October 4, 2006
Dear Bernard, I'd begun writing my next letter (22/8) a few days before you commenced yours. And of course when the sad but inevitable event of Dad's death occurred, on September 5th, we agreed we'd exchange letters in person when I came to Weymouth for the funeral.
Dad's early influence upon us and latterly his illness has been present at the edges of our correspondence; now his death takes centre stage.
From the late 80s on, when I began to regularly visit you all in England, I accepted he was who he was for all the strife it had caused me and tried, thereafter, to be a friend for him on his walks & in his talks. For some years I think he reciprocated although you always said that how he presented himself during my visits wasnt what he was like usually. You also said that his walks around Radipole Lake bird reserve or on the first stretch of the Dorset Downs had less to do with environment or aesthetics than his own physical constitution, though he could wax lyrically about the experience. Unfortunately any weather less than golden summer kept him indoors. So he really wasnt a walker & philosopher like your Goldcroft Road neighbour Anne Axenskold's late father, Frank Brown, whose two posthumously published books of "reflections" one might have thought would have interested Dad. But Frank Brown appears to have been a contemporary man for whom the references & concerns of tradition continued to resonate, whereas Dad took refuge in the effects of the past : a nostalgist, outide of culture & society. He was increasingly reserved in his interests & opinions with less & less time for other people & the world.
Relating this to The Dharma Bums for a moment : when I first encountered the figure of Japhy's father in the book, a kind of Pan who outdid Japhy in his partying, I seriously wished Dad had been the same kind of turned-on man! Rereading TDB I'm not so sure! And the awful thought arises that perhaps Tim had to contend with me as libertarian rival during his youth? But, Tim left home early, had his own social & music scene and a secret life which didnt overlap ours... An interesting tack, maybe, to account for Japhy in the light of his father's example --age-old theme, of course; fathers & sons...
(August/September,'06) Have we asked the question, what & why the attraction to the whole Beat thing, especially the concept of "dharma bums"? I probably can't do better than quote the grab from The Listener, on the cover of my Great Pan paperback, "Adds up to one hell of a philosophy of life"!
Before the Beats one had an idea of the artist's life, fed as much by the 19thCentury images of poets & painters in Paris as anything contemporary or local. "Artist's life" conflated with "student's life", especially the example of the art college student's. You know, I can still feel horror at the prospect , then, of living & working for the whole of one's life in a small town such as Southampton was in the 50s & 60s, without ever experiencing the bliss & revelation anticipated in one's reading. Living in a conventional manner in Southampton was the premature burial writ big : Pete Seeger's "little boxes". Eric Burden's "I just gotta get out of this place" was the anthem of escape!
I suppose London was the obvious location for an English boy's alternatives, but how was a provincial lad to make a life there? And the alternative wasn't altogether defined by getting a start in the literary mainstream either. In the generational hiatus between Beats & Counter Culture there fell our reading, writing, hitch-hiking, emigration... To an extent, the life I lived in Melbourne in 1966 & 1967, before & after I met Loretta Garvey, continuing through the La Mama cafe-theatre years, 1968-69, was my truly Beat phase. Finding a place in the progressivist culture & politics as a poet was as significant to me as gaining publication. That age-old contradiction of opposition & disaffiliation on the one hand, and seeking acceptance on the other. (In that sense, cliche or not, Kerouac's inability to cope with success was a blessing since it always returned him to the world. The novels which record actual disintegration foretell his doom and are part & parcel of his legend. Minutia is irredeemable but Kerouac's Whitmanish accumulation and the drive infusing it is the means of its transformation.)
(October 14th-18th incorporating August,06 notes) Tedious to trace one's Beat affinity through forty years but misleading if I dont state my falling out of love with Kerouac in 1969 and the many years in which the Beats were only in the background of my thinking.
In 1969, Henry Rosenbloom, nowadays the publisher of Scribe books in Melbourne, solicited a review from me of The Vanity of Dulouoz for the Melbourne University magazine. He'd heard from one or two of the student poets who'd joined us at La Mama (which since '68 had become the La Mama Poets' Workshop) , namely Marc Radyzner & Garrie Hutchinson, that I was a Kerouac fan. But the politics Kerouac paraded in that book shocked me to the core. In that black & white era of the war in Vietnam and the international youth culture, Kerouac was suddenly an enemy! I damned the book for its red-neck conservatism and the editor rejected my article. He wrote to me that I evidently didnt realize the importance of Kerouac! Me, Kerouac's number one fan? I was hurt, indignant & confused.
I dont think I properly mourned Kerouac's death later that year because of this volte-face. Retta & I, in England now, were visiting George Dowden, the American poet living in Brighton, who was working on Ginsberg's bibliography amongst many other things. He'd taken us to meet Bill Butler, another poet & American ex-pat, who owned the prestigious Unicorn Bookshop. We'd hardly exchanged greetings when Bill, clutching the New York Herald Tribune, asked if we'd heard Kerouac was dead? We stood around gawping at the obituary. Bill was serious & seriously affected. George produced a small, hardback notebook : my new notebook, he said showing it off; I'll write a poem about this, it'll be the first entry in my new notebook. Bill barely glanced at it : I've always found, he said, that one only writes small poems in small notebooks. Quite a deal of tid for tat between them.
