Lord Junk Himself
By Denis Browne.
“To a fellow conspirator” – meeting Alex Trocchi
I doubt that the winter of ’78 was a particularly good time for anyone, apart from the ayatollahs and their heroin-smuggling secular counterparts. It was certainly a shit time for me. In the course of a few months my life had gone into freefall, splitting up with my partner and best drug-buddy, losing my flat and facing the consequences of a raging heroin habit which had been abruptly curtailed by my suppliers’ return to Singapore.
I felt like a beached shipwreck survivor, picking seaweed from my hair as I surveyed the debris of my life. I knew that I needed to clean up, but the heroin ache just wouldn’t let me be. Family and friends oscillated between desires to help me get on my feet again, and an equally strong feeling of needing to keep the addict and his attendant chaos at arm’s length. Thus it was quite a surprise when my Aunt Rita rang me, saying there was someone I might possibly be interested in meeting. She and my Uncle Bill ran a downstairs bar-cum-club in Kensington Church Street, the New Lindsay Club. They’d both been on the stage in the ’30’s and after the war had opened the Lindsay Theatre Club in Notting Hill, which eventually fell prey to developers in the Fifties. By the sound of it, the theatre club had carried considerable repute. The New Lindsay, however was no more than a large cellar, reached by narrow stairs. Then you’d have to make your way through a crowd of serious drinkers arranged around the pool table. Beyond that was the bar, where my Uncle held court in the traditional “Mine Host” position at the end of the bar. His theatrical forte had been dissolute 18th century noblemen, and he still liked to affect a raffish appearance. His white hair oiled back, a white cravat with gold pin at his throat, and a waistcoat — of a similar red hue to his face — festooned with fob chains and a gold watch.
Every night they’d travel in from Streatham by cab, usually bringing some of their dogs and parrots with them, re-create their little bit of pre-war London for the evening, before being swept home long after decent Fifties’ folk were abed. Indeed it had seemed a strange and magical place whenever I went there with my parents, who regarded it as very occasional fun but definitely risque. Bill and Rita maintained their little cocoon of old-school values, drink and cuisine. Their gods were Ellen Terry, Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich and, above all, the Royal Family. To them, the New Lindsay was still the height of sophistication, recalling a world where one went out to dinner, caught a show in the West End, and then impressed one’s friends with a couple of drinks in a little club one just happened to know about. But by ’78 the place was basically an after-hours drinking dive, populated by Earls Court transients and Kensington marginals.
Where Uncle Bill was an easygoing raconteur, Rita was renowned for her sharp tongue and uncompromising views. The club had been a convenient last resort when I was strung out and needed to cash a cheque, so she wasn’t short of an opinion on her dissolute nephew — “I just can’t think of anything more completely and utterly selfish than people taking drugs. And when did you last have a proper meal? Your poor mother…” and so on.
“You aren’t doing anything, are you?” she announced, rather than asked when she rang. “You’re always talking about doing some writing. Well, there’s a new member at the club — very quiet chap, just comes in for a couple of drinks and reads his book quietly, Lord! We could do with a few more like him — anyway, Bill got talking to him and it turns out he’s a writer, so we mentioned our nephew with the English degree…” This all sounded very vague, and didn’t seem to be going anywhere as Rita rambled on. It didn’t sound promising. Maybe the guy had once had an article in Readers Digest. Eventually Rita had to pause for breath, and I tried to sound interested as I enquired, “So, do you know his name?” “Well, it’s a foreign sort of name, dear — Italian, I suppose — he’s called Alex Trocchi,”
It’s hard to describe the impact this had, mainly due to its total incongruity. My most upright uptight relative was going to introduce me to Sigma supremo, the coolest of the Beats, Lord Junk himself, Alex Trocchi of “interzone A”, as I’d first encountered him in the 60’s underground press, hanging out with cool dangerous people like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Michael X. Then, a couple of years later, when my personal habits had started to coincide with Alex’s tastes, I discovered Cain’s Book, mainly because I’d read just about all the William Burroughs books I could get my hands on. As I read the book, alternating lines of coke and smack at the end of each chapter, I had a feeling of homecoming almost. This was much closer to my thinking and junkscene than Burroughs’ Martian insects and cut-ups. The descriptions of shooting up on the scows in NY caught the rhythm and vibe of smack perfectly for me. Thus, it was very tempting to interpret Rita’s call as some kind of divine reassurance that it was OK to do junk and perpetuate my addict/artist fantasies. Not only was this potentially a great literary connection, but hopefully I’d now be rescued from my fallen state of scuffling around for 10 Pound deals of the brown Persian gear which was rising like a narcotic tide that winter. Some of these things did happen, and I was to be thwarted in others.
“Oh, I think I’ve heard of him,” I said, trying to hide my excitement. Deceit is never far away in the addict’s life: in addition to my first rush of enthusiasm, I instantly perceived the grim irony of the relative trying to help me back on to the straight and narrow doing exactly the opposite, and also foresaw a lot of potential danger in a scene where such totally opposite worlds intersected.
“Well, he said he’d drop in tomorrow lunchtime to give Bill one of his books. Why don’t you come along then?”
I made the right noises, while thinking, “Jeez, I hope it’s not Cain’s Book…”
I set off for Kensington the next afternoon, genuinely excited at meeting someone I’d been fascinated by for a while, but also unable to stop myself imagining all kinds of narcotic excitement ahead. When I arrived the Club was quieter than usual. I found my Uncle in his usual place, holding a slim, white-jacketed book, with furrowed brows.
“Modern poetry, eh? Can’t say I understand it. Don’t think I could show it to Rita, though,” he said, passing me the book. I looked at it, Man at Leisure: Poems by Alexander Trocchi — although for me it’ll always be “Man at lee-zhure”, the way Alex said it.
“So is he here then?”, I asked, peering round the dimly-lit and near-deserted club.
My uncle put the book aside with relief, and motioned to the gloomy area at the opposite end of the club to the pool table. I walked past the bar, and then noticed someone sitting alone at the furthest table, reading intently, occasionally reaching for one of the drinks — a pint and a whisky chaser, as always — at his side. Alex looked up. I was immediately struck by the formidable Roman nose and hairstyle (“Like Julius Caesar, man”, he’d tell the barber), the hooded eyes that could spark into life so quickly, and the thin lips where a smile would flicker subversively, somewhere between Marlon Brando and Thomas de Quincey.
I realised my uncle was at my side, making a laboured intro about his nephew who’s interested in writing. Just as he was about to leave us, he turned to Alex, “Thanks, very — er, interesting — but I’m not really one for poetry” as he placed Man at Leisure on the table between us. As we discussed Cain’s Book, Alex realised that my appreciation of his work was more than literary. Soon I was swept away in a series of anecdotes of Sigma, smoking opium with Jean Cocteau in Paris, being on the run from the cops and the Mafia in the States, Michael X, the 60s scene, the proposed Invisible Insurrection. Everything had looked so hopeful, but then, as he put it “Everybody started dying.” This had a very personal significance to Alex and his immediate family, way beyond the lost Jimi and Janis icons, and was my first indication that experience had changed Alex from let’s-all-get-together 60s activism to a much more withdrawn, reflective and personal scene.
“So what are you working on now?” I asked innocently, after returning from the bar with more drinks. Alex shifted, slightly uncomfortably. “Och, various things”, before digressing into tales of rip-off US Mafia publishing pirates, wannabe Dutch film-makers and their inept Young