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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A weekend with Carolyn Cassady - amongst others

This may be Tuesday, but it feels like Monday. Always does after a Bank Holiday weekend - especially such a busy one as I’ve had.

Saturday morning I rose at 0530h, got the seven o’clock train to King’s Cross, took the Tube to Waterloo and the suburban train out to Bracknell to see Carolyn Cassady. It must be the first time I’ve seen her since before I went to Nebraska last year - eighteen months or so - and I found her just a little bit older, as we all are, but as ever full of yarns about the old days. I mean the old days before she got hooked up with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and all of that crew. She once remarked how good it was to have a friend who didn’t want to talk about the Beats all the time. The subject did come up, of course: she’s expecting a visit any time now from Walter Salles, director of the On The Road (the film), on which she collaborated - and which was premiered at Cannes last May.

Over a bottle or two of white wine we re-visited her young days in Michigan, the family’s move to Tennessee where they had a small farm - and, joy of joy, horses. Then there was her four-year stay at the prestigious liberal arts college, Bennington, where she was awarded a scholarship that paid half her fees, soon switching her focus from straight art to theatre arts. For a while at least she drove around in a yellow 1937 LaSalle, and must have cut quite a dash. 

I don’t know whether it looked exactly like this, but it’s easy to see what she meant when she sighed and said, ‘I wish I’d kept it; it would be worth a lot of money now.’ Her father didn’t know about the car and she was frightened to tell him, so when she came home in 1944 she gave the keys to a friend - and never saw it again. Hmmm… I’ve just spotted one on the Net at $49,000.

With the exception of that grand old man of Beat letters, the publisher and proprietor of City Lights Book Store Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carolyn is one of the last of that generation around. There is of course the musician David Amram, still touring, still a very active and inspirational character at eighty, and there are other various fringe figures, but she is, you might say, the last repository of a lot of memories, the last source of some key anecdotal material. And yet... when I visit her I really would rather hear about her, and her own remarkable life, than more tales about Neal, Jack and Allen.

I didn’t stay with Carolyn this visit. She had a house guest, so I put up at a B&B in town, and called back Sunday morning to drink tea and say goodbye. From there I took the train to Twickenham and visited an old friend from my Hull University (and New Mexico) days. Andrew actually shares a ‘Beat’ interest with me: he studied, later taught, at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, which embraced the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (yes, they really did have names like that in the 1970s) and worked with, among others, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, writer and one-time partner of poet Robert Creeley. He admires her work immensely and has just emailed me one of her short pieces.

Andrew and I took a leisurely stroll around Twickenham, starting by crossing the bridge onto Eel Pie Island, once home to a thriving venue which hosted bands such as the Stones, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things back in the 1960s.

From there we went into the grounds of York House and Orleans House, at one of which - and I’m sorry, but I forget - we paused to admire the statuary.

Andrew, like one or two of my friends, scratches a living as a freelance editor, teacher and writer. He used to work in mainstream publishing but, rather like me, finds the attractions of an independent life more compelling than a well-paid but restrictive career.

Anyway, talking of money, I called the Pensions Service a week or two ago, to enquire as to my status. I have been contributing to the state pension scheme throughout my working life, starting with a few pennies, I dare say, after I got my first National Insurance card in April 1964 at the tender age of 14. (I worked in my school holidays in a steam laundry, with a lot of old ladies who were, I now realise, several years younger than I am now - with the exception of Kitty, who wore a gent’s raincoat, smoked a white clay pipe and used to talk about the day the war ended, meaning the Great War.) Today the letter arrived: I should draw £138.49 a week when I hit 65. Yes, I’m really very pleased with that. It comes out at about £7200 a year ($10,000) and will give me the basis of an income over my declining years.

I’ve said it before, and I may as well repeat it here, as I know that the vast majority of my readers are US citizens: state provision, vis-a-vis pensions, makes this (and the rest of Europe, I guess) a very agreeable place to live compared with the US of A. Add to that free health care (at the point of delivery, but of course subscribed to over the course of a lifetime), and we aren’t doing badly. Of course we pay for all of this, but relatively painlessly, through deductions from our weekly or monthly pay. It’s called a Welfare State; it’s what my generation grew up with, and most of us are very glad of it. And, so far, it hasn’t resulted in the downfall of our civilisation. Rather, I would venture, it symbolises a crucial aspect of it: that we believe in harnessing the powers of the state to try to ensure that people don’t fall through the net. 

Well, quite a busy weekend, as I said. I even managed to find time to call in on my daughter in Highbury before I got the train home on Sunday. Her flat looks a little like a food factory - and smells simply delicious - since she started cooking for

Yesterday we got out for a three-hour bike ride (and one soaking as the heavens opened). Today, of course, it’s back to the desk - and, bang on cue, the sun comes out.

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