The Signature Beat

As 2015 was drawing to a close I was reading the most unconventional book I have ever cast my eyes upon, On The Road  by Jack Kerouac. It was a novel that I knew fairly little about with regards to its contents, but with the full awareness that it was and remains to this day a groundbreaking work of huge influence in its status of one of leading products of the 1950s Beat Generation.

It is a novel characterised by Kerouac’s innovative style known as spontaneous prose, where essentially everything is written in the heat of the moment with next to nothing in terms of preparation and research. This leads to a lack of a clear structure, but in this case it works as a result of the author’s literary talent and ability to construct a story as it is taking place.

Indeed, the whole thing was written on a very long ream of paper which Kerouac himself taped together so he could just keep on typing continously until he got to the end. Based on a period of his own life, it was completed with the help of handwritten notebooks during his time on the road with his friend and fellow Beat member Neal Cassady between 1947 and 1950, and it certainly caused quite a stir when published in 1957…

The Beat Generation were possibly the most rebellious group of literary figures in history, as they seemed almost hell-bent on defying the established values of the field. The language contained in their work was unlike anything seen before it, with clear and explicit descriptions of sex, drugs and other taboo subjects which was seen in many quarters as distasteful and worthy of condemnation.

Allen Ginsberg had already been the subject of considerable and widespread censorship earlier in the 1950s after his poem ‘Howl’ was published. Containing shocking language throughout, it was banned in the United States right up until the outcome of a court case after which it was ruled that it was not obscene.

By comparison, On The Road doesn’t contain a great deal of unsavoury content, largely due to the many revisions that were made to the novel in the aftermath of its publication. The narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego), mainly uses suggestive language but does not shy away from what actually does take place, leaving the reader in no doubt as to its amount of drug taking and sexual activity.

Among the revisions after publication was each of the characters being given different names, though thinly veiled to anyone familiar with the leading members of the Beat Generation. Kerouac spent most of his time on the road with Neal Cassady, who in the novel is known as Dean Moriarty.

Get through the first chapter and you’ll be left in no doubt that Cassady was a total maverick who lived life very much to the full in more ways than one. Although the narrator is Sal Paradise, the book mainly centres on Dean and his many lovers, and the fact that he just cannot escape the reverence of his travelling companion.

The last line of the novel says it all. After a reflection on how he has driven and rode across all of the United States in search of the mystical ‘IT’, it reads: ‘I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

Ginsberg makes his appearance in the book as the character known as Carlo Marx, while another prominent member of the Beat Generation was William S. Borroughs, who appears as Old Bull Lee. This name is particularly easy to decipher as the main character in Borroughs’ famous novel Naked Lunch is called Bill Lee.

While a fascinating novel to read simply for the manner in which Kerouac defies the literary conventions and described events in a narrative form without setting a scene, it was something that – try as I might – I couldn’t identify with. My lack of understanding of the Beat culture may have had something to do with it, but it was the nature of the language and connotations which I failed to grasp the most, as I simply couldn’t empathise with Sal and his desire to find ‘IT’, otherwise known as the ultimate spiritual contentment.

So I found it a very difficult and sometimes arduous novel to read, but I stuck it out until the end. I didn’t find too many of the characters especially likeable due to their questionable and care-free antics, but it was impossible not to respect Kerouac’s ability to describe events in his mind perfectly and to capture the full effervescence of Cassady’s personality in his writing, which for me was a highlight.

It may not have floated my boat, but On The Road is a work of great prestige and for many it has embodied their feelings as they search for something similar to ‘IT’. What says it all in my mind is that the most high-profile person it inspired was Russell Brand, who went to the United States himself to film a 2007 documentary.

On The Road was a revolutionary novel and was part of a whole new literary genre. Although I did not identify with the themes and protagonists a great deal, I am pleased that I read it as it has broadened my own mind and shed some light on a whole writing culture that existed in the middle part of the 20th century. Whether you enjoy the book or not, reading it will be a unique experience!

The endurance of poetry

In January 2011 I was in the audience at the Colston Hall in the centre of Bristol for Poetry Live, an event that was put on in order to help GCSE students from all of the local schools gain a greater understanding of the subject matter we were studying for section B of our upcoming exam, which was on English literature and Poems from Different Cultures.

Attendance wasn’t compulsory, but I didn’t think twice, and not merely because it meant a day away from normal lessons.And there were many of us in the audience in front of that famous old stage, and we had a great time, helping ourselves to excessive amounts of Haribo sweets and chatting in between performances.

