I had spent the first week of undergraduate life hiding from the
distinctly uncool array of activities organised for Fresher's
Week, trying to seek out the cool people, those in the know; those
who had some gear. With my own small supply from home running
low, it seemed that a disappointingly high proportion of students
at Sheffield Poly were actually straight, ergo boring.
It therefore came as a pleasant
surprise a couple of weeks later when, sitting in my room in the halls
of residence, a familiar face peered round the door. It was my next door
but one neighbour, Johnny. "Anyone for Thai sticks?" he asked, a big stoned
his face. Johnny was a year older and had travelled, and knew more about
drugs than me. I was impressed.
Together, we embarked
on a mission to turn on the whole of our campus, a mission which was
highly successful until a lad called Charlie, who had no idea about
maximum quantities, shoved a whole gram of speed up his nose and was
rushed off to hospital. Undeterred, we continued our own narcotic-fuelled
odyssey, investing our Spring Term grants in a large chunk of opiated
black, which we took with our girlfriends to Wales, Johnny driving us,
laughing maniacally in the middle of the night like lunatics escaping
from the asylum.
The point of telling
you this is that amongst other things, Johnny introduced me to Jack
Kerouac. I had read books that had made an impression on me, but nothing
like On The Road. Here was a book that could have been written by a
previous incarnation of me, so closely did it articulate the way I felt
For anyone who hasn't
read it, On The Road is a thinly veiled autobiographical account of
Kerouac's travels across America in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
There is no real structure to the book, and no particular story, but
that doesn't matter. What Kerouac does is document a series of adventures
and the bohemian characters that populate them, with a tremendous, relentless
energy (not surprising as it was largely written on Benzedrine). Because
the book has no real ending, you can sense it going on, still being
written, and never ending.
The book embraces
a huge range of themes along the way, such as the nature of love, death,
friendship, isolation and the passage of time. To a wide-eyed adolescent
searching for adventure and meaning, I felt it had been waiting for
me to read all my life. On The Road became my bible. Kerouac shared
with me his hopes and fears, longings and dreams, and they were mine
too. He introduced me to bebop jazz; Charlie Parker, Lester Young, George
Shearing and Thelonius Monk, and explained their music to me.
I started reading
biographies about him and his friends, and read their work too; Burroughs,
Ginsberg and the like. I tried getting into Buddhism and wore checked
lumberjack shirts like him. Girls were often impressed by my knowledge
of The Beats, although, like Jack, I was always shy and ostensibly aloof
except when drunk. Whilst on this voyage of discovery, I was called
to sit my end of year exams. When I gazed at the exam sheet I was horrified
to realise I was unable to understand the questions put in front of
me, let alone answer them. Not surprising really, as I had hardly attended
a lecture all year. So I set off on the road, which led me to a cucumber
farm in Crete, with a very strange girl, but that's another story.
Kerouac was proclaimed
as the King of the Beats, founding father of the hippies, but really
he was just a sensitive working class boy who once wrote a brilliant
book about part of his life, years before it was actually published.
He responded to the acclaim with ambivalence, and, unable to cope with
the demands of fame, retreated to his mother's house where he gradually
crucified himself with alcohol. Carolyn Cassady in her autobiography
Off The Road (1990) described Kerouac and his travelling companion-her
husband-Neal Cassady, as remarkable but deeply unhappy men who wanted
Kerouac may have
died young at the age of 47, but my friend Johnny died younger. Six
months after leaving Sheffield I received a letter from his girlfriend.
She told me about his overdose, how he'd been left in the house, asphyxiating
on his own vomit, whilst the scumbags he thought were his friends fled,
too scared of being caught to phone for an ambulance.
So, we grow up,
move on, get on with life, perhaps a little less naively than before.
I haven't read any Kerouac for nearly half a lifetime now. Looking through
my bookshelves I discovered that I didn't have a copy of On The Road,
so I borrowed my wife's copy to have a look through. I used to lend
it to people and it wouldn't return, so I would buy another, until one
day it didn't get replaced. I liked to think that the people I lent
it to did the same, so the word would be spread. And I think it was.
I am always coming across people, my wife included (who has now lost
her copy to me), who cite reading On The Road as a seminal event in
their adolescence, part of growing up, a rite of passage. Reading through
it now, it still leaves you breathless, wanting to get out there and
Go! Go! Go! If you've never read it then go and do so now, but please
don't ask to borrow my copy.