Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Visions Of Gerard - Jack Kerouac


It's true what William Burroughs said about Jack Kerouac in that he was instrumental in starting a world-wide cultural movement. It's true also that he ended up a drunk, disparaging of the hippy movement that his writing - in particular On The Road - helped create.
I think what it is with Kerouac is that he was first and foremost a writer and an apolitical one at that. On The Road though written in 1951 wasn't published until 1957 and Kerouac would have been rightly pleased with the recognition and the huge audience it garnered. What writer wouldn't be? But whilst pleased with the original Beatnik scene in its purest form, the emergent hippy movement was like a Frankenstein's monster that he felt much antipathy to.
Patently, Kerouac never had a problem with drugs as supposedly a lot of his writing was done whilst on Benzedrine. No, it was the more overtly political wing of the hippy scene that he disliked, feeling it akin to a communist hi-jacking.

Visions Of Gerard was written in 1956 and is essentially a homage to his elder brother who had died at the age of nine when Jack was just four years-old. It's a beautiful yet rather self-indulgent book but then how could it not be? His brother, Gerard, is described as a near-saint as seen through the eyes of a four year-old though clearly he's actually being described through the eyes of Jack as a thirty four year-old man.
There are scenes in it that might well have happened such as Gerard rescuing a mouse from a mouse-trap and trying to nurse it back to health, only for it to be eaten by the family cat. Or Gerard coming home one day with a boy from the neighbourhood who is obviously very hungry; Gerard knowing that his mother would be able to feed him.
Events such as this are used to illustrate Gerard's saintliness and allows him to question why God allows such suffering in the world. Gerard's parents and teachers can only tell him that it's just the way it is but that heaven is there as a reward which only causes him to wonder why heaven can't be here and now?

Other events are clearly imagined by Jack, such as when Gerard is confessing his sins to a priest and admits to looking at another boys 'dingdong' in the urinal. And whilst this scene is being played out in a little church at dusk, elsewhere in the world wars are raging.
Or when Gerard ventures out alone into the cold one evening to fetch his mother some aspirin from the drugstore whereupon he spies an old man returning home from a days work, embittered with the cold and heading back to an empty, leaky room where no mother, father, little sister or brother awaits him. And meanwhile, Gerard's own mother has a headache.
"Why did God leave us sick and cold?" he asks his mother "I don't like it. I wanta go to Heaven. I wish we were all in Heaven."
"Me too I wish," his mother replies.
"Why can't we have what we want? Aw Mama, I don't understand."

Kerouac's story is clearly a very heartfelt one and goes a long way to explain what made him the person he ended up as. It reveals the marriage between his Catholicism and his Buddhist leanings along with his quest to find a meaning to life. It's a story that's very easy to criticise but because it's so heartfelt, out of respect for his dead brother and for the impact his death had upon Jack, it doesn't deserve to be criticised.
I always thought On The Road was speed jive, like the line out of All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople. Visions Of Gerard is more like an opium dream and for this reason they're two very different books in style, mood and content. Of the two, even though On The Road won Kerouac all the plaudits and acclaim, I actually suspect Visions Of Gerard might be the better one.

John Serpico

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 7)


Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out. And sometimes when we stare out the windows at the world going by outside, we can with very little effort fall into a day-dream. 

Our day-dreams, of course, will be all very different but for me, my memory is sometimes cast back to when I was child. Back to a world that was very, very different to the one we're in now...

Back to when as a child I could walk on the ceiling and butterfly up on the wall...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Notes From Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky


As a child I could walk on the ceiling, I'd butterfly up on the wall. Outside butcher shops I would weep. As a youth I would read Dostoevsky, diversifying into James Joyce, Gurdjieff, Kierkegaard and the works of Krishnamurti. I danced myself right out the womb. Is it strange to dance so soon? To dance yourself into the tomb? What good it does to read such books at such a tender age I really don't know, though I'm sure it marks you for life. Is it wrong to understand the fear that dwells inside a man?

I'm glad I read these books, however, for if we do indeed pass through this sphere of existence only the once then it's good to at least cast an eye over genius whilst we're here. Don't you think? Though I hasten to add: genius is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
I say this because when reading these kind of books as a teenager all I wanted to do was to discuss them with others, to swap thoughts and ideas with people who had read them too. Growing up where I did, unfortunately there was no-one or at least no-one I knew of at that time. It seemed that down the pub Dostoevsky at best might be thought of as a type of vodka and genius was getting away with claiming the dole and a slew of other benefits whilst working full-time for your cousin. But then in hindsight, perhaps we were all secretly reading Dostoevsky but no-one dared admit it for fear of ridicule and accusations of pretentiousness? Who knows?

So, there we all were then, probably: taking drugs and stealing cars and doing whatever normal teenagers do, then going home and reading Dostoevsky. And to what end? So that we may understand something of the world? To raise our consciousness? To become a better breed of Tory voter?

