of the fact that I can barely lift my 12 lb dog.

    Fantastic binary joke as well.

  5. TheStraightLesbian says:

    So true, so true… that’s why bisexuality always works out so well :D

  6. bnt says:

    I’ve been to New York and its movie & TV stand-in, Toronto. I like the small scale and the copious public transport, and thus generally thought I was a New York person. I haven’t been to LA, but I spent most of August in Houston, a city which has many of LA’s problems and more: not only is it sprawling and heavily biased towards cars, it’s much hotter, with temps approaching 40C while I was there.

    So you’d think I’d hate Houston, but I found it has its charms. Public transport is not as frequent as Dublin (where I live now), but it’s much more reliable, and I can’t complain about the price: a flat $1.25 fee (incl. 2-hour transfer) can take you all the way across Harris County, an area almost twice the size of greater London. When you get to downtown Houston, you can have lunch in one of the underground restaurants – all linked by tunnels covering most of downtown – or jump on the Metro train to the Museum district.

    I went to the Museum of Fine Art on “Free Thursday”, where I couldn’t find an Old Master who was not represented, and nearly succumbed to Stendhal Syndrome while standing in a room holding seven Picasso works. And all that without knowing how to drive, in a US city ruled by Big Oil. Thank goodness for air-conditioning, it must be said – it was powerful, and everywhere, even on the buses.

  7. Love_Kingdom says:

    You are so right. It’s a common thing. Some people can only see black or white but never the beautiful colors inbetween. Yet it will always be a part of our culture.

  8. nonoyesyes says:

    Trying to imagine NOT being able to like more than one thing at a time…
    Good lord! How…infantile is that?! I mean, really!
    The great capacity to enjoy perhaps millions of aspects of millions of different things in each of us! Add to that the great tendency in human nature to make nothing out of something you’ve just said, by negating it up against something else…… Holy horsefeathers dipped in teeth-grinding!
    Great blog Stephen…and now I must crack open the champaign and celebrate that I actually got through AND managed to get my comment published as well!

  9. gjhsu says:

    I know this was a bit of a rant, but it had me laughing (well, ok, chuckling) out loud. It’s so hard in this off and on world to think that people like more than one thing at a time. But maybe that’s why divorce rates are so high. “But, honey! I love you AND her!”

    I kid! I kid!

  10. officialregs says:

    Know exactly what you mean, Stephen! It only shows, that the mind of too many people work in that “either this or that” way. Those are the people who have no dreams, no joy, no fantasy. If you love many things, why choose? It makes life only simple and somehow boring.

  11. inckognito says:

    That’s why you don’t have a favourite colour, Stephen! ;)

    I’ve never been to LA but I was in NYC and Washington D.C. many times. So, I can’t speak about the possible NYC-LA city types here. Just a bit about my US experience.

    The thing I know for sure – I love America, I admire it! Whenever I come over, I feel better, I work better and what’s more important – I feel secure and calm. Could sound very odd but here I am telling you my truth – Russia is not the best place to live in…

    And I fully agree with you that it’s rather mad to define oneself, to limit oneself…


  12. KateDubillyew says:

    Hah! Thanks for this.
    Although Ive been known to cringe at LA, I cant stand when people make themselves so exclusive, I think at the heart of things its about them looking cool more than anything else. I was recently in a conversation with an Irish guy telling me how much he hated America – the one place in the world he didnt like…he then went on to tell me about how much he loved New York and New Orleans :P
    Ive also been in a conversation with someone who said he would only listen to second wave black metal. Period. Then later spotted him at a Chemical Brothers show.
    Its all a front, humans being silly as we often are.
    Theres too much in the world to enjoy, so it riles me when we put these limits on ourselves, really nice to read an echoed sentiment.

  13. Conkz says:

    Haha, binary! Proud nerd to the core, and I also have good taste in clothing! At least in my own opinion :D Limiting ourselves and each other is one of the principal problems in the world, a mon avis. I like language, and I like science. I love satire, sarcasm and the like but slapstick still has its charms.

    Division in all its forms… It dilutes the pleasures of the world.

  14. risalynn80 says:

    Thank you, Stephen; I was so glad for your perspective! I’m about to embark upon another 10 months of teaching college frosh, statistically one of the most seriously afflicted groups of binary thinkers. I will probably find cause to quote you at some point…

  15. David J Griffin says:

    Dear Mr Fry

    My usual reply to rebutters of “twofold” is ‘It takes two to tango, you know!’ That gets ‘em every time. They appear very confused.

    I’ve tried to be in two places at once, often. As yet I haven’t succeeded.

    Finally, a man of your wit is in no need of assistance, of course, but may I respectfully suggest the following riposte in situations of which you have described:

    ‘Kindly step off of my dichotomy’. They’ll go white in the face, I can assure you.

    Kind regards

    David J Griffin

  16. sherlockjr says:

    I’ve lived in both cities and love them both. I spent 16 glorious years in the city that never sleeps. Its energy and excitement never failed to thrill me. Now I live in LA and I adore (most of) it, too. The natural beauty, the laid-back attitude, the variety are constantly refreshing.

    As the president of the International Buster Keaton Society, I run into the dichotomy problem all the time. People seem to want to insist that if I like Keaton, I must hate Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. I don’t. I think the more laughter in the world the better, and if some people prefer Chaplin over Keaton, or Lloyd over Chaplin, then more power to them. In fact, one of my best friends is the world’s authority on Harold Lloyd. I figure if Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd could all get along (which they could), then their fans should be able to, also.

    Years ago, I took an Eastern Civilization course, and I’ve never forgotten the way the professor described the differences between Western cultures and Eastern ones. He said that Western cultures seem to see things as extreme dichotomies – it’s either black or its white, or it’s good or it’s bad. Eastern cultures tend (of course this is not 100%) to see things in shades of gray, which makes them more forgiving of human foibles.

    Chicago’s nice, too.

  17. pao says:

    I totally agree with you about the human tendency for dicotomizing (? word) issues, likes and dislikes. It irks me as well, but unfortunately the human psyche becomes anxious with too much complexity and is comforted by black and white rather than grays. There is a good (old) book by Erik Fromm called Fear of Freedom which talks about the human need for certainty and direction which he postulates led to Nazism and one could argue to the rise of the radical, fundamentalist religious groups of today. It takes a strong-minded person (like yourself) to resist the pull of categorizing the world into two, discrete, sides rather that to see the myriad of possibilities in between.

  18. jonecc says:

    I said this on the subject on my blog:

    … the absence of any particular virtue isn’t in itself a vice. Think of a great orchestra, ripping into one of Shostakovich’s denser passages. Half the thrill comes from the fact that every ounce of energy comes from unassisted musclepower, from the kettledrum-banging forearms at the back via the bassoon-honed lungs in the midsection and the cello-gripping thighs at the front, while the conductor coaxes sublimity out of their very ATP like the foreman on a pyramid-building chain gang. I’ve gone all goosepimply just picturing it.

    Yet the reverse isn’t the case. Just because some musicians swap thighs and forearms for amps and sequencers, it doesn’t follow that their work is somehow discredited, whatever the awful bearded man at that fearful disco in the Potteries may have said in 1979.

    Just think what it would mean if the absence of individual virtues was indeed a vice. Apart from anything, no product of the creative imagination could possibly encompass more than a minute fraction of the Hilbertian space of possible virtues, so every cultural artefact would be a suppurating mass of moral degeneration, rather than just the best ones. So let it be with football.

    It’s about football, you see. I like to think The combination of the tone and the subject matter in itself restates the point.

  19. tonymcfadden says:

    You repeated that once funny quip “The world is divided into 10 people. Those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

    A funnier (and how could it not be) version was Tweeted recently: “The world is divided into 10 people. Those who understand binary and the 9 others that beat us up.” (or something like that. Attribution will be provided if I can find it in the Twitterstream)

    As an aside, wishing Norwich City luck this weekend. I’ll be staying up for the ManU/ManC battle

  20. I’m amazed you missed the opportunity to quote Walt Whitman :)

  21. SuziJ says:

    But if you can like more than one thing how am I ever going to stereotype you and fit you into a tiny little box?
    Next you will be suggesting we should treat and accept everyone as individuals and you’ll be arrested for sedition.

  22. PeteV says:

    Heh – known in Ozy & Millie as “Two Tone Perception Disease”: http://www.ozyandmillie.org/d/20000723.html

    For what it’s worth, I don’t like LA. And I’ve never been to New York.

  23. jez_horrox says:

    I’ve heard it said there are two kinds of people in the world, those who split humanity into two halves and those who don’t :)

  24. catinthehatuk says:

