On The Road - Again
by John Peters

Why Jack Kerouac's writing is still relevant today


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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 grin
on 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 about life.

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 to die.

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.


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