Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “beat generation”

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It you read the blurb at the top of the Good Reads entry for this book, you will see it’s described as a hipster story from the 1990s. That puts it in the same genre as other semi-autobiographical hipster novels, like those of Jack Kerouac. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I liked Jack Kerouac’s books better. Or perhaps I just identified more closely with the hipsters of the 1940s (On the Road) or 1950s (The Dharma Bums) than w1th those of the 1990s. I found The Dharma Bums far more hip.

Dave Eggers, however, helps his readers.

He says pages 209-301 are just stuff about people in their 20s, and the book could just as easily have stopped at page 109. I agree. I quite liked it up to page 109. The story about this family in Chicago whose parents died, and they moved to California, and Dave Eggers ends up looking after his younger brother Christopher (Toph for short).

I read about 30 pages beyond page 109, got bored, and following the author’s recommendation skipped to page 301. But the last pages were not as good as the first ones. He goes on and on and on and on describing his thoughts when trying to decide whether or not to throw his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan. I was occasionally tempted to start skimming such passages in Ulysses, but the temptation was far stronger here. The best bits are better than Kerouac at his worst, but don’t approach Kerouac at his best.

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A who’s who of writers and scurrilous gossip column

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal.

After reading this one, I’m still not sure if I’ll read any others, but I found this one quite interesting, and in many places, especially the earlier part, witty and humorous. As the title suggests, he jumps backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing over what he has already written, and sometimes the chronology is a little confusing, especially when discussing people he had known for a long time.

As a writer he met lots of other writers, and the book is a cross between a literary who’s who and a scurrilous gossip column. On the whole, however, he didn’t much like the company of other writers, even though he had met quite a lot of them, and he seems to have had fallings out with those he knew quite well, among whom were Tennessee Williams the playwright and Truman Capote the novelist. I was most interested in what he said about Beat Generation writers, as I have been particularly interested in them, and he knew Allen Ginsberg quite well, and had met some of the others, including Jack Kerouac, in whose book The Subterraneans he appeared as Arial Lavalina.

There is also quite a lot of political gossip, which throws an interesting light on American politics in the early 1960s. Vidal and Jackie Kennedy Onassis shared a common stepfather, whom both of their mothers had married for his money. Vidal himself even stood (or ran) for election at the time that Jack Kennedy was running for President, though he did not have a high opinion of most of the other members of the Kennedy administration, or of Kennedy himself, whom he regarded as a warmonger.

Concerning his own life, Vidal hated his mother, and had only one true love, Jimmy Trimble, whom he met at school, and they were lovers from the age of 12 until the age of 19, when Jimmy Trimble was killed in the Second World War. Thereafter Vidal had a preference for casual anonymous sex, a preference which, he says, he shared with Jack Kennedy, and thought sex was inimical to friendship. He did have a lifelong companion, but according to Vidal their relationship was premissed on “no sex”.

Vidal was also involved in film and television, and wrote several plays, some for television, some for the stage, and he also wrote the screenplay for several films. As a result quite a lot of his personal reminiscences involve actors, directors and producers in the film industry, and it is only his acerbic wit that keeps the parts of his book that deals with them from being a standard celeb gossip column.

An enjoyable read, and quite illuminating, but I’m still not sure if I’ll try to read any of his fiction.

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Beatniks

BeatniksBeatniks by Toby Litt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed “beatniks” by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac‘s novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.

The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being “cool” and “hip”, and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.

As Jack Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road… to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet’s uncle, and try to live up to Jack’s impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.

To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.

The basic problem, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of “coolness” is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.

I don’t think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn’t hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg’s poem Howl. You can find some useful links here.

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So much for the “review” part of this, which I shared on Good Reads, but perhaps there is more to be said. I was turned on to Beat Generation literatrue by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, when he read a paper at a student conference. The paper was Pilgrims of the Absolute, and if you click on the link, you can read it too.

