The road to the graveyard is greased. [Willie The Lion Smith]
As often happens when viewing some suddenly significant, if once only vaguely perceived milestone, reflections on mortality rise to the surface of consciousness. Where in younger days my impending birthday might have signalled a prolonged hangover - from New Year's Eve right through to its actual date, January 2nd - the year 2000 threatened to be rather different. Its approach meant my own sixtieth anniversary would immediately follow that far greater and indeed global anticlimax, the New Millennium.
Whether or not one will feel like celebration, I'd speculated a few months previously, there could well be a general sense of relief at having survived in the first place. "Look, we have come through", as D.H. Lawrence put it. Viruses of every variety may fail to wreak their deadly havoc; no longer shall we think to bury ourselves prematurely in bunkers, hide out in woods or on mountaintops... If, after all, Apocalypse is not now, nor even very soon, we needn't drink up in haste and repent our pleasure and ready ourselves for close of play. Yet perhaps it does no harm to anticipate the end, or at least some sort of an end. Without taking matters quite as far as actual dress rehearsal- lying shrouded inside one's coffin, like Donne - a little meditation on the purposes and ends of journeys mightn't go amiss.
'Last things' had been much on my mind since a visit to that great Parisian necropolis, Pere Lachaise. It was a sunny October day in 1999 and the leaves were beginning to be whirled down the long alleyways between the graves. A curious almost welcoming autumnal melancholy within the morning light itself seemed to lend trees and stones, marble, earth and mausoleums alike, an unexpected quality as, blissfully mild and serene, it suffused the whole area in intimations not so much of mortality as of utter peace. The thought occurred to me as an atheist that somehow despite myself I'd detected an oddly attractive aura about the whole gigantic boneyard. H.R.Wakefield's wonderful ghost stories may describe some urban cemetery as "Garden of Corruption" or "many-acred morgue", but no poetic coinage prepares the wanderer for such an expansive, extraordinary place. 
There was something very affecting yet hard to define about this enormous and truly democratic City of Death. Such feelings, however, had little to do with aesthetics, with nostalgia or consolation, nor with sentimentality, awe and advancing age. None could fail to be moved by this vast cemetery's multi-racial, multi-lingual aspect, for here are included all religions and nationalities; here lies every shade of belief or lack of it. The famous, the infamous and the ordinary crowded together; corrupt and honest politicians; heroes of every persuasion, right and left; communists, communards, martyrs, anarchists, deviants, suicides; the creative and the destructive; smug bourgeois beside scandalmonger, infant next to greybeard. Family plots and grandiose sepulchres, baroque memorials, grotesque monuments, pious, braggart or simply modest inscriptions... Poor and rich are all properly allotted space and place of rest, while the conventional, decent, logical French allow them their dignity and due respect.
Pere Lachaise that day was full of whispers and surprises. People were rambling around, either aimless or purposeful. Strollers or seekers, tourists and locals... It was Sunday, so some had come from nearby churches: these visitors were dressed up accordingly, they'd no need to consult the large maps at the entrance gates, and quite a few of them bore bouquets and wreaths. Various visitors remained silent. This seemed tribute to the overwhelming, truly awesome stillness of the location itself. Others by contrast made noisy and almost nervous smalltalk.
Who and how are these presences - absences really - to be recalled? Which chasms are we staring into, and of what last things do we remind ourselves? Here are found relatives and friends, dead poets and living legends, artists and artisans, simple and anonymous victims. These fertilise the continuing struggle for human freedom, perhaps ... The abiding impression is anyhow neither of creeds nor credulity: that whole multitude of incised memorial words movingly relates a greater, most mysterious solidarity, always broadly republican rather than royalist or religious. Given this unique and precious libertarian ethos -the loving comradeship of death -the living processes of memory must, from time to time and for future time, dwell on Resistance, Holocaust, the horrors of War... So here the flowers of history and of the present are visible, are renewed and live on - whether at the foot of that wall where the Communards were shot or beside the memorials for the International Brigades members killed during the Spanish Civil War. The flowers rest always there too for those casualties of three wars against Germany, starting in 1870. And onward, through every form of barbarity - hostages, partisans, POWs; the brave, the innocent and the helpless all alike -first tortured then executed. Memorials too for everyone slaughtered in the concentration camps... What else in this fine, private yet most public of places should we wish to remember?
