Shotgun Billy: William Burroughs posing in front of his paintings in 1987. (Photo: Getty)
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Wild boys: the high lives of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Sixty years on, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic.

William S Burroughs: a Life
Barry Miles
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 718pp, £30

The Haunted Life
Jack Kerouac
Penguin Classics, 208pp, £20

The standard operating take on the American 1950s is that it was a time of entrench­ed conservatism and the reinforcement of white-bread family values. Without question, the decade was, on one level, a postwar period of peace and plenty. After the trauma of a lengthy depression, the knock-on effect of the US wartime economy was an unprecedented growth spurt.

A huge system of transcontinental highways began to redefine the notion of automotive movement and the American love affair with the road. The middle-class flight from the cities commenced, as new suburban enclaves started to spring up on the commutable outskirts of major metropolitan areas. The most notorious of these ’burbs – Levittown, New York – set a new benchmark for aesthetic sterility in a nation that, for all its talk of rugged individuals, has always championed conformity.

With a generation of returning soldiers starting families and buying stuff, the consumer-driven economy boomed. National hyper-consumerism was introduced (courtesy of that newfangled medium, television); two cars in every garage was the desired ideal.

Overseeing this era of social compliance and economic boom was a soldier-turned-politician, General Dwight D Eisenhower, very much a Republican of the old fiscal conservative school (without the Tea Party/born-again Christian extremism that has turned the present-day Grand Old Party into an Ayn Rand-meets-Jesus-is-Lord freak show). Though Eisenhower was a far more nuanced president than history often records – the early civil rights battles were fought by him and he outlined the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” that continues to define the destiny of the republic – the communist witch-hunts of Senator McCarthy (whom Eisenhower loathed, even though he showed little fortitude against the alcoholic senator’s reign of terror) took place during his time in office. The Rosenbergs were executed for treason under his watch. And the cold war simply got colder, as the nuclear arms race gained pace.

Besides being an era when pregnancy meant housewifedom – and when an unmarried, childless “career woman” was looked upon as an urban Typhoid Mary – the 1950s were also a time when any sort of nonconformist behaviour was regarded with immense suspicion. Long before there were flower power kids with shoulder-length hair, there were the so-called beatniks who were testing the frontiers of all things libertine in a very button-down era.

Periods of social and political conservatism can often spark a cultural revolt against the banalities and platitudes of the status quo. Certainly, the 1950s were a decade in which many American artists were hounded into expatriatism or living a broken life because of past political allegiances or sexual proclivities. But it was also, intriguingly, a time of new-found creative confidence, in which the long shadow of European cultural dominance began to be replaced by fresh, innovative American vernaculars. The plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (and later Edward Albee) spoke directly to an American experience. De Kooning, Pollock and Rothko extended the painterly barriers of colouration and visual form. Charlie Parker invented bop. Miles Davis created a new jazz language best described as the “birth of the cool”. And then there were the beats.

Sixty years after their incarnation, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic. With recent films based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Big Sur; with a cinematic reconstruction of the writing of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the subsequent trial against its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for allegedly distributing pornography; with Daniel Radcliffe leaving Harry Potter behind to play a young Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University (in the film Kill Your Darlings, which charts the birth of the beats); and with a very major, very ace new biography of William S Burroughs by Barry Miles just published, it can easily be  argued that we are in the middle of a significant beat revival.

What makes the beats so compelling is that they were louche, drugged up and sexually adventurous at a time when the three-Martini lunch and the fast fling with the secretary was the corporate man norm. We continue to take an interest in Kerouac because of his great romance of the road. We still embrace Ginsberg as someone who created a seminal American poetic oeuvre, was proudly out as a homosexual at a juncture when gay men and women were often forced into psychotherapy to cure them of their alleged deviance, and was a flamboyantly Jewish/Buddhist mystic Walt Whitman for our times.

Then there was William S Burroughs: the great literary outlaw, the Midwestern dude in the funeral director’s suit who lived a life that was always testing every possible barrier. Indeed the psychic outlook of Burroughs could best be nailed by evoking an epigram from one of his literary stepchildren, Hunter S Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Consider this early childhood trauma in 1918 when the young Burroughs – born into grand bourgeois circumstances (the Burroughs adding machine, invented by William’s grandfather, had helped build the family fortune) – was taken by his nanny to meet one of her girlfriends who, in turn, brought him along to meet her veterinarian boyfriend (now there’s a tangled web of contacts). In the course of the afternoon, Burroughs might have been forced to fellate the vet, biting down on his penis and being rewarded with a hard smack to the head. Or he might have seen his nanny having sex with her girlfriend, “giving rise to an infantile idea that women had penises”.

Whatever happened on that postwar afternoon in late summer, it was one of many wildly off-kilter incidents (including those moments when he suffered severe fevers and, like his supernatural-obsessed mother, saw visions of animals on his bedroom walls) that helped shape the outré Burroughs sensibility. Of course, coming from money, he went to the right schools and throughout his years at Harvard, in the über-uptight Cambridge, Massachusetts, he kept a loaded .32 Smith & Wesson revolver with him and frequently made trips down to New York for speakeasy debauchery and gay pickups, staying at a dive hotel on Central Park South for four bucks a night.

