"Reflecting Burroughs" by Chris Kelso
In Burroughs and Scotland, Chris Kelso explores the relationship between William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch, Junkie, and The Soft Machine) and a country very much attuned to the Beat author’s provocative, transgressive sci-fi style of literature. Kelso investigates why Burroughs was drawn to Scotland, why Scotland was drawn to Burroughs, and what exactly the author got up to during his various visits to Edinburgh.
Burroughs first arrived in Edinburgh in 1962, attending the International Writers Festival. He was living in the capital with Alexander Trocchi and Trocchi’s doctor, Andrew Boddy1 (who provided both men with a profusion of uncut heroin). One day in the city and already their anti-social lifestyle could be described as ‘the commitment of exile’. A pirate and a murderer. Two Broken Boys.
John Calder, however, was an elegant, grouse-shooting sort of fellow who happened to be a closet degenerate. Calder was bullet-bald, hard-faced, and resembled some sort of a medieval judge, but he had a beatnik spirit and with the help of Sonia Orwell 2 and Jim Haynes,3 was responsible for organising the most important conference in Scottish literary history – an event which sought to bridge a gap between the stagnant conservatism of the 50s and the experimentation of the early 60s.
Calder was already well-versed in the language of controversy long before his stint as ringleader to the rabid ancients and belligerent moderns. Despite being born in Montreal, Calder had established a firm political presence in Scotland, standing for the Liberal Party at two elections against the former prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, at Kinross and West Perthshire. He believed in freedom for the people and would have died by those principles. But it was as a fearless publisher of underground literature that he will be best remembered. He singlehandedly brought the likes of Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and Leo Tolstoy to Scottish shores and small underground journals began popping up throughout the country. Calder also happened to be a mastermind of publicity, orchestrating cultural upheavals across the land by bringing free speech and innovative theatre to the Edinburgh Festival. The national establishment feared him, and with good cause: here was another mongrel seed, this time the product of a squalid tryst with Canada, hell-bent on stirring the pot. It’s not an exaggeration to say there had never been anyone quite like him on the national landscape, before or since. Calder, a man so staunchly anti-war and imbued with a self-shaped theistic bhakti that he would make most monastery goers rear their heads in shame, was well-travelled too. He had dined with Burroughs, Beckett, and Barney Rosset 4 at the Grand Séverine the year before and the men struck up a friendship of mutual admiration. Upon return to Scotland, Calder used his political sway and silver tongue to convince Lord Harwood to host another event in Edinburgh. An event that would change everything. His wish was granted, a five-day event was scheduled for the 20th to the 24th of August. It was here that Burroughs cemented his friendship with Scotland’s own junky-bard, Alexander Trocchi.
Trocchi was widely respected for his work as editor of Merlin,5 although he was considered to be a complex and manipulative disintegratory nihilist – a man who once pimped out his own wife, Lyn,6 to meet the expenses of his chronic heroin addiction. Nevertheless, he was a talismanic figure in the burgeoning Beat movement of the early 60s and his presence in this story is significant. To Burroughs at least, he was a man worth knowing. Of course, Trocchi and Burroughs could be considered two sides of the same coin. ‘Cosmonauts of inner space’. Both were writers of an unrepentant avant-garde fiction. Both had horrible heroin habits. Trocchi and Burroughs would also, down the line, wind up bereaved fathers. But therein, perhaps, the similarity ended. Burroughs was a wraith-like, anti-social junky who would shoot up in the private seclusion of his hotel room. Trocchi would frequently shoot up in public places (or on live television), grinning and goading passers-by as he went about his practice. Burroughs was a mule of shame. Drugs were his affliction. Trocchi was a dancing monkey hell-bent on dismantling the Scottish parochial fallacy. Drugs were his muse.