Although I recorded a talk on the 10th Anniversary of Kerouac's death, broadcast on the ABC, and wrote book-discussion notes for On The Road a year or two later, it wasnt until 1986 or 7 that the love-affair resumed in earnest! That was the year of Richard Lerner & Lewis MacAdams' wonderful documentary Whatever Happened to Kerouac? There they all were --the oh so familiar names with their twenty years' older faces : Corso, amusing & insightful ("Kerouac had talent but Shelley was divine!"); McClure still the handsome man described by Kerouac... I think Retta, Tim & I saw it together or they saw it in Sydney and I attended by myself in Melbourne. I was exhilerated --skipped the couple of miles from the Valhalla cinema, then in Richmond, home to Westgarth. It was time to begin building my Beats & Co shelf at the Shop. In between his rocknroll, Tim joined the conversation, eventually preferring Burroughs to all the Kerouac he'd borrowed from me --for obvious reason as time would ultimately & tragically tell...
It occurrs to me that the viewing of the film coincided with the period I've called my "enlightenment reading" in the mid to late 1980s, when I read extensively in the areas of psychology, religion, & philosophy attempting to find a way around the cul de sac postmodernism had become for me. It seemed to me that personal & common experience was now denigrated, and that personal expression & expressive writing was thought to be passe. It was time for me to turn away from "theory" and re-encounter self & world more or less transparently. Some of my greatest literary pleasures in recent years have been types of memoir & commentary in which questions about life & orientation are the actual basis of the travel, natural history, topographical, spiritual, even cullinary writing at hand.
Larry Schwartz, journalist friend from The Age, said an interesting thing at the Shop today. Why do I love all of this Beat stuff? he exclaimed. Is it because they liberated us? he said. I agreed that they had. And the kind of literature they were writing was one we identified with, I said. So is it our own lives we're reading about then? And are we writing those books? he said. I think that degree of transparency is involved insofar as the author is soliciting identification & correspondence. That's been the case since Whitman but it gathers steam with the Beats and their legacy...
A slim volume I intend sending to you is Kenneth White's Travels in the Drifting Dawn (Penguin,1990) : definitely not the work of genius claimed by the blurbs and perhaps also by the author but White's tastings of British & European places & atmospheres occasionally do convince one that something more suggestive than an adolescent egotism is at stake. I mean, give me Kerouac's ego any day if Kenneth White's Sixties' good times are the alternative. With Kerouac one would flee the pseudo-intellectuals & artists to whom White so readily submits his gift (and he has a gift undoubtedly). But you be the judge --the literary & philosophical references are familiar even where the landscapes are not. You'll think of Basho as well as the Beats...
Dear Kris, Sleepless early hours of the 31st October --uncomfortable chest easing as I write. The Doors' "Light my Fire" prompts me on Janice Long's morning radio show. Got me to thinking that it was really American music that led me. Kerouac and the Beats came afterwards. It was the mid-Sixties that I turned on to the folk music of Peter,Paul & Mary, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. That was when I started buying records in a big way. I remember having Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" and Dad actually allowing me to play it on Xmas Day, '66 --usurping Harry Belafonte! But the electric music wasn't in keeping, I know, with a family Christmas, much as I was keen to hear my favourite --"Visions of Johanna". (Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were all the rage at Southampton Tech College the year I was there in 1965.)
To think I've been back home with the parents twenty-five years. Time has collapsed, as I did, like a concertina. Whew! I've lived here all that time --apart from when dad resisted welcoming me home to "his" house. Like you, I felt he wasn't the father I wanted. I consciously looked for a father-figure for years --someone who could tell me something. Never found one. I think I felt cast adrift in an unfriendly universe --heightened, possibly, when you emigrated to Oz --and then suffering years of apprehension and existential terror. But nursing Dad along for his last two years we did share something. Poor Dad, all he wanted to do at the end was pull the covers overs his head, sleep and blot everything out. Possibly the metaphor for his life.
He was a solitary man. A man who would've liked to build a boat and sail around the world to a South Sea island, as you mentioned in your eulogy for him at St John's Church.
(11/11/06) One thing that did irk me about Dad's illness was that he would never accept the help of a more healing diet. My low-fat vegan diet might have assisted. Or macrobiotic diet. Or raw-food diet. All of which I know about. But he didn't have any faith in such things. I'm pleased we could accomodate his tastes in what he wanted to eat --cream cakes for afternoon tea! bangers & mash! --he loved mashed potatoes. And although all his life he ate steamed vegetables he couldn't tolerate the taste towards the end. Tho' he liked green peas. I'd try to encourage him to eat a different diet; tell him about miso soup or fresh fruit & vegetable juices, but he didn't want to move in that direction. Ah, well!
Talking of food, I saw our friend Anthony Bourdain on t.v. last night. We've agreed he's a Kerouacian figure --writer, traveller. How much Kerouac was into food I don't know. We know of his love for booze! --but food in TDB was nothing to write home about. Japhy had his bulghur wheat for the mountain trip up the Matterhorn. But when they came down it was a "great dinner of baked potatoes and porkchops and salad and hot buns and blueberry pie and the works." Anyway, the highlight on Bourdain's programme for me --he was in Korea-- was watching his young companion making country-style kim-chee pickles. I didn't go much for eating chopped octopus that was so fresh the suckers on the tentacles were clinging and clamping on to Bourdain's mouth as he ate! Wriggling on the plate! I'd love to make pickles. Get into home food production. Sourdough breads etc. And if I could make amazake myself I'd save a lot of money. Naturally fermented foods are very good for you...
(to be continued)