Customising Biography

Iain Sinclair

  • Blake by Peter Ackroyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 399 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 1 85619 278 4
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol I: Jerusalem series editor David Bindman, edited by Morton D. Paley
    Tate Gallery, 304 pp, £48.00, August 1991, ISBN 1 85437 066 9
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. II: Songs of Innocence and Experience series editor David Bindman, edited by Andrew Lincoln
    Tate Gallery, 210 pp, £39.50, August 1991, ISBN 1 85437 068 5
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol III: The Early Illuminated Books series editor David Bindman, edited by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi
    Tate Gallery, 288 pp, £48.00, August 1993, ISBN 1 85437 119 3
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. IV: The Continental Prophecies: America, Europe, The Song of Los series editor David Bindman, edited by D.W. Dörbecker
    Tate Gallery, 368 pp, £50.00, May 1995, ISBN 1 85437 154 1
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. V: Milton, a Poem series editor David Bindman, edited by Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi
    Tate Gallery, 224 pp, £48.00, November 1993, ISBN 1 85437 121 5
  • Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. VI: The Urizen Books series editor David Bindman, edited by David Worrall
    Tate Gallery, 232 pp, £39.50, May 1995, ISBN 1 85437 155 X

A recent episode in a jobbing writer’s life found me interviewing Carolyn Cassady (author of Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg) in her comprehensively occupied Belsize Park flat. The unreality of this situation – talking, shoulder to shoulder, with one of the Beat Generation’s best-preserved icons – was ameliorated by the fact that our paths had crossed a number of times over the last fifteen years. (Once, during a strained public conversation in Waterstone’s, Charing Cross Road, we had been interrupted by a foam-flecked out-patient yelling: ‘How often do you sleep with prostitutes?’) But even now, at some level, I couldn’t accept it: that this courteous and sharp-witted lady was the one who had been, rather reluctantly, photographed with Neal Cassady, and who had herself been responsible for some of the most familiar images of Kerouac and Cassady in archetypal buddy-buddy poses. I guess that I’m temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with these confusions. Fiction, biography, journalism: they will insist on muscling in on territory that doesn’t, strictly speaking, belong to them. Carolyn, in stately exile in North London, calls into question the eternal present-tense rush of On the Road. They can’t both be true, not at the same time. That plural consciousness is too much to accept. But Carolyn is, self-evidently, very much alive, and feels obliged, as a duty, to swoop on inaccuracies perpetrated by career biographers, manipulations that nudge her out of the official portraits. Biography is serious business these days. It underwrites the republication of a sanctioned backlist. It provokes movie deals that, in their turn, create a climate of excitement which finds Johnny Depp paying $ 15,000 for what purports to be Jack Kerouac’s old raincoat. The vendor cursed himself for letting the relic go so cheap: a soiled handkerchief was subsequently found in the pocket which could have been sold separately, or used to bump up the price tag by another couple of grand.

We are all in it. All culpable for the same failure of nerve. On my way to Belsize Park, I stopped off at Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town to look for a Céline biography that would validate my experience of reading, and relishing, the novel London Bridge. How had the trepanned French maniac achieved such a rapturous sense of the city’s psychogeography – Willesden to Soho to Rotherhithe? I was introduced at the desk, in the way that one is, to an American writer who told me that he’d heard about my novels, even picked up copies, but couldn’t actually commit himself to the act of reading them until he’d checked out the explanatory essays, the biographical anecdotes (which do not exist). Until that time the books could continue to disport themselves as objects on the shelf. I sympathised with his attitude. I do the same myself. Unopened biographies lend gravitas to unsold fiction.

Carolyn had such a strict sense of the past that laboriously produced retrievals, even her own, could never provide an adequate description of it. She was a very real prisoner of her remembered history. Off the Road, at 429 pp., barely scratched the surface of what she wanted to say. Swathes of documentation, letters, had to be cut down or removed entirely. The picture she sketched, of the never-eradicated desire of the principal Beats for a lick at the American dream of the Fifties – Saturday Evening Post family, house, plot of land – remained under-described, overwhelmed by hallucinatory excesses and the tyranny of now. Carolyn endures the continuing pain of accurately curating her own life, checking catalogues and proofs, a torrent of yellow Jiffy bags. The script for the Coppola movie of On the Road is on the couch, preempting future litigation. It was Kerouac who was known as ‘Memory Babe’, but Carolyn who is condemned to live by that title. Questioned now, she goes agonisingly back over what happened to that other woman, her earlier self. She produces hard evidence to confirm her anecdotes. I am shocked to find, put into my hand, the copy of Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, inscribed for Carolyn by way of apology, after a bad boy’s night, a stand-up row with a black girl, sulks in the attic. Here was that book, as well as a copy of On the Road that showed clear evidence of having been thoroughly invigilated, and bearing, at the head of the fixed endpaper, Neal Cassady’s neat signature. Verification that any reputable West Coast bookdealer would kill for; glass-case ephemera lolling wantonly across my lap.

