On the Road at the British Library

Kerouac’s 120-ft manuscript unraveled for new exhibition.

In 1951 Jack Kerouac cut and taped together sheets of architects’ tracing paper to create a typewriter scroll which measured 120 feet in length. Over the next three weeks, fuelled (so the story goes) by nothing but coffee, he wrote the novel for which he and his generation of artists and writers would be remembered: On the Road. He did so to avoid interruption, working with febrile intensity producing what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody” without having to load new paper after every page.

From now until 27 December, visitors to the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery will be able to admire the first 50 feet of Kerouac’s original scroll, lovingly laid out in a bespoke white case, sitting at the heart of a new exhibition of materials related to the so-called Beat Generation. First editions of titles such as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are displayed alongside information panels and sound recordings: Kerouac reading from his book, poetry, jazz, and a recording of Neal Cassady, the model for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, reading from Proust – donated to the library in 2007 by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s former wife.

Jim Canary, a conservator from the Lilly Library at Indiana University and “keeper of the scroll”, has for the past ten years toured with the manuscript, unrolling it and ensuring its safety during trips to Rome, Dublin, Birmingham, Paris and across the US. The delicate scroll was bought by James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, in 2001 for 2.43 million dollars. “He had the idea of having it travel and sharing it with the world,” Canary said. “Many people thought when it was sold at auction to a private individual that it would never be seen again, but Jim was so much the opposite. He likes to make things happen and so putting it out there has created a whole buzz of energy.”

Part of that energy either produced or was produced by the upcoming Walter Salles film adaptation of the book, released in UK cinemas next week. The film features Twilight and Friday Night Lights stars Kristen Stuart and Garrett Hedlund. I asked Canary what he thought the book might mean for a new generation of readers. “There’s never an end to that personal quest: the road, the path. It’s always there. It was a road of discovery for them – pushing limits and seeing what’s out there. That’s why I think it resonates, because that’s universal. We all think like that.”

While admiring the exhibition, musician David Amram appeared with a tote bag full of tiny drums, pointed to a large photograph of the foremost Beats laughing and smoking in a US diner, and said: “That’s me.” At the back of the photograph an unnamed figure is shovelling a spoonful of dessert into his open maw. “I had no table manners,” Amram laughed. “That’s amazing,” inserted Matthew Shaw, curator of the new exhibit. “We need to change the caption, there’s still space.”

Amram thanked the library for hosting the scroll. “Jack always wanted to be considered as being beyond the culture, as an artist and writer,” he said. “Now it’s finally happening, and it’s beautiful.” Over the next two weeks the library will host a reading by poet Amiri Baraka (7th), a preview of the Walter Salles’ film (10th) and a talk by Beat scholar Howard Cunnell (12th) on the topic “1951: The Great Year of My Enlightenment”. Entry to the exhibition is free.

"Keeper of the Scroll" Jim Canary in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear