BOOKS: Eleanor Morgan – Anxiety For Beginners

“In My Age of Anxiety, Stossel cites a quote by the author Angela Carter: ‘Anxiety is the beginning of conscience.’ I’ve thought about it a lot and I think she might be right.”

 

I chose this header quote from Eleanor Morgan’s ‘personal investigation’ into anxiety firstly because I love Angela Carter and eat up everything she says, and because I, like Morgan, think she is right. A person who holds their conscience dear will probably worry a lot about things which are out of their control. In a cruel twist that epitomises everything an anxiety sufferer doesn’t want, having disordered anxiety can cause you to become quite a difficult person indeed. Excessive care and worry underlies the problem, which then becomes a much larger problem for yourself and others, and an all-consuming vicious circle is born! A little reassurance that this bad feeling might stem from a good place is a small relief. Morgan traces the paths to and from an anxious mind in clear but colourful language, and in great detail for Anxiety For Beginners, making the difficult subject matter an easy and enjoyable read.

Recently I told a colleague about this book, and she repeated the exact thing I’d thought when I first learned about it: “I have anxiety, I’m not a beginner.” !!! I love this title and it’s made me see that we are ALL beginners in the fluid field of mental health. Always, and especially, your own. When you think you’ve mastered your old traits, your anxy brain will throw you a new curveball. Despite quietening some other manifestations I’ve had, the social aspect of anxiety is one I’m far from expert in, despite dealing with this for too long now. No matter how many years in you are – whether you’ve had a decade of therapy or just suffered your first panic attack – I’m confident this book can enlighten you.

A few chapters in, I was sceptical that my experience was too different from Morgan’s, and therefore her investigation might not be helpful to me (which is why I came to this book – a bid to learn something from someone a bit wiser in this muddle than me. Less of a beginner. That title is clever trickery.) Then she dedicated a chapter to explaining ‘flavour’.

“The way each person experiences anxiety can vary enormously. Not only do each of us have our own different constellation of symptoms, we all have a unique pattern of issues that we develop anxiety about. What may be stressful to one person may barely cause another to bat an eyelid.”

At this point I dropped my fears that what was coming did not apply to me. New terms like this that Morgan coins/uses were really helpful to me in broadening my scope of what I think mental illness is and how it works. As I said, the tremendous detail in this book covered everything I wanted to know, and what I didn’t know I wanted to know. Chapters interlinking different mental illnesses, in particular OCD, were so helpful in understanding that your personal ‘constellation’ of symptoms might reach across the tenuous borders of other mental health conditions. For instance, Morgan’s examination of OCD in terms of intrusive thoughts and not the stereotypical ‘fear of germs’ was a real eye-opener into my own ‘flavour’.

Somewhere in this book (which I should have made a note of because now I can’t find it) Morgan writes something along the lines of, or maybe exactly, “People with anxiety are preoccupied with time.” This statement flashed a lightbulb in my brain. I am OBSESSED with time, or more specifically, thinking I have none. Upon this realisation I’ve now begun making myself an itinerary for my days, and even timed myself doing things, so that I’d never tell myself “I have no time to do that thing” because I have 5 hours until I have to be at work. Massive nonsense. Now I fit so much more into my day without imagining that hours are tiny, rigid and limiting. Next up on the fix-list will be extending this mindset to a larger timescale. No more “there is no point getting a new job where I might be happier because I plan to move in x number of months.” NOOOO. Make changes for the better of NOW, not according to flimsy and vague ideas. Do one thing and then figure out the next. Do not refuse to do things now because another thing just MIGHT happen later.

As well as flavour and time, Morgan dedicates in-depth sections into the relationship between anxiety and food (and vice versa), social anxiety (BLUSHING!!!), hormones (particularly interesting if you have a menstrual cycle), and looooaaaads more, in which you’ll come to understand that this isn’t all in your mind at all. It’s a full body experience. It affects your body and your body affects it. There’s inextricable links whereby addressing a bodily issue you might have could very well alleviate some anxiety. And maybe that getting help for your mind could help your body in ways you didn’t expect. Morgan also goes to lengths to break down stigma around and assure readers that both talking therapy and medication are okay to do, and that one way could work for you which may not for another person. Your flavour, your remedy.