The master of ceremonies gave a couple of sessions of his own, while introducing five of the UK’s leading poetry figures – Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, John Agard, and the poet laureate herself Carol Ann Duffy.

I found them all very engaging, and it was good to put a face and a personality to the works we had studied in our anthologies. Agard in particular left a lasting impression on the audience with his charisma and effervescence, but all of them had their own unique delivery and read their poems with different mannerisms; from different perspectives.

Although gaining more knowledge ahead of my GCSE exams was the biggest priority on the day, as somebody who has a fascination with this field of literature, I was eager to pick up a few tips from each of them and learn how and where they get their inspiration. But regrettably I doubt that too many others in the audience left feeling something similar.

As far as I know, too few young people – particularly as you go further down the social ladder – take poetry beyond their school studies and the topic becomes something rather confined to academia. For example, I doubt very much that all that many people in the UK know that Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate, such is the lack of mainstream attention she receives.

It is all very well learning the necessary works and the techniques poets use such as alliterations, assonance and those ever reliable metaphors, but surely doing so needs to have some kind of future benefit. Once the time for studying these poems come to an end, they are often forgotten about forever and not reserved the sort of appreciation that they are probably due.

In fairness, the same also applies to the works of William Shakespeare and that of classic authors such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Secondary school aged children cannot identify with them, and as a result they don’t gain any long standing appreciation. ‘Highbrow’ knowledge and interests aren’t valued as much as they used to be.

Only a select few take up poetry, as outside of an educational environment it neither promoted nor encouraged with any great gusto. The role of the poet laureate is a very prestigious one, but this day and age it is hardly recognised or understood, which for me is a shame. It is a very versatile form of art and one that is very pleasing when everything marries together perfectly, but unfortunately its profile has lowered and it doesn’t carry the same weight as other forms of media.

Poetry can be just a hobby or a pastime, as it is for me – and even then I don’t do very much of it. I devote a lot of my time to much more popular and ordinary activities that the average working class 20-year-old would do, but a liking for language remains ever-present and I really hope that it is something that many of my peers (at least secretly) share and put into practice – not just in the occasional humerous Facebook post.

My Poetry – The boy who brought it down

I work as an university administrator and receptionist, a job that carries a fair amount of responsibility. Given my relative lack of experience I have acquitted myself very well through nearly a year in the role, gaining a huge number of new skills as well as becoming friends and colleagues with loads of wonderful people along the way.

I also like writing poetry, which, for whatever reason seems to have some kind of stigma surrounding it. When a person says that they have written a poem, or can come across as poetic in either their speech or their writing, they can be sneered upon a little.

My liking for poetry began at a reasonably early age, and the nature of my work has become considerably more personal as I have grown older, with verses detailing more trivial subjects making way for the real-life thoughts (and there are many) that creep into my mind.

The first poem I wrote after beginning in my job can be perceived as one which showcases the sense of self-doubt I felt at the time. As the hours passed I was often worrying about how I was viewed by everyone at work and whether I was well-liked. Aside from the occasional relapse, these thoughts have now largely subsided, but I thought this poem marked a turning point as to me it seemed to show that I was coming of age as a poet.

Entitled ‘The boy who brought it down’, it is set some time in the not-too-distant future and depicts my sole, almost ghostly presence in my workplace, presiding over what is essentially a delapidated ruin. It probably encapsulates some of my tentative fears at the time and how I was a little wary of being perceived, but I guess it was also written with the awareness that the contents were far from the real truth.

Here it is in full:

I creep through the haunted hall
Plagued by doubt yet full of love
Watching over the corridors of sepia
Until push finally comes to shove

I see an office adorned with hangings and blinds
Dusty files and earthy drawers
Webs hanging from the dim lights
This place has been through the wars

Once it used to prosper
Over four years of groundbreaking schemes
But then the soul was removed
Making it fall apart at the seams

And at the centre lies a desk of decaying timber
Where one teenage delinquent used to reside
His dishonest dealings with the guests
Were the reason why the whole place died

While I have made moves away from this format, the standard quatrain verse with the single rhyme remains my preferred style. This particular poem may be seen by some to represent the anxiety felt by some administrators, or anybody who begins in a new job. You are just desperate to impress your bosses and not to put a foot wrong.