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

As I said, I could identify with the with the characters in the book to some extent, because I too was a wannabe beatnik. There we were, practising waiting for Godot in Linbro Park, which we drove to in a beat up old car with a half-jack of white Malmsey under the front seat. Godot never came, of course, and we didn’t wait all that long either — just till the wine was finished. That’s part of being a wannabe — when you get bored with it you can pack up and go home. Actually the place where the picture was taken is now all built up, and is called Far East Bank, but back then it was just empty veld between Alexandra and Linbro Park.

In the book beatniks Jack refuses to travel to Brighton on the motorway, because it wasn’t built in 1966. Well, we didn’t travel on the N3 highway back when the photo was taken, for the simple reason that it hadn’t been built yet. Now runs across the hilside a couple of hundred metres past my right elbow in the picture. And, like Jack, I still don’t drive on the N3 even though it is there now, but for a somewhat different reason — they’ve started charging tolls on it, but that’s another story.

I suppose the difference between us and the characters in the book is that we were closer in time, if not in distance, to the people we sought to emulate, perhaps 3-5 years after, rather than 35 years later. And we were not quite so obsessive as the people in the book about living other people’s lives. We thought some of their ideas were good, and some not so good, some things we would like to emulate, and others not. Most of it needed to to be adapted to other times, other places, other circumstances.

The hippies, who followed the Beats about 10 years later, adapted their movement, so that it was not mere imitation They coined a phrase for it, “Do your own thing”. But the characters in the book were trying very hard to do someone else’s thing, and that, as I’ve already said, is the antithesis of “cool”.

There is a saying attributed to Dostoevsky, “Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense. It is better to go wrong in your own way than to go right in somebody else’s.”

 

Jack Kerouac’s American journey (book review)

Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the RoadJack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road by Paul Maher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the road is not my favourite book by Jack Kerouac so I might not have bought this book if it had not been going cheap on a sale. I’m glad I did buy it, though, because I found it more interesting than On the road, and it explains how that book was written.

I recently read Neal Cassady: the fast life of a beat hero (review here), and found several details in this book that threw more light on Cassady’s character and behaviour than his biography did. Perhaps Paul Maher had access to more sources. After reading the biography, I was at a loss to know why people like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were attracted to Cassady, though in Ginsberg’s case the initial attraction was sexual. Maher manages to explain it better, though he still does not portray Cassady as a particularly attractive character.

That still doesn’t explain why I liked this book better than On the road itself. Perhaps it is because the real life of authors is often more interesting than the characters they write about. My favourite among Kerouac’s books is still The Dharma bums, and perhaps that is because it is more about the influence of Gary Snyder than that of Neal Cassady, and Snyder is a more sympathetic character.

One thing that almost put me off reading the book was odd errors in language. I suppose having been an editor makes me rather intolerant of slip-ups (even though I make plenty of my own). One of the more egregious ones was on page 133, “Carolyn Cassady received a letter from her husband, postmarked January 11. In it he promised her regular installments of cash from working two jobs in New York, neither of which he had yet to procure.” I presume the author intended to say either “both of which he had yet to procure” or “neither of which he had yet procured”, but as it stands it is a strange piece of nonsense. There are other similar errors, writing “principal” where “principle” was meant and so on. But I’m glad that these didn’t put me off, because the book is worth reading, at least to anyone who has enjoyed reading any of Kerouac’s books.

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The time of my life

Up at 5:25. I borrowed my son Jethro’s bakkie and went out to get a new battery for the Subaru, and had to pay R900.00 for it, though they said they would give me R114.00 back if I brought in the old one. When I were a lad you could buy a whole car for that. My first “real” car was an 8-year-old Peugeot 403 station wagon, which I bought in Durban in 1969 and paid R300 for it. I sold it 3 years later to a witchdoctor for R60, and in the mean time it had taken me to Namibia and back a few times.

Then I went to Brooklyn Mall, to the Exclusive Books sale, where they have reduced the prices still further. I had hoped to get a copy of and the hippos were boiled in their tanks by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughes, but they seemed to have been all sold out, which quite surprised me, as the last time we were there they had about 8-10 copies and I wondered who in Pretoria might buy them. But I found a book on the peace movement, to commemorate 50 years of the peace sign. So in the end the books I bought were:

  • Leland, John. 2007. Why Kerouac matters: the lessons of On the Road.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. 2003. End of the earth: voyages to Antarctica.
  • Miles, Barry. 2008. Peace: 50 years of protest 1958-2008.

