Bryson's America:The United States, in 50 easy lessons

MY FATHER, who, like all dads, sometimes seemed to be in training for The Most Boring Man In The World competition, used to have the habit, when I was a boy, of identifying and reporting the state of origin of all the cars on any highway we happened to be travelling along.

In America, as I expect you know, each state issues its own number plates, so you can tell at a glance where another car is from, which enabled my father to make trenchant observations such as, "Hey, another car from Wyoming. That's three this morning." Or: "Mississippi. Wonder what he's doing way up here?" Then he would look around hopefully to see if anyone wanted to elaborate or offer speculation, but no one ever did. He could go on like that all day, and often did.

I once wrote a book making good-natured fun of the old man for his many interesting and unusual talents when behind the wheel - the unerring ability to get lost in any city, to drive the wrong way down a one-way street so many times that people would eventually come and watch from their doorways, or spend an entire afternoon driving around within sight of an amusement park or other eagerly sought attraction without succeeding in finding the entrance. One of my teenage children recently read that book for the first time and brought it into the kitchen where my wife was cooking, and said in a tone of amazed discovery, "But this is Dad" - meaning, of course, me.

I have to admit it. I have become my father. I even read number plates, though my particular interest is the slogans. Many states, you see, include a friendly message or nugget of information on their plates, such as "Land of Lincoln" for Illinois, "Vacationland" for Maine, "Sunshine State" for Florida, and the zippily inane "Shore Thing" for New Jersey.

I like to make quips and comments on these so when, for instance, we see Pennsylvania's "You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania", I turn to the passengers and say in an injured tone, "Then why doesn't he call?" However, I am the only one who finds this amusing.

It's interesting - well, perhaps not interesting exactly, but certainly a fact - that many states append slogans that are pretty much meaningless. I have never understood what Ohio was thinking when it called itself the "Buckeye State", and I haven't the remotest idea what New York means by dubbing itself the "Empire State". As far as I'm aware, New York's many undoubted glories do not include overseas possessions.

Indiana, meanwhile, calls itself the "Hoosier State" and has done for 150 years. No one has ever deduced (possibly because no one cares?) where the term comes from, though I can tell you from experience that, if you mention this in a book, 250 people from Indiana will write to you with 250 different explanations and the unanimous opinion that you are a dunce.

All this is by way of introducing our important lesson of the day, namely that the United States isn't so much a country as a collection of 50 small independent nations, and you forget this at your peril. It all goes back to the setting up of a federal government after the War of Independence, when the former colonies didn't trust each other. In order to keep them happy, the states were given an extraordinary range of powers. Even now each state controls all kinds of matters to do with your personal life - where, when and at what age you can legally drink; whether you may carry a concealed weapon, own fireworks, or legally gamble; how old you have to be to drive; whether you will be killed in the electric chair by lethal injection or not at all, and how bad you have to be to get yourself in such a fix; and so on.

If I leave our town of Hanover, and drive over the Connecticut river to Vermont, I will find myself suddenly subject to perhaps 500 completely different laws. I must, among many other things, buckle my seat belt, acquire a licence if I wish to practise dentistry, and give up all hope of erecting roadside hoardings, since Vermont is one of just two states to outlaw highway advertising. On the other hand, I may carry a gun on my person with impunity, and if I am arrested for drunken driving I may legally decline to give a blood sample.

Since I always buckle up anyway, don't own a gun, and haven't the faintest desire to stick my fingers into other people's mouths, even for very good money, these matters don't impinge on me. Elsewhere, however, the differences between state laws can be dramatic - even alarming.

States decide what may or may not be taught in their schools, and in many places, particularly the Deep South, curricula must accord with narrow religious views. In Alabama, for instance, it is illegal to teach evolution as anything other than an "unproven belief". All biology textbooks must carry a disclaimer stating "This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things". By law, teachers must give equal weight to the notion that Earth was created in seven days and that everything on it - fossils, coal deposits, dinosaur bones - is no more than 7,500 years old. I don't know what slogan Alabama puts on its number plates, but "Proud to Be Backward" sounds apt to me.

I shouldn't talk, because New Hampshire has some pretty retrograde laws of its own. It is the only state that declines to observe Martin Luther King Day (he associated with communists, you see) and one of only a couple not to guarantee at least a few basic rights to gay people. Worse, it has the most demented numberplate slogan, the strange and pugnacious "Live Free or Die". Perhaps I take these things too literally, but I really don't like driving around with an explicit vow to expire if things don't go right. I would much prefer something a bit more equivocal and less terminal - "Live Free or Pout" perhaps, or "Live Free If It's All the Same to You Thanks Very Much."

On the other hand, New Hampshire is the only state to guarantee in its constitution the right of the people to rise up and overthrow the government. I have absolutely no intention of exercising this option, you understand, but there is a certain comfort in having it in reserve, especially if they start messing with our schoolbooks.

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)

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