Woe unto to the person who identifies with the voice of the unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground for this is not a voice to identify with. It's a voice dredged up from the depths of the human psyche. A voice from deep, deep within. A voice, as Dostoevsky puts it, from under the floorboards. A voice from a soul spinning ceaselessly on an axis of perpetual nothingness.

The first half of the book - entitled 'Underground' - is a monologue, delivered by one who will not be pinned down and who insists on his freedom even if that freedom will do him no good. He argues against all those who think they know something of the world then argues against himself too and it's here where the genius of Dostoevsky can be seen, for if - as the narrator suggests - the world is wrong then so too is he because even though he has set himself apart from it, he is still a part of it.
Consciousness is both a curse and a blessing, and if two times two equals four as logic dictates then it's not good enough because man is beyond logic. If the world can be explained by a formula then what this will lead to is a crystal palace that - man being man - will ultimately be smashed simply for the sake of being able to do so for man is also a lover of destruction and chaos.
If the creation of a crystal palace is the ultimate goal of man, what after this? To sit there in silence? The cessation of having a reason to exist? Is this consciousness? Or is consciousness ultimately higher than two times two? Is consciousness higher than a formula?
The logic of two times two or the assertion that man will only strive for what might be of profit or of benefit to him in some way or another is the equivalent of a man filling a cup with water from the sea then holding it up and declaring "Look! There are no such things as whales living in the sea!"
Dostoevsky lets us know how little we know.

The second half of the book - entitled 'Apropos Of The Wet Snow' - is the story of the same unnamed narrator in his younger days and his constant loathing of the world and himself. Essentially he's bipolar, one moment praising himself as a genius amongst lesser mortals then the next despising himself as being worthless and lower than an insect. If it wasn't so tragic it would be comical and vice versa. "This isn't literature," he states "but corrective punishment."
Maybe lithium might have helped?
The story ends with the narrator declaring that "we've all grown unaccustomed to life, we're all lame, each of us more or less. We've even grown so unaccustomed that at times we feel a sort of loathing for real 'living life', and therefore cannot bear to be reminded of it. We don't even know where the living lives now, or what it is, or what it's called." Who knows what he would have made of today's world because if he thought things were bad then, he'd be dumb-struck with horror now where shopping seems to be the reason why people think they're here on Earth.

According to Lenin, Dostoevsky was a 'superlatively' bad writer but as I said, genius is in the eye of the beholder. Notes From Underground was written in 1864 which was some time before the term bipolar was even thought of let alone explored and written about.
Dostoevsky is the touchstone for many of the best writers ever: Hermann Hesse, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Henry Miller, etc, etc. Without him none of these writers would have ended up writing the books they did. Paradoxically, however, I wouldn't advise everyone should read Dostoevsky because I think he's a writer that should be arrived at through your own volition. He's someone you should actually want to read and not because you think you should or because he's been recommended.
In the meantime, carry on shopping...
                                                                                                                                                                              John Serpico

Friday, 13 May 2016

Only Anarchists Are Pretty - Mick O'Shea


Now here's a weird one: Only Anarchists Are Pretty by Mick O'Shea; the story of the Sex Pistols in novel form, chronicling their early days from the formation of the band up to the Bill Grundy incident.
The question that comes immediately to mind is why hasn't this been done before? Particularly during their Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle period when anything and everything Pistols-related was being packaged and sold to a discerning public, not least the still warm corpse of Sid Vicious. There's been a huge number of books written about the Sex Pistols over the years but no actual novel - until this one. Somebody missed a trick there, I think.

But is it art, John, I hear you cry? Tell us, tell us! Well, of course it's not but it's not as awful as it could have been and that's because it's written by a fan and not some 'professional' writer with his eye on a quick buck. Actually, the closest it gets to art is when the writer incorporates himself into the story as a young fan travelling down to London from the north in a bid to see the Pistols live.
I can only presume this part is entirely fictional because at that time I calculate the author would have been about 13, and like Sid Vicious should still have been at home playing with his Action Man not gallivanting off to the the far-reaches of the King's Road to a fetish clothes shop called Sex.
He doesn't big himself up at all when he introduces himself and his friend 'Alan' (Alan Parker, writer of a number of books on the Pistols) into the story and in fact, depicts himself as a kind of northern bumpkin entranced by the bizarreness of the Pistols' coterie like Mowgli in The Jungle Book being hypnotised by the python. And that's a suitable analogy, actually, with Johnny Rotten being the king of the jungle - the jungle VIP - and Malcolm McLaren being the python ("Trust in me..") as he coils himself around his prey. But which character is Vivienne Westwood, you might wonder? The tiger Shere Khan, of course.