So what happens to the subject who outlives his or her brief biographical moment? Who is left to challenge inauthentic versions of the story? In the Belsize Park flat, one room is a pictorial shrine, mugshots of Beat heroes – Cassady in t-shirt, Kerouac in a Stetson; the kind of image that is now surfacing, as Joyce Johnson recalls, in hip advertisements for Gap khakis (with ‘black-sweatered girlfriend’ airbrushed out). A predatory colonisation of the past. Carolyn’s own traditional artworks, chalk drawings of ballerinas, pencil sketches of Ginsberg and Cassady and Kerouac, were not invited to take their place on the walls of the Whitney Museum for the Beat Generation wake.

In the main room, a low occasional table had been turned into a kind of altar: candles and fastidiously aligned stacks of books. This was Carolyn’s current reading matter, the titles she was happy to display. Alan Bennett’s Diaries and, of course, Peter Ackroyd’s gold-brick biography of Blake. Bennett, Ackroyd and Jonathan Miller – these were the figures who mattered most. The Christmas parcels of English literature. Enough of threadbare bohemia, paranoid narcissism, chemical tourism through the Third World. Enough of ill-disciplined prose and rootless lives. Enough of midnight phonecalls. Carolyn doted on Ackroyd. Hawksmoor the novel and Dickens the life. Peter was surely joshing her when he said that he was no initiate, had no knowledge of, or interest in, magical systems. He was the pivot, the man who had, single-handedly, made the arcane popular.

A trip through the States visiting the Beat gerontocracy, the survivors, had prepared me for this. In Corso’s hutch, his minders begged for copies of Barbara Pym, while Gregory spoke wistfully of Philip Larkin. Denton Welch was William Burroughs’s main intellectual squeeze. Ferlinghetti had high hopes for Jeremy Reed. The Beats were now heritage fodder, a potential Bloomsbury group. There was even talk of James Ivory optioning a Neal Cassady property.

I wondered, thinking of Blake’s formative experiences there, whether Carolyn had caught any of Alan Bennett’s Westminster Abbey footage? Bennett, required to audition for the John Betjeman slot, couldn’t bring himself to deliver much more than formulaic world-weariness, a drone like a miraculously articulate David Hockney impersonator. Jonathan Meades does this schtick so much better, performs himself with lip-smacking relish. Gossip has its charms, but not when it’s dragged out over three interminable evenings with animated postcard footage re-used to the point of exhaustion. Church visiting, and the contemplation of sepulchral monuments, stands in the place of the English spiritual confession. It took a Blake to extract a mythological system from the minute particulars of these chipped effigies, to release deep-stored energy from cold stone. Alan Bennett has perfected another form of autobiography, the pre-posthumous diary; the present moment written backwards. The inconveniences of an insider/outsider, eavesdropping on his own sensibility. A Crabb Robinson without a Blake. A diarist reluctant to engage with himself as his true subject.

Peter Ackroyd, Carolyn Cassady’s pin-up, was the man who had customised the art of biography so that it could fit seamlessly into an evolving project that included fiction, the public lecture and journalism, in an attempt to revitalise the city in which he lived, the city of consciousness. To clear the path for a system of his own: the myth of the ‘Cockney visionary’ – a phrase which to lesser beings, or those fated to live among them, had the definite ring of an oxymoron. The vitality of Ackroyd (as of his friend Michael Moorcock) is on a 19th-century scale. He has made respectable the concept of the man of letters. And, much more than that, he has made it pay.

Ackroyd also customised his own biography. We know what we are allowed to know and what we can learn, by displacement, from the various fictions. There have been over-confirmed stories, legends left by his peers: the terrifyingly effortless passage through exams and scholarships, the steady ascent of a career curve that would shame a Widmerpool. A Horatio Alger parable that lifted him from a single-parent home in the shadows of Wormwood Scrubs to a Mellon Fellowship at Yale, and the literary editorship of the Spectator. The rest comes from the gossip columns. Londoner’s Diary in the Evening Standard can be relied on for a snigger of fantastical cameos: Ackroyd snoring in the theatre, outrageously affectionate in society, mugged – with Wildean heroism – in Islington.

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