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Off the road

As I type this, I am wearing a green T-shirt and black trousers. There is half-drunk cup of tea near my right hand. I like my tea strong, no sugar. The washing machine is on the spin cycle, and I will empty it soon. Shortly I’ll be popping to the shops, as I am low on tea bags and chocolate.


Boring, isn’t it? But would my post be any less boring if I were writing it while out of my head on Benzedrine, in the middle of an orgy? Or if this were my fourth T-shirt of the day, because I had “sweated through” the others? Douglas Kennedy in The Times:


[I]n April of 1951, Kerouac allegedly spent three Benzedrine-stoked weeks typing like a lunatic. According to his cohorts, Kerouac was manically fast at the keyboard – and to make certain that he didn’t have to pause, he “taped together twelve-foot-long sheets of drawing paper” (according to the Beat Generation scholar, Ann Charters), “trimmed at the left margin so they would fit into his typewriter, and fed them into his machine as a continuous roll”.

The composition of the novel Kerouac was writing is now the stuff of legend. He started in early April and was so berserkly engaged in his nonstop type-a-thon that he allegedly sweated through several T-shirts a day. But though Benzedrine may be bad for your mental stability, it really does allow you to write without sleep – and on April 27 Kerouac finished the book that was to become On the Road. In its initial hot-off-the-typewriter incarnation, it was one extended paragraph . . . and 120ft long.

So what? Who cares?


Such an ostentatious display of frenetic creativity wouldn’t work too well today, now that word processors allow us all to scroll on and on. And I think the taped-together sheets would be more bother than feeding them in separately. But even if he did type in this manic way, does it make the result any better than if he’d done a steady seven hours a day with breaks for tea and biscuits and a bit of gardening? Surely it’s the content that counts, not the colour of the shirts or the arrangement of the pens on the desk. What next? Putting your left shoe on first because a seventh century warlord used to?


I am rather glad that we know very little of Shakespeare. God knows, what little we do know has been made much of. We know even less about his wife, but even that molehill has been made into a medium-sized mountain. John Carey had fun with Germaine Greer’s latest speculations on Ann Hathaway:


It is impossible to think of two minds more different than Germaine Greer’s and Shakespeare’s. The leading quality of Greer’s mind is opinionatedness, whereas Shakespeare, so far as we can tell, had no opinions. He vanished into his plays, and trying to retrieve what he thought on any subject is like harvesting shadows.




[Greer] contends that Ann was a highly successful woman in her own right, so Shakespeare should have been proud of her, even if he was not, though he probably was. Exactly what she was successful at is difficult to decide. Greer thinks she might have been a successful moneylender. The one surviving document that may give a clue to her business activities, if she had any, is the will of the Hathaway family’s shepherd, which says she owes him 40 shillings. This does not sound like successful moneylending, but perhaps, Greer thinks, the shepherd entrusted the money to Ann’s safekeeping, which could mean she was a successful banker. Alternatively, she might have been a farmer or a cheese maker, a mercer or a haberdasher, a basket weaver or a lace maker or a stocking knitter. An official document records that New Place, the big house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, contained malt for brewing, so probably, Greer reckons, Ann was in business as a brewer. Or maybe as a silk farmer. The mulberry tree that Shakespeare is supposed to have planted at New Place was, Greer suspects, the survivor of a plantation established by Ann to rear silkworms. Wherever Ann’s success lay, she made enough money, Greer thinks, to bring up her family without her husband’s help (though why he should not have helped her if she enjoyed his love and respect is not quite clear) and probably accumulated a lot more besides. Quite possibly, in Greer’s view, Ann, not Shakespeare, bought New Place. It is true that no papers relating to Ann’s remarkable career have come down to us. But then, Greer reminds us, paper was scarce, and old documents were used for all sorts of menial purposes, and there were a lot of mice about.

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