And they cost R70.00, but if they had not been on sale they would probably have cost almost as much as the battery.

I got home and looked at the books. I blogged about the peace symbol on the anniversary, at Peace symbol – 50 years on | Khanya, and the book, though a bit coffee-tableish, was a good reminder of a history that coincided with my own life. In 1958, the year the peace symbol was first used to protest nuclear disarmament, I was still at school. The “peace symbol” was then primarily used in protests against nuclear weapons, and it was only some years later, with growing American involvement in Vietnam, that it became a general peace sign. In 1961 I joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and I’m now associated with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, so the book is in a way the story of my life and times.

One of the other books, the one on Kerouac’s On the road was also in a way a symbol of my life and times, though On the road was never my favourite book by Kerouac — I much preferred his The Dharma bums. Kerouac, however, was the same age as my father-in-law, so he was a different generation. But Leland’s book seems to be trying to turn On the road into a self-help book. I must be really out of touch with pop culture, because I have no interest in self-help books, nor books about misunderstood sexy teenage vegetarian vampires. I prefer my vampires evil and bloodthirsty and they are coming to kill you and steal your soul.

Then, while I was pondering these books, which provoked a lot of reminiscences, the TV started reporting on Jimmy Reid’s funeral. I’d never heard of Jimmy Reid, or if I had heard of him, I couldn’t remember him. He was a trade union leader in the shipbuilding industry in Scotland, and was apparently famous for leading a work-in when Edward Heath’s Conservative government wanted to close down the British shipbuilding industry. They recalled two speeches he made, one on the occasion of the work-in, and another when he was made Rector of Glasgow University and said, “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” It was hailed by the New York Times as the greatest speech since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I found it strangely moving, and also linked to my life and times in a way. I went to the UK in January 1966 to study at St Chad’s College, Durham. I left in a hurry, because a Detective Sergeant van den Heever phoned me at 4 pm and said he wanted come and see me. I was about to leave for work, and said I’d have to see him in the morning. But then I consulted friends and decided it would be wiser to leave for the UK right away, so left at 10:00 pm and drove through the night to Beit Bridge. My mother told me that her cousin Willie Hannan was a Scottish MP, and might be able to help me get advice on finding a job and getting residence permits and the like.

I drove to Bulawayo, and got a plane to Salisbury (now Harare) and from the airport phoned more cousins. It was just after UDI in Rhodesia, and the Rhodesian cousins did not have a good word for cousin Willie, and portrayed him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary, betraying his own kith and kin in Rhodesia and all the rest of the Rhodesian rhetoric.

When I got to London I made contact with cousin Willie, who was MP for Girvan, in Glasgow. He was terribly respectable, and anything less like a wild-eyed revolutionary I could not imagine. My mother had also told me that Willie’s father had been jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, not because he was a pacifist, but because he was a socialist and regarded it as an imperialist-capitalist war. I regarded any conscientious objector as something of a hero, and so I asked cousin Willie about it, but he was clearly embarrassed, and said that at the time the police came for his father he was just a child, and they didn’t understand it, and that things were different in those days. He was, in my view, what we then called a “square”, altogether respectable. But he was a very nice bloke, and kind hearted, and was all in favour of peace, though he believed peace could be achieved by international cooperation and friendship, primarily in things like the European Union. He had no opinion about Rhodesia at all, other than being mildly unhappy about all the unpleasantness over it, and wanted to know what I thought of it, though I had spent less than 24 hours there on my way to the UK.

But he probably knew Jimmy Reid, and probably thought of him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary.

It’s cool to be hip but not hip to be cool

A couple of days ago there was some discussion about the following article in some Usenet newsgroups. I was interested in it because of the use of the word “hipster”. It seemed to be used with a meaning very different from the meaning I understood.

I’m interested in words and how they are used, partly because it used to be my job as an editor for several years, though it would probably be truer to say that I got into the job because of my interest in language and usage rather than the other way round.