Now, let’s talk about the cover (my edition is the luminous orange/cracked egg). I have two points. First is the neon orange. People think of mental health issues as dark cloud, grey day, black and white torrential rainstorm diseases. They do indeed cast fog over your vision and dull your brain functions, but for me they also cause vivid technicolour dreams and flashing red, yellow, blue panic. Plus, Morgan’s colourful use of frank, exact and funny language sheds bright light over facets of mental health that sufferers themselves might before have felt in the dark about. Secondly, I shitting love the egg. In my first ever, earliest experience of anxiety, I expressly remember writing a blog note on Bebo, saying something along the lines of “it feels as if my brain’s been smashed to pieces and I can’t find all the bits”. (If only Bebo weren’t wiped from the internet; I’d love to go back and find it.) But how beautifully Morgan’s cracked egg illustrates this for me. It does feel like something in your brain and your personality has irreparably changed shape. Putting a smashed egg back together would be a tiresome, thankless and pointless process. But never mind – there should be a brand new fluffy yellow chick of joy inside when it’s over. A new thing with a new purpose emerges from the shell! Or if not, there’s a nice protein rich fried egg for your breakfast to make you stronger! I love a good analogy and this simple, hugely effective cover provides me with many. 10/10.

I wholeheartedly recommend this pleasure to read and amazing insight to anyone who suffers their own flavour of anxiety (which is SO MANY PEOPLE – so many more than you think – none of us are alone), or maybe even more importantly, anyone who loves anyone who does. I’ve never forayed into ‘self-help’ reading before, (a classification I hope the author won’t mind – it has helped me and I’m confident that writing it helped her) but now I can’t wait to find another. If you have any recommendations for something similar to this please let me know!

BOOKS: Angela Carter – ‘The Bloody Chamber’

“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes”

After picking through stories in this collection online in the past few years since discovering that the band Wolf Alice took their name from one of them, I finally sat down and read the whole thing for the purpose of my dissertation… (EXCITING!!!) Wolf-Alice and Wise Children were my gateways into the astounding works of Angela Carter, through whom I’m now engrossed for life in un-realism and everything postmodern. I’m ironically at a loss to articulate the incredible vision she creates with words, and I’m certain if only she were here she could so accurately and succinctly find the ones I’m looking for. I’ve long since studying Wise Children in a Modernism & Postmodernism unit last year conceived the idea of writing a kind of magical realist creative non-fiction about growing up in a place that lends itself entirely to being rendered a surreal microcosmic experiment, but that’s for another day. Back to The Chamber – this short story collection consists of ten twisted fairytales across 150 pages, which is of course easily broken down and read in chunks for those who, like me, are eternally daunted by full novels even when it is their full-time ‘job’ to study them.

The collection begins with The Bloody Chamber from which the book takes its title: this is the longest, but still beautifully bite-sized, story at 43 pages. It’s also the most useful story for my dissertation idea which is pleasing, as it’s definitely one of my favourites. The story recounts a poor young girl, who is preyed on by a much older nobleman, and who is taken for his fourth wife. She is swiftly moved into his grand floating castle where it transpires that she does not actually end up spending much time. The tale marks the beginning of a running theme throughout the book of ‘rags to riches’ young women who come from modest backgrounds, come into money (mostly through men – husbands or fathers) but eventually come to learn that wealth does not equal richness. This goes hand-in-hand with explicit characterisations linking poverty with goodness and wealth with evil. The influence of various incarnations of Little Red Riding Hood is easily detected in many of the stories, as each contain one or more of mentions of forests, wolves, and young girls as ‘prey’ figures. The collection is revered for its strong feminist subversions of classic fairytales, though I was reading from a Marxist/anti-Capitalist angle in accordance with my studies – a viewpoint that Carter threads throughout her works but is largely overlooked in her criticisms.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon continues in this vein, unfolding with the idea that Mr Lyon’s riches do not make him happy, and when Beauty comes into money too, nor does it make her. It concludes that Beauty was more contented with the gift of a single white rose, while Lyon required love and companionship over his golden fixtures and crystal chandeliers to feel complete. The story also forewarns of the misery of forfeiting what you love for the sake of greed, after Lyon demands the company of his daughter when Beauty’s father loses everything they have while gambling. The father worries he will lose his daughter forever and Beauty worries for her safety due to this risk; though thankfully the story culminates in an unexpectedly happy ending.

