Friday, December 14, 2012

An Incredibly Long Title: Thoughts on Hunter S. Thompson, Literature and Motorcycles

When I was 18 years old I was an actor. I drove a Ford Mustang convertible and went out with a model. She drove a Kawasaki Ninja 500, with which she would swoop into my headlights as we sped from place to place, taunting me to chase after her. John Carroll Lynch bought me beer.

As a standalone tale, I suppose that's impressive. Enough so that I was temporarily able to dupe myself for a moment as I was lying in bed the other night. I phrased my life in just that succinct way and thought: "Man, whatever happened to the rock n' roll me?"

The answer is that particular rock n' roll me never really existed, nor did I want him to exist. My dad had bought the Mustang and it simply had become mine by default. As soon as it was acknowledged as mine, I insisted upon trading it in for a pickup truck. Sitting in the Mustang on a rainy November morning, heading to a car dealership with me, my father took one of his trademark deep-breath sighs and said: "I can't help feeling this is a decision we're going to regret."

I didn't. I don't. Some 18 years have passed and still I class it as one of my better decisions in life.

The motorcycle-riding model had gotten rid of me several weeks before. And I only ever drank half of one of the beers Lynch gave me. The first paragraph of this post marks a very tiny period in my life, which was incongruous with the rest –– a version of me that I don't want and didn't want at the time.

I got started thinking about all this because of an email I got from my friend, Dale.

"I was just having a look at your blog and I saw that you were reading Hell's Angels," he said. "I was just wondering what you thought about it."

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was Hunter S. Thompson's first published book, about spending roughly a year in the company of the same Hell's Angels who are generally credited with helping to kill off the 1960s hippie era. Eventually his association with the club ended when he was severely beaten after commenting to an Angel: "Only a punk beats his wife." The Angel in question was at that time beating his wife and as such didn't take well to Thompson's admonishment.

I read Thompson's most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, when I was 22 years old and was not terribly impressed. Though I never would have admitted this at the time. A nickname I had given myself was a variant of that which Thompson used for Oscar Zeta Acosta. Like just about every other boy, ever, I was enamoured of the image of Thompson (a). Not so enamoured, though, that I ever picked up another of his books.

My friend, Clint, has an enormous (roughly 3 feet by 5 feet) framed photo hanging on his living room wall of Thompson peering out of a large convertible. Clint can do a good imitation of Thompson and is happy to slip into it whenever possible, such as when his cats are behaving strangely. Not too long ago Clint and I got into a discussion about Thompson and I decided I should try again with his work.

I deliberately chose Hell's Angels because it was Thompson's first book and therefore less likely to be influenced by the sense of self-importance that marks so much of his later work. Shortly before Thompson died, he had a regular internet column for ESPN and it was insufferable. It was so bad that ESPN buried it in the depths of their web maze and no doubt the site editor was quietly relieved when Thompson shot himself.

Thompson rode his 1970s fame and notoriety for two decades and was convinced that only he and certain key members of his generation really understood anything. Until I eventually heard him speak, I long imagined his voice as being exactly that of an old hippie I got stuck standing next to for an hour in the Nevada DMV. Looking as if he had been dragged to the DMV office behind a truck he spoke ceaselessly about how my generation didn't know anything, man, and his generation had done things, had changed the whole world. I simply nodded or made "Hmm" noises. When finally I was called up to the desk and knew I would be free of him, I said: "History will roll over you."

It will roll over all of us.

But back to Thompson. I was keen to see the reporter, the storyteller, the writer, rather than the ego. Of course, the truth is that Thompson always had that ego, way back to his Kentucky childhood. But it is tolerably restrained in Hell's Angels and because of that you are better able to see certain aspects of Thompson's style, which can be seen in every other thing of his that I've read.

The first thing is that Thompson is just a little bit boring, and he has a certain fondness for telling you things three or four times. He'll space it out, and say it in different ways, but as you carry on through a book or long article you find yourself thinking: "Didn't he already say this?"

Additionally, I find his meta-narrative just a bit tiresome.

