A beer with Cicero in the spa pool

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The Independent Online
THE NUCLEAR industry, so short of anything like friends, sent me a ticket to speak at a conference in Seattle. Could an old hippie learn to love the nuclear age? That was the subject of my scattergun remarks one afternoon in a room overlooking Puget Sound.

By way of preparations I dropped off in Boulder, Colorado, and heard J J Cale. We gathered, assorted tie-dye-batik old hippies and I, in what looked like a music hall almost as well preserved as the audience. Cale said little and did not smile at all, but the songs sounded pretty much as I remembered, and I thought how much I'd rather hear him than Eric Clapton.

In Seattle, I made Cyclops my home from home. It's a cafe that may have been grungey before anyone had thought to make a cult of blending the hippie with the punk. This being the USA, the service was, of course, snappy, and one soon decided that the dedicatedly unhygienic appearance of the waiters probably disguised yuppie ambitions.

Inspired by being in a city where it was so easy to be hip, I went to hear Jesus Jones. He seemed a nice enough boy, but the ordinarily charming music he played came out at a volume that would have made a duck's-arse wave on the back of my head - if there was enough hair. I retired hurt and went to hear the one-man ballad machine who enacted heartbreak after heartbreak in front of a largely indifferent crowd in the rather swank hotel in which my conference was being held.

I liked the nuclear crew. They did not seem to wish to be candidates for a remake of Dr Strangelove. It is axiomatic that those whom the greens and the media portray as plunderers, exploiters and destroyers of this world are more agreeable than their critics. They also seem more serious, somehow.

I gave them my rap about how we may well be glad we know how to make nuclear power, especially if we ever take global warming seriously. Unfortunately, I had been told to make my remarks brief, and just as I got into my stride I remembered to cut myself off, with an inappropriate joke about how even a nuclear dump would probably be no more to be avoided than, say, Buffalo.

This sort of thing always goes down well, but is of course rather dangerous, granted that you never know how awful Buffalo is (if it really is at all), nor whether its mayor might happen to be in the audience.

Now, by way of R & R, I am in a bed-and-breakfast place on the farthest waste-tip of mainland USA. An English milord and his wife are staying here, and we told our fellow breakfasters that the Welsh are short and lachrymose and that the Irish are amusing provided you don't interfere with their God-given right to murder one another. This was by way of proving our main contention: namely that the English would never become politically correct.

Luckily, one American couple who had been staying here the night before had moved on. He was nice enough but wore a T-shirt which said 'In the beginning was . . . GOD'. In the style of a record cover it portrayed the beginning of the world, complete with lightning, in some sort of plastic relief material. This couple did a quantity of prayer-work before breakfast, muttering goodness knows what incantations over their orange juice and bran. The US is still full of sceptics and other responsible people, of course, but at times you forget it. Not that I blame Americans for seeking some bedrock in a country where the impermanence of human things seems so terribly obvious.

I was glad that the vicar of my village was not here to see this dreadful breakfast scene, in which the art of being properly religious bid fair to be turned into sorcery. The vicar would probably have made the happy-clappy couple's day: he has the distinct advantage over most modern clergymen of actually looking like God. But I am not sure we could have kept him quiet throughout the protracted grace that was said, nor restrained him from one of his homilies about how dreadful real certainty can be.

The vicar is so near to retirement that we decided to have a day out just before I left to come west. We went over to Gloucester from our Herefordshire fastness, and heard midday prayer at Prinknash, the Benedictine monastery which overlooks the city. The abbot is a young man whom I know slightly, and he invited us to lunch. It was delicious, and I could easily see why visitors had been calling in droves to sample the cuisine before the order went out to make the freely offered fare less enticing. Now, what wayfarers get at the door is not so sumptuous as to tempt foodies disguised as tramps.

Knowing that I was about to go into the land of neon and log cabins, the vicar popped a copy of Cicero's letters under the milk on my doorstep on the morning I left. So here I am, on the stoop (I think), with a Bud to hand, wise words before me and the gentle hum of the spa pool for company. I have just cruised back from a spectacularly big Chinese dinner, which I ate in a sort of Formica barn, surrounded by vast Americans - cruising, of course, with a country-and-western station on the radio of my rented Korean car.

But I ate decorously among the ghastly cheerfulness, with Cicero propped up against a jar of sauce you could have stripped paint with, and was heartily glad that someone had thought me sufficiently redeemable - I nearly said remedial - as to enjoy the vainglorious musings of an exiled ex-consul of so long ago. Cicero's vanity and longing for praise seem as fresh as if he had written yesterday.