US10 – This was a big river/I want you all to know that I was proud

(Jimmy Nail)

American songs taught me about America long before I went there.

Up to now, on this trip, I’ve found an American song that, to me at least, helps tell the story.

This evening, back home, sorting out the last photos, I’m drawn to this picture of a destroyer in dry dock out in Seattle harbour. A naval song for the title – In The Navy by the Village People? Sloop John B by the Beach Boys? Neither feels at all relevant. What about an American shipbuilding song? I don’t know any.

In England, on the other hand – as well as Big River there’s Jez Lowe’s Taking On Men (the only song I know that mentions Barrow, the Chicago of north England, where my parents were born) – or Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, Robert Wyatt’s version, no trumpets.

These modern English songs talk about the good old industrial days. Perhaps America doesn’t have such songs because its cities have been better at managing the transition to post-industrial – or if they haven’t, there’s no market for nostalgia there? Think of Bruce Springsteen’s My Home Town – that can’t be it.

Anyway I have ended up giving this post a title from an English song by an English singer.

What the picture made me want to write about was what I’ve been learning from N.A.M. Rodger’s history of the British navy (third and last volume out next month!). Setting up and operating a seagoing navy is one of the hardest things a state can do. You can’t just build some ships and recruit some crew. Knowhow and experience and an operation that is integrated from top to bottom make the difference; sending your ships out to sea in all weathers makes the difference; style and institutional culture make a difference.

Britain had this, did these things, from 1650 or so, according to Rodger. The US, evidently, does these things right now. In spades. So it is partly for military reasons that you wouldn’t say that Puget Sound “was” a big river – it still is one.

(Obviously, technically, it’s a big sound. In retrospect, Phil Spector was the answer I was looking for.)

On the style of the American navy, read Geoff Dyer, Another Great Day at Sea.

US9 – When the Sunday sun shines down on San Francisco bay…

(which it didn’t. much, while we were there)

… and you realise you can’t make it anyway (Beautiful South)

Before our train ride north, we stayed in Sprog’s 2-week-old Cousin’s Parents’ next-door-Neighbours’ back-garden studio in the Mission district of San Francisco (thanks a mil!). We ate toasted marshmallows, called S’mores, on Sprog’s Cousin’s Parents’ rooftop. We travelled around the city using different means:

  • Walking – the cars were as gentle with us as they’d been in Aptos and Santa Cruz. But the junctions, traffic lighted, seem to allocate most of the crossing time in favour of cars. After a couple of days we realised it is better to walk up the side streets, where there are unlighted pedestrian crossings. It seems perverse to deter us from using the streets where there are most businesses trying to tempt us in. I bought a wonderful pink shirt with pineapples in a shirt shop on one of the side streets, though.

 pedestrian crossing sign San Francisco 818.JPG 

  • Cycling – we rented bikes on Haight St from an operation set up by the Parks and Recreation Department. (We found the Haight old and cold – we had to buy sweatshirts at the Arboretum – and set in its ways.) We visited Golden Gate Park (which like the Bois de la Cambre in Brussels has curvy roads running through it) and streets nearby. San Francisco is quite hilly when you’re cycling. Son-in-law’s Brother said he never feels as unsafe as when he cycles in the city. On the side streets we didn’t notice this.

cyclists panhandle San Francisco 818.JPG 

  • Buses –  long and unpredictable waits, rattly and low tech (if Brussels can have signs at the bus stop saying how long to the next one why can’t San Francisco?) and crowded. Infuriating that you have to manufacture the exact fare out of dollar notes and coins. Can’t a city as rich as this do better? The drivers were helpful, though.

 waiting for bus San Francisco 818.JPG 

  • Trams (streetcar) – stylish; ditto.

tram Embarcadero San Francisco 818.JPG  

You say to yourself that the sunk tram fallacy is not a fallacy – that the longer you have waited without a tram coming, the more likely it is that one will come soon – but the evidence contradicted this. 