The term meta-narrative is also just a bit tiresome, so I apologise. I studied creative writing and I still don't feel I totally grasp what "meta-narrative" actually means, but here is my best understanding: the meta-narrative is the world outside the book, the things that we "know" and which create the rules by which the book is playing according to us. For example, the idea that unprovokedly kicking someone in the teeth is wrong. If you put that scene into a novel it is usually understood that the teeth kicker is a bad person (and, indeed, that there are such things as "good" and "bad"). That doesn't have to be written anywhere in the book, the meta-narrative, the narrative of our lives and which we take into the reading experience, says it already.

Authors mold the meta-narrative, of course. As you read a person's work you get a sense of what he or she sees as good or bad, right or wrong, etc. And by the Hunter S. Thompson meta-narrative, the sportscar-driving, model-shagging, getting-my-booze-from-film-stars version of me presented in the first paragraph of this post was a righteous motherhugger.

And that's pretty much Thompson in a nutshell. Over and over and over and over he sets up his vision of the righteous dude. But frustratingly, he gives you nothing more. I find his writing to lack depth. For a man famous for creating a style of journalism that centres on the journalist he gives very little sense of who the hell he is, or what he's about. You get even less sense of the people he's around. What you get are those snapshots –– like the first paragraph of this post –– without any idea of their relevance or accuracy. Collected and put into a book, the snapshots help you guess some of Thompson's meta-narrative, but you're still stuck thinking: "Who are these people? Who is Thompson?"

John Jeremiah Sullivan is often (wrongly, in my opinion) compared with Thompson but in his work you can see so much of the depth that Thompson lacks. Whereas Thompson gives you black and white photographs, Sullivan gives you a 3D colour panorama.

All this having been said, however, Thompson's book may have had an effect on me.

I have decided that I need to get a motorcycle. Not want. Need.

One of the unmentioned truths of that Mustang-driving 18-year-old is that he had failed to graduate high school on time. All his friends went to college and he hung around for several more months taking night classes. In an attempt to give himself some sense of accomplishment, in late summer 1994 he took some courses and got his motorcycle license.

Unfortunately, he lived in Minnesota, where the weather can be uncooperative for as much as seven months out of the year. Possibly nine months if the motorcyclist in question is particularly averse to wet or cold conditions. In the North Star State a motorcycle is not a terribly practical item, especially not for the sort of person who chooses a heat-and-keys (b) GMC Sonoma over a Ford Mustang.

When that 18-year-old boy turned 19, he went to college in a place that was even colder and snowier for even longer stretches of the year. He bounced around a few years more and eventually found himself in a long-term relationship with a girl who swore she'd leave him if he ever bought a motorcycle, because, she said, he was too stupid and too short tempered to drive one and live. Quietly he agreed with her and never really thought about it again.

Until I met Dale. He and his wife, Ruby, live in Phoenix and I visited them when I was driving across the United States. They stuffed me in the back of their Mustang (there's some kind of weird synergy!) and drove me around town for pizza and beers and being hassled by midgets. On the way back to drop me off at my hotel they took me up to a spot that overlooked Phoenix and Ruby spoke poetically about riding up there on her scooter.

That evening planted a tiny seed in my mind, which lay dormant until two years later when I was back in Minnesota and renewing my driver's license.

"You still want the motorcycle endorsement?" asked the woman at the counter.
"The what?" I said.
"The motorcycle endorsement. You're licensed to drive a motorcycle. You want to keep that on your license, right?"
"Oh, wow. Who knew? Yeah."
"Then it'll be six bucks more."

A year and a half later, and I found myself working part time as a bicycle courrier whilst reading Hell's Angels. Jenn works for a sustainable transportation organisation that offers all kinds of free information –– bus schedules, bicycle routes, and so on –– to people, with the aim of encouraging them to reduce their dependency on cars. That information is put into nifty little reusable cotton bags and distributed via bicycle delivery. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I would bolt a little trailer to the back of my bicycle and spend the morning cycling up and down the eastern neighbourhoods of Cardiff, delivering said packs. For two months I did this, clocking up 70-90 miles a week on my bike.

