Martyn Bedford is the author of five novels. His debut, Acts of Revision, won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. His other novels are Exit, Orange and Red, The Houdini Girl, Black Cat and - his latest - The Island of Lost Souls. Between them, they have been translated into 12 languages. A graduate of the University of East Anglia's Creative Writing MA, Martyn has taught creative writing at the University of Manchester since 2001 and is a regular fiction critic for The Literary Review. Below, he discusses Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Martyn Bedford on On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The bloke wore a Godspell T-shirt and purple jeans, his hair fixed in a pony tail. Australian. I don't recall his name or what we talked about in the parched hours at the roadside, although I have a sense - an atmosphere - of the conversation's philosophical intensity. One of those backpacker dialogues that seems at the time to distil some essence of the human condition but which, in fact, is mostly bollocks. I was 24, four months into a 13-month round-the-world trip; I'd been reading Kerouac, had a copy of On the Road in my pack, and found myself hitch-hiking alongside a stranger who, for a Jesus freak, did a cool line in Buddhist detachment. I felt an epiphany coming on.
We were in Queensland, on a shadeless stretch of road where oncoming cars liquefied in the heat shimmer. Traffic was light and by late afternoon we'd had only two short lifts. This fetched us up in a place called Tully. By nightfall we were still there. We had no tents, there was no accommodation to be found, no buses, no trains, no cash for a taxi. Around nine, a car pulled up with four young guys inside, one of them leaning out the window to invite us to a party. The Aussie asked if we could crash there afterwards and they said 'Yeah sure, jump in'. He looked at me. I shook my head. I was thinking: robbery, violence, rape, and being flown back to England in a bodybag. So I stayed put and my hitching mate went with them.
I know what Kerouac would have done. He would have gone to the party. He would have thought: booze, bop, girls... he would have said yes, yes, yes. I felt like a coward, an impostor. There I was reading his book, wowing at his lifestyle - trying to imitate it in my travels, my introspective journals that one day, I was sure, would form the raw material of my own hip fiction. In my wallet I had a fold of paper containing this quotation from On the Road:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn...And yet a truly Beat, Kerouacian moment had come my way and I'd passed.
I am 46 now and haven't hitch-hiked in many years. I no longer aspire to be Jack Kerouac - dead at 47 with a liver the size and texture of a bicycle saddle. I no longer wish to write like him, although even now I find the ghosts of his prose haunting mine at times: long chains of words strung together by ands and buts and tumbling over one another pell-mell in a race to the end of one crazy rollercoaster sentence. A weakness for luminescent imagery that, when analyzed, means sweet zip, and for incoherent, inconsistent metaphysics. I read On the Road again not so long ago, for a fourth time, alienated by its objectification of women, its deifying of the voracious, selfish lunatic Neal Cassady, alias Dean Moriarty. Reading it in my teens and twenties, all I saw was the seductive advocacy of freedom without responsibility, and of the reckless and heroic - hero-worshipping - pursuit of adventure.
I have discovered better books and greater writers since then, but for all his flaws Kerouac was, and remains, my inspiration. I travelled because of him, I wrote because of him. He was the first author to make me see that literature, and life, require energy as well as sophistication if they are to be endurable. Reflecting on that night in Queensland, I retain a residue of disappointment in myself. Alone, I made for the railway station at Tully, intending to sleep in the waiting room. Just before midnight, a freight train pulled in - a dozen skip wagons coupled with an empty, unlit guard's van. There was no one about and the van door was unlocked, so I climbed aboard. By morning, I was two hundred kilometres further south, in a goods yard in Townsville - stiff, filthy and ravenous, wondering if I'd missed the best party of my life.