The Book That Inspired Me: `No Particular Place To Go' By Hugo Williams

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WAS 27 when I ran into Hugo Williams's classic travel book. It was a startling antidote to standard travel-writer appreciations of America. Williams told the story of a three-month poetry-reading tour of the States that was, by his own account, pretty terrible. Constantly broke, shagged out and desperate, fetching up on the floors and beds of half-acquaintances, endlessly propositioned by flaky girls and gentlemen en route to the rest-room, chronically stuck in lunatic conversations ("My raccoon once made an ad for Butterkist...") and wasted by drink, dope and bad sex, he wasn't the finest advertisement for An Englishman in New York. His book seemed an awful warning of a society addicted to looks, bullshit and short-term need.

But there was a hum of something else going on in its pages. It took a while for the penny to drop. When I met the author, he explained that he had made the trip, aged 40, because he was suffering from an unusual syndrome: premature, pre-experience nostalgia. He'd found himself looking back regretfully on a past America he'd never been to. When he went, he had no first-hand knowledge of it beyond what he'd seen on TV, heard on records and read on the page.

So that's why the book felt unusual. Williams was searching for an America that was pre-mythologised. He wasn't after the tourist highspots of Niagara and Liberty and Beverly Hills, but the rock'n'roll hinterland of sad-eyed loners, drugged-up desperadoes, three-time losers, and Sunday morning coming down. He wanted to write a modern On the Road, where the professional weirdos of Haight-Ashbury and the gay cruisers of New York replaced the squares and phonies that were encountered by Kerouac and Cassidy in 1956.

Where the soundtrack to On The Road was jazz, the background white noise of No Particular Place is composed of semiotic scraps: the book is stuffed with road signs, cigarette-advert hoardings ("Low Tar With That Tang of Mountain Air"), diner-window menus, business cards, tourist information sheets, JESUS IS COMING in neon, a dispenser of erotica in Rock Springs that reads "Learn Anatomy the Fun Way with Torrid Terri's Cutie Nudie Puzzle No 3...".

I loved the book. I'd been to America twice, one flying visit to relations in Boston, and one gruelling get-me-outta-here business interview in New York. What Williams's book taught you, several years before Bryson's The Lost Continent, was the resonance of small things: the mosaic of detail, the rhetoric of retail, the huge promises implied in the smallest small talk. It offered a poet's eye on modern culture, a cool, sideways perspective on its consumers and an enviable traveller's voice - not just unafraid of meeting the locals but positively keen to jump in and grab whatever was on offer.

When I next visited New York, I gravitated naturally to Williams's temporary patch on 95th and Lexington. A cool address but a grotty district. When I made it to Los Angeles, I headed for the Pacific pier at the end of Santa Monica freeway where he'd found a sign saying THE END OF THE WESTERN WORLD...

In New Orleans, I searched the Vieux Carre for the Sho-Bar, the Dungeon and the Napoleon House where Hugo had hung out with his blowsy conquests, but I couldn't find them. Frustrated, I went into the darkest bar I could find (the Blacksmith's on Royal St), where I met a guy who took me to a cabaret spot called Gio's, whose eponymous owner was the first lap-dancer I'd ever met, and who later introduced me to her husband, rather unexpectedly, at 4pm in the boudoir of her tiny house on Bourbon St, with (I swear) a cracked and lonesome saxophone playing in the dawn somewhere on the edge of town. I'd discovered my own Hugo experience...

No Particular Place to Go isn't a book that you'd take on a visitor's itinerary of the States. Everything in it is temporary, casual, contingent, throwaway, the relationships as much as the food. But the journey it describes is a potent one, into the heart of existential loss.

John Walsh

`No Particular Place to Go' is unfortunately out of print

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