Monthly Archives: August 2015

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Maternity leave has given me more time to read, so I’ve picked up a couple of Big Read books. Neither of them are #90 On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I realised I never posted the review I wrote of that book. Here it is, almost exactly a year late.

On the Road on the rails
I’ve just finished On the Road, which I’ve read, appropriately enough, while riding the rails on a long train journey from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. On the Road is the tale of a wandering life as the main character, Sal, travels fairly aimlessly around the USA, in the company of other drifters. It’s fairly well understood that the book is broadly autobiographical fiction.

In our epic trip across and around the USA this summer we visited quite a lot of the places Sal goes to, including San Francisco, LA, San Antonio and a couple other places I don’t this moment recall.

Booze and bad parenting
The book does not do it for me. It’s written on a high, in a lovely drugged-out haze, and as you go through you can see all the damage that these mad bad men are doing as they go. There’s a scene where Sal and Dean punch a door together, and Sal breaks a bone in his hand. He’s so drunk he doesn’t notice until the morning. That’s what the book is. Throughout the book, people get married, have kids, cart these kids around to squats and tents, don’t feed them much and take a lot of drugs in front of them. The stated assumption is that the kids don’t mind. What Kerouac can’t seem to see is that his generation, mourning their own lost fathers, are the missing and deadbeat dads of tomorrow. Of today, in fact, as even as they look for their own lost paternal role models they are squandering the chance to provide what they’ve lost for their own kids.

The book is very much a man’s story and women only play a peripheral role in it. Each of the main characters gets entangled with various women over the course of the book. It’s written as entanglement, women making demands and needing to be managed, but it’s easy to read as a con. It’s as though they’re mountain climbers. The man is leading, and if he cuts the rope that binds the group, he can walk on more easily. The woman is more firmly tethered to the children, and is well aware that if he goes the rest of the party is likely to go over the cliff. Kerouac’s characters cut the rope without, it seems, realizing they’re doing any such thing at all.

The wit of wine
Sal (and Kerouac) find a romantic charm in the ravings of drunks and potheads. I really cannot be bothered. I feel like I’ve met these men, and I don’t respect them. They look very different when you’re one of their targets (or not a target, being excluded due to age or lack of beauty or…) than when you’re one of their buddies. As a buddy, they’re mad fun. They keep you out late. You drink too much, then go to work in the morning hungover and happy.

On the other side of the fence, you can see the lies. You can see how they’ll say anything, do anything to get a girl they fancy into bed – do anything, almost, apart from give her respect. Respect, as Aretha Franklin pointed out, is important.

And that’s without getting started on his comments about 9, 11, 13 and 15 year old girls, which need their own content warning, frankly.

Why read it then?
There are two strengths to the book, in my mind. First, it rips apart the staid and sober notion of the 1940s was only a time of war related privations and jitterbugging parties. There are no poodle skirts and duck tail hair cuts. The guys are roving the USA broke, ragged, drunk and stoned; there is a lot of pot in this book.

Second, Kerouac does have an engaging, intense, frantic way of describing the places characters go. It’s like a drunken celebration, where someone is telling you that he’s so, so happy that he got a great job, and he only had a couple of drinks, and did he mention that he’s having a baby soon, too, so it’s perfect timing and the sky is so beautiful tonight and birds always sing louder in summer and…

Don’t travel to the beat of this drum
This is clearly a book that launched a thousand trips, and that’s both understandable and a crying shame. It’s the worst book in the world to try to travel to. It describes times and places that only existed – if they existed at all – for a few people for a few moments. And even if you could manage to stomach all the drugs and alcohol, and went a year later (or had a time machine and went the same year) you’d never capture quite the same spirit.

The book skips over the weeks and months of working quietly and making money (although they are there, if you look), creating a picture of an endless party that you just can’t match in real life, although thousands have wrecked Ibiza trying… In a way, this is the Pinterest problem 60 years early: a view of a life that’s so carefully edited reality can only disappoint. There’s also a clear line of descent from here to The Beach, both in a literary sense and in terms of travel choices. A bit of backpacker history while we’re on the go, it’s interesting but distasteful at the same time.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Riding the flying bicycle

Riding the flying bicycle

A close friend is finishing uni at the moment. She’s 30 and has just submitted a PhD thesis that genuinely adds something to the sum of all human knowledge. I know she’d say it’s not much, that it’s a small thing, and maybe on the global scale she’s right. Nonetheless, I am so totally in awe of both the effort she put in and the fact that she has put her shoulder to the wheel and helped move her field along.

So I bought her a present. It’s this:

A white mug with people in gowns on flying bicycles

The mug design is by Quentin Blake, whose work I got to know and love as a child because he illustrated a lot of Roald Dahl books. As I’ve mentioned before, his artwork had a real impact on both my reading of Roald Dahl’s stories and the way I view the characters in them. I think it’s beautiful.

