There is an odd smell about the gallery section of the Barber Institute Of Art, kind of like chocolate that’s been half melted and the mixed with wax. I have no idea what the actual source of the smell is, though. The gallery part is up a curved staircase, and the curved staircase is at the end of a very fancy corridor which has very high ceilings and very tall doors, but is not in anyway intimidating. The whole place is very marble and shiny, and there are lots of leaflets about future events to be taken, all over the place, and when I leave later, back down this same marble corridor, there’s very live, very fancy piano music coming from behind one of the very tall doors. This music may also have been playing when I entered the building, but I was listening to Jawbreaker, which drowned it out. I obviously chose Jawbreaker in order to “psych myself up” about what I was going to see, but when I started to ascend the stairs, the sound of jazz wafted down my way, and I decided that this maybe set the scene a little better than Shield Your Eyes. (I don’t have Boxcar on my iPod, though it would clearly have been the obvious choice)
The actual display itself was kind of lean and modest. The room was very small, and the walls were all white, and there weren’t nearly as many people there as I had expected. I think I might just be a huge geek, really, and my geekiness caused me to over estimate the appeal that this artefact had to the majority of students on campus. I won’t go on the first day it opens, I had thought to myself, there’ll be so much crowding, so many queues! I went to see it on the second day and saw something like five other people there. Admittedly, it was lunch time.
There were three very long, narrow glass cases in the middle of the room. The centre one obviously held On The Road itself, the ones on either side of it held supplementary materials, like various editions of the book, both British and American; articles about it, when it was first published, and copies of Kerouac’s other works, including one that was signed. That, more than anything else – for some reason – made me sad about Kerouac’s death at the age of just forty seven. Not only is that far too young an age to have died, it’s frustrating to think that he was never even alive in my lifetime. It was very odd considering just how many of my favourite authors are long dead (that’d be most of them) but thinking about it that way only really gets me at random moments, it stabs me like a needle and really bothers me. I had such a moment there, at the Kerouac display.
So, the actual scroll? Every single aspect of it is impressive. My eyes got caught on lines I remember reading in the book, “in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word” being one of my favourite parts, that I was hoping I’d see, but never really thought I would be able to pick out, when I saw it for real, but I did pick it out, and it felt terrific. The whole thing is very long, and there’s this aged amber tape holding the reams of paper together. It just reminds you how old, how historical this is, this is an artefact. There are crossings out too, in his own hand, in pencil. Not all of his handwriting is totally readable, but you can see how he changed it so that Sal lived with his aunt and not his mother- the word mother is crossed out a lot, and replaced with aunt. In reference to what I was saying earlier about picking out memorable lines, you’d think that the opening line – one of the most memorable in most novels – would be one of the easiest to find, and to remember it and make the connection between the Penguin Classic you have in your bag and the piece of history looming before you. But the opening line is utterly different, because of course, he changed Neal Cassady’s name to Dean Moriarty to make it less autobiographical, and changed the death of his father to the divorce of his first wife for reasons that can be explained either politically or sociologically.
On The Road is really remarkable for the way it was written – over the course of three weeks, under the influence of lots of coffee (hell yes) and based upon real, autobiographical stuff that Kerouac got up to. As strange, – but at the same time obvious – as it is to think that the computer’s take over of the typewriter as the most convenient way to write in the twenty-first century means an end to such artifacts as these, we have to remember that On The Road is in no way typical in its form, it really is special. As a landmark literary artefact, the scroll follows the original, handwritten versions of the likes of the Bronte sisters, or Dickens, and to go back even further, the extraordinary elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Now that we’ve chosen new mediums to write in that save our words as pure information and memory, (like this column you’re reading right now, oh wow!) and have all but discarded traditional, physical forms, I think it’s really exciting to think about what artefacts we’re going to be treasuring – years from now – as physical connections to the writers of today. Will we start keeping tiny things, like J.K. Rowling’s hair slides, or Audrey Niffenegger’s socks? I can’t help thinking about how monks kept bits of the body parts of saints after they died, as relics. What if you went to a library and they said “oh yeah, we’ve got Will Self’s hand in a glass case, wanna see?”
The cases in the exhibit were quite low down, which frustrated me. I’m something like five foot five, and they were about hip level, so I had to crane my neck downwards to read the scroll, not to mention that because of the very long, narrow, rectangle shape of the cases, you have to stand beside the thing at a right-angle to the words, so you have to turn your neck a lot to read it. This makes it a very awkward and uncomfortable thing to look at, and it starts to hurt a fair bit to pore over for too long. Luckily, the exhibit is completely free, and so close to my house, and the places I go every day, that I can go back whenever I want.
If you are anywhere near the Birmingham area, I compel you to go. Really. GO. You will not regret it. There is a train station on the campus itself, (the uncreatively named “University Station”) which is only five minutes walk (ten, maybe if you’re really slow) from the Barber Institute. If you’re remotely interested in Kerouac’s work – or books and literature at all – it’s a really remarkable thing. You will be impressed. You will be inspired. You might have an orgasm. If you miss out on a chance to see something so amazing, you will just be miserable.