It was also here in the capital city that stuffy political clack-box, Hugh MacDiarmid (clad in kilt), famously rose from his throne to dismiss Burroughs as ‘all heroin and homosexuality’. It’s entirely possible that Burroughs thought this an underhanded compliment on the part of MacDiarmid. In the 1988 biography, Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan described the event as ‘one of those ‘the-lines-are-drawn-and-which-side-are-you-on’ running battles between ancients and moderns.’ There was a sense, even at the time, that Calder had organised this event knowing full well it would end in a face-off. And that’s exactly what happened.
Burroughs, in attendance, represented a new wave of rebellious iconoclasts. People who really didn’t give much of a fuck about Robert Burns or his significance to the Scottish literary canon. This was the ‘modern’. Not everyone liked it. And Trocchi was quick to the podium, Roman beak raised high in the air, nostrils flared with energy – he seemed to stab the air with it when he talked, like a furious pigeon pecking for crumbs of controversy. Trocchi then infamously claimed to his audience that ‘a lot of what is interesting in the last twenty years or so of Scottish writing, I myself have written it all’.
Writer and Neoist pamphleteer, Stewart Home, (a man who describes himself as ‘a proletarian comedian with Tourette's spewing obscenities’), studied the works of Trocchi and Burroughs simultaneously, and noted the out-and-out reluctance of the former to embrace his roots. However, Home also believed that as far as he ran, Alex could never outrace his heritage. It marked him like a tattoo. “Obviously Trocchi was marked by his upbringing in Glasgow and when he was dealing drugs in London those who only knew him as a dealer and had no idea of his cultural cachet called him ‘Scotch Alex’, because Scotland was strongly inflected in his speech, albeit rather strangely in later life. He was a Scot to anyone who vaguely knew him.” Indeed, Trocchi’s relocation from Glasgow to Paris in the early 1950s had a tremendous impact on his receptivity to the individualist lifestyle. He kept company with many existential writers during his tenure at Merlin and he very much embraced the café-society7 championed by Henry Miller, Boris Vian, Vladimir Nabokov, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre . In Gillian Tasker’s 2015 thesis, Cosmonaut of Inner Space: An Existential Enquiry into the Writing of Alexander Trocchi, the argument is put forth that Trocchi’s adherence to existentialism was not ‘an abstract philosophy but a strategic means to achieve existential freedom from authoritarian systems’.
1. Boddy was a brief focus of John Calder’s 2001 memoir. As well as writing heroin prescriptions for Burroughs and Trocchi, Boddy also offered digs to Wole Soyinka. Boddy went on to be an important figure in the realms of public health research and practice in Scotland, establishing the Social Paediatric and Obstetric Research Unit at Glasgow University. He is survived by two daughters, Janet and Kasia.
2. Sonia Orwell was the second and latter wife of writer George Orwell.
3. Jim Haynes was a member of the UK underground who involved with the founding of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, the paper International Times.
4. Barney Rosset was the owner of Grove Press, and editor-in-chief of the magazine Evergreen Review.
5. Trocchi also gained plaudits as one of the first to actively promote the work of Samuel Beckett and publish Eugene Ionesco in English.
6. Lyn Hicks, a 21-year-old American and Trocchi’s second wife.
7. These Left Bank societies were considered to be churches of intellect that attracted writers, artists, and academics to mingle and collaborate.
About the Author:
Chris Kelso is a British Fantasy Award-nominated genre writer, illustrator, and anthologist. His work has been published in - 3AM magazine, Black Static, Locus, Daily Science Fiction, Antipodean-SF, SF Signal, Dark Discoveries, The Scottish Poetry Library, Invert/Extant, The Lovecraft e-zine, Sensitive Skin, Evergreen Review, Verbicide, and many others.
He has been translated into French and is the two-time winner of the Ginger Nuts of Horror Novel of the Year (in 2016 for 'Unger House Radicals’ and 2017 for 'Shrapnel Apartments').
’The Black Dog Eats the City’ made Weird Fiction Reviews Best of 2014 list. ‘Shrapnel Apartments’ was endorsed by Dennis Cooper on his blog – “4 Books I read and Loved”
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