The Erl-King is possibly the story which most intrigued me. I theorised at the end when the King is killed that the narrator is Mother Nature and the story symbolised the destruction and death of nature, which is represented by both the King and the narrator. As in – Mother Nature created humans who are killing the earth. Whether this be the case or not, it’s disconcerting that the King refers to the narrator as ‘Mother’ when they have a sexual relationship… Next up, the shortest story at less than three pages, The Snow Child, is the most compact and loaded tale about jealousy, fantasy and fidelity in marriage; and possibly, forgiveness and learning from mistakes. It sets a precedent for the forthcoming tales which present themes of female rivalry and its consequences.

The last three stories of the collection are stories of wolves: The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, and Wolf-Alice. The Werewolf combines the traditional ‘Wolf’ and ‘Grandma’ characters of Little Red Riding Hood to create one supernatural-inspired being which intends harm to the young girl character, who through being in-touch with her senses and environment, outwits the beast. The story is interesting in that Carter presents not only a woman as the danger to the girl, but also her own relative. The idea of female rivalry dominates and it leads only to death and loss – nothing good can come of jealousy and ill-intentions. The girl uses knowledge, cunning and limited resources to overcome her obstacles without remorse to become a successful independent woman; colluding with the book’s feminist and anti-Bourgeois overtones.

As in The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves is set in a desolate, cold and poverty-stricken mountainous region where wolves present a serious threat to the inhabitants. Again, there is the absence of any care from the girl towards her grandmother’s death, who again meets an untimely end though this time at the hands of the male werewolf who has seduced her granddaughter. Carter is clearly criticising the overarching female rivalry she saw in common culture; still perpetuated today by the likes of the Kardashians (perfectly demonstrating how it’s done between even blood relatives) and reality TV on the whole (see: Real Housewives, Made in Chelsea, TOWIE…). Here, however, it is not success or the desire to be the most beautiful or young that motivates the child’s ambivalence toward her fellow woman and own grandmother’s death but the affections of a man; an old rhetoric of sisterly rivalry that we are all well-versed in.

Finally, Wolf-Alice concludes the ‘Wolf’ trilogy with an altogether different twist, depicting a girl who is raised by wolves and taken into human care after her adoptive wolf mother is killed. The nuns at the convent where she is sent to be civilised soon grow tired of her wild antics and their inability to humanise her, and dispatch her to live with a mysterious reclusive Duke who transpires to be a werewolf, but features many conventions of a classic vampire (no reflection, feeding on humans). Unlike the traditional werewolf or vampire, he has no reaction to holy water or crucifixes. The story borrows the notion of ‘stepping through the looking glass’ as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass: the girl eventually realises her humanity through recognising that her mirror reflection is in fact herself and not another being. This opens up a whole new world to her, in which she is able to help the Duke regain his own sense of humanity and self, leading to the riddance of his beastliness. Wolf-Alice realises her own potential and power through coming to understand herself, and it is then that she is able to help others.

I’m greatly excited to read and analyse the rest of Carter’s works! The Bloody Chamber is a beautiful introduction to her stories for beginners: they are both thoughtful and thought-provoking with effortless articulation of all the tiny overlooked details of everyday life, picked up and placed in the magical as if they ARE. Already in my limited reading of Carter I’ve developed a bad habit of trying to locate Reality in Magical Reality and so often succeed (by my terms) that I now find it extremely difficult to differentiate the two…

BOOKS: Lewis Carroll – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass’

“Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing – turn out your toes as you walk – and remember who you are!”

*Minor spoilers*

This had been on my shelf for a good few years and was a book I’d always meant to read because it’s so ingrained in our culture, therefore I naturally wanted to get to know its basis. I strongly believe that there isn’t a day that goes by in which we don’t see or hear some kind of intertextual Alice reference. It is cult, classic and as it turns out, totally readable in a day or two and I’m quite frustrated that I didn’t then read it much sooner.

