As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Mabellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V.8 Ford
The Cadillac goin’ ‘bout ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper rollin’ side by side
Mabellene why can’t you be true?
Oh Mabellene why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do…
Mabellene. Chuck Berry 1955
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All around the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
The Lotos-Eaters. Lord Tennyson 1832
‘And think, Sal, when we get to Pennsy we’ll start hearing that gone Eastern bop on the disk jockeys. Geeyah, roll old boat, roll!’ The magnificent car [a ’47 Cadillac Dean was delivering from Denver to Chicago] made the wind roar; it made the plains unfold like a roll of paper; it cast hot tar from itself with deference – an imperial boat. I opened my eyes to a fanning dawn; we were hurling up to it. Dean’s rocky dogged face as ever bent over the dashlight with a bony purpose of its own.
‘What are you thinking Pops?’
‘Ah-ha, ah-ha, same old thing, y’know – gurls gurls gurls.’
On the Road. Jack Kerouac 1957
In the 1950s two great American writers celebrated the classic American cars of that time: Chuck Berry – The First Poet of Rockanroll – and Jack Kerouac the so-called King of the Beats. Chuck’s fusion of girl and car and Kerouac’s On The Road live on yet in romantic mythology and my cousin Mike and I once played a tiny part in adding to it. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement but so what. We’re talking mythology here. Bob Dylan once wrote: you just happened to be there that’s all. And we just happened to be there.
Although OTR was first published in the USA in 1957 the events it describes go back to the late 1940s and the big cars in which Kerouac was then hitching a ride are, for me, more beautiful than the overblown rocket-ships of the 50s. The hardback of OTR came out here in 1958 and the first of my many Pan paperback copies was bought around 1959 I guess. However, I was never a hitchhiker and had the sense to separate Kerouac’s American odyssey from my reality. But for many romantic British would-be beats OTR was their bible and hitting the road with dreams, dope, and rampant sexual desire was their quest. The snag was the lack of a suitably epic journey.
Hitching 3000 miles from The Big Apple to San Francisco was cool but even Land’s End to John o’Groats was a mere 875 miles. ‘What’s the point man,’ they wailed. And they had a point: New York had Bebop and Harlem, San Francisco had Poets and Free Love. John o’ Groats was a seedy tourist trap and Land’s End, a draggy hotel in a theme park wasteland. So where to go and what to do? They came up with St Ives.
St Ives had been a magnet for artists for over a century but from the late 20s onwards it established a permanent colony of sculptors and painters together with their hangers-on and attendant chancers and shysters. In short, the perfect Mecca for home-grown Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty clones to target. Doesn’t art always equate to anarchy and excess they reasoned and out came the sunburnt thumb, the rucksack, the sleeping bag, and the dog-eared copy of On The Road. Every home-grown beat and bohemian guitar picker worth their dope – Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell and their like among them – set forth for Cornwall and it’s at this point Mike and I make our entrance….
Mike was some mechanic. He’d already rebuilt an ancient J model MG but his pet project was a Lotus. Both of us came from very ordinary backgrounds – we were the first of our families to go to grammar schools – so no one was going to buy us cars for our 21st birthdays. Instead, Mike decided to build his dream machine. I could barely believe his ambition and anyway – weekend beatnik that I was – cars didn’t figure in my life. As to technical gen, I have to rely on my memory and a brief letter from Mike in 2008; it was post-marked the Azores:
As for the Lotus, you seem to remember it better than I do. I cannot help very much. Reg No. 888KYD. Lotus X1 space frame and body [my recollection is that it had been crashed]. Ford 105E engine still in its crate. I purchased both from a chap in Hampshire. Rear axle controlled by a Lotus 7 ‘A’ frame – not the de Dion. No idea of its pre or post history. I do, however, remember hiring a Ford Thames van and, with £56, driving [from Bristol where Mike worked for the Public Heath Department] to the Lotus factory in Cheshunt, then laying the list of wants and the money on the counter. At which the chap took a lively interest and raked the corners and under benches to come up with lots of goodies which did me well.
Mike and I were close and often holidayed together: climbing in the Cairngorms, cycling in Devon and Cornwall, camping at Durdle Door. Then he proposed we drive – in his unspeakably glamorous and newly-completed Lotus – and holiday in Brixham in South Devon. It must have been the Summer of 61. Our seats were slabs of Dunlopillo on the car floor and where and how we stored our – admittedly lightweight and compact – camping gear I’ve no idea. I don’t remember the Ford engine as being hotted-up but the Lotus bodywork was so light the car was quite fast enough. In fact, Mike was an excellent and unflashy driver (I hadn’t yet learned to drive) and the car didn’t need to be thrashed to turn heads. I imagined us being besieged with dazzled and dazzling gurls gurls gurls. Instead we fell in with a bunch of English beats.