The living must also, I suppose, celebrate their own continuing luck. Survivors, by contrast, with our relatively happy lives to date... We exist and endure still, while only too well aware of what lies ahead: the dilemma both simple and complex remains quite insoluble. No wonder I can't remember my previous visit! I just wasn't old enough to appreciate the place. How could any adolescent - let alone that distant, depressed, hypersensitive boarding-schoolboy I was forced to grow out of- have interpreted such sights, on such a site? What did I ever retain or recall of all this? Absolutely nothing: that temporal gap from sixteen to almost sixty had been a huge abyss, hi consequence I was visiting Pere Lachaise as if for the first time. I'd steered well clear of the place while actually living in Paris, in my twenties. You do, at that age, since you believe yourself immortal; you and your own world go on for ever. Only when those close to you start dying is your youthful blind faith in survival, your confident indestructibility shaken.
And in your youth you don't have much to remember, nor do you feel the need for remembering. Everybody's still with you, still around; you have that boundless present sense of energy and potential; you enjoy a present tense where nothing ever winds down, stops or disappears. But after the deaths the memories swarm. Then and only then do things get personal, and the process starts by which we genuinely grieve and desire to remember. As Senancour said of this early 19th century graveyard, the great bonepark at the capital's eastern gate - it would one day compose "a city of memories".
And yes, the gang's all here, Romantics, Surrealists, Classics, Avant-Gardists and Eccentrics... The relicts of Heloise and Abelard, Moliere, La Fontaine and Beaumarchais were moved here, and are kept company by Constant, Balzac, Nerval, Delacroix, Gericault, Ingres, de Musset, Chopin, Rossini, Bellini, Michelet, de L'lsle Adam, Corot, Daudet, Modigliani, Apollinaire, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Eluard, Max Ernst, Colette, Julio Cortazar etc. I was most delighted to happen upon the plain black slab housing the extraordinary "posthumous celebrity" Raymond Roussel (1877-1933). This wealthy analysand, proto-caravanner, opium addict and poetic pioneer of arcane language-games, who found some sort of solution in a problematic Sicilian suicide, rests in his family plot, ripe for a rediscovery which, this side of the Channel at least, never quite happens. A far more fruitful subject for research, anyway, than that rather better known homosexual, poor old Oscar Wilde, a mere twenty yards further up the same avenue. Epstein's winged messenger who hovers over Oscar has had his prick broken off: one wonders whether this vandalism was due to talismanic greed, pudeur or targeted disapproval? Maybe a memento story, impure and simple, was what was wanted. At any rate, a rash of lipsticked kisses has flowered everywhere else across the yellowing stone, strange patterns of pederastic pilgrimage.
Another equally bizarre object of veneration - the sexual politics here distinctly hetero, though of course its nineteenth century political context has become blurred - is the effigy of Victor Noir. Noir, real name Yvan Salmon, was the 22-year old journalist shot dead in 1870 by Prince Pierre Napoleon Bonaparte. (There ensued huge republican demonstrations, but the fatally argumentative princeling was subsequently acquitted: the time for the Imperial Dynasty to be displaced had not quite arrived...) Noir lies, near life-size - if not black as his doom or pseudonym - cast in bronze, with a distinctive mouldering, greenish quality about him. Somebody punctiliously brings Noir red roses or red carnations, and there are shiny patches on his likeness. These much-kissed areas, where the bronze has been buffed smooth by obeisance are situated thus: forehead, lips, flybuttons and toecaps. Apparently young Noir in his long-gone heyday was a notorious ladies' man. So the superstition still holds over a century later that, lads and lasses alike, whoever kisses the relevant bits of Victor will have luck fucking - be it for pleasure or procreation, whichever is desired. A greater, lonelier talent, Isidore Ducasse - whose own penname Lautreamont had brought him no literary luck - also died in Paris in his early twenties and soon after Noir, that same momentous year. Unlike Noir however, Ducasse has no known grave, nor a commemorative monument here, but he mentions Victor Noir in his Poesies. It was when translating this enigmatic work that I first (as it were) came across Noir. Others have evidently done so for years and quite regularly: purveying spit and polish of the stranger sort. 