Burroughs’s taste for life on the margins was (irony of ironies) augmented during his stay at that ultra-Wasp Ivy League university. There was a stint in the army. There were his Greenwich Village years, during which he came to be entwined with a group of Columbia undergraduates – including Ginsberg, Kerouac and Lucien Carr – who became, with the likes of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder on the west coast, the chief exponents of the beat movement.

Burroughs had been introduced to this group by an English instructor friend from St Louis named David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with the waifish, Proustian Carr since his schoolboy years. (Carr subsequently murdered Kammerer while at Columbia in 1944. He did just two years in prison for the murder, on the grounds that Kammerer had come on to him sexually – back when a homosexual advance was deemed just cause for murder.)

There was also a woman named Joan Vollmer, a recent graduate of Barnard College (Columbia’s sister school, as women’s universities were known), who with her Benzedrine psychosis problems, alcohol addiction and intellectual brilliance, was an equal match for Burroughs – especially given his new interest in “junk” (opium derivatives), of which heroin and morphine ranked at the top of the charts.

In the Burroughs biographical narrative, life was always lived on the wrong side of the street. One of the great pleasures of Barry Miles’s capacious, compelling biography is that it surveys the many landscapes and psychotic episodes in Burroughs’s life with novelistic brio, brilliantly rendering the interior of a scuzzy New York bar circa 1945, or the Malcolm Lowry-esque years down Mexico way, where Burroughs had his William Tell moment: telling his wife to put a glass on her head so that he could show their guests what a great shot he was. Alas, his aim turned out to be faulty and she died of the gun­-shot wound (he managed to beat the homicide rap).

Then there was his stint in Tangier (“Bill . . . paid 60 cents to watch two Arab boys screw each other”) – the expatriate scene and the intoxicating grit of that city is cunningly animated in Miles’s elegant prose. And loitering with intent in Paris. And the furore surrounding the publication of Naked Lunch. And the creation of an oeuvre, not to mention what was perhaps the most well-cultivated public literary persona since Hemingway’s lone man machismo veneer – only in Burroughs’s case, the outlaw persona that he showed the world was never a veneer. He truly was someone who lived a life of breathtaking risk and originality; of faultless outlandishness.

Whether detailing Burroughs’s attempts to deal with the corrupt behaviour of his French publishers, Olympia Press, over the rights to Naked Lunch, his dabbling in a new-found cult called Scientology, his appearance in a U2 video or his strange return to the Midwest, living out the final years of his life amid the flat vistas of Kansas, Miles’s wonderful biography is rich in anecdote and has an extraordinary cast of supporting characters, from his beat cohorts to the New York demi-monde that adopted him as its favourite morally suspect uncle. But Miles always keeps our attention focused on the singularity of Burroughs’s life and his need to go against the American grain, while simultaneously grappling with (and finally re-embracing) the question of American identity – not to mention his lifelong love affair with weed, pharmaceuticals and semi-automatic weapons.

Miraculously – given how much abuse his internal combustion system withstood – Burroughs managed to live 83 years. Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, died as a washed-up alcoholic in his 47th year, leaving this life in 1969. If Ginsberg and Burroughs were the visionary talents of the beat generation, Kerouac remains its mythic poster boy, especially as the title of his first published novel, On the Road, has entered the lingua franca.    

Before becoming America’s great literary drifter, Kerouac – as an undergraduate at Columbia University – wrote an early roman-à-clef that begins with its protagonist’s father complaining: “America isn’t the same country anymore; it isn’t even America anymore.”

More of a sketchbook than a finished novella, The Haunted Life has all the usual attributes of that classic “summer when everything changed” American yarn – in which a young man faces all sorts of primordial questions as he surveys his homeland, veering between the harsh realities of a still-depressed economy and a looming war. To classify it as juvenilia would be a tad harsh, especially as it is full of lovely examples of Kerouac’s burgeoning American pastoral prose (he writes beautifully about the aesthetics of New England life). At heart, Kerouac was a romantic who, like his beat counterparts, was always in search of a sense of self in a country where the individual is both mythically revered and ignored.

You have to be a true Kerouac groupie to find much of interest in this slender novella but knowing how the demons of fame and doubt eventually consumed him (just as they somehow sustained Burroughs) makes this first attempt at essaying a literary vision strangely moving.

And it also serves as a reminder that, in an America now so divided by its on­going cultural wars, the beats remain a crucially sceptical, sexually robust antidote to the deep-rooted puritanism and need for national self-congratulation (we are God’s preferred terrain, after all) that still define much of the mainstream opinion in American life.

Douglas Kennedy’s 11th novel, “Five Days”, will be published in paperback by Arrow (£6.99) on 10 April

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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