    Haha Stephen, you are SO right!! I honestly think its (some) people’s need for boxes.. not the cardboard variety of course but the rigidity is just the same nonetheless… (oops, I’m waffling on, sorry). I just think people sometimes are unable to define others unless they can compartmentalise and put them into categories. Anyone who has a wide diversity of likes/dislikes or even indifferences… well, that just confounds people who go for the boxes way of thinking… When asked about what music I like, I find its a bit of a conversation stopper when I say I like allsorts (literally, all kinds of music)like Bob Marley, Georghes Zamfir, Elbow, Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osbourne, Beethovan, Nina Simone, Risky Korsakov, Iron Maiden, Cold Play… etc haha. Across the pond? same again. Diverse… America…? Love it!! Chicago, New York, San Fran, L.A. Salt Lake City, Tucson, Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, Port Townsend, Yellowstone…TV/film personalities..? Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Lee, (god rest his soul), Hugh Laurie, Eddy Izzard, Susan Sarandon, Joanna Lumley, Ray Winstone, Samuel. L. Jackson, Peter Kay, David Suchet, Derek Thompson (Channel 4 racing) and of course, our very own, inimitable, Stephen Fry! You are ace Stephen! The world would be better if there were more people like you in it! Greetings to you from a dark (cos its after midnight here), slightly chilly, autumnal, little corner of west yorkshire, (home of Pudsey bear and me ;-) in the north of England, in the UK . Lotsa Love n Hugs, Catxxx
    PS first time I’ve posted (other than a comment I posted about Oscar Wilde which I don’t know if it reached the boards… tech dunce that I am)so please forgive my ramblings and any digression… I like tangents:-))) Bye for now. Keep up the good stuff! XXX

  25. catinthehatuk says:

    PS Er… it was meant to say, ‘RIMsky’, as opposed to RISKY, Korsakov in my previous post… :-) Lotsaluv CatXXX

  26. chemilyx says:

    This is so true.

    Ahhh, can I do a Clarence and profess my love for you Stephen? :P I love yoooou! x

  27. KevDog says:

    Do people have scruff? If so, is there enough of it to grab?

  28. exoskeleton says:

    Those forced dichotomies are the kind of small talk that usually makes me cringe. Sometimes I hear it spewing out of me, though, and I’m embarrassed.

    I haven’t ever been to the west coast, since I’ve had no business there, but I don’t even know if I’m a New York type. It’s a big city, after all, and I there are plenty of things available to like and dislike. Most of Manhattan is a bit noisy and bustling for my taste, but the parks I’ve visited in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx were all lovely.

  29. cygnus says:

    In black & white photographs it is the shades of grey that give it depth.

  30. Selma says:

    I’m a Gemini, not that I believe in that sort of thing. Art and science, guitar and piano, tea and coffee (with or without milk), germanic and latin, analogue and digital, old and new, cars and knitting, indoors and out. A walking contradiction. I do get funny looks, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with being bi-polar. So to speak.

  31. ginj says:

    Ha, obviously written by someone who cannot make a decision. Oh my goodness, that was only a joke. I actually agree with you, Mr. Fry. The world is not all straight lines and sharp corners, but round and swirly and rising and falling as we experience new things and continually evolve as a person. Picking one side or the other without flowing and changing limits our ability to grow and enjoy the world around. Something that you obviously have learned to do to the fullest. Just one question, Mr. Fry, mayonnaise or Miracle Whip?

  32. happydorkgirl says:

    Life is so much more fun when viewed in shades of gray.

  33. sam.tengco says:

    I dig this, I really do. I’ve lived in LA for most of my life, went to university in San Francisco for a year & got a bunch of crap from people, mainly native NorCal people, who kept saying that SF was better than LA. The two cities are completely different & I love them both. I know people who’ve visited LA for a weekend & said that they don’t really like it because it’s ‘not like the Bay.’ Well, of course it’s not like the Bay, the cultures are two very different things. And for people who say that SoCal is better than NorCal. Naturally, I would agree, but having lived up there, I liked it just as much. I can’t say much about the East Coast since I’ve never been there. But, I have been to Nashville & I didn’t think I would like it there, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s very quaint, relaxing, and down-to-earth.

    So this. This very very much. People just need to realize it ain’t all black and white & that there’s so much in between.

  34. Gertrude Susanne says:

    Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust!
    Nothing wrong with that, eh?

    I love Austria AND the UK. I have lived in both. But I have found that people who don´t know the first thing about her, don´t speak the language or, in fact, have never been there, recoil when they hear me say that. (But heaven forbid, I dare comment on their likes/dislikes!)
    I wonder: Do such people take their own ignorance as the golden standard? Does it ever occur to them that they might be imposing limitations on themselves (as if external limitations weren´t abounding already)? Are they a little scared of venturing outside “their world”? Sad. They don´t know what they´re missing. On the other hand, I have come to love my “extended world” so much that I miss it whilst living in my “original” one. Do you ever?

  35. jaryn says:

    You start out in life, in most places, shoved into one of two boxes – male or female, despite there being many intersex and transgender people – and it all goes downhill from there. We humans do indeed have an unhealthy love of pigeon-holing everyone and everything.

    Of course, with the other extreme, having no referential categories at all, we would probably be no better off… But surely there is some happy middle ground? We can always hope.

  36. MichaelSynnott says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I think this tendency to polarise is indicative of how little we’ve evolved emotionally – of how much the human race is still a surly pubescent teenager.

