Last week, I was in New York, and I was driven to my hotel by a taxi driver of Argentinian origin. What with the glass partition between us, and the accents near-impenetrable on both sides, talking to him was a bit like speaking to someone on the other side of the world over a dodgy mobile phone. I was able to make out, however, that he had a lot of time for my country.
"The English is polite," he said, "and their football is the best . . . after Italians." In fact, he watched English football on the Fox channel every Tuesday after work. "Arsey . . . nal," he said experimentally, as we inched past the toll booths on what might have been Brooklyn Bridge. "They're a London team," I said, lying back in my seat so as to see the tops of the approaching skyscrapers, "but I prefer the teams from the north of England."
There was no response to this from the taxi driver, so I added: "I originally come from York . . . You know, the city that this place is named after." There was no response to that either. Instead, he began experimenting with the name of another football team: "New . . . cast . . . el," he said. Well, at least it's in the north, so perhaps he'd caught my drift after all, but I still felt short-changed. I mean, it's not as if the most dynamic city in the world is called New Newcastle, is it?
New York was so named in the 1660s, after Britain wrested it from the Dutch, who had called it New Amsterdam, originality being in short supply when it came to colonialists naming newly found places. York was chosen not so much because of the glittering virtues of my native city as because the territories around the Hudson River had been granted by Charles II to his brother, the Duke of York. Then again, the title Duke of York did stem from the importance to the Plantagenet kings of old York, which was at that time very definitely England's second city.
I would like to have explained this to my taxi driver, but I could imagine all too clearly his likely response: a thoughtful muttering of the words "Manchester United".
You do feel, if you're from old York, that New Yorkers owe you something, even if it's only the time of day. But no frisson ever occurred when I said I was from York, the implication being that New York has so far eclipsed old York that the latter has been completely forgotten. Old York is to New York what the Seekers were to the New Seekers: the unacknowledged, relatively unsexy source of a more sexy phenomenon. It would serve New Yorkers right if, at some point in the future, a new, even more amazing city should arise in some anglophone part of the world: New New York.