  • Metro (BART) – Quick, frequent and comfortable. I love its 70s shape and typefaces.

public writing BART watch the gap San Francisco 818.JPG

train BART 24th & Mission San Francisco 818.JPG 

But SUCH A BUGGER to buy tickets from the automatic machines (no staffed ticket windows). The first time we thought it was us that was stupid. But look at the screen below. Imagine your aim is to buy three $4,50 tickets. What is your next move?

public transport BART ticket purchase screen San Francisco 818.JPG 

 (Once you actually manage to buy a ticket, the metro is $2,50/trip within the city while the buses are $2,75 – unless this is an on/off peak distinction, as in Seattle.)

  • Uber– sworn by by Daughter. I’ve been a resister – does it increase or decrease car mileage? – but I liked it, especially when we had a chatty driver. I missed not knowing the cost (but Daughter knew). In this land of the tip I liked not tipping.

Some updates on previous posts:

  • David Attenborough is, apparently, a non-driver (still a meagre haul – any more?) 
  • Not all the waiting rooms of American train stations are ordinary-looking – this is Seattle King Street, which could pass for a grand Russian station any day



US8 – American and Russian sleeper trains (You and I are like America and Russia…

… We’re going to have to hold ourselves a peace talk/In some neutral café (Joni Mitchell, Blue Motel Room)

I woke up earlier this morning and looked out the window at a yellow farm in a yellow field.

yellow farm just into Oregon train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

We’re on the “Coast Starlight” train heading north from San Francisco to Seattle. Despite the name we’re 200 km inland, in southern Oregon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Russians explored down along the coast here.

[Clunky sequitur] I had the luck to travel in Russia earlier this year, at the time of the World Cup. It’s interesting to compare the sleeper trains (photos are of America):

  • Waiting rooms are grander in Russia, and the concessions there stay open as long as trains are leaving.

waiting room station Emeryville 818 2.JPG

  • The American station still shows a proud face on its railway side.

P8220058 2.JPG

  • The trains in both places are monsters, long and high. The American one. a double decker, is perhaps taller.

train coming in train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

  • The American train makes free use of its whistle.
  • The American train has wifi.
  • Russian people use their trains to transport their stuff as well as themselves. The trains have baggage space under the seats and overhead. In the American train there is a baggage limit; you may have to check in some of bags; and the others will have to go on a rack near the doors.
  • On Russian sleeper trains, you lie perpendicular to the tracks. On this train – just like in Some like it hot – you lie parallel to them.
  • On this train I was on the top bunk (of two), with what seemed like about a foot of headroom. Getting in at night required the skills of a potholer; as I got out in the morning I got stuck. My travelling companion said I was like Winnie the Pooh and would have to dangle there until I lost some weight.
  • On this train, the corridor is down the middle between pairs of compartments. When the compartments are turned from beds into seats, everyone has a window seat. On the Russian trains, the corridor runs down one side. You can get a change from your compartment by standing up and looking out the corridor window.
  • Both trains have restaurant cars. In both, you share your table with other travellers. The American restaurant car is cleaner and probably less raucous (it closed last night at 9.45, and I don’t think that was because it had run out of beer, as once happened on a Russian train I was on). The Russian train has china crockery, the American has plastic.

train Emeryville-Seattle 818 SD water amtrak pepper.JPG

  • Both trains have uniformed provodnitsas (attendants assigned to individual carriages).
  • There are more villages alongside the line in Russia, even in Siberia, than here in Oregon.
  • Some sections of this route are single track – I think all the Russian ones are doubled.
  • Both have stops that last different lengths of time. You can stretch your legs and have a cigarette at the longer ones.
  • The Russian trains have samovars at the end of the corridor where you can make tea (first picture below); this American train has a “coffee station”.

samovar train Volgograd-Moscow 618.JPG

coffee station train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

  • The Russian trains are never late. This one is known for it, apparently – and is an hour or so late today.

(San Francisco doesn’t seem to have a main station. I wonder if it ever did. We caught the train at 10 last night from the other side of the bay, at a place called Emeryville. This involved changing from the BART to an Uber at a station called McArthur. It lies between two elevated roaring motorways and feels like the set of a dystopian film.

McArthur BART station 818.JPG

Emeryville itself was a fine place. We found a good bar.


While people cheered the baseball on TV. I ate devilled eggs and macaroni cheese. I was a bit confused by this graffiti in the toilet:


Influenced by it, I wonder if the man in the picture, bowling, is Richard Nixon.