For the record, I don’t think it is fair to call me a delinquent, and my so-called dealings with guests are (certainly intended to be) far from dishonest, but the message that this poem conveys is that I really wanted to prove myself and not be responsible for things going wrong.

The poem is an exaggeration of the potential consequences which were flickering in my head from when I began, until say the summer of last year. As I said at the beginning of the post, I have acquitted myself very well, so any major worries I might have had proved unfounded, and I am now pretty relaxed about things.

The Art of Prescriptivism

Throughout my school years I was a reasonable student – naturally bright and full of knowledge, but not what you might call academically gifted. With no degree to speak of, the result I can look back on with the greatest sense of pride is my A-Level in English Language, achieved at the end of what was personally a tumultuous 2012-13 school year.

As part of that course we covered the rather broad area of language change, and how English has developed over the centuries into what it is today. In doing so we had to consider contextual factors such as technological advances and changes in social attitudes among other things.

Another key area of study was to become familiar with relevant research and theory on the subject, while at the centre of everything there were two groups of people who basically provided the definition of attitudes towards language change. The first of them are the descriptivists, who believe that language naturally evolves and remains prosperous for it. On the other side of the court are the prescriptivists, who feel that a language is sacred, should be governed by rules, and should not be tampered with in order conform to modern trends and social issues.

For that reason, a lot of our time was spent looking at worksheets littered with social media threads and examples of text messages, which were inevitably full of abbreviations and emoticons.

As teenagers ourselves we were able to appreciate these modern features, but saw no shortage of opposing views, while other bones of contention included the removal of hyphens from some words and the growing use of so-called ‘Americanisms’ in the English language. The latter led to some outspoken comments among my classmates, and is a surprisingly regular target for vitriol at my house.

Many of the texts we studied were written by a famous public figure in the shape of John Humphrys, presenter of Mastermind and BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. He has written books on the subject of language change and certainly does not hold back in airing his views, subtitling his 2004 work Lost For Words as ‘The mangling and manipulation of the English language’.

In one of his newspaper columns he accuses modern society and the advent of technology such as instant messaging and social media of contributing to the ‘pillaging of our punctuation’ and ‘the raping of our vocabulary’.

The use of the word ‘raping’ in this comparatively frivolous context aside, Humphrys makes a compelling case for a perceived laziness and lax attitude among society and even lexicographers, even going so far as to make a grovelling appeal to the Oxford English Dictionary not to give in to radical evolution.

I agreed with some – not all – of his sentiments, and certainly used them to my advantage in order to successfully complete my final piece of coursework, which was to write a 1,000 word piece in the style of a newspaper article. I chose to write a prescriptive piece as I felt it suited my writing style best, and so for this reason I found this assignment a fairly comfortable task and received good marks.

The key thing for me was not to sound too much like Humphrys et al, producing an original article while conveying a similar message. I pulled no punches, describing social media users as ‘vandals’, accusing them of showing ‘total disregard the rules’ and of ‘a lack of respect’. All tongue in cheek of course, for the purpose of gaining a qualification!

My personal favourite passage is this: ‘Before methods of electronic communication arrived, the needless, merciless shortening of words was very rare. That was because everything had to be written manually so others could understand it (sounds extremely tough, doesn’t it?) and none of those all too common acronyms (such as LOL) existed.’

As a passionate writer, it was a very fun piece to write and one where I could express my creative freedom by using powerful adjectives. Prescriptivism is an area which provides all manner of opportunity. Whether you believe their argument or not, those who defend what they feel to be the established rules are worth listening to, especially if you like a good debate. Prescriptivism is indeed an art.

A Remarquable Story

In the final weeks of 2015 I finally decided that it was time to turn over a new leaf and begin reading a lot more classic novels. I began with one whose concept I had been intrigued by for some time, the translated edition of Im Westen nicht Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, better known as All Quiet on the Western Front.

Interestingly the most renowned aspect of this book is the English title, which has become part of everyday talk. But its 12 chapters tell a compelling story of a German soldier and his comrades as they struggle through the First World War and all eventually lose their lives.

It was really fascinating to read about one of the world wars from the German point of view, as living in the UK what I’ve seen and heard centres around the spirit and patriotism of the Allied Forces and their incredible sacrifices, so reading the (albeit fictional) experiences of Paul Baumer gave me exposure to a fresh perspective.