There’s wide debate over whether this is a children’s book or not; and it’s still not possible now to give a definitive answer. On the one hand, practically everything that is written will completely go over a child’s head because it is literal nonsense. On the other, why then should it be an adult’s book if it is complete nonsense and therefore goes over an adult’s head in the exact same way? Perhaps the only benefit to an adult reader is Alice’s distinctly mature character which is played upon by Carroll for this reason – she is consciously written as a precocious adult-like child, which an adult will recognise, but a child might simply enjoy the character for her wit and wisdom.

Through both stories, it became clear that the Disney cartoon adaptation that I enjoyed in my childhood and the later (wildly disappointing (a wasted opportunity for something much DARKER)) Tim Burton version were based upon both Alice’s Adventures and Through The Looking-Glass. It was interesting to see how they had both been meshed into one, and how the narrative order had been changed, to make the films – obviously both of which strayed far from the simple yet decadent stories Carroll created, Burton’s the most so.

Disney’s cartoon captured so many minor details of the stories arguably in more vivid detail than Carroll gave to them, as he seemingly hurried onwards with the tale and left each quaint event behind with haste, as though they were all unimportant. The fact is that they are. They are all made-up dream sequences in the wild mind of a little girl. Due to this harsh reality, hardly anyone or anything that Alice encounters on her journey seems to reappear later in the book; perhaps the few exceptions being the White Rabbit, the Duchess and the Cheshire Cat. It is implied that the Mad Hatter and March Hare feature again in Through The Looking-Glass, though their names are disguised and their prior identities never fully realised – a bizarre instance, though an unsurprising one in a purposefully baffling book. The key to the reading of this story is that nothing makes sense and, as follows, nothing matters – both refreshing and mildly frustrating realisations, especially for an English student who is taught to make sense of and look for meaning in everything…

Of course, the films are besides the point of analysing the original book, though they deserved a quick comparison due to their enormous effect on how we understand Alice’s Adventures. It is interesting to realign the story you know from the films to the one envisaged by Carroll – for instance, the talking flowers which were a stand-out feature of the Disney adaptation for me came only in Through The Looking-Glass (not that this makes them any less of a true ‘Alice’ moment). The ‘chessboard’ structure that Alice follows through Wonderland in the second story creates a more definitive narrative pathway than the magical mystery ramble of the first. Many forgotten moments of the beloved cartoon were sprung back through reading Alice’s Adventures – most notably for me, the ‘carpenter and the oysters’ tale and song, which had long retreated to the recesses of my memory and were pleasantly brought all the way back.

Carroll’s legacy-affirming story has stood the test of time probably more solidly than he could have ever imagined, having become indelible to British culture. It’s public image and chronology, en masse, has been altered from his original view, though that is to be expected as a result of the majority of adapted works. Wonderland’s message remains the same: it is a celebration of the wild, uninhibited imagination of childhood, naturally bestowed upon every child. Nonsense and whim is combined with sensibility and a burgeoning sense of responsibility within Alice; a stage that every child goes through when they reach a certain age. Despite her mature head, Alice’s creation of Wonderland makes clear that her innocent imagination is still intact and governing over her blooming young adulthood, for the now in which the story ends, and therefore forever.

BOOKS: Irvine Welsh – ‘Trainspotting’

“By definition, you have to live until you die. Better to make that life as complete and enjoyable an experience as possible, in case death is shite, which I suspect it will be”

This novel is a long and wild ride through the lives of a group of young Scottish school friends grown up to be afflicted and bound by addiction. The chapters flit between different members of the inside group or outer-edge acquaintances for their narrative voices; though Mark Renton or ‘Rents’ or ‘Rent Boy’ is given the most narrative responsibility. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern who is narrating until far into each story, and I’ll admit, I finished a few chapters without ever working out who was speaking, but was too eager to continue to go back and look for clues.
 
