The trouble with going on an American book tour is that I know it’s going to play havoc with my diet. People on diets can very quickly become diet bores, but I am unrepentant: I know the calorie content of most things and, for instance, how long it takes to burn off a croissant. Not that I eat croissants any more, of course. (We dieters can be tremendously smug.) America is a challenge, though, because all their food is injected with corn syrup. In Denver I was once served an omelette that had been dusted, in cold sobriety, with icing sugar. But it’s not just icing sugar that is a problem: the intrusive strawberry is a difficult issue too. Any breakfast, it seems, must include a strawberry or two, placed alongside the eggs. Strawberries have their place, but I think it is part of living in a free society that one should be able to decline to eat them with eggs and bacon. For some years I battled unsuccessfully to be served eggs without strawberries, and it is only recently that I learned the way to do this. What you say is, ‘Hold the strawberries.’ That means ‘No strawberries’. That works. You can also say ‘Hold the ice’ if you want a drink served without a very large amount of ice. It helps to insert an exclamation mark, as in ‘Hold the ice!’ The waiter then says, ‘You want me to hold the ice?’ and you cry, ‘Yes, hold the ice!’ That brings results.
We tend not to take much notice of signs, but when you actually read them carefully and consider their wording there is a strange poetry about them. Kenneth Koch, a New York poet, wrote an extraordinary poem called ‘One Train May Hide Another’ after he read those words of warning on a level-crossing sign in East Africa. In New York on this trip I saw a sign in a deli that had the same haunting, poetic quality: No foods from another place are permitted here. So only bagels and hot dogs and other New York fare. And then, while being driven through the wastes of Los Angeles on the way to Santa Barbara, suddenly I noticed a very strange sign: College of Hypnotherapy: Next Exit. There is something quintessentially California about that… or Californian. Purists used to censure those who used the adjective ‘Californian’, pointing out that Californian is a noun used for a resident of California. So there are many references to ‘California wine’ rather than ‘Californian wine’. Which is fine, but then, as non-prescriptivists love to point out, language changes. Nowadays people use Californian as a general adjective: any linguistic battle must surely be over. At what point, though, will the accusative case disappear in such contexts as ‘He invited my wife and me’. The use of the nominative case in statements like that is now so common that the correct form (being, for a moment, prescriptive) — the accusative — is beginning to sound incorrect to the ear. This, I think, is one of those instances where a big change can actually be witnessed in a lifetime. It’s rather like the wearing of baseball caps backwards. Backwards, then, is the new forwards, and I suspect we are almost at the point where the back of the cap becomes the standard front. That, of course, poses a problem: how will young men be able now deliberately to make themselves look stupid?
The tour takes me to Boston. We visit bookshops in the country outside the city — perfect New England towns with names like Concord and Wellesley. There is a well-known women’s college in Wellesley. It has exquisite brick buildings set amongst the trees — the real groves of academe. It must be a fine place to pursue an education rather than men. But what if one is a transgender man who wants to share the experience? This is an issue that is now disturbing the tranquillity of the few remaining women-only colleges in the United States. Some are prepared to admit such men, provided they identify themselves on the application form as female. The position of women students who identify themselves as male is more difficult and they seem to be less welcome in these institutions. They could try men-only colleges, but they barely exist any more. Gender equality — a laudable goal — has its little complications.
There is still freedom of speech in the US. We have allowed it to be curtailed in all sorts of ways, but over there people can still speak their minds. A watchful constitution gives people strong protection against losing one’s job or being otherwise punished for one’s thoughts or views. And people there still tell you what they think — sometimes a bit too frankly. In Atlanta one of the readers in the signing queue draws me aside. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, handing me the book to sign, ‘I think you’ll do far better posthumously.’ It was well meant. Southern charm.
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