THE DIARY: Flower power fades into cyberpower

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What is one to make of San Francisco, in some ways a parody of the American idea, in other ways its fulfilment? When I arrived at my hotel the other day the doorman leapt to take my bags crying "Hi there! Nice to see ya! Welcome back!" So far as I know I had never seen him in my life, and he left me confused. Did he really remember me from past times, or was he just pretending? Was he being true or false, and did it really matter anyway?

Ambiguities are everywhere in the lovely city. On the one hand I read in today's Chronicle that Mayor Willie Brown, seeking re-election in November, discovers that all possible web addresses containing his name have already been registered, in the hope that he will pay good money to get control of them. On the other hand there is also an item about the 150 volunteer pilots who assiduously patrol the skies keeping a check on ecologically undesirable developments. "It must be fun meeting like this every morning," I said to a group of people I have observed convivially breakfasting together each day at a cafe in North Beach. "Sure it is," said one of them, "we call it networking..."

Good and bad, sham and genuine! When I first came to this country, in 1953, my hosts advised me to be generous with tips - "always tip the bellboy a full dollar". I have followed the advice scrupulously ever since, and it now occurs to me that after 46 years of inflation, perhaps that's why the hotel doorman seemed rather less effusive when we parted.

MUCH OF the good around here, to my mind, is the gift of the social rebels of the 1950s and 1960s - the beatniks, the hippies, whose first metropolis this was. If their legacy is partly disturbing, it is partly comforting too. Like political correctness, another of the local specialities, its absurdities overlap its nobilities. For instance there is a movement active at the moment to suppress the idea of animal ownership - humans are only the companions of cats, dogs or parrots, not their possessors. San Franciscans themselves scoff at this celestial ideal, columnists make mock of it, a man I met at Perry's Bar on Union Street told me that yeah, for years he'd been living in a commune of cockroaches.

But is there anywhere freer on earth than San Francisco? Are women anywhere more liberated, homosexuals more at ease, animals more respected, cranks happily crankier? I walked up Columbus Avenue the other day behind a young woman who had shaved the hair off one half of her head, and dyed the other half a virulent green. She was talking loudly to herself as she strode at great speed along the street, but I noticed that not a single soul stared at her, laughed or shied away as she passed. Where else would she be so accepted?

San Francisco was always a tolerant place,but the renegades of the 1950s, with their wild disregard for all convention, gave new life to the civic reputation. Some of the old beatnik haunts have been fossilised as tourist spectacles, but elsewhere in town the ethos is still alive. I called in yesterday at the City Lights bookshop, where the Kerouacs and Keseys once mingled with the Ginsbergs and Corsos, and lo! assembling books behind a counter was the venerable Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself, the original poetical patron of the Beats.

AND THIS morning I jumped into my gaudy rented convertible and drove out to Bolinas. Remember Bolinas? It is the little coastal town, an hour or so north of the city, which was a last stronghold of the hippies in their decline. I expected to find there some elderly survivors of the breed, with receding pig-tailed hair above faces weathered by decades of illegal substances. I knew the villagers had made a practice of taking down road signs, to keep the tourists away, and I foresaw a tight defensive enclave of half-forgotten mores.

It was not at all like that. There were hippies indeed, but they were young, and all the symptoms of the 1960s seemed lively to me - the dilapidated Volvo thumping rock music, the half-stoned shoeless youth in bleached jeans singing to his guitar, the groups of cheerful sidewalk idlers with their feet up on kitchen chairs, the organic coffees and Zen-cultivated vegetables, the forthcoming Interplanetary Conclave of Light Symposium, the obliging silliness and the peace of it all.

The peace was palpable, and perhaps it is the lost peace of the flower people that is now luring San Francisco itself into nostalgia. Although cyber-energies are everywhere in the air - Silicon Valley is just down the road - still this strikes me now as a city of gentle regret. When I got back to town I went to one of my favourite bookshops in the world, the Tillman Place Bookstore. Modern California - "California.com" - is patently growing out of sync with such old-school backwaters, and it occurred to me that the shop might have gone next time I came: so just in case I decided I would buy a symbolically souvenir book there, in gratitude for many pleasures.

I chose a posh edition of Anna Karenina, to supplement my dog-eared paperback, and to remind me always of this city's universal charms and failings. Mr Armistead the proprietor signed it for me, Tolstoy being unavailable, and when I drove to the airport in my purple Mitsubishi I wiped away a tear that was only half-contrived.

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