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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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