Easy come, easy go. If such rituals are thought sad, weird or perhaps merely silly, then it certainly makes sense to give Jim Morrison's last billet a very wide berth. Detritus of all kinds, human and other, surrounds the wretched rock phoney's final habitat. Graffiti, rotting flowers, beercans, indifferent guitarists and used syringes litter the last gig... Why did the tolerant French let in this ungifted poseur? Morrison can't compare with the real singers hereabouts - those homegrown products, Piaf, Montand and co - but someone must have felt that premature death plus a few pretentious scribbles rated a small corner of notoriety, if nothing else.
Talking of unsung writer-musicians, underrated heroes not Morrisons, I learned only recently that Mezzrow reposes here too. The author of the classic autobiography Really The Blues (1946) died in Paris, having become an honorary Frenchman -just like his celebrated US expat friend and colleague, the Creole genius Sidney Bechet. Mezzrow's recordings with Bechet from the 1930s and '40s are blues landmarks. Their music brought joyous consolation, wildly inspirational poetry to the fourteen year old European schoolboy I was when I first heard it; Mezzrow himself, I feel to this day, deserves to be better known.
Had he done nothing else but supply Louis Armstrong for many years with marijuana thus earning the soubriquet 'Mezz' - he'd have merited a modest niche in music history, let alone my own awestruck adolescent affection. Now an 'honoured guest' here, Mezzrow was half a century ago a legendary guru for Parisian traditional and mainstream jazzers, championed by their colourful yet revisionist critic Hugues Panassie. Because of his dubiously Parnassian association with (to adapt the modernists' putdown) mouldy figures like HP, latterday authorities tend to malign Mezzrow's clarinet playing as limited, sour-toned, shrill and so on. This is too patronising by half. True, Mezzrow was uneven, but he participated in some highly emotional, hauntingly memorable sessions, and he left a fine recorded legacy.
The archetypal un-American outsider, Mezzrow also of course loathed racism and by his own account actually wanted to be black. His determinedly unconventional way of life, self-chosen exile and deep feeling for the blues all led him finally to suggest, if not incarnate, the 'White Negro' of Mailer's famous essay. So where's the headstone for this maverick muso and sparky misfit, Milton Mesirow (1899-1972)? Pere Lachaise seems a fine place for those spookily insistent, twisting accents again to echo; for that special reedy, agitated style of his, with its odd, acrid turns of phrase once more to rise and resound. What then of their stoned creator, our continuingly controversial jazzman? Refrains long "gone in the air"; remains hard to locate on this overcrowded patch of French earth... However belatedly, let's hear it for Mezz! A quatrain from Tony Harrison's 1987 funerary 'film/poem', Cheating The Void, provides for him a primly mellifluous epitaph:
Mezzrow was fortunate: as a young man living through the exciting extremes of the 1920s, the first great classic age of jazz, he managed without compromise to survive. And survive he did, to a relatively ripe old age, excesses, successes, disasters and all. He'll continue to be discovered and savoured, heard and read. By contrast, that dull hustler Jim Morrison, striving to shock his way to an elusive stardom in what was by then the rock era's decadence, won't count for much or for much longer. One of those sad troubadours more talked-about than listened-to, unlucky Jim never really made it, and is probably more trouble now than he was ever worth. He represents a capital H hassle for the rubbish-collectors, cleaners and gardeners, while few of the locals, the relatives and the soberer, more intelligent visitors would have warmed to Morrison or his callow American acolytes the first time round. As for actually revering this superannuated avatar of Bullshit Immortal, forget it - these strange days the doors need to be firmly slammed!
It's a dull Sunday morning, and a couple
Jim Burns Père Lachaise
The gates of memory had anyhow creaked open for me earlier that summer of 1999, just after my father's death. A sense of relief mingled with release was my only emotion. My father in Greece had been a wartime collaborator and he became when 'home free' later on in England, a domestic tyrant-in-exile. I was to hear nothing good about Greece, and the war and ensuing civil war were unmentionable subjects: so for better or worse I lost a country, a language and many early recollections.
My father himself had died long ago as far as I was concerned. I'd not seen him for thirty years and didn't attend his obsequies: this was a man who hadn't after all bothered to go a mile down the road to my mother's funeral in 1963. The old conman duly disinherited me of course, but his real legacy to me has been priceless: in life I always do the opposite of whatever it is I think he would have wished. I've survived quite happily as a result. As for my father, he lived to the unholy age of 96, exploitative to the end, further accumulating and selfishly spending wads of money never rightly his to begin with, hi my view, therefore, I have escaped the dead-weight of a tainted inheritance: good riddance to it and to him.