Brixham then was a thriving little harbour town and its bread and butter came from fishing and tourism. We pitched camp on the edge of town and the following morning we made, as everybody did, for the harbour. And there they were: a gang of six or eight of them idling on the quayside and languidly gathered around an older bloke who was clearly their Main Man. He – Mike remembers his name as Fitzgerald – was 30-ish and his camp followers 18 -23 I’d guess. There were girls and boys – the girls seemed to do casual work in the local cafés and hotels and the boys – apart from one who’d conned a job as a cook – just hung-out as they’d say. They were in thrall to Fitz who passed himself off as an artist. We never saw him without his sketch book and he scratched some dope and fag money from occasional five minute pencil portraits of tourists. Both Mike and I could draw and we weren’t that impressed. He talked the talk though and, without actually saying so, implied that he’d hitched to San Francisco, had knocked about with the West Coast beats and that Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookshop in SF was his spiritual home.
Fitz was an engaging con but Mike remembers: ‘that bunch of ne’er-do-wells at Brixham took the mickey out of you when they found you carrying a copy of On The Road under your arm. [I don’t remember this but then I didn’t remember Fitz’s name] And, when they found I worked for a council, they related that to Social Services and totally gave me the cold-shoulder’. My recollection is that, nevertheless, we spent a lot of time with them and they – well Fitz – spouted a lot of second-hand beat philosophy. Certainly they saw us for what we were but that insight was reciprocal. I remember a couple of the girls – they were squatting a caravan – drifting out to our camp but if they were impressed by the Lotus, they didn’t say.
They were very middle-class of course and spoke vaguely about art school and Nosphorene, or some such. This was a tube of inhalant you could buy without prescription and it contained Benzedrine. They used to chew its cotton wool contents and claimed they got a dreamy rush from it. ‘It kills your desire for sex but it’s the come-down that’s a drag,’ they said airily. This Benzedrine kick was learned, I bet, from OTR but they’d definitely found a local dope dealer. By their own lights, they were living the Beat Life.
Like the rest of the gang they’d hitched down to St Ives – lifts in Austin Cambridges and Hillman Minxes didn’t have the same cachet as Hudsons and Plymouths, it struck us – and as for freight-hopping the Dharma Bums’ Midnight Ghost to SF – well, in your dreams sisters. They were sniffy about St Ives, though: ‘full of posers, weekend beatniks and tourists’. They reserved their greatest derision for ‘tourists’ but ‘weekend beatniks’ ran a close second. Beatnik – derived from Sputnik – was a scornful put-down and the Brixham beats clearly saw themselves as the Real Thing.
Whatever, the gang left St Ives, set up in Brixham and, in their own way, had established themselves as part of the local community by the time we met. The town’s fishing was controlled by one family, they claimed, but they were in with them. They wore the necessary Levis, sweaters and shades and one of them – a Canadian – had a copy of a just-out American paperback called The Beat Scene. It was a beguiling anthology of poems accompanied by photographs of the poets performing at poetry readings, at home in their bohemian lofts, and generally hanging out together. Strangely, many of these poets were very straight-looking but Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were definitely the business. I vowed to get a copy from Betterbooks in Charing Cross Road – I did in 1963 – and it certainly influenced me to write myself.
As for the Canadian boy, he had a thing about American Lee Rider jeans which were unobtainable in Toronto. He was a biker and it was a big deal – a rite of passage almost – to ride down to New York (a round trip of nearly 1000 miles)) and return with a trophy pair. They had a big hide patch near the rear belt loop which put the flimsy equivalent on Levis to shame. Style was a big thing with the Brixham beats.
That Summer in Brixham seemed an endless sunny afternoon – which was just as well. The Lotus was a Le Mans racer really and had no weather protection. Outside of an original Mini, I’ve never sat so close to the road and it had a shallow perspex windscreen. When it did rain the spray from the vehicles in front made it impossible to see anything. It was like driving into a waterfall. The only recourse was to pull over, stop the engine and drag a big polythene sheet over the cockpit. We sat under it like tender plants in a poly-tunnel and waited for the sun to bring us into flower.
I remember the Lotus’ drive as surprisingly comfortable. My legs stretched out unbent and uncramped. I didn’t get back-ache or a stiff neck and the low road position gave us a new outlook on the world. Surprisingly, the only road-users who ignored us were the police but everyone else just admired. I’d never seen a Lotus X1 on the road before then – or since – and I felt as though we were living in a film. Which is how Kerouac saw life anyway. And maybe the Brixham beats did shift the direction of our lives a touch – well mine anyway. Eventually, both Mike and I dropped out of straight society: Mike, to sell up everything, buy a sailing boat and live on the High Seas; me, in 1971, to give up domesticity, home, car, work, and exist as freelance hack, poet and would-be rock songwriter-musician.
Mike sails single-handed and his first boat went down with most of his possessions. My own photo of his car is the only one to survive as far as I know. Mike doesn’t have a car now. Last time we met – over 20 years ago – he was wintering in the Bassin de L’Arsenal in Paris. His carefully restored clinker-built sailing boat (the one that was later lost at sea) as much an eye-catcher as his lovely – and now legendary I hope – Lotus X1.