When I’m put on the spot, I seem to be incapable of recalling any of my favorite films, bands or songs of all time. Ask me to sort my interests into some sort of High Fidelity hierarchy and you’ll be met with a vapid gaze, a furrowed brow and a string of unintelligible words. Although it’s not a life-threatening handicap it does sadly mean that I would be rubbish at any sort of Proustian questionnaire, as I need to process things, and unless I have time to sift through my thoughts and memories, I’ll always draw a blank. However, if you ask me my favourite characters in fiction I will without hesitation reel off three names: Uncle Mathew, Holden Caulfield and Neil Cassady.
I’m aware that idolising Caulfield is nothing groundbreaking: he was something of an iconoclast in fiction, as was his author. The lesser-known Uncle Mathew, featured in Nancy Mitford’s works, Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Although I haven’t read her works in several years, for me he is just as unforgettable as Salinger’s literary hero. Uncle Mathew was a parody of Mitford’s father, Lord Redelsdale, and is the epitome of an eccentric English Lord: politically incorrect, forever barking orders and at odds with his role as a father. In short, he is a loose cannon, but in the most wonderful realisation of the term.
Neil Cassady was infamous muse of the Beat generation. I read Jack Karouac’s seminal work, The Road, for the first time last year and was immediately seduced by his madcap protagonist Dean Moriarty, who was inspired by Cassady. His character’s energy and verbatim was evidently the perfect complement to Karouac’s stylised stream of consciousness; if only we all had friends like him to inspire us.
Cassady also made an admirer out of Allen Ginsberg, the bard of the Beat movement, on which the recent biopic Howl is based. Howl, the film, focuses on the controversy that surrounded Howl, the poem. In the 1950s when it was published, the content of the work was deemed not of literary merit, on the basis that the language and the subject matter Ginsberg employed was unnecessary; and thus his publisher was taken to court in an attempt to sensor the work. It’s a familiar tale, and one that pops up even in our day: what is art?, and where does one draw the line? Luckily in this case no line was drawn, and Howl went on to become an indelible part of American culture. Below is the segment of Howl, in which Cassady is mentioned.
Who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, movie houses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too….