Sunday, July 7, 2013



The pretty girl clutching a clipboard approached as I sat in late afternoon sun on Pier 39.
Was I willing to take part in a survey?

What was my main purpose in visiting San Francisco?

 She was about twenty, had attended High School in Berkley and she had never heard of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac, the Beat poets. Perhaps education is being dumbed down after all.

Next day I rode a number 30 bus up Columbus Avenue from Fishermen’s wharf to Stockton, walked two blocks and there it was - City Lights Bookstore celebrating its sixtieth birthday. People at the traffic lights waited while a Green Street Mortuary Marching Band jazzed by and cafe sitters at sidewalk tables applauded. A jazz ensemble played under a marquee in Jack Kerouac Alley as the world converged on City Lights, which is not a multi storied emporium with sliding doors and regiments of checkout stands. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a champion of people sized communities and City Lights is in the same three level building it started in. Over sixty years it has become one of the most famous bookstores in the world, but there are no branches anywhere else. If anyone wants to shop in a City Lights bookstore they have to come to San Francisco, although I buy books on line from their newsletter and read about events taking place when City Lights authors go on the road to publicise their books.

I walked up the two front steps through the narrow door, past the check out desk where two pretty girls wearing City Lights T shirts and flowers in their hair were busy zapping bar codes, popping books into paper bags and smiling. The windows beside the entrance held photographs of City Lights and staff over the years.  I slithered through the line of waiting book buyers, was careful not to stumble on the two steps up into the main room which is a maze of shelves full of books I am unlikely to find in Barnes and Noble or Waterstones, certainly not at Paper Plus or Whitcoulls. City Lights encourages dissidence and real talent.

This is the store which was charged with indecency for publishing Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It still stocks it. This is the store that nurtured the Beat poets, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs et al. Up the narrow stairs on the third floor is the area dedicated to the Beats. It has a performance area and aging friends who were students in the fifties tell me of sitting on the floor there, in air hazy with ‘California Green’, listening to young Kerouac, and Ginsberg and others. It is one of the famous places of the Literary world, ranking with Dove Cottage and those daffodils, or Westminster Bridge.

But downstairs the aisles are narrow and on this Sunday it was crowded. Every chair, there were not many, was occupied by somebody reading. Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself strolled through the store, greeting and being greeted. A couple of Ferlinghetti lookalikes sauntered about outside.
 I saw several Ginsberg lookalikes from his bushy beard days, and one William S Burroughs.  At least two people were leading ‘The Dog That Trots Down the Street and Sees Reality, ‘one was a small poodle, the other a mutt whose mother was probably courted by several Labradors, airdales, a spaniel and uncounted collies.

 Ferlinghetti’s gifts to us were on a table at the foot of the stairs, beautiful wall charts of poems from City Lights publications of the past sixty years, not just his own. I chose his “Buddha in the Woodpile”.

Outside on Columbus Avenue people strolled about and I heard just about every language on earth, except Maori. Two French girls exclaimed as they identified poets in the early photos. “Voila! C├ęst Ginsberg! Vraiment!”  An Islamic man, head-scarfed wife two steps behind, made his way through the throng. I heard French, German, Chinese, American. Irish, Queen’s English.
 Suddenly a fire engine, siren hooting, followed by a paddy wagon pulled up outside the store. Two firemen sauntered inside, moments later they came out leading a scruffy type who climbed into the back of the paddy wagon. Street Theatre?  I could not recall a poem about an incident like this. Maybe it was a recreation of Allen Ginsberg charged with indecency because he wrote ‘Howl!’ and set the poetry world alight.

It was a lovely afternoon. I decided to walk back to my hotel. Columbus Avenue led straight to Fishermen’s Wharf. What could go wrong?

 My stupid sense of direction could. Two hours later I was outside the Bank of America on Montgomery, it was raining, my feet hurt, the light was fading and I could barely decipher the street names on my map.

“You lost?”asked a concerned voice, and there stood one of those angels I keep meeting; tall, tanned, immaculate, he could feature in my next romantic novel, but meantime my next blog should be about the kind teacher of English who had lived in Christchurch for three years, who organised a taxi when there were none around, fed me chocolate and waved goodbye as my taxi sped off. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013




          Plymouth, Massachusetts, population 55,000, calls itself ‘America’s Home Town.’ The pilgrims landed herein 1649, stepping ashore on to Plymouth Rock which lies enshrined under pillars and a cupola in Greek revival style. A replica of the Mayflower is moored in the harbour. Plimouth Plantation is a re-creation of the original settlement where actors play the roles of actual pilgrims, demonstrating the way they lived, what they grew in their gardens, how they dressed and spoke. Plimouth Plantation makes and sells beautiful furniture made with seventeenth century tools. In the restaurant visitors can eat traditional food, lobster, turkey, pumpkin pie, cooked to seventeenth century recipes. There is an active conservation programme gathering and breeding antique plants and animals. New Zealand sent cows and rabbits when we culled them from Enderby Island.

          July 4th, 2007 began with clear skies. About 9:30 we strolled down to find a shady spot where we could set our folding chairs. Mothers pushed strollers, fathers carried toddlers on their shoulders, families of three or four generations converged on the parade route and by 10.00 a.m. it was lined with people in chairs, children, picnic hampers and American flags. Soft drink vendors pushed carts, souvenir sellers did a brisk trade in flags and balloons.

This was no Hollywood production parade with seventy six trombones and choreographed marchers. It began with sirens and horns as down the road came fifty engines from Plymouth and a dozen adjacent towns; towering behemoths which could hoist firemen to blazes in high places; smaller, specialised vehicles and  finally vintage fire trucks with hoses and running boards. Sirens sounded, bells clanged and firemen tossed candy to the children while spectators cheered and clapped. After the Plymouth parade these fire engines would travel to other nearby towns and lead their parades. 

Next Indian and Harley Davidson motor bikes roared by followed by quieter Yamahas and Hondas, all flying the stars and stripes.  The riders were middle aged with paunches and grizzled beards but their bikes were pristine. Vintage cars followed, from gas guzzling Chryslers and Pontiacs to Model T Fords.

Only then did we see and hear a marching band, trumpets, trombones, sousaphones and drums from Plymouth High School giving the beat for U.S veterans headed by John Talcott 99 years old. As well as being the oldest veteran he was the marshal who through the year had planned and organised this parade. He marched part of the way then rode in a vintage open topped automobile and his sailor uniform still fitted him..

For the next hour we clapped and cheered and laughed as a wonderful parade of American life and history passed, exuberant as a Sousa March. High School marching bands led floats decorated by local firms, trade unions, service clubs, churches and individuals. One truck was hung with saucepans, skillets, pot hole covers, metal gates. A percussionist belted out music on them as he hung in safety harness above the road. Unicyclists tossed candy to children. Beauty Queens sprayed water over spectators to relieve the muggy heat. It was all very informal but great fun. Children dashed about collecting the candies tossed from the floats.  Most of them grabbed and gobbled on the spot but I saw one boy who would dash out, collect brimming handfuls then carefully stow them in a shopping bag on his grand mother’s wheel chair. Over the hour I estimate he collected enough to keep his family in candy until the next July 4th.

Although the town was bedecked with American flags a lot of flag wavers were also wearing ‘Bring our boys home from Iraq NOW’ badges and nobody seemed to mind.