Driving along the Interstate to Phoenix, you pass a sign saying "Arizona State Prison", immediately followed by one saying "Do not stop to pick up hitchhikers". To an English eye this seems screamingly funny in both its obviousness and the cartoon image of an arrowsuited desperado beaming winningly at passing motorists over a hastily-scribbled placard. Judging by the reaction of a fellow passenger on the flight home, though, the irony is lost on the average American. She obligingly greeted the tale with a laugh before agreeing, "Yeah, 'cos it would really slow you down, right?"
There is something faintly ludicrous, too, about the extent of their customer care. Phoning to order breakfast in her room, one of our group was floored by an eager receptionist who trilled, "Thank you, Miss Morris. And may I enquire how you first heard about our Room Service?"
Lest all this should sound sneery and bigoted, I should say that having left harbouring dark thoughts about the complicated rules and rituals of American football I am now showing worrying signs of being converted. The Super Bowl itself has become a symbol of America. It's big, brash and camp as a row of homosexuals; you cannot help but be impressed by its spectacle, not least the half-time entertainment, which has become an awesome logistical feat in itself. The crew have 10 minutes to assemble and dismantle a 32-ton stage without damaging the pitch. Diana Ross duly arrives on an impossibly high hydraulic lift, runs through a medley of hits involving four seamless costume changes (including a final outfit spun from 350 yards of equally seamless "liquid gold") and leaves by helicopter accompanied by a thousand-voice gospel choir. If that's not showbiz I don't know what is.
In Britain, of course, we get Gerry Marsden and a packet of cheese and onion. In 1988 the half-time show featured, predictably enough, 88 grand pianos. Leaving aside the question of "why?", I found myself wondering, if Douglas Hurd had asked the Americans to sort out Bosnia, relieve Somalia and bring peace to Rwanda, all during the break in the 1995 Super Bowl, they'd have found a way to do it. For Norman Schwarzkopf read Busby Berkeley.
The game is preceded by a huge garden party thrown by the National Football League for 6,000 of their closest friends. To say everything was laid on is illustrated by the tale of a Channel 4 executive who spent 20 minutes queuing for a hamburger only to find himself asked: "Would you like oil or talcum powder, sir?" He'd inadvertently joined the queue for a massage. With less modesty and more presence of mind, he should have asked if he could have ketchup.
The game itself is fascinating and addictive. Believe me. When you treat each 10-yard gain as a mini-try, and realise that the moves called by the quarter-back (a sort of scrum-half figure) are just some of the hundreds calculated by coaches, it becomes a sort of high-speed Australian-rules chess, with all the passion and physical power of our own rugby. The tactics themselves are minutely analysed by trainers who use Polaroid cameras to study formations.
But to play it properly, you still need a really silly name. As my friend Guy Jenkin (writer of Drop the Dead Donkey) observed, the crowd could follow the English example and chant "one Yancey Thigpen, there's only one Yancey Thigpen" in the sure knowledge that they were absolutely right.
Whenever I return to Britain from abroad my heart sinks at the sight of a row of English newspapers, their headlines screaming the latest inconsequential celebrity scandal or sleazy hyperbole. It's as if the anally retentive world of gossip, intolerance and spite seeps into the soul, just as the grubby newsprint rubs off on our fingers. Our obsessions, or rather those of our tabloid editors, seem so petty and joyless compared to the perspective of foreign cultures. The Sun, amongst others, at least has a sense of irony. But the Daily Mail's pious comment, "we declined to publish Diana's ['deeply personal'] remarks to Tiggy Legge-Bourke on the grounds of taste" seems odd considering their banner headline (and in colour, too), which modestly shouted "Revealed: what Diana said that reduced Tiggy to tears."
As Alan Bennett has pointed out in his beautifully observed Diaries, (page 191, since you ask) the Independent itself is not above a bit of sanctimony but in this case the Mail really takes the Bath Oliver.