I wanted my last day in London to be memorable. There were a thousand things I wanted to do, of course, and by no means could they have been crammed into a day, a week or perhaps even a month. However, I had a good chunk of the day to myself before I began meeting friends from three onwards, and I decided to devote it to a very special scroll at the British Library, Hyde Park and Mayfair.
When Jack Kerouac first typed out On the Road, he created one long scroll by pasting sheets of paper together; he used the actual names of the people who inspired him, which were later changed at the behest of the publisher to avoid libel cases. This scroll was then auctioned off and is now on loan to the British Library.
I fell in love with On the Road when I first read it a few months ago. It was never at the top of my to-read list, but an encounter with a travelling bookseller who likened himself to Kerouac pushed it up there. Do you know those peculiar impulses that tell you when the time is right for certain books? By the time I neared the end of On the Road, I was entirely in love with it, spellbound, and went to the beach to finish it because I thought it deserved a more glorious ending than within the four walls of my room. It celebrated freedom and a break with certain norms, and though I don’t endorse everything Kerouac and Neal Cassady did, there was something about the way they lived and travelled that demanded respect and admiration.
After the devotion I’d developed for Kerouac, I simply had to see the scroll he had typed. At the library, it was almost like being inside a cathedral, with Kerouac fans (and sceptics, in all probability) looking reverently at the long glass case in which the scroll was ensconced. I read snatches to see the original names in the text, then felt nostalgic about the delicious, carefree months I’d spent in England, seeing a country I knew a bit of from books and had always longed to be in, living out a dream from childhood. I felt ridiculously clever when I spotted a mistake in one of the lines Kerouac had typed: “I first met met Neal”.
According to a display there, the book was first published to a mixed reception, and not taken seriously at all in Britain: it was classed with the potboilers of the day, denounced as yet another story of depravity, of sex, drugs and cars. That Kerouac’s deeper message went unnoticed was clear from the cover of the first edition on display- a sketch of attractive, lusting men and women, typical of the drawings on cheap paperbacks of the time. The exhibition also featured photographs, other books and a bit of poetry from the Beat Generation. For someone who’d just discovered Kerouac, it was a perfect finish to a splendid year.
I think I never got over pinching myself on every London visit to believe that I was actually there, in the truest physical sense. I am very glad that my last day in London was mostly grey and rainy- this was exactly how I’d visualised it from all that I’d read, and I wasn’t disappointed. I went on to Hyde Park, to see the place that Amelia Osborne, Becky Sharpe and the other genteel ladies of the time must have ridden through in their carriages. A mist enveloped the park, erasing any defining boundaries of the lovely new autumn colours. The air was fresh, the rain beginning to fall heavily. I had just broken my umbrella, and so I walked to the edge of the Serpentine in the rain, and was just a wee bit disappointed that it wasn’t exactly as blue as the drawing on the map.
The grand houses of Mayfair stand close to Hyde Park. Was this the Bloomsbury Square of the wealthy merchants and politicians who built London? A stroll through this section of town took me past stately, old-fashioned houses, expensive cars and designer shops into a quiet, tree-lined square, on one end of which was perhaps the only Catholic church I visited in England, a grand affair of stained-glass windows and high arches. But the haunting silence ended soon afterwards as I emerged on a thoroughfare and found myself in the vicinity of Grosvenor Square, ending up finally amidst the insatiable crowds of Oxford Street. The desire for fleeting fashions and class consciousness evidently continue to thrive, just as they did in Thackeray’s days. Only, it is now a more global pursuit than it used to be.
The strong feelings that Kerouac’s scroll invoked are now indelibly juxtaposed against a fascination with the lives of the rich in my head: an odd combination, but remarkable for the striking contrasts between their lifestyles, one without pretence, the other masking any ‘base’ inclinations with a gorgeous façade created with obscene amounts of wealth.