Anyway, the article was The Daily Cardinal – Song causes local hipster to self-destruct:

MADISON, WI—Tens of twenties of Madison’s hippest are gathered in mourning this afternoon following the news of the tragic death of local hipster Charles “Wayne” Duchene, 22, who died a horrific and most likely cliche death late Monday evening at a Foo Fee Foe concert.

Duchene’s body was found in a puddle of his own PBR at approximately 11:15 p.m. Monday night at the entrance of The Dank Bank, an obscure venue located just off the Capitol Square.

Now this is a student publication and it’s obviously satire, but they have to be satirising something. I had to ask about PBR, which I at first took to be one of those three-letter abbreviations for various medical conditions that hypochondiacs sprinkle their conversations with and expect the rest of us to understand. It transpired that it did not stand for something like Personal Bodily Refuse, but was an allusion to a local beer, though I gather many people who know the brew think there is little difference, but more of that later.

So what is a hipster?

As I understand it, a “hipster” was orginally a jazz fan, and especially a fan of “cool” jazz, a “hip” or “hep” cat.

In Beat Generation circles it was extended to mean someone who was hip to the lies of mainstream culture, and who disaffiliated from it and rejected its values, who did not get over excited over the things pimped by the advertising industry and so on, who was detached from all the frenzy about brands and fashion. That was the essence of “cool” in those days.

As Lawrence Lipton put it in his book “The holy barbarians” (Lipton 1959:150):

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

So the hipster, or the beat, had a cool and detached attitude to the frenzy of the striving for success in mainstream society.

“Beatniks” were groupies or wannabes. The word was coined by a journalist by analogy with “sputnik” — beatniks were those who were in orbit around the beat movement, but were not central to it.

By the late sixties “hipster” had got shortened to “hippie”, and while the hippies were successors to the beats as a countercultural movement, they were a little less cool. To be “cool” suggested being detached, laid back, not excited by the constant changes of fashion and the striving for success. It was the role of a passive and cynical observer.

Hippies were more active, and more positive in trying not merely to disaffiliate from mainstream culture, but to try to create an alternative to it, an alternative culture and an alternative society.

But the impression I got from the article that sparked off this post is that the writer was using “hipster” in an entirely different sense, to mean something almost opposite from what it meant in the 1950s and 1950s.

I wondered how widespread that usage is — can anyone explain the writer’s usage, and do they share that understanding of the word today, and how did it get to mean almost the opposite of what it meant 50 years ago? “Cool” seems to have changed its meaning a lot in the last 50 years, so I wonder if “hipster” has likewise changed, so that it no means nearly the opposite of what it did back then.

I watch “Top Gear” on TV, and there they discuss what constitutes a “cool” car, and it is clear that their idea of “cool” is very different from mine. My 1961 Peugeot station wagon, with rusty door panels and empty cold-drink cans rolling around on the floor, bought cheap from an open air used car lot where a rickety wooden shack was the “office”, bought on the “zero maintenance” plan, was my idea of a “cool” car, but I doubt very much if the “Top Gear” people are using “cool” in that sense.

Another thing that illustrates the change in the meaning of words like “cool” is Levis jeans. They were cool back then and they are regarded as cool now, for entirely different reasons, and for entirely different values of “cool”. When I bought my first pair of Levis there was only one shop in Johannesburg that sold them, imported them from the USA. It was not advertised and nor were Levis. You learnt about it by word of mouth. It was also a decidedly unfashionable shop in a decidedly unfashionable part of town, Jeppestown, which seems to have escaped the gentrification that has transformed other run-down suburbs. Levis were the opposite of fashionable, tough working clothes that one bought a couple of sizes too big because they would shrink to fit. No one with any fashion sense would be seen dead in Levis. How have the mighty fallen!

But the guy whose death was described in the article in question sounded anything but “hip” to me, the very opposite of “hip”, in fact. So I still wonder what the writer meant by “hipster”, and whether other people understand “hipster” in the same way, and can explain what they mean by it.

To get back to PBR briefly, the Urban Dictionary defines it as:

PBR

abbreviation for pabst blue ribbon beer, which is simultaneously the best and worst beer ever brewed. it is typically on special at bars for twelve cents a pint. also doubles as a laxative.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is a lot like the band Bright Eyes,
Hipsters love it, but everyone else thinks its liquid shit.