The whole effect of this cut-up and stunted mesh of stories from different perspectives, with the sense of things ‘missing’ from never working out who was telling some chapters, all works in favour of combining to tell the incomplete and damaged story of life as a heroin addict. You’d be hard-pressed to identify a character who does not end up losing something – without spoiling too much, a baby, a friend, a fortune, a limb, a life – and so a sense of loss in time or understanding when reading only adds to the overwhelming effect of what most of us can only imagine a life consumed by addiction to mind and body-altering substances to entail.
 
Trainspotting is written 98% in Scottish colloquial dialect, which is a huge hurdle to overcome when you first open it. As I went along and was drawn in, although it did take a while, I basically ignored that it isn’t written in standard English. Once every word has appeared twice and you’ve worked out vaguely what it means, it’s no longer an obstacle (though it did take ages to realise that “kin” means “know”, which I swear I have never heard a Scottish person ever say). Each page is also peppered with the c-word, but let’s face the fact that it’s 2015 and I’m a student and I’ve heard it a million times already so a million more makes absolutely no difference; and actually I would be interested in finding out how many times it features in the whole novel because it must literally be quite close to that exaggerated estimate.
 
The review on the back of my copy dubs it “a starburst of verbal energy – a vernacular spectacular … the stories we hear are retched from the gullet” (Scotland on Sunday). This is incredibly succinct, particularly in the use of “retched” – this novel won’t be for the weak-stomached among us; there’s as much description of the bile that is spoken as there is of literal bile and all other bodily emissions, as is the reality of uninhibited young addicts with little dignity left to hold sacred. There is absolutely nothing sacred in these stories.
 
Trainspotting delivers the pure, uncensored shock and horror of the 80s-90s underbelly of the Scottish rave scene, hard-drug culture and rise of HIV/AIDS, so much that you feel like you actually need a wash after reading. Like you can envisage you just woke up on a filthy mattress in a crack-house squat covered in your own vomit every time you pick it up. Despite the overwhelming stickiness and dirtiness, you emerge safe in your own world feeling you’ve just witnessed a glistening white, shining and glorious spectacle of storytelling rare to experience.

BOOKS: Anne Fine – ‘The Tulip Touch’

“I can’t regret the times we had together. Sometimes I worry I won’t have times like that again, that there will be no lit nights, no incandescent days. But I know it’s not true. There can be colour in a million ways.”
 
I powered through this story in a day after getting stuck at transport stations by train delays and cancellations, making my usual 1.5 hour route home 4 hours!! I finished The Tao of Pooh… so quickly into my journey but had luckily stuffed this into my bag before I left, knowing that I might need another short book to fill the time, but unsuspecting that I’d end up finishing it due to the traffic trouble. While this (young adult? Teen? Even children’s) novella is a fairly short one, its lasting effect is complex and grave, and actually so far as slightly harrowing.
 
The story spans the formative years of Natalie, who befriends the school outcast Tulip, who lives near the new hotel that Natalie lives in for her dad’s hotel manager job. Natalie’s family ends up staying at that hotel for several years as business does so well. During that time, the girls’ friendship suffers bouts of attempted separation by their school and eventually Natalie’s parents who are wary of Tulip’s erratic and sometimes vindictive behaviour, and its possible effect on sensible Natalie. From early on, we are made aware that Tulip’s home situation is sensitive, and the story gradually culminates into a debate about nature and nurture and right and wrong.
 
Retrospectively, it’s clear that this story is a masterpiece, and not only for its intended audience of younger readers. The ending subtly causes the reader to think back and scrutinise the decisions made by Natalie, her family, and her schools over their treatment of Tulip and whether they were the right ones. It effortlessly comes together to make the reader wonder about the countless instances which combine to make the whole, and how the tiniest, most insignificant actions add up into something much bigger than the sum of its parts. This book almost makes you consider things that have happened in your own past which could have turned out differently, if you had noticed the warning signs as they occurred. It also causes reflection upon how something small and disregarded as unimportant could have a larger impact on someone else beyond your comprehension. This is one of the most thought-provoking materials on my extended reading list this year, unexpectedly in the form of a young adult novella recommended for my Children’s Literature university module (an extra-textual lesson learned: that treasure is found in unlikely places (though not if you were already acquainted with Anne Fine – I never read her stories as a kid and feel I missed out!)).
 