    Polarisation might have been a useful world view many years ago, but in this age of instant communication, of information decadence, isn’t it blindingly obvious that this Newtonian-Cartesian one-or-t’other outlook is not just outmoded, but plain bloody daft?

    And polarisation is holding us back from realising our potential as a species. You can extrapolate this mind-set to explain why our world is filled with hatred and distrust. I remember as a child telling my father I wanted to go and live in America when I grew up. When he explained in great detail, as was his wont, about immigration, visa applications and so forth, I was shocked. Up to that point I’d assumed the planet was wide open, and you could go where you liked. So my default world-view, as a 10 year old was a holistic, all-encompassing one. I’m sure it was the same for many of you. At what stage did we start to accept that the international landscape has to be separated into a collection of boxes, and that our intellectual lives have to be broken down into a series of binary decisions? It’s unnatural – a cherished misperception which is hobbling the emotional growth of the human race. And fie on those who perpetuate this mind-set to further their own agenda.

    Good lord, I’m glad I got that out of my system!

    Oh, and you might think you’re dreadfully clever with your binary joke Stephen, but I’ve been able to understand hexadecimal since I was A. Beat that!


  37. henry says:

    I think the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts wouldn´t be able to sort me out: I both like Slytherin AND Gryffindor…; )

  38. Aurora says:

    NO WAY! It’s since I was 4 that I like and Love NY,I never been there yet, but is one of the things I’ll soon and surely do!
    LA is a mess,cars, smog, sun, I hate sun,no, no, no!
    NY is so sparkling,beautiful in Christmas,in Autumn, and all the buildings are worldiwide known!

  39. saborah says:

    I just love “arsegarbage”. Hope you won’t mind my borrowing it every now and then.
    Otherwise, I am completely with you on your sentiments here. Have never been to NYC nor LA myself, but completely agree on the ridiculousness of having to choose between The Beatles and The Stones.

  40. Sub-Level28 says:

    I fully agree with the sentiment here.
    Like what you like and be what you are.
    it’s a bit like “oh you like tea AND coffee??”

    And thanks for the laughs :-)
    Arsegarbage… Oh what a great word!

  41. sugarglider says:

    Thanks for your blog, Stephen – always an interesting read.

    Don’t know how you find the time, you busy beaver.

  42. thesmallerhalf says:

    I suspect this tendency to pigeonhole by preference is seated in a prehistoric desire to make common contact with our fellow man, and is part of the social process. Relationships are typically founded on the sharing of common factors whatever they may be. And to play the like/dislike game is a method by which common ground can be found and to be able identify a particular individual with a definite social group. Shades of tribalism which remains such a strong factor in the most advanced and, apparently, sophisticated societies.

    Then, as others have said, we desire certainty and solidity. Religion feeds and exploits the frailty just as do politicians, rabblerousers and other such bothersome individuals.

  43. Elifant71 says:

    As someone who has lived on both sides of this fair country, I couldn’t agree more. I go back to California at least once a year, and currently live on the east coast. There are many things I enjoy about both sides. I love the seasonal change and colorful scenery I get on the east coast. I love the fact that when I arrive in San Diego or LA that I am greeted by ocean breezes and usually pleasant weather. I am not sure which I like more, but I will always love both!

  44. browners25 says:

    Well said Sir. Good Rant.

  45. freccle says:

    I too like both LA and NY. I took my daughter for her first trip to NY and LV and the first trip for both of us to LA. Didn’t expect to like LA but I LOVED it. Wasn’t over keen on hitting the LA freeway in a hire car at the rush hour, driving from the airport, with no sat nav and too dark to read directions properly. In fact I was all for pulling off at the first exit, leaving car and collecting again on way back to the airport when we were leaving – and daughter was the one doing the driving. That was about the most scared I have ever been in my life – and believe me I’ve done some scary things.
    However a good nights sleep made things look better and by the lunchtime we were whizzing around LA as if we lived there.

  46. FranSaban says:

    May I just add: Glasgow AND Edinburgh…

  47. bergsten says:

    You are supposed to LOVE L.A.
    Wassa matter? I thought you liked Randy Newman?

  48. johnbradford says:

    As someone more eloquent than I once noted;

    There are two types of people in the world; those that think there are two types of people in the world…

  49. judinw8 says:

    You may feel like I do when asked why I have abandoned American because I live and work in London. I do love both and can happily live in either place. My job is here in London and I can’t think of a more interesting, exciting city to live in.
    It is a matter of inclusion not exclusion. We are such complicated creatures who can love very different things.

  50. MirandaCarroll says:

    Hurrah! Will you be back in LA next spring for LA’s Ring festival then? They’re putting on the whole Ring Cycle from end May through July (Bayreuth meets LA – interesting concept…) There’s already a website about it all and many connected cultural elements across the city are taking place. Should be fun!

    A fellow Brit transplanted to LA

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