Hipsters again. It’s got to mean something in Wisconsin that is different from what it means in the rest of the world… or does it?

Perhaps I should retreat into the past, to when I was a wannabe hipster, and a wannabe beatnik (and if a beatnik is a wannabe beat, then a wannabe beatink is a wannabe wannabe). My twenty-year-old self went to visit Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, whom I regarded as the authority on all things hip and cool (he lent me books by Jack Kerouac, and the Lipton book I quoted above, and many others besides). So I wrote in my diary for 23 June 1961

… later went to see Brother Roger. There he sat, outside the priory in jeans and sweatshirt, on the library steps, luxuriating in the sun studying Lipton’s Holy Barbarians. Studying, yes, truly it is the text book, and he said that he had a book by Clellon Holmes, The horn, about a jazz man, and he says it in that zestful rapturous way of his, which makes me think he gets the utter limit of enjoyment out of everything he does. “It’s wonderful,” he says, “simply wonderful.” And when he says it you know he really means it. He told me about what he is going to say at Modderpoort, and he isn’t giving them Bloy this year, but Jean somebody. The Observer calls him the poet of evil, who has spent half his life in jail, and is something of a misanthropist and hates society, patron saint of the Beats. He gave me a play for the AYPA, by Charles Williams, called House of the octopus, and there was a boy there called Abel, a black boy studying for his matric, and says he is a cat and loves jazz, and Bach, and plays a clarinet which got broken. So I talked a bit to Abel and found he lives in Orlando where he goes to AYPA meetings and is staying at the priory during the vac to study. He is a nice cat, a hip spade cat.

The AYPA was the Anglican Young Peoples Association, a youth organisation with branches in various parishes. Modderpoort was the venue of the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation, where Brother Roger was going to read his paper about the Jean somebody, who was actually Jean Genet (that was the first time I’d ever heard of him), and you can read his paper, Pilgrims of the Absolute, here.

Yes, I’ve written about this stuff before, sorry if anyone was bored, but I suppose those who have seen it all before wouldn’t have got this far anyway.

The vanishing hitchhiker

No, I’m not talking about the well-known urban legend (Legends from a small country: Legends that go bump), but about the fact that one no longer sees hitchhikers on the road. It came up in a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup, where someone asked why one doesn’t hitchhikers on the road any more. Was it paranoia on the part of motorists, cops cracking down, or what?

I used to hitchhike and give lifts to hitchhikers in the past, but no more.

Paranoia?

Perhaps, but I think the change came when hijacking became a popular method of car theft, possibly due to the increased effectiveness of car anti-theft devices.

Until about the mid-1980s I think most car thefts were of unattended vehicles, and robbery was rare. But with electronic ignition systems and satellite tracking that has become more difficult, so robbery, and especially armed robbery, has become far more common. People are reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and hitchhiking has become a futile method of getting from place to place.

Concerning the urban legend, I found this interesting:

The first possible variant of the urban legend The Vanishing Hitchhiker occurs in Acts 8: 26–40 with the conversion of an “Ethiopian” by the hitchhiking apostle Philip. More recent variants in the Gambia and Somalia exhibit a different plot, but retain the vanishing hitchhiker motif. A female hitchhiker spends time with a man, who is later unable to locate her, but who finds his coat on her grave. The found-coat variant is part of a widespread cycle of vanishing hitchhiker legends. Could the story have originated in Africa? This article deals with this issue and with widespread occurrences of this legend.

But back to the actual vanishing hitchhiker.

Hitchhiking could be quite interesting. One sometimes met interesting people that way, though sometimes one also met very dull ones.

In 1960 I was told a story of an Anglican monk, Fr Victor Ranford SSM (of the Society of the Sacred Mission) who was based at Modderpoort in the Free State, and used to hitchhike wherever he needed to go. One driver who picked him up told him he knew he was an Anglican and not a Roman Catholic. Fr Victor asked him how he knew. “I can tell by your socks,” the driver said.

