Love letters from a Beat jailbird

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ON A dais in the bookshop is a small 70-year-old lady wearing big glasses. Below, at her feet in several ways, sitting on the floor and gazing upwards with expressions of admiration, is a small crowd of twenty-and-thirtysomethings, including a young man in leather trousers and red biker boots. Why are they there?

Carolyn Cassady, the fragile-looking lady behind the microphone, sometimes asks this herself. 'I'm having go over and over and over the past and I still don't know why,' she says. 'When Neal died I thought - ah, till death do us part - but it turns out it's my death, not his.'

The marriage that will not let Carolyn go was to Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, 'the holy con man with the shining mind', the young ex-jailbird who inspired Allen Ginsberg and after whom Kerouac shambled because the man was mad to live, a firework who made crowds gasp as he exploded towards extinction.

And here, in the Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, is a real Beat wife. In many senses. She took an emotional beating that lasted through a marriage that began in 1948 till Neal Cassady finally collapsed and died on a railroad track in 1968, his body worn out by drug excess. He slept with countless other women, suggested she become the lover of his best friend, Kerouac - she did - blew their savings, lied to her too often to note.

Yet here she is, in the old age he spurned, reading out his love letters, collected in a volume called Grace Beats Karma, published this week by Blast Books (pounds 8.99). The letters were sent from the Californian jails in which he spent two years after carelessly giving, one day in 1958, in exchange for a lift to the Southern Pacific Railroad depot, three marijuana cigarettes - his own supply - to two undercover cops. The judge gave this prophet of Beat the maximum sentence because he didn't like his attitude, and reading his outpourings it is easy to see why. Here is the holy con man trying to persuade his wife to use her home as security for bail. 'Carolyn, I'll never forgive you . . . Do you really fear I'll run away?' Then there is the self-pitying irony: 'Dearest, Dear Wife; Thank you, thank you. Those two hours fret and fear were all I needed to be free from here.'

And then, up there on the pedestal in this Camden bookshop, that very dear wife adjusts her glasses and starts to read in the soft lilt of the Southern states: 'Dearest Carolyn; (Received all money) . . . Have attended all available church services, confession, mass, 3 Protestant & one negro fundamentalist.' She pauses for a second and gives a chirp of laughter, and on her face you can see the cool beauty Cassady loved. She starts to read an incomprehensible list of popes, and chirps and laughs again. 'He started as a Catholic as a child,' she says. 'I assume that was the only colour and warmth and good things that he had. . .' In jail he memorised the list of popes to prevent his anger rising, she says, and she reads out the St Eutrychians and St Eusebiuses till the face of a young man on the floor lights up with her husband's humour. She reels off a list of virtues on which her errant husband is trying to concentrate in the hope of reforming. She stops. 'Oh boy]' she sighs, and grins. In her autobiography, Off the Road (Flamingo, pounds 7.99) she confessed that in some ways his prison spell came as a relief: for two years she could be certain where he was.

She reads on, occasionally stumbling over a word, and as she does a magical thing happens. The anger and the grousing fade beneath the irony and laughter. Hidden jokes come spinning off the page. The bravado is revealed as bravery and grace; the Proustian passages as defiance of hard circumstances: the charm, in short, that was Neal Cassady lives again.

'Dear wife, sweet April Fool,' his wife reads, and looks up with a

smile: 'We were married on 1 April.'

Neal Cassady gives his own definition of Beat in a prison letter: 'not being in despair, down & out or some other such starkly negative state of mind . . . or body . . . but is rather the corruption of the word 'Beatific'. . .'

'Oh, that's enough, don't you think?' says Carolyn Cassady, closing the book, and a trickle of young men come up to ask her more.

When Cassady came out he was not reformed, but broken. The railroad refused to give him back his job. He blotted himself out with drugs until Carolyn could no longer live with him. 'The guy all his life was looking for self-respect and approval,' she says. 'The only thing that gave him self-respect was 10 years' perfect work on the railroad. The other was his family and his home. I didn't realise I was the second pillar. I couldn't stand the hallucinatory thing, the conversations with the invisible devil, with kids around. And I thought telling him to go would free him, that we were a burden.'

Julian Porte, a London dispatch rider, in the red biker boots, says: 'I look on Neal as some sort of a driving hero. He's the ultimate driver.' For Cassady, almost born on the road, motion seemed to be some kind of attempt at escape from himself. The difference was that when he worked the railroad, the tracks always brought him back home.

Carolyn Cassady carries on signing. 'He'd never known loyalty in love,' she says. She came to understand how his horrific childhood of emotional and physical neglect with a drunken father had crippled the adult man. 'Because he thought he was so valueless,' she says, 'he gave himself away. And in spite of having learnt to con people, because of his past, it was sincere as well. He'd never known unconditional love. I started by trying to mould him. In the end, after 25 years, I finally learnt to love him as he was.'

She picks up a cartoon book that shows her husband joyriding. 'And now he's a colour book hero,' she says, and goes out into the Camden dark to her London home, Carolyn Cassady . . . Beat, beatific, unbeaten.

(Photograph omitted)