The rules of cycling on the road in the UK are not terribly different to the rules of driving and not at all different to the rules of motorcycling (but for the fact you cannot ride a motorcycle on a bicycle path, obviously). So, here I was, sharing the road all the time with cars and, prompted by my reading material at the time, I started to think...

It's a pretty nifty way to get around, the bicycle. Especially so in a British city, where the small roads get clogged up with cars. With a bike you can simply zip past all the standstill traffic. There's even a term for it here: "filtering." I don't mind the wet and the cold; the right gear really eliminates any discomfort. Yes, I have to be very attentive to what's going on around me, but I actually kind of enjoy that –– I see all kinds of things I would just ignore in a car.

Really, my only issue with cycling is distance and speed. Neither are greatly achievable on a bicycle. It is not really possible, for example, for me to cycle up to the Brecon Beacons to hike Pen y Fan when the weather's nice.

And that's how a motorcycle showed up in my thought process. On a bicycle I was showing myself that such a thing is practical for year-round use in the UK (c), that I could be confident and alert amid traffic, that I could tolerate the weather, and that such a means of transportation is well-suited to the smaller, slower roads here. Additionally, I am far more even-keeled than I once was. I am less likely to behave aggressively, or respond to a negative situation rashly.

The other argument against a motorcycle has always been cost. In a place like Minnesota, North Dakota or northern Nevada, a motorcycle is an expensive thing because it is something you own in addition to a car –– you cannot drive a motorcycle year-round. But here a motorcycle costs less because you don't necessarily need a car as well. And, it just costs less –– in upfront costs (I can buy a brand new one for as little as £850, or $1,370), upkeep, petrol, tax, MOT and insurance. I got a quote for comprehensive motorcycle insurance that was half what I used to pay for third-party insurance on my Honda Accord. Tax on one of the motorcycles I'm looking at would be just a 10th of what I paid for my car. And that same motorcycle averages 75 mpg.

Getting licensed in the UK is about as simple as it is in the US, but with the added benefit that a person does not need to have a car driver's license. I could be on the road by the weekend (d).

All this information is now swirling in my head, making me not just a little bit crazy. One of the most depressing aspects of my life this past year has been my lack of independent mobility. I cannot just get up and go to places, and if there is no public transportation I can't go at all. Most of the time I can ignore my frustration but all too often it mixes with homesickness and makes me so depressed that I feel like I'm going to stop breathing.

This is a solution, my brain/heart says. This is an actual, viable, attainable solution.

Sort of.

"I'm not against it," Jenn said the other day. "It's just that a motorbike is a luxury in our current financial situation."

She's kind of right. It would be less a luxury than a car, but still something of a challenge for two people trying to plan a wedding. Which is why I've decided to stop drinking (e). I'm pretty sure I spend at least £10 a week on beer and almost certainly quite a bit more. Rather than buying beer, however, I've decided that I will start putting that money in savings. Slowly, slowly, I can work toward making this a reality.

My hope is to be on a motorcycle by July 2013. In the longer term, I've decided, I want to get a Triumph America or, maybe, a Victory Judge, but really that's just because Victory is a Minnesota company (f). But both of those bikes are too big and too expensive for my dumb-ass self when I'm trying to get the hang of simply riding on a regular basis. I am inclined toward getting something ultra gentle, like a Yamaha YBR 125 Custom. Some needy little part of me wants so much to test my luck with a Lexmoto Ranger because I could get a new one for so cheap. But reviews on that bike are so hard to find that it makes me suspicious –– especially as the general mood toward Chinese bikes is anything but positive. The few Lexmoto reviews I have found all too cheerfully suggest that it's a brand that will make me a better mechanic, for all the attention I'll have to give the bike.

So, to answer Dale's question, I thought Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels was a bit dull and self-indulgent. But if an author's success is measured by his or her effect on readers, Thompson was a hell of a writer.


(a) Siân Melangell Dafydd once pointed out that Thompson is a requisite part of the American writer-boy canon. Every Yankee male that calls himself a writer must, she says, list Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac and Vonnegut among their influences. In terms of the latter three I am guilty as charged.

(b) "Heat and keys" is a common term used in classified ads for budget cars. It means "no frills." The car has a steering wheel, heat and keys, and not a whole lot else.