The novel begins with an opening monologue which claims that it was written on behalf of ‘a generation of men who were destroyed by war’. The psychological struggles of Baumer when he returns to his family on leave echo those sentiments especially, and really hit home to me as a reader, while many of the German troops openly question the purpose of their being at war.

In the end, after his best and most reassuring comrade Katzinsky is killed in heavy gunfire, it is as if Baumer is relieved to welcome death. Indeed, when he does lose his life somewhat ambiguously in the short final chapter, it is said to be ‘as though almost glad the end has come’.

Remarque does a fine job throughout the novel in getting the reader to identify with all the German troops portrayed, and to really care about them. This is done chiefly through the way in which he uses the first person to describe Baumer’s range of emotions and how war changes him as a person physically and mentally. Although war on that scale may never be seen again between the most developed of nations, it is still relevant today as even those that survive 21st century conflicts have problems when returning to normal society.

The book was written by Remarque in order to highlight what had happen to a lost generation, but its intentions were misinterpreted by some to be passionate rhetoric in favour of pacifism and that caused problems for the author as he soon became a target of vitriol for the Nazi party as their growth began.

It has to be remembered that back then, novels, motion pictures and other published works had the potential to be hugely influential and divisive in equal measure, and used as political tools. All Quiet on the Western Front was publically burned as it was seen to be at odds with Nazi party’s ideology.

As for Remarque, it took some time for him to earn the great respect he deserved as someone who shed light on an under-appreciated issue surrounding the Great War, and as his stock decreased in Germany he fled to Switzerland where he spent much of the rest of his life.


Tying the Loose Ends

I have decided to begin by referring to my favourite collection of books, which like a lot of other people is the Harry Potter series. I would say I am a huge fan without being a so-called superfan – in other words those who would go to the extraordinary lengths of habitually dressing up as their favourite characters or becoming awestruck to the point of nearly passing out when they run into Rupert Grint or Tom Felton at Comic-Con.

Even for the people who are not as enchanted with the series, one would be hard pressed to deny that J.K. Rowling is one of literature’s great storytellers, and one who understands how to fill her readers with an unrelenting sense of intrigue, so much so that every word of the seven Harry Potter novels has been disected and scrutinised via online forums and the like.

Such forensic examination has led to some inconsistencies being exposed as to what are in truth minor details within the books, and Rowling herself has admitted that maths in particular is not her strong point, particularly with regards to the rather cloudy subject of how many students attend Hogwarts, for example.

But all in all, she does a great job of preventing the reader from being in any doubt about the outcome of, or reason behind any of the major plot points. This is at its best in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the complexity is there right from the start and all of what ensues is wrapped up with almost breathtaking excellence during a lengthy recital towards the end of the book.

Of course, in any book let alone a world-famous and much-loved series such as this, any loose end must be resolved in a satisfactory manner. If not, the audience would feel pretty short-changed at having their enjoyment – and arguably intelligence – undermined by a badly reasoned explanation of an important part of the plot.

This is a fairly common mistake for more inexperienced writers, who can sometimes be guilty of not thinking things through in sufficient depth, while others can find themselves creating too many loose ends that the audience are left fighting a battle to keep up with the author and may end up getting a little lost amid all the strands.

The latter has been an increasingly common trait for TV dramas over recent years and although the format of an ongoing storyline can build tension and spark debate among audiences, the decision to take an idea in this direction requires everything to be tied up appropriately, which takes consummate writing ability.

But sometimes there is the odd occasion where one talking point is sacrificed for the central plotline. The example that stands out in my mind is conscious decision that was taken by George Lucas as he penned the script for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which was meant to provide a reason for why the planet Kamino had been removed from the Jedi archives in the previous movie, Attack of the Clones.

He did this in order to devote more time to telling the story of Anakin Skywalker’s defection to the dark side, which on the one hand is fair enough, but on the other it was a mystery that was never going to go unnoticed by fans of the franchise. Maybe sometimes items have to be cut for the good of the story, but a faithful audience always wants to know more, and then they savour that new information.

For the record, that loose end was resolved to an extent when Kamino’s fate was explained in a book dedicated to Star Wars, but Lucas took a big risk with his omission and I’m not sure if it paid off. Tying up loose ends is never a straightforward task, but any top author or screenwriter should know that any new plot point they create – however minor – must be considered and well thought through, and be resolved in a way that doesn’t leave audiences shaking their heads. To help with this, it would be worth hiring a astute editor!