Looking through some old papers and notebooks, as one does after deaths and on approaching anniversaries, I located a journal I kept from 1964 to 1966, years during which my relationship with my father was especially fraught. Struggling to achieve independence and become the writer I wanted to be, I endured from him mainly a cold sarcasm which I sensed was envy, destructive criticism masquerading as 'advice'. More isolated than ever while trying to find my voice, my own literary personality, I experienced a certain need for mentors and examples. These necessary if then unacknowledged exemplars were of course the opposite of authority figures in loco patris. They might, though, be any kind of creative forefather or guide whom death had not diminished, who would live on for me, and from whom I could draw timely comfort and encouragement
Neglected artists, autodidacts, black sheep, obstinate eccentrics, baffling misfits, battlers against the odds - theirs was the contemporary company to keep me warm! And to my taste best of all by the summer of '64, was that convivial genius Malcolm Lowry. Then still lamentably underrated, Under The Volcano and all - magical Malc, alchemist of the word if ever there was one, alcoholic poet and experimental proser - became my timeless hero of literature and good cheer.
I'd known his work since student days, when it was not even in print in England, but midway through my third novel I would make my overdue pilgrimage, go to see his grave, pay my respects to the unforgotten, unforgettable dead. And so back to a 24 year old self- re-entering my entry for 28 May 1964 - a time I lived in a tipsily steep and ramshackle attic flat overlooking the sea. Its address Lowry himself might have relished: Cambridge Road, Hove 2..
AsEverWas – Hammond Guthrie (£20.00. SAF Publishing, 2002)
That titular breathlessness, followed by the lower-case subtitle – memoirs of a beat survivor – didn’t bode well. Nor did the commendatory jacket quotes from some resolutely un-household names (e.g. Adrian Shaw, Richard Aaron, Nick Saloman, Gary Faulkerson, Michael Simmons, etc). These ranged from the tentative to the ecstatic. “Hammond’s book may be one of the quintessential freak histories” declared one, while another dubbed him “an extraordinary writer who has been there, done it and has now written the book. An important yet rather anonymous figure of the alternative scene from the 60s to the present day…” All in all, I suspected that this oddly-hyped “journey from the vortex of the 60s counter-culture and on into the void” might be continuing revisionism, just barrelscraping, and itself one more void to avoid.
However, a couple of familiar London names from that era, Hoppy and Miles, were kind about this memoir, so I persevered with it and am glad I did. Bits of it are hilarious (if not always intentionally so), while there are anecdotal gems or odd nuggets of crazed eccentricity half-buried amid whole landslides of slipshod and too often tortuous prose. But then the whole decade was self-indulgent yet exciting, excessive yet creative, frustrating yet fulfilling, radical yet reactionary and, especially for city-dwellers, on the whole encouragingly, wonderfully weird. The 60s were full of all sorts of chancers, groupies, wannabes and neverhasbeens, swingers, dropouts, pseuds and hangers-on. That decade – my own twenties and (as readers will work out) the author’s teens – was indeed a fine time to be young. And if Guthrie’s none too exact with dates, no matter, for time itself seemed to do deceptive things then – expanding, looping or warping along with the enormous variety of experimental substances consumed. Hammond Guthrie’s taste for the latter, and his cheerfully avowed and gargantuan ingestion of the same is, in the most exact and considered sense, mind-boggling!
Brought up on the American West Coast, largely by grandparents, Guthrie wistfully reflects: “Life on a horse ranch as an only child can be more adventurous and is certainly less competitive than living in town with on-site parents and possible siblings”. His parents divorce early on: the mother disappears, becoming a non-person, while young Hammond secretes only a single photo of her, after the family destroy all the others. Meanwhile his “off-site father, who had gone on to become a well known criminologist at the University of Southern California and who occasionally served as an unidentified advisor to sitting Presidents, the FBI and to the anonymous Directors of Central Intelligence, decided to remarry.” The boy more or less escapes having to come to terms with this new parental relationship by being sent to Military Academy, of all places, but soon the erratic and confused adolescent must confront adulthood and conscription. The best and funniest parts of the book describe the devious stratagems and drug-fuelled paranoia involved in trying to dodge the draft. This Guthrie successfully does, twice in fact, since he first gains deferment for some ambiguously ‘higher’ education; a couple of years later, he again beats the military rap. These particular passages Terry Southern himself might have chuckled at, and I’m sure readers will find them as horridly comical as I did.