(c) True, it does snow in Cardiff every once in a while but it is such a rare event that no one here knows how to handle it. Cars become just as useless as motorcycles.

(d) For any UK motorcyclists, I'm referring to the CBT. I realise that getting my full license via Direct Access will take a bit longer, but the point is that I could be on the road very quickly.

(e) Unless someone buys me a drink.

(f) I would totally ride a Harley Sportster if given one, but would probably scratch the name off the tank. Harley owners are usually dick heads.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of a language

To save the Welsh language speakers may need to look critically at themselves.

This week saw the release of the unhappy but not at all surprising news that the number of Welsh speakers is again on the decline. According to 2011 census figures, only 19 percent of Wales' population –– or 562,000 people –– claim to be able to speak Welsh. This is a drop of 2 percent –– or 14,000 speakers –– from the 2001 census. 

The news is especially heartbreaking for Welsh language proponents because the previous census, in 2001, had seen an increase of speakers after centuries of steady decline. That was the first census taken after Welsh had become a compulsory subject in schools and, indeed, much of the increase in speakers at that time was amongst school-age children. The feeling at the time time was that young speakers meant longevity for the language, but 10 years on that doesn't appear to have panned out.

Parents are generally the ones filling out census surveys and they often have an overly rosy view of their children's abilities. As such, the Welsh Language Board estimated not too long ago that only about half of those speakers listed on the 2001 census were actually proficient (i.e., people who could actually hold a conversation, rather than simply being able to regurgitate answers for a quiz).

For the 2011 census it doesn't appear the situation has changed much: 30 percent of Wales' claimed Welsh speakers are under the age of 15 (Welsh is a compulsory subject to age 16). In trying to soften the blow a little, Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones pointed to the fact that there had been an increase of speakers amongst 3-4 year olds. Toddlers are again being held up as this nation's best hope. At the same time, however, the Welsh-speaking first minister admitted that even he and his Welsh-speaking family default to using English in the home.

The fact is: there are more people in Wales than 10 years ago but fewer of them, in both percentage and numerical terms, claim to speak Welsh. And of those left, half are not really able to speak Welsh, and even fewer are speaking it on a regular/day-to-day basis (I'm fluent in Welsh and have not held a Welsh-language conversation in seven months). Things do not look good for the language.

In the BBC story I linked to above there is an instant analysis side bar from Welsh-speaking reporter Vaughan Roderick, and one can already see who the Welsh-language community will be blaming for all this: those damned dirty foreigners. People like myself and Tony Bianchi and Jerry Hunter have come and driven out the native tongue with our irresistible and unforgiving English patter.

As long as I have been aware of the Welsh-language community it has been locked in a fortress mentality and the early signs I'm seeing from my Twitter feed suggest the response to the 2011 census will be another round of building up the ramparts. Blame the English. Blame modern culture. Demand more legislation. Get Steffan Cravos to chain himself to something in protest. Maybe write a few poems.

One of the things the Welsh-language world will not do, because it is very hard to do, is acknowledge and address the fact that it is itself part of the problem. The Welsh language is struggling because its speakers too often alienate the Welsh.

D.J. Williams, one of the founders of Wales nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said there is no such thing as a Welshman without the Welsh language. Some 2 million people listed their identity as "Welsh" on the 2011 census, which means there are at least 1.5 million people who would seriously disagree with Williams' claim. Unfortunately, Williams' attitude seems to be quietly prevalent amongst Welsh speakers. 

If pressed, I doubt a great number of Welsh speakers would outright say that a person cannot legitimately claim Welshness if he or she does not speak Welsh, though I can certainly think of a few who have. And I can think of even more who are willing to say as much through catchy turns of phrase like the one I heard from a fellow Welsh tutor last year: "Does dim hunaniaeth heb yr iaith" (a).

True, the fault does not rest solely on the shoulders of Welsh speakers, but in the flurry of handwringing, finger pointing and pondering that will come as a result of these census results I feel at least some time should be spent discussing the incredibly poor relationship between Welsh speakers and their fellow Welshmen. There is no Welsh Taliban or any other such nonsense, but it is true that a large number of Welsh men and women feel alienated by and terrible animosity toward their Welsh-speaking countrymen.