There's something missing in Mick O’Shea’s story, however, and that's any sense of danger and anger as exuded by John Rotten. And believe me, kids, you may not believe it now by looking at him but once upon a time Johnny did indeed exude danger and anger. Epitomised it, even. O’Shea’s story instead reads more like the cartoon version of the Pistols as depicted in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle film; with Paul Cook as a podgy oaf, Steve Jones as a moronic lech and Johnny Rotten as an entirely dislikeable teenager ('The Collaborator', as McLaren tried to label him).

Mick O'Shea knows his stuff, there's no question about that and there's no obvious clangers in the story as far as I can see though I do take exception to the way Wally Nightingale - the original Pistols guitarist - is depicted.
Now, I was too young to see the original Pistols but I did once see the Lightning Raiders, the band that Wally went on to form following him being thrown out from the band - on Malcolm's instructions allegedly? I thought they were all right, being a kind of cross between the Pistols and Zodiac Mindwarp. Wally is depicted as a bit of a pathetic character and it doesn't quite ring true to me and I wonder what Mick O'Shea is basing this on?

What's interesting is that O'Shea depicts Glen Matlock as being the most likeable character and as the real musical force behind the band. And I can believe this. It's totally Johnny, however, who gives the band their edge - and their politics.
Until reading this book I didn't know about Steve Jones' trick with a loaf of bread and some liver, and when this is juxtaposed with Johnny singing about the UDA, the MPLA and Fascist regimes I'm not sure if this makes the Pistols fully-rounded or if it suggests nothing short of a miracle occurred with them coming together as a band at all?

Whilst reading this on the train, a woman sat in the seat opposite asked me what the book was and when I explained she wondered what might Sid Vicious have ended up doing had he not died? It was a good question. We ended up deciding that he would have formed a double-act with Johnny, either as a comedy duo (like Morcambe and Wise) or as chat show hosts (like Dame Edna Everage and her assistant, Madge).
You don't usually get people on the train asking what it is you're reading but then if you consider the back cover of O'Shea's book, it's understandable why it might make someone curious. But then as Johnny once advised: "Don't judge a book just by its cover, unless you cover just another. And blind acceptance is a sign, of stupid fools who stand in line, like - " But of course, you know the rest.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 33)


And on evenings like this we take psychedelic drugs and head down to the beach to watch the sun go down.

And to dream a little...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Journey To The East - Hermann Hesse


The Journey To The East by Hermann Hesse is the story of a trip through time and space, carousing through the windmills of Hesse's mind with not only friends of his youth but also with characters from books.
By 'the East', Hesse means not only a geographical place but the home of his youth and his soul, moving from his present day through to the Middle Age and the Golden Age and back again. 'The East' is 'everywhere and nowhere and the the union of all times'.

Along the way he comes across such things as Noah's Ark, found amid the tramways and banks of Zurich, guarded by dogs all bearing the same name. He visits a Chinese Temple where incense holders gleam beneath a bronze Maja and a black king plays flute sweetly to the vibrating tone of the temple gong. He roams through Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland; through 'the heroic and the magical'. He rides with Sancho Panza, swims with mermaids and bears witness to miracles.

Hesse makes his journey alongside fellow members of what is termed 'the League', an ancient, semi-secret society numbering at times thousands and at other times just small groups. It's whilst travelling with one such group that one of the members, by the name of Leo, suddenly disappears. Though Leo just like all other members of the League is on a personal quest of his own, he's with the group working as a servant, his job being to carry luggage.
With his disappearance along with a bag containing valuable items, his importance to the journey and to the group is realised by Hesse and the other members, leading to them arguing amongst themselves and falling out with each other. The journey to the East is abandoned and Hesse is left for the rest of his days without meaning or purpose to his life.

His attempts to write about the journey to the East and to document his experiences with the League fail as he finds it impossible to put it all into words. He finally, however, meets Leo again one day and all is revealed to him: The servant, Leo, is in actual fact the President of the League and his disappearance when in the role of a servant along with the valuable items in the bag was actually of no real importance. The important thing was the journey and whilst the servant may have abandoned Hesse, it was Hesse who had abandoned the journey.

In Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test it gives mention to The Journey To The East as being a book owned by Ken Kesey that all of Kesey's fellow Merry Pranksters read. They all identify with it because like Hesse they too are on a journey to the East just as Hesse was so obviously - as they call it - 'on the bus'. Hesse, like Jack Kerouac, was 'on the road'.
They are all of them on a trip, turned on and tuned in. From Hesse, Kesey, Kerouac and all the Merry Pranksters to all the characters as mentioned in Hesse's book: Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato, Sancho Panza, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Baudelaire.
No wonder Timothy Leary rated Hesse.

Of course, anyone can write a book about the meaning of life. It's easy. The genius of Hermann Hesse, however, is that The Journey To The East is about the losing and the forgetting of the meaning of life and we can all identify with that, can't we, because we've all done it? We've all been there at one time or another even if only fleetingly. The secret is in the remembering and it's for this reason why The Journey To The East remains to this day a classic of modern literature.

Read it and weep.
John Serpico

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