Friday, 26 October 2012


 Well thank you all so much for visiting, after my last, rather self-pitying post.  By your hits, I'm inspired to continue.

Gardening soon - but first . . . a post mortem on our amazing American trip.  And if any of it seems negative, that is absolutely NOT intended.  I'd go back and carry on hoofing round that great country in a moment.  And if I were invited to live in San Francisco, I think I'd go.

Now then, ahem,
After a longish trip to any country, it takes time to distil memories of all the experiences and bundle them into a general impression.  So when friends ask 'how was America' the answer is usually a lame retort such as 'fantastic' or 'wonderful' or 'fascinating.'

Cables holding up Brooklyn Bridge.  You can walk over the bridge, but expect to be run down by bicycles.  Click on pix to enlarge.  (There may be a 'pictures only post,' later, when I've sorted the fancy ones.)

 Surprising as it may seem, travel often reinforces prejudices, so you have to force yourself to keep re-opening your mind.  Bumbling along in a series of trains, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, I found myself searching for people, places, attitudes and ambiences that would enable me to say, 'Aha – this is truly America.'   That didn't happen.

 At times, I could hardly believe this was the same country as the one I lived in for four years, back in the 1960s.  I wanted to read the runes, take the pulse, measure progress and note significant changes.  But getting a grip on such a vast and diverse nation is more challenging than knitting a sweater with spaghetti noodles and I came away as perplexed as I was enlightened. 

There's so much paradox!  On the one hand, the United States presents a model of democracy and governance, along with a robust judicial system, that sets a shining example to the world.  On the other, health cover for a substantial portion of the population is hopelessly inadequate.  Libraries, some of the universities – especially one's alma mater Cornell – and museums are among the finest on earth, and yet I was told that some 30 million Americans lack basic literacy skills.  Can it be that many? 

Then there's capital punishment – a barbarous and brutal practice, to most people in Europe. And what about those bizarre gun laws? And the suspiciously hefty influence on government from fundamentalist religions and from big business. That must be a worry.

 A poster in Sonoma, California.  The obvious solution is to have oodles of both.

 You won't want to be bored with too much detail and anyway, this blog is supposed to dwell on gardenish things.   But before returning to rants about cooking apples, badger bashing and other blights, here's a goodie basket of 'impressions' whose flavours still linger on the palate.  I'll give you ten, picked at random...

1.  I love the way good American restaurants take breakfast as seriously as dinner.  Well-made pancakes, maple syrup, thin, crisp streaky bacon, genuinely fresh orange juice and as much excellent coffee as you can take all help to make the day's first meal as pleasurable and sociable as posh wining and dining.  British breakfasts, even when the food is good, tend to accompanied by brutish monosyllables and slurps of coffee..

2.  The Presidential Election is neck and neck.  And yet those who most desperately need a Democrat government, not to mention a healthy dose liberalism, seem the least likely to vote for Obama.  Even the word 'liberal', to the uneducated, is synonymous with Marxist.  Talk about turkeys giving a thumbs up for Christmas!

3.  As in Europe, everything seems to be made in China.

 Retired bikers in Colorado.

4.  Detroit is still churning out the most frightful vehicles – pick-up trucks the size of furniture lorries, SUV's of spectacular vulgarity and still quite a few big, smoochy things which look more suitable for sleeping in, rather than driving.

5.   When your train trundles gently through the mid-West, from Chicago to Denver, you realise what a huge country this is.  But it's surprising to see how few people actually live out of town.  There isn't the dotting of villages that you'd see in, say, Hampshire or Champagne.

6.  America has a staggering diversity of oaks, some evergreen, others deciduous; some less than a metre high, others huge; some with long, pointy acorns, others with snub-noses.  Oaks are a significant landscape feature across the country.

 A tasteful restaurant sign in Silverton, Colorado.

7. Tipping – possibly America's worst vice.  In the 1960s, one tipped waiters etc. roughly 10% of the bill.  Today, you're expected to cough up 20%.  In some restaurants, they helpfully add the gratuity to your bill without asking, as an item at the bottom, but when you pay, your bill will not only list the gratuity but will also leave space for you to add another tip on top of the gratuity.  A TAXI DRIVER will sit in his cab without moving so much as an eyelash to help, while you struggle with your luggage, but he will still expect a tip.  Tips, across the nation, blew our travel budget to pieces.

8. Americans fly an awful lot of flags.  They're everywhere - a bit excessive, but perhaps we should wave ours a little more - and I mean the Union Flag, not that blue thing with a ring of stars.

9. The scenic regions of this continent - the Rockies, the High Plains, the woods in West Virginia and above all, the Californian Sierra Nevada are all movingly beautiful.  See the Grand Canyon if you like – and it sure is impressive – but so much of America is infinitely more lovely and nearly as grand.  And the Mississippi River, which I've now seen at both ends, so to speak, is awfully big.

10.  I think I really have left my heart in San Francisco.  Of all cities, it's the one in which I feel most relaxed, inspired and contented – excluding Fishermans' Wharf.

A squirrel in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

I'm listening to Rossini's Stabat Mater

On this day in 1985  I swept a chimney which had begun to smoke badly, possibly because of jackdaw nests in the flue.  An enormous pile of twigs, string and other 'jackdaw' treasures came tumbling down - enough to fill a large wheelbarrow.  My diary says 'I lit an experimental fire after clearing up – it went beautifully with not a trace of smoke anywhere.'  And to think we'd paid to have a chimney sweep in.  No wonder I bought my own rods and brushes and took over the task myself.

This week's film was La Haine a masterpiece made in the 1990s by Mathieu Kassovitz about fear and loathing in the Paris suburbs. Brilliantly shot, slickly acted and immaculately edited, it's all the better for a second viewing and is one of the privileged DVDs to be stored, not in our general DVD heap but on THE SHELVES, in our telly room.  (To have a place on THE SHELVES is quite something.  Bergman's Seventh Seal, Welles's Citizen Kane and of course Casablanca are also on THE SHELVES.

Oh dear – another hideously long blog.  Thanks so much, if you managed to get this far!


  1. I just had to Google what a Broastery is...everyday is a school day! Loving the photos, glad you're going to carry on.

  2. La Haine is a horrible movie, but sadly accurate in it's depiction of late 90's Parisian suburbs. I lived in Paris (not in the suburbs but near Place de la Bastille) in 1997-1998, and without noticing it I picked up so much caïra and other immigrant slang that some people had a hard time believing I was a foreigner. I MUST watch that film again soon to regain some of my Paris street cred; these days my French sounds like my Englist - terribly "correct" and posh, and rather annoying.

  3. I was just about to start mentally planning a trip across America when I saw the dreaded "tip" word. It made me realise I would rather go back to Japan where there is no tipping and yet all the service people go out of the way to be helpful and polite as a matter of their own personal pride in their work. Looking forward to more holiday pics from you

  4. Walt (Gardeninggolfer)29 October 2012 at 22:17

    I nearly missed this one as I was not on Twitter on publishing day, thanks to Arabella Sock for the retweet. Very interesting, the dreaded "tip" word makes me shudder too! As does the vast amount of energy Americans appear to consume, for transport in particular. Have you been to Canada? I went, can it really be, 25+ years ago, friendly people and clean cities, Toronto anyway. I, too, look forward to more of your holiday photographs.

  5. Or Australia, almost everybody was very friendly and helpful without expecting any tips. I don't mind tipping in principle, but find it very annoying when people take it for granted without really having earned it. More great sign photos, please.

  6. What happens when you refuse to tip, I wonder? Actually I think I can answer that myself: I seem to remember travelling all over the place in America while a poor and penniless student and blissfully unaware of the existence of tipping. I don't think anyone gave me any better or worse service.

    I'm with you on San Francisco: by far the most lovely of all the many US cities I've ever spent time in. And so safe! I have wandered the streets after dark toute seule and not so much as a twitch of fear. I strayed a few streets the wrong way in Washington DC once and after a terrifying walk and escape into nearby shop was told by the security guard I was lucky to be alive.

    But I'd still go back to the States over nearly everywhere (the exception being la belle France, my second home). Endlessly, endlessly fascinating, delightful, entertaining, absorbing and exciting country. Love it.