20 JULY 1991, Page 7


The problem of having nothing to worry about


Woodstock, Vermont. obody ever told me how beautiful New England is, or, if they did, I was not listening. Suddenly, the whole of American culture begins to fall into place. I had in- spected the homes of the rich around Mi- ami beach, with their multiple satellite dishes in their gardens, their cabin cruisers parked at the garden gate; I had taken in the sight of the very rich drinking Coca- Cola in silly clothes and laughing much too loudly at jokes which were not at all funny, and decided that the American Dream was a nightmare. But many, if not most, people will identify the small town of Woodstock, Vermont, as the nearest we are ever likely to come to a glimpse of heaven on earth. Although it contains only 3,200 inhabi- tants it seems much bigger, with spacious Georgian, Victorian and neo-Georgian houses in painted wood, brick and stone, spread over a huge area. Each one is better designed and more substantial than the last. There is no industry in Woodstock, no modern architecture, no colour problem, and in any case one of the handsomest red- brick Georgian buildings in the centre of the town is the Woodstock Prison (or 'cor- rectional facility'), where up to 78 prisoners can be accommodated and encouraged to undergo courses of social therapy or ele- mentary education under pain of losing remission.

People may suspect there is an element of sarcasm or envy in my description of this heaven on earth but there is neither. Ten- ms, golf, squash and innumerable swim- Ming pools are available. I even found a first-class croquet lawn at the Woodstock Sports Center, and spent a happy morning and afternoon beating all comers. Every- body is extraordinarily polite and friendly. The countryside glows quietly in the dry summer sunshine — wooded hills and fields, the occasional river, fine steepled white churches catering for a variety of Christian denominations, a slightly far- ouche Italianate public library, but well stocked, a fine Palladian villa — everything is here except genuine antiquity. It occurs to me that it would be an excellent idea to export a number of redundant Norman churches and ruined keeps, at a suitable price. There is something almost obscene, as they say, in the possibility that Wood- stock's inhabitants might be denied any- thing which contributed to the Good Life. It would be affected to complain that these people have never known suffering, or terror, or even discomfort. One has the impression that childbirth is painless in Woodstock, that the agonies of bereave- ment are much reduced by the fact that no human relationship exists on any but the blandest and best-mannered level. That is surely the voice of envy. One can reason- ably argue that the food in the shops, although admirable in texture, size and freshness, and extraordinarily cheap, is al- most entirely devoid of taste. The snow let- tuce, which is excellent and crisp, has almost exactly the same subtle faint taste as the halibut, beautifully white, firm and flaky, which is again scarcely to be distin- guished in taste from the wonderfully juicy T-bone steak, which melts in the mouth and could never be confused in texture with the gloriously big, crisp apples, to be distin- guished from lettuces by their shape.

But this is the voice of superciliousness. Americans like their food to taste the same, and to be distinguishable chiefly by shape or texture. Taste is supplied by sauces hot chilli, or Rocquefort cheese, according to preference. We have no reason to sneer. They are intelligent, free human beings, making their own choices. The biggest shadow, in this happy existence would appear to lie in anxieties about health. Even these anxieties are more apparent elsewhere in America than in Woodstock, Vermont.

In Princeton, New Jersey, the taproom bar in the Nassau Inn carried two notices. The first was headed 'There's a limit' :

We enjoy serving you. And we want you to have a good time. But more than that, we care about your safety and the safety of everyone who shares the road with you. Because we want you back. So please drink responsibly. We take the drinking laws very seriously and we hope you do. Our service staff is trained to help you, if you need it. Know your limits and stick to them.

The second notice, cribbed from the announcement which now has to appear on `I can't remember what I was doing when I heard that we'd joined the ERM.' every bottle of wine or can of beer sold in the length or breadth of the union, was more emotive :

A PREGNANT WOMAN NEVER DRINKS ALONE. Alcohol can cause birth defects. The Surgeon General recommends that pregnant women and nursing mothers drink no alcohol, beer, wine or liquor.

None of this impertinence is apparent in Vermont, and I do not suppose I shall be returning to the Nassau Inn. New Jersey, I should explain, has a hellish Governor called 'Jim' Florio who keeps making stands, like Douglas Hurd, against the pri- vate ownership of assault weapons, as guar- anteed by the American, Constitution. The boredom and banality of this appalling man seem to reach into the further areas of New Jersey. No bath plugs work in that hellish State. There is no same-day laundry service in any of its hotels.

But the underlying social perplexity is probably not anxiety about health or fear of death. These may represent individual ter- rors, and find expression in the ludicrous message which must now decorate every single bottle of wine or can of beer sold in the United States:

GOVERNMENT WARNING ; (1) Accord- ing to the Surgeon-General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during preg- nancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machin- ery and may cause health problems.

Nobody pauses to ask whether birth defects are less prevalent in Muslim coun- tries. It is quite plain that the Surgeon- General is in the grip of a hysteria. But so is the whole country in the grip of a hyste- ria. One asks oneself why.

The explanation, I believe, is to be found in a state of existential insecurity. Wood- stock, Vermont, as I say, is the culmination of the American culture, the big rock candy mountain for which the rest of the world yearns. Other parts of the United States have to put up with race or 'inner-city' pro- blems, Aids, chewing-gum under the table, industry, modern architecture and postur- ing, half-witted politicians. But it was for Woodstock, Vermont, that wave after wave of American bombers reduced the Iraqi army to broiled luncheon meat. You could not find a pleasanter reason. But without the bankers and some domestic poverty, there could be no Woodstock. That is the thought which drives them all mad.