Wally Buhler, hoping for a lift outside Ixopo (in those days the distances were in miles)

Wally Buhler, hoping for a lift outside Ixopo (in those days the distances were in miles)

In 1964, when I was at university in Pietermaritzburg, a friend and I decided to hitchhike to Grahamstown, 500 miles away, on a long weekend. We got as far as Ixopo, 50 miles away, and no one gave us a lift, so we walked back into town and took a bus to Springvale Mission, where we hoped to get a bed for the night. The bus was supposed to be for blacks only, but the driver allowed us to board. The priest of Springvale, whom we knew, was away, but someone let us into the house and we spent the night there. There was a lot more trust in those days.

The next morning we hitchhiked to Highflats village, and planned to go down to the coast and up to Durban where my friend lived. Our first lift out of Highflats was from a witchdoctor in a pre-war Packard. We sat in the spacious back seat and watched the gall bladders and goat horns and other paraphernalia that festooned the car swinging as he drove rather erratically along the winding road. He took us as far as Hlutankungu, where he turned off.

From Hlutankungu we walked, waving our thumbs at passing cars, but they were few, and none stopped for us. After an hour we reached Jolivet, which was at the third mile, so we knew we walked at three miles an hour. There was a station on the narrow-gauge railway, and we heard a train whistling and could see it coming winding in and out shosholoza through the hills, so we waited for it at the station, and asked the guard if we could get a ticket to the terminus at Umzinto on the South Coast. He said the train no longer carried passengers. It seemed that the information in Alan Paton’s novel Cry the beloved country was out of date — he describes someone travelling one one of these narrow-gauge trains. But eventually the guard took pity on us, and allowed us to travel in the guard’s van at the back of the train, sitting among the mail bags. That was the only time in my life I managed to hitchhike a ride on a train, and it reminded me of the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma bums. It’s my favourite Kerouac novel, and on that trip I felt a bit like a Dharma bum.

Four years later, as a student in England, I hitchhiked with another friend from Durham to Manchester, where we stayed with his parents in the village of Saddleworth. Then we went to Liverpool, and took the ferry across the Mersey and stayed with another friend in Cheshire, and from there down to South Wales.

A couple of years after that I was living in Namibia, and we had a visitor, an English guy who had been teaching in Tanzania, and when his time was up and he had to return to England, he discovered that if he paid 30 shillings (R3.00) more, he could change his plane ticket to go from Johannesburg instead of Dar-es-Salaam (those were the days!) He did so, and hitchhiked from East Africa to southern Africa, and saw quite a lot before going to Johannesburg and getting the plane back to the UK.

So people hitchhiked quite a lot in those days.

But I rarely see hitchhikers nowadays, and if I do, I don’t stop. I think it’s rather sad.

The unrespectability of our religion

I was transcribing some of my old journals this morning, and came across what I had written when I was 19 in response to reading about Leon Bloy.

When I got home I finished reading Leon Bloy and marvelled at his faith and devotion. He had been prepared to live nearly all his life in poverty — nay, in destitution — for the sake of Jesus.

Like Clement of Alexandria, like St Francis of Assisi, he gave up all for love. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God.” The beatniks are looking for what St Francis was looking for; they are after the absolute values of God rather than the relative values of this world. “A saintly clergy means a virtuous people; a virtuous clergy means a respectable people; a respectable clergy means a godless people.”

Christians must never become respectable. Respectability is the curse of true religion. The slavish following of convention and the mediocrity it leads to, or springs from, are the enemy of all true Christianity. People become indistinguishable, they merge into the mass of the respectable, conventional mass of unthinking semi-morons that people this globe; they have no variety, and variety is the spice of life. They are tasteless, “and if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” Most Christians do not take their faith at all seriously — in one sense — they are prepared to live with it, but only just. They will not live for their faith, and certainly will not die for it. Saints were too unconventional, too unrespectable, to be imitated. People pay lip service to the examples of the saints, But if anyone should try to follow their example he is denounced, and they say, “Religion is a good thing, but that is taking it too far.” The person against whom such an accusation is levelled has probably just begun to take religion at all seriously. Christians are a lot of hypocrites people say, but if they try not to be hypocrites, then they are fanatics. The unrespectability of our religion! (Journal entry: 17 August 1960)

That was over 40 years ago. I had been introduced to Leon Bloy by Brother Roger, of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection. Bloy’s ideas were more than 60 years old then, and yet they seemed equally relevant to the 1960s. And now I keep reading about similar ideas in emerging church circles, including such things as urban monasticism. I look back at and cringe a little at the teenage arrogance, and wonder if our generation turned out any better than those we so self-righteously denounced.