I really like this image, as a metaphor for graduation and moving on. I love the flocks of students taking off on their bicycles. University towns are full of bikes anyway, and there is a sense that students migrate, that they fly the coop in the summer, when the halls and colleges go quiet, and return, noisy as a flock of starlings in autumn.

Today, I’ve been thinking about riding that flying bicycle myself. When I bought the mug, it didn’t occur to me that there would be anything scary about the ride – but there is. Heading into the unknown is one of my favourite things. I love the moment of setting off. It’s exhilarating beyond belief. Being a planner, I’ll have made sure that my frame is sturdy and my tires are pumped (I take far better care of my metaphorical bikes than my actual ones). I’ll have comfortable shoes and probably a packed lunch. I try to have money in my pocket, in case I crash into a cloud and need to call a flying taxi.

But you can’t really prepare fully, can you? You can’t prepare for that moment when you look down, and the world is so far away that it seems like you could never get home again. Or that shaken feeling you get after a near miss, a lightning bolt or runaway dragon that bowls you over, leaving you counting your limbs and seriously anxious about the answer. And nothing can prepare you for the full-on hits, the ones where neither you nor your flying bike will ever be quite the same again.

Right now, I’m peddling along, waiting for take off in my own way. The best metaphor I’ve found for this late stage of a first pregnancy is (and bear with me, or go off and sympathize with K who thinks this is mad) sky diving.

I went sky diving at university. One of the fund raising clubs organized it, and you were supposed to get a certain amount of donations to cover your jump plus a bit over for charity. That didn’t seem entirely fair to me, on the basis that I was in it purely for the thrills, so I put up the jump bit and hit up friends for the genuinely-for-charity bits. It was still a really cheap way to go sky diving.

The dive site was somewhere outside Scunthorpe, and the day was typical of the Yorkshire weather with high grey cloud making everything seem drab. We had a whole series of safety lectures and demonstrations, then sat around in a tin hut waiting for the weather to either clear or get worse, so we’d know if the jumps could go ahead.

It eventually cleared enough for us beginners to jump. About half a dozen of us were loaded into a plane, each with our instructor. They chatted over the noise of the engine, just another day at the office. We tried not to throw up.

What I remember most is having no idea of what it would be like. I’m tall, and they prefer your instructor to match or outweigh you, so I had a big bear of a man whose name tag read ‘Baldrick’. When it was our turn, he clipped me onto him, shouted us through some safety checks, and then we slid up the bench (wooden benches! on an airplane!) and out the door.

For few terrifying moments, as we went from upright (stepping out the door) to face down (correct sky diving position) I really felt like I was falling. It is one of the physically scariest things I’ve ever known.

After that, when we were in position, the sensation of falling vanished. The earth was spread out, so far below us that we couldn’t (I decided) possibly hit it. How would we get there? And I relaxed.

Jolting out of free fall when Baldrick opened the parachute was another shock. Floating gently down, which took about 15 minutes, was an odd mix of thrilling (there is nothing under my feet!), awkward (what, exactly, do you say to the stranger whose chest you’re strapped to at a time like that?) and an odd high-intensity boredom (is that still Scunthorpe in the distance? Yep. Hmm. Grey skies. Eh. Are those green smudges trees? Couldn’t the world have laid on better scenery for this moment?).

Landing, again, was a bit scary. We’d been warned that it was the most dangerous part, as you’ve got momentum and it’s easy to twist an ankle. (Or get crushed, I thought, by the giant bear strapped to your back.) But even that was fine, and I stumbled back into the club house with shaky legs, a big grin and a feeling of relief: I’d done it. It was awesome.

At this stage, we’re in the plane. We’re circling higher and higher around the airfield. At some point soon, a professional will tell me: yep, this is it. It’s now, it’s really happening now. There will probably be some safety checks and a moment of pure terror.

And then, at some point after all that, we step out the door with our new baby. What happens next? I really have no idea. Somehow, I understand, you get back to earth where everything is normal and people make you cups of tea. And you get so blasé about the whole thing you may well do it again. But on the way down? Not a clue.

I guess we’ll find out.

Days like these

Days like these

Pregnant belly and a Kindle propped on a knee

I swear I have done useful things since my last on-site contract finished a week ago, but now that I’m not out of the house for 11 hours a day, there’s time for a bit of real decadence, too. I’ve been working on a few things for Sprout, some practical and some pretty. And this one, that’s hopefully going to be both.

Close up of pregnant belly with knitting on lap

I think we’re as ready as we can be. Sure, there’s more we could do – more we could read or learn or buy or make or clean – but I don’t think any of it’s necessary. (And if it is, well, I understand that the shops will still be open, helping hands will still be offered and even the internet will probably still be running, as though I hadn’t just CHANGED THE WORLD by making a WHOLE BABY.)

Plate of scones rest on bump

These were totally for the baby. Totally. It’s an essential part of keeping her in touch with her Devonshire heritage.

PS. If the Yorkshire contingent are worried about undue influence, don’t be. There were cheese straws last weekend…