The rest of Guthrie’s eastward odyssey, taking him to Europe – London, Amsterdam, North Africa – is well over 200 pages long, with a second instalment promised. Unfortunately, since the author’s primarily an artist rather than a writer, and neither editor nor copy-editor seems to have worked on his manuscript, the book as a whole proves hard going. Floating apostrophes, dangling participles, sub-Joycean neologisms – Guthrie lets them hang extra-loose: the ungrammatical gang’s all here, alongside much misspelling of proper and placenames. A brief sample: La Grand Chaumier, Jeu du Pomme, Innsbruk, St.Germaine des Pres, Cafe du Paris, Boulevard St. Michele. People? – Valazquez, Bruegal, Gene Kruppa, avant-trumpter Don Cherry, Generalismo Franco, la garda civil, closhards. And what exactly is nefarity? Or acclimating to prison life? You can follow the general drift of what’s struggling to be said, via some often awkward prose: quite literally no-one (including most of the street urchins), or the brittle psychosphere surrounding my grief continued to expand for the worse. Although such clumsiness can prove exasperating, we may allow Guthrie a friendly-freak’s modicum of prosaic licence, for it’s staggering that he can manage to write anything at all coherent after the vast pharmacopia consumed over the years.
Guthrie briefly encounters or somehow fails to engage with, various of the talented American expatriates of that era – Burroughs, Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Chester – but they or he are either too drunk or drugged for any genuinely interesting exchange to take place. Of a soothsayer’s patch near the Asilah souk he notes: “Some time later I learned that this was the very spot where the noted surrealist, author Alfred Chester (Behold Goliath and The Exquisite Corpse), then in residence, had himself tied to a tree by the villagers of Asilah in a vain attempt to conquer his significantly paranoid delusions.” Interesting enough, now that poor Chester may be overdue for reprinting, but Guthrie’s brief mention here will scarcely accelerate any such literary revival.
There were other, equally odd – perhaps less ingenuous (or more disingenuous) – American expats-in-Europe at that time, ultra-keen to brandish their radical credentials and seemingly ubiquitous in the metropolis. Though not necessarily frequenters of what Guthrie disarmingly calls London’s Chelsea district, the likes of Ralph Schoenman, Jo Lustig, Ed Victor and Harvey Matusow were busy sussing the capital’s cultural-political scene. Guthrie is informative on the latter character, whom he tolerantly and naively regards as rather a likeable rogue: American victims of the blacklist might beg to differ. Matusow, convicted fink for the infamous Joe McCarthy, had by then more or less successfully re-invented himself for the younger generation and the British market.
That Matusow, teller of tall tales and dodgy survivalist, should (coincidentally?) have found himself in the very prison cell next to a far greater man – the dying Wilhelm Reich – is one of the more extraordinary anecdotes recounted here, a tale as sinister as it’s blackly humorous. Indeed, it seems a poignant parable for those deceptive, bigoted times – how destructive fraudster and creative genius alike could get caught within, and end up paying for, American Cold War paranoia. Guthrie provides a final weird glimpse of Matusow in his latter millennial days, “who at seventy-three years of age (and now going by the name of Job) has taken a vow of poverty and devotes himself to Native American community service and public broadcasting in rural Utah.”
There are though, snapshots of more straightforwardly talented people – the Guthries’ former landlord, journalist and author Kenneth Allsop; the Dutch resistance hero, art-collector and patron Willem Sandberg – plus a few unusual insights into the Amsterdam avant-garde scene in the 60s and 70s. Too much of the personal material presented – marital spats, highs and lows, etcetera – is so subjective and opaque that younger, more detached readers may now find these bygone shenanigans trivial or exasperating.
That said, the book is attractively produced, if hardly an essential read. A colourful, exciting and excitable decade still flickers here fitfully, but these reminiscences – probably of greater interest to social historians than to either of those invidious categories, ‘ordinary’ or ‘literary’ readers – aren’t in the end particularly inspiring or stimulating. Hammond Guthrie plans to treat us to a second volume. Fair enough, but in that case, a pinch more self-criticism and some rigorous editing would come in handy.