I hope this gushing of praise for The Tulip Touch inspires someone else to consider it for an afternoon’s reading, as without it being at all obvious or even dark, the story raises eerie questions about the progression of relationships and the effects of upbringing on a life.

BOOKS: Benjamin Hoff – ‘The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet’

“But is Brain all that important? Is it really Brain that takes us where we need to go? Or is it all too often Brain that sends us off in the wrong direction, following the echo of the wind in the treetops, which we think is real, rather than listening to the voice within us that tells us which way to turn?”

This double book collection was given to me by my dear old Dad who has long been looking into Taoism/Buddhism, and I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that anything he recommends is worth regarding. It is most certainly due to mon pere’s influence that not far into The Tao of Pooh I found myself reading about values I’d held way before I came to pick it up. Before beginning it, I had practically no knowledge of Taoist ideals, and for this purpose it works as a first (if shallow) foray. I’m deeply curious about ways of thinking and religious and spiritual concepts, though have never entertained any thought of prescribing to organised religion (though Taoist teachers, I believe, see it much more as spiritual guidance rather than a faith like Christianity would be), so this reading was purely out of interest. My overly critical view of all things faith and philosophy means that while I gained so much from The Tao of Pooh, I have many many qualms about what is written when I reached The Te of Piglet.

The main message that I took from these books was the importance of remembering that you are an animal – even a ‘Very Small Animal’ (an analogy to illustrate the self-deprecating feeling that you are insignificant in the universe; but being assured the world has a place and a use for everyone). To explain the Taoist teachings on this matter, Hoff is highly critical of academia (thinking too much and doing too little), technology and the destruction of the world by humans. Taoism rightly professes that when man so long ago assumed his superiority complex over the earth, he became unfulfilled and therefore unhappy, as he worked against his true nature. This notion is basically the premise of The Tao of Pooh, which did bring me so much understanding not only into Taoism but into the wrongs in the functionality of modern society which I whole-heartedly agree with.

The Tao of Pooh’s chapter 4 particularly resonated with my own beliefs by perfectly articulating the ways in which lack of regard for our human Inner Nature lends itself to the creation of unnatural environments, which facilitate unhappiness. Ignoring your inherent human nature will never lead to happiness; which should, of course, be the ultimate goal for oneself, others and the earth. This chapter is so easily related to my feelings toward the capitalist system. Put simply: working for money to live is not the intended goal of animal life, and forcing ourselves into such a situation is not fulfilling the needs of our Inner Nature – which was never primarily to live according to socially constructed ideas and restrictions. I’ve speculated towards this concept for a long time, and there is no shortage of evidence to support it. Mental illness is at an all-time high in Britain, possibly the world due to divisive, oppressive rules and sanctions. It’s notable how the people who live simply and within their means peculiarly seem the happiest. The Japanese actually have a word for ‘death by overwork’. No other species forces itself into such unnatural living circumstances as the human race, and surprisingly no other species so regularly throws themselves off of cliffs.

Hoff, writing in The Te of Piglet, later reaffirms this notion: “To the Taoist, unhappiness is the result of being guided by illusions – such as the mistaken belief that man is something separate from the natural world”. A few weeks after finishing Hoff’s collection, I watched the Blackfish documentary about Seaworld’s captive orcas, and the principles I read about were immediately related. At one point in the film, it’s said that there is no recorded instance of a wild orca attacking a human – yet there are countless incidents of those in captivity harming and even killing zoo workers over the years. Captivity, alone in a dismally tiny tank being baited by humans every day, kills the orcas’ ability to exercise their intended Inner Natures, which leads to disorder. I.e, living under unnatural circumstances causes the individuals experiencing it to become unwell. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to relate the capitalist system – a socially constructed ideal which we are expected to accept and to live under – to the kind of captivity which causes the disturbing change in animals held against their will… Just a thought.

