I have been on holiday in rural New Jersey, USA where I was staying with friends for a few days before heading off to the small town of Princeton also in New Jersey which is also home to one of America’s most famous universities. On previous trips, I have been to many of the country’s major cities but, this time, with enormous pleasure, I kept away from the crowds and settled for the calm face of America which still exists if you look beyond the frenzy.
In Princeton, I had a room in a lovely old house in a quiet street run by a generous, intelligent and liberal-minded couple who entertained me with their views on American politics and with copious amounts of gin.
My room, complete with traditional quilt, mosquito net and big brass bed, looked out onto trees, sunshine and visiting humming birds. Rupert Murdoch and his seedy hordes seemed a long way away as I put down the New York Times each morning on that wonderful porch, amazed to see British news on the front page every day and ashamed that those phone hacking journalists had brought Britain to the attention of the World.
This was a vacation so I buried my guilt and turned my attention to America’s rich array of colourful birds, most of which I had never known about before, as they flocked round the garden feeders.
For an Englishman, used to our temperate climate with its currently disappointing weather, New Jersey was astoundingly hot with temperatures up in the 90s fahrenheit and, at times, a humidity that sapped all my energy.
There was though room in the back yard for my daily Kungfu and Taichi exercises – an invigorating hour performed under the welcome shade of those trees along with the owner’s collection of American street signs.
Each day I got more and more acclimatized to the heat and by beginning with the strangely inspiring Da Mo standing meditation moves, I felt that I was putting down roots in this majestic country’s soil.
The centre of Princeton was a short but exceedingly hot walk down leafy avenues ….
… where to my deep admiration, joggers still managed to keep up a sweaty pace….
….. shirts, by this time, were out of the question….
…. but Princetonians seem immune to the heat.
I have to admit that I walked – heading downtown to the gentle and genteel centre with its, by this time, essential venue….
….my favourite Princeton coffee shop,
…with its welcome shade, reviving air-conditioning, wi fi connections, newspapers and, yes, good strong coffee.
During my time in this town, Alice’s Gourmet Cafe, became my life-saver. Don’t even look at those cheese cakes.
America does these places so well.
Just across the street is the spacious and leafy campus of Princeton University one of America’s most impressive Ivy League colleges and home during his lifetime of Albert Einstein and, after his death, of his preserved and much studied brain.
The students were all on vacation, so I had the place almost to myself and it was difficult to imagine that once, during the American Revolutionary War, British cannons fired on these buildings.
All is forgiven, I hope, and war and revolution seemed like distant history as this Englishman lay under the shade of a tree hypnotised by the thoughts of this place in American intellectual life…
…or, maybe, I was just basking in the beauty of this marriage of architecture and nature.
It has to be noted, of course, that Ivy League colleges really are ivy-clad.
Then it was time to escape to the shade of the Art Museum, with its perfectly accessible, small but impressive collection with some amazingly beautiful ancient Greek and Etruscan vases and paintings by, amongst others, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and the American artists, Thomas Eakins, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol with a good selection too of 19th century American landscape paintings on an epic scale.
This humbler work of art, sitting unassumingly in the centre of town, reminded me that I too had work to do.
I was due to give a poetry reading on the last night of my American trip so I headed for the library…
….where I downloaded my poetry computer files and was soon lost in my own world, writing and rewriting poems for the occasion. Princeton Public Library was an easy place to work with some extremely patient members of staff who helped me through various technical problems without making me feel like an idiot. The cafe here also serves excellent unsweetened iced tea – perfection.
working in a place often gives me more of a feel for it than just being a sight-seer and so, for a short time, I felt like I really belonged here in New Jersey.
When I finally did that reading, my first on American soil, at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge to a generous audience of New Jersey poets, I was proud that a number of my poems have been published in New Jersey and I like to think that, Englishman that I am, a little bit of me is also a New Jersey poet.
Walking back to my room that hot, dreamy, leafy, cricket-chirping night, I was already thinking of the journey home next morning but I paused in the heat under this street-lit flag and, far from it seeming like a token of aggressive nationalism, for once, at least, it felt like a symbol of hope.