US7 – boardwalks (again)

US7 – Boardwalks (again) 

Commenting on my remarks about boardwalks, Robert Pimm recalled the Drifters’ song Under the boardwalk.

In Springsteen’s wonderful 4thof July, Asbury Park (Sandy), which I quoted a couple of posts ago, more goes on under the boardwalk than on it – “laughing ‘neath the boardwalk, with the boss’s daughter”, etc.

The Drifters were from New York, Bruce is from New Jersey.


This old photo (from Santa Cruz California, by Sheila O’Hare and Irene Berry, 2002) shows something that you can go under if you want to be flattened.

So my correspondent Mr R.M. seems to be right – east coast boardwalks are not the same as these on the west coast.

US6 – I’ll take the bus this time

(Jonathan Richman)

The sprog, my American son-in-law and I went to the supermarket. Grandad drive this time, said sprog. Your grandad is a rare example of an adult male who cannot drive, said son-in-law.

Well I brooded on this. Not so rare, I thought; I’ve collected quite a few examples of non-drivers over the years. But a search in my computer for “non-driver” only yielded five names:

  • Deborah Orr (a British columnist who I have read)
  • Lynne Hanley (a British author who I have not read)
  • Barbara Castle (an excellent British minister of transport in the sixties)
  • Eric Bristow (a British professional darts player)
  • David Sedaris (an American comedian of whom all I know comes from the article from which I learned that he is a non-driver)

I’d also saved an unhelpful quote from a Finnish novel, The Winter War (Philip Teir, 2013): Max did not have a driving licence. When they met, thirty years before, Katriina had admired his refusal to give in to the conformism of the car. Now, she scorned him for the same reason. She claimed that, right from the start, it had been more a question of laziness and meanness than of concern for the environment.

I’m pretty sure Picasso couldn’t drive, I said to my daughter. Nor could Shakespeare, she said. (Incidentally Jonathan Richman takes a different view on this point. According to the Modern Lovers song Pablo Picasso, The girls would turn the color of the avocado/When he would drive down the street in his El Dorado.)

Rio del Mar 818 concrete boat road.JPGCliff Drive, Aptos

Although it is great to be reminded of a minister of transport who did not drive, I have to admit that this collection of names does not fully refute my son-in-law’s claim. (Especially as Sedaris doesn’t, apparently, count because he was born in  New York…)

Please send me examples of famous non-drivers!


I received a comment on the last blog from a Mr R.M. of Brussels. He writes, “Quoting Springsteen (and thus comparing the boardwalks of New Jersey with California) is stretching poetic licence a little – it’s a bit like having Reg Dixon on the Blackpool tower organ playing ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ when you are talking about Frinton-on-sea!!!”.

Well, if Mr R.M. knows any songs about the Santa Cruz boardwalk, for example in the oeuvre of Neil Young, he is welcome to direct me to them. And yes, I do know that the Richman song I’ve used this time has nothing to do with cars. (“You take the plane, I’ll take the bus this time.)


long things USA Aptos 818.JPG

The things in the picture are all long and narrow. Look at these European equivalents:

less long things Europe Aptos 818.JPG

(I didn’t bring kitchen paper and newspapers on holiday with me.) Until I started brooding on driving licences, this blog was going to be about rectangles. The only song I thought of was “I get along without you very well” by Frank Sinatra. Spared you that at least, Mr R.M.

US5 – Down in town the circuit’s full of switchblade lovers so fast, so shiny, so sharp…

… As the wizards play/ down on Pinball Way/ on the boardwalk way past dark (Bruce Springsteen, 4thof July, Asbury Park (Sandy))

A couple of days ago I cycled my rented bike, following the coast east, from Santa Cruz back to the Aptos beach house where we’ll stay till next weekend.

Cycling is fine here. Most roads have a marked cycle lane. The enormous SUVs are gentler with us soft-shelled cyclists (and with each other) than many of the snippy little cars at home.

I called into the bike rental shop on Pacific Avenue for a free check-up, as they’d suggested when we rented the bikes. The geniality of a week ago was gone. You’ve been leaving this bike outside, haven’t you! We told you that you should never take it outside except when you are riding it! We told you that the salty moist air would destroy it! You have destroyed this bike – look at the rust on these components – they will all need to be replaced!