I realised this last week when I found myself strangely defending the language against the vitriol of four Welsh people. My frustrations with the Welsh-language community are well documented and not worth rehashing, however suffice to say I'm probably not going to be hired to do PR for language campaign group Cymdeithas. But in the face of my dinner companions' deep emotional frustration and anger toward the language I was by comparison Welsh's most stalwart devotee.

I feel it's worth mentioning that the people levying these complaints were all university-educated people who were Welsh born and raised. In three cases they are people who have lived elsewhere in the UK and the world, and have come back home because their love of Wales is so great. The reason I feel it's worth mentioning is that criticisms of the Welsh language are nothing new. Welsh speakers will have heard them dozens of times. But usually the only people with the audacity to express such things are chav blokes in Super Dry T-shirts who are four to five pints ahead of you in the drinking stakes, or insufferable cocks who write for sensationalist newspapers. And as such, I've never really listened to the people making criticisms.

Here, though, was a group of intelligent, educated, affluent and, in some cases, influential Welsh men and women who felt deeply angry toward the Welsh language and the bulk of its speakers. They felt that Welsh speakers had placed themselves on a sort of pedestal and were treating the country's majority with arrogant disdain. They felt alienated, pushed out, and condescended to. The latter are all aspects of my own experience in the Welsh community but I at least have the solace of knowing that the "You're Not One Of Us" attitude I've faced is true. I'm not Welsh (b). I'm a fluent Welsh speaker but if both sides of the D.J. Williams argument are conditionally dependent upon one another (i.e., one cannot be truly Welsh without speaking Welsh, but, also, one cannot truly be a Welsh speaker without being Welsh), then I can at least understand the "logic" of why I've failed to gain acceptance within Welsh-language circles. And, hey, I have my own massively larger, more influential and more diverse culture to fall back on.

But for the non Welsh-speaking sons and daughters of Wales it is an alienation that breeds a deeper bitterness than even I possess. As I ran through the standard responses to criticisms (c) one of the people I was speaking to grew so upset that she was shaking. She had spent two years in Welsh courses as an adult, she said, and had eventually given up because she felt she was being talked down to and patronised.

The other three all had their own stories of unpleasant interactions with overly aggressive Welsh speakers (sometimes campaigners' zeal for the language hurts their cause more than it helps) and the deep emotional frustration they carried as a result. I've heard similar stories over the years, and have had my own embittering experiences. Many Welsh speakers would be keen to do so, but I don't feel these negative attitudes should be wholesale ignored.

Welsh speakers' insular, alienating temperament is not the only reason the language is suffering. There is also the simple truth of living on a planet for which English is ever more the lingua franca –– especially in commercial terms. Wales, too, is an area with an infrastructure that is in some cases nonexistent and in most cases decades behind the curve. It lacks entrepreneurship and sufficient support –– both governmental and public –– for enterprise. Its folk traditions have been all but abandoned by even the most dedicated patriots, and it is part of an island that at certain times can feel very much like it is on the verge of becoming the 51st U.S. state. All that lack of uniqueness or self sustainability makes it hard to argue for learning a language that, with only insubstantial exception, is not spoken anywhere else.

There are a lot of pressures facing the Welsh language, but when its speakers make enemies of their own countrymen I can't help but fear it is heading incorrectably toward total novelty.

Welsh will never really die. Britain is too full of quirky enthusiasts and academics to let such a thing slip away completely. But at the moment, as things are, I don't see how it will survive as a legitimate language for too many more generations. Already it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of Wales' children come from a home where Welsh is the primary language spoken. How long before that percentage becomes zero? How long before no one ever really feels things through the medium of Welsh? How long before Welsh becomes only the purview of academics?

(a) There is no identity without the language.

(b) Indeed, lately, independent of any feelings toward Wales, I have found myself strangely and unintentionally resurrecting my Texas accent.

(c) Interestingly, the strongest defense I have found is one that no "true" Welsh speaker would ever use: that Welsh should be protected and nurtured because it is an intrinsically British thing.