Better than Kerouac? Maybe - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Better than Kerouac? Maybe

I’ve always written. Virtually for as long as I can remember. That’s one of the things about having an elder sister who is a teacher. She enjoyed having a brother eight years younger to practice on when she was younger, so I got to Infants school around age five already a fluent reader and quite able to write – thank you.

Junior school saw me writing verse with some distinction, for a nine year old, and receiving some praise from my teacher for managing to find a rhyme for “Robertson Hare” (despair) in a long and rambling poem about something I cannot remember.

Secondary school, and one of my English teachers wrote in a report that, “It must be a long time since someone of Robert’s ability has not made the grade for entry into an “O” Level class, but I cannot possibly justify it unless he produces more high quality written work. A nice man, nonetheless who read the class some fabulous short stories as examples to inspire us, one of which was about a great leap frog contest.

It was some story, which stayed with me for many years in my memory drawer, but along with a lot of other things from what was in retrospect a very difficult time for me – along with adolescence and puberty I was going home each day to a dying parent – the name of the author was forgotten.

Fast forward a few years and my comic book and Voice of America inspired infatuation with most things American got the chance to reach fruition thanks to Sir Freddie Laker, who started a low budget airline flying to New York for not much money at all, and my ongoing correspondence with a Wisconsin girl who had spent a year as an exchange student at my school who invited me to visit her in Madison Wisconsin where she was at college.

Sir Freddie Laker and his plane.

Oh, the memories are many of that trip, from start to finish, the travel, the events, the people, the places and many of them are seminal in the formation of what passes for my character. One young man (for we all were once) introduced me to some literature I had yet to read – having for the most part devoured European stuff , wordy but dire, Hesse, Sartre, Kafka – of a most definitely American flavour. “Revenge of The Lawn” the collection of short pieces by Richard Brautigan being one, and “On The Road” being the other. He ended up being my “Cody” of sorts.

Back to the English teacher at secondary school. He had told me once that my writing reminded him of a great American writer…..at which point I stopped listening due to a rapidly swelling head, but there followed something about the general lack of punctuation and hard to follow flow of things, obscure choice of metaphors and odd references. I managed to pass my exams by the way, but, unable to muster enough maturity to channel what creative energies I possessed, did better at empirical subjects like Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics.

So, I believe I first read On The Road during a hot summer in 1976 on East Johnson Street in Madison, a few blocks away from where Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs had shared an apartment when they were reportedly students there. You know, a couple blocks down from “Teddy Wedger’s Cornish Pasties” before he moved to State Street on the same side of the street as The Caribou Tavern  inspiration for the album. What needs saying about this book that hasn’t already been said already? I dug it, and in my fashion of the time devoured as much as I could lay my hands on of Kerouac’s other work with relish, but held the pickle.

Ann Charters bio on Jack. A good read.

So, then someone seems to have hit the fast forward button. The Wisconsin girl moved to California, Sir Freddie Laker went bust, Cody went into the recording business via short order chef and I went round in what it now seems to me were spirals. I heard about a good biography of Kerouac’s written by Anne Charters, which I was given a copy of as a birthday present by a girlfriend of the time. I was especially interested in the books he had read as a younger man, not only as they seemed to have formed a large part of his character but as they were to me – as an Englishman – a hitherto unknown seam of unmined literature. So I compiled a list of the authors and titles, Walden Pond, Look Homeward Angel – you all know the stuff – and bought a good few of them for myself.

One of the authors was William Saroyan, and my local independent bookshop only had a collection of his short stories on the shelf, but the old guy who worked there was happy to tell me what he knew about him and offered to get some more stuff in if I cared to order it. As I recall I came across some of his novels in a second hand bookshop, which I bought and saved myself some money by buying these superior, older, well-read copies complete with eyebrows down by the spine in-between the pages. But I read the short stories anyway, starting with “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” onwards and Saroyan’s work entranced me.

Turns out he was like Kerouac in that he was also not a native American, and like most of my other favorite American authors wrote about his country with an outsiders eye for detail and incongruity. (for me, Steinbeck’s best work was “Travels with Charlie” when he himself said through reading modern writers that, “he no longer recognised his own country”) Well, the Saroyan was spellbinding. The only other thing I have come across in my life to match it, is a Japanese prayer that, when first I heard it sung by a dapper man from Okinawa, had reduced me to tears.

Reading Jack is like reading my life.

I read each story in turn, not wanting the book to end and trying to work out how many more three page long gems it contained, when I came across the short story read to me by my frustrated and disappointed English teacher all those years ago. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck, for one of the few times in my life and I knew I was going to be transported by this story to somewhere out of time, out of the physical world and into the intangible one of memory.

Yeah, it was the same short story from all those years back, only now the intervening years had provided me with a knowledge of modern American literature, in particular Kerouac’s, and now the meaning of the comparison my teacher had made between my writing style and that of the “famous American writer” became clearer. My own, poorly punctuated, unstructured ramblings as a teenager had put him in mind of the free flowing prose of Jack Kerouac and I appreciated more now – as an  adult – what he had tried to tell me as a teenager. It was nice to finally know what he had tried to say and I had failed to hear.

But there the similarities end. Jack was French Canadian and I am Huguenot Protestant many generations back. Jack wrote some great shit, and I ramble about this and that without drive aim or purpose other than as mild literary catharsis. You know the semi-intellectual purgative, akin to squeezing a brain blackhead. Plus Jack never got to fulfill his dream of hitching across America, whereas I did in 1986. Yes siree, highway 80 from the George Washington bridge in New York to the Golden Gate in San Francisco. Eight adventure filled days going out, and ten coming back.

I doubt I’ll ever write a book about it, although it might make a good blog or two. The one thing that bothers me is that my editor harkens back to my old school English teacher, in that he also doesn’t like big chunks of long rambling prose, preferring me to write in “shorter, punchier, paragraphs” for the Internet.  I try and humor him, having more faith than he in the American readerships ability to comprehend the odd longer paragraph here and there, with dodgy punctuation, just like Jack’s.


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