Still on the road


Forty yards of bad prose. Whatever. It's still one of my favourite novels. Has any book so supposedly meretricious been so magical, so influential, so inspiring?

“Hello then, sir!” says a couple of alumni in the British Library. Seth and Rhona, former 6th-formers and now whizzo English teachers. We’re walking along the 120-foot scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road – written at speed on speed in three weeks. “Spontaneous bop prosody,” Kerouac called it. “Rubbish!” a lot of crusty critics called it. Forty yards of bad prose. Whatever. It’s still one of my favourite novels. Has any book so supposedly meretricious been so magical, so influential, so inspiring?

We three wander along the early chapters and chance upon the passage about “the mad ones, who never yawn, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. “Alright!” they go. “Rather!” I go – though I might be getting a bit old for this sort of thing. But it still works on me. It didn’t on my old English teacher, the great “Min” Hills. A fierce Leavisite, it gave him a migraine. Its imprecision gave him kittens. Things “beatific” made him bilious. He was more a Henry Fielding man. But he never let on, he never crushed our callow enthusiasms. The great sage was too sussed and patiently suffered our tedious ramblings about Be Bop and Buddhist Sartoris behind the bike sheds and our woefully bad “spontaneous prose”. We were Dharma Bums from the Home Counties. Dharma Clots more like. Poor Min. How did he stay silent, when we told him that most set texts were “nowhere” and Sir Walter Scott couldn’t carry a candle to Kerouac? Mind you...

We get to the middle section and read about Sal Paradise: “All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the ground.” 

“Yeah!” sighs I, who can’t drive. We read of “lilac evenings” and “strange sadnesses” and “beatific souls”. Ah, those lazy adjectives and jazz rhythms and the exquisite cadence of his three “ands”.

These days I too may be more of a Fielding man, but I can’t forget Kerouac. He turned me on to Dylan and the Beats and the Brontës and to the proper canon and to teaching Seth and Rhona, who too were turned on to the Beats to Keats to Yeats and to that same canon and who will turn on their own 6th-formers to gaze with reverence on this sacred scroll.

We get to the end and laugh and agree that he’s still way too cool for school. I zip back into a Reading Room with its yawning crusties and quickly scribble this spontaneous bop prosody and then leg it into the lilac evening of London. I’m on the road again, man... well, the Euston Road.


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