For myself, after the joy of Pooh came the disappointment of Piglet. There are so many chapters in Hoff’s second offering in which it seems he only rants about and bemoans the modern world, at times seeming patronising. There is a particular point wherein Hoff begins what appears to be an assault on feminism which didn’t sit well with me at all, and I feel derails the message of the first book which I thought was to promote harmony to oneself and others, which doesn’t come across as equally the case in Piglet. Continuing this line of thought, the whole book presents a dubious image of women: they are only ever mentioned in the way I mentioned above, but so I’m told is an issue within most all Taoist and Buddhist writings.

Overall, I took mixed feelings and a basic understanding of Taoism from Hoff’s collection. The relation to the Winnie the Pooh stories, however, is great and perfectly achieved with extracts from A. A. Milne’s original stories and beautiful illustrations throughout. Pooh and Piglet are an interesting education – Pooh of course the most – but by no means a full or uncomplicated grasp of Taoism for beginners.

BOOKS: Jack Kerouac – ‘Lonesome Traveler’

“There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom”

My first attempt at this book (collection of short stories/diary entries recording parts of world travels) was summer 2013, and I think I got to story no.3 ‘Mexico Fellaheen’ before giving up. If this is to be your first Kerouac attempt, probably don’t do it. I tried again with The Dharma Bums the next summer and so was borne the epiphany that I need to get through all beat gen literature. One day soon (probably this summer, I feel like summer is prime beatnik time) I’ll re-read The Dharma Bums and write it the ode it deserves. I DIGRESS: this is a trialling read, I’ll explain why forthrightly, but it’s been the most rewarding and enriching trial of a book since my encounter with Lord of the Flies.

Lonesome Traveler consists of 157 pages of 8 stories:

0 Author’s Intro

1 Piers of the Homeless Night

2 Mexico Fellaheen

3 The Railroad Earth

4 Slobs of the Kitchen Sea

5 New York Scenes

6 Alone on a Mountaintop

7 Big Trip to Europe

8 The Vanishing American Hobo.

The true battle comes when reaching The Railroad Earth – I’m pretty sure only the brave make it to New York Scenes. This is autobiographical recording of a fast life on the road, ie., some parts are written in stream of consciousness trance. There is sparse punctuation, block pages of text, constant description consisting of no storyline; such is life. Chapters 3 and 4 are true examples of writing for yourself and no one else; though slightly voyeuristic I’m glad for the insight. I lost my bookmark out of The Railroad Earth at one point and couldn’t for the life of me find where I’d left the night before. I theorise that these parts might be the hardest to read – being blatantly unnarrativised – because it was at these points he was working to save money for further travel, albeit while traveling, and wasn’t free to spend days alone just on observation and that’s where the delving thought he does so masterfully is usually cultivated.

The rest are a lot more easy-going in comparison, some more than others. My undoubted favourite is always going to be 6, ‘Alone on a Mountaintop’. I get lost in knowing that’s where I want to be one day, and Kerouac’s time spent there was definitely the inspiration (or one point of) for Ray’s expedition to desolation in Dharma Bums. There are so many earmarked pages that I’ve saved in this book and most come from here, when Kerouac spends 3 months alone on a mountain range learning to live in desolation and ultimately learning that he no longer needs it – “No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true inner strength.”; “And I realized I didn’t have to hide myself in desolation but could accept society for better or for worse”.

I love the way the other beat movement writers appear in and out of his writing; there will be casual mentions of staying with William Seward Burroughs or meeting up with Neal Cassady in any corner of the world and the larks they get up to before parting ways and being comfortable in the knowledge that they’ll meet again soon like the most beautiful admirable security and loyalty.

I’m definitely enchanted with beat lit because it exemplifies what I think is true humanity: being free and being able to be free while having strong bases in people world-over. The last story, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ is more a social commentary on why and how this is not allowed to happen any more: moral panic over strangers, the commodification of humans, then an expression of disillusionment with people as cogs in capitalist machines, which I’m seeing emerging as a pattern ever more in my reading. Kerouac watched the ‘bum’ as he knew it die over his lifetime, coming to a head in the 1950s; while postmodern lit today contains traces of the same frustration (see The Dream, the last chapter of Barnes’ A History of the World…).

If you want some pure insight into life as it is meant to be lived – doing what you want to do, when you want to, given that it serves a good honest truth – try this. You’ll find me working through Kerouac’s lifetime work if you need me. 8)