Things have not changed much since then, it seems. A recent survey shows that most Christians in many countries see themselves first of all as citizens of this world rather than as citizens of the kingdom of God. Our citizenship is in heaven, says St Paul, but most have other gods. This is perhaps not so surprising in Russia, where atheism was the official state-sponsored religion for two generations, but it is a little more disturbing in other countries.

There also seems to be an anomaly in the case of the USA, where a higher proportion said that they saw themselves as Christians first, and citizens of their country second. But I wonder — I suspect that many of those who said that would respond to their country’s recent wars of aggression in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq by saying “My country, right or wrong”.

The vanishing hitchhiker

Phil Wyman has blogged about the vanishing hitchhiker here: Square No More: The Death of Hitchhiking, the Death of Trust?

Phil was talking mainly about the American scene, but I think the same applies here in South Africa, and in lots of other places. As I commented in Phil’s blog, I think an important reason for the death of trust is the increase in vehicle hijacking. Drivers see a hitchhiker and wonder if it is hitchhiker or a hijacker, decide to play it safe and drive on.

And like Phil, I think it’s rather sad.

In my youth I went to a Christian student conference at Modderpoort in the Free State, which must be one of the coldest places on earth (in winter). There was a priory of the Society of the Sacred Mission (an Anglican religious order) there, and one of the SSM Fathers was Victor Ransford. We were told that at one time he hitchhiked halfway round the country with a Christmas tree. One man who gave him a lift said “I wondered if you were Anglican or Roman Catholic, and then when I got close, I knew you were Anglican.”

“How could you tell?” asked Fr Victor.

“By your socks.”

At the same student conference one of the speakers was a member of another Anglican religious order, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection. He spoke on Pilgrims of the Absolute, and extolled the beat generation vision of a rucksack revolution, of the Dharma bums who would hitchhike from place to place to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity.

I never really realised my ambition to be a Dharma bum, but it is sad to think that it is that much harder for anyone to realise such a vision nowadays, or at least the hitchhiking part of it. But some parts of the vision are still alive. There are people who have a vision of urban monasticism and similar things. In the mean time, let’s pray that the vanishing hitchhiker will reappear.

Pilgrims of the Absolute

In various blogs I have been reading about and the , and discovered that quite a lot of people had been talking about these in various forms.

This led me to review and revise a web page on which I had posted a paper called Pilgrims of the Absolute by Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection.

Brother Roger read his paper at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa. It had the sub-title of “the unrespectability of our religion”, and was aimed at shaking Christian students our of the complacency of their bourgeois upbringing.

Back in the early 1960s Christianity in South Africa was a good deal more bourgeouis and respectable than it is now, and Brother Roger gave examples of countercultural figures like the Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes, the playwright Jean Genet and others.

Pilgrims of the Absolute blew my mind, and I began reading Beat Generation authors, especially Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma bums (which was soon afterwards banned in South Africa). Brother Roger kept me supplied with reading matter from the well-stocked library of the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, and became a kind of guru, sharing his vision with me.

I was not a particularly apt pupil, and the vision remained a more or less unattainable ideal for me. One consolation is that it also remained unattainable for Jack Kerouac. It was the vision of a , in which young people would give up the security and comfort of home, and the dominant values of an acquisitive society, and become Pilgrims of the Absolute, similar, in a way, to the kind of life described in The way of a pilgrim, which is a prime example of a pilgrim of the absolute, and it could also be seen as a vision for a new monasticism. One could find more examples in recent times, like , zine and .

I wrote something about this in my LiveJournal so won’t repeat it all here, but I was moved by the discussions in various places to revamp the Pilgrims of the Absolute web page, in the hope that some might find it interesting and useful, and that it might contribute to the discussion about a .

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