What I had heard – and perhaps I misunderstood – was that I should not leave it out on the street because Santa Cruz is full of bicycle thieves.

I suspect that they have few long-term renters, and the person who briefed us just assumed we were day renters like the rest.

Next I cycled past the boardwalk, a raucous amusement arcade. (We visited it last Sunday. People only got their phones out to take photos.) I thought that the train tracks you cross round here are all abandoned. But I was there at the right time for the tourist train from Roaring Camp, in the hills above the city, to chug in.

train boardwalk Santa Cruz 818 101.JPG

Just past the boardwalk I crossed the river on a trestle bridge like the disputed one in Capitola. I think that according to the plans, the new rail service and the new trail would both pass by here.

trestle bridge Santa Cruz 818.JPG

Soon after I met a man who asked me to photograph him among the objects he’d laid out in his drive. I thought it was an art work. He told me it was one day’s worth of rubbish he’d picked up from the main town beach. I have a meeting with them soon, he told me. Who do you mean by them? The people who run the boardwalk. I took the photo on his nice Fuji camera, he agreed that I could take another picture on mine.

man with a day's worth of rubbish from beach Santa Cruz 818 2.JPG

Further east I turned off East Cliff Drive down 16th Avenue to look for a road closure  that I’d read about in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. (The road where we’re staying in Aptos is a private road. That’s got me interested in them.)


I didn’t find the new “heavy duty vehicular gate” which the Sentinel said now blocks access from Geoffroy Drive to Sunny Cove beach at B. But it looks as if the wall at the bottom of the photo below is the means by which “homeowners in the area blocked off the pedestrian access at the Twin Lakes Beach side of the point almost 20 years ago”, heading for A. To get between the two beaches, you now have to walk via East Cliff and 14th Avenue.

This is about surfers, I think.

no beach access Santa Cruz 818 4.JPG

I had lunch in a dark Thai restaurant in Capitola, drinking Anchor Steam beer from San Francisco. After Capitola you have to leave the coast and the route is less fine. You climb up and cycle alongside California Highway 1. There are some tempting No Through Roads that you have to resist (when they say that here they mean it, even for bikes, I’ve discovered) before turning off on Mar Vista Drive and rolling down, through pleasant American houses and flags, to the beach.

There’s a Recreational Vehicle campsite here, with fifty emplacements looking out over the ocean at the bottom of the cliff. When we went caravanning as children, our father’s car pulled the caravan. In this picture the motor caravan, just arriving at the State Park entrance at the top of the cliff, is pulling the car.

caravan towing car Aptos 818.JPG

That afternoon I went for a swim.

public shark sign beach Aptos 818.JPG

The shark notices along the beach made me slightly uncomfortable. Later we were told that (a) the sharks around at the moment are juveniles; (b) juveniles only eat fish; (c) they are only to be found near the concrete boat; (d) they won’t come and get you if you stay in your depth; and (e) if you see a fin you should get out. When a seal popped its head up between me and the beach I shrieked.

US4 – It’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here [in Paris France] …

… Oh, but California/ California, I’m coming home (Joni Mitchell, California, 1971)

What’s California like? I’ll try and resist the temptation, drawing on a week spent in two places less than 10 km apart (Aptos and Santa Cruz), of inaccurate précis.

The suburbs here above Santa Cruz feel new.


In the city, though, there are old buildings – though their windows seem too new for them. The concrete boat at Aptos feels old, too.

It’s cold in the mornings.

The chef Julia Child, who grew up in southern California, found her father and his business friends in Pasadena settled in their ways. In Paris, where she went in the late 40s, “I felt a lift of pure happiness every time I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really beFrench, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.” (Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, My life in France, 2006)

According to the historian Kenneth Starr, “[i]n just about every way possible – its internationalism, its psychology of expectation, its artistic and literary cult, its racism, its heedless damage to the environment, its rapid creation of a political, economic, and technological infrastructure – the [1849] Gold Rush established, for better or for worse, the founding patterns, the DNA code, of American California.” (California: a history, 2005)

So Joni Mitchell’s adjectives – un-old, un-cold, un-settled in its ways – don’t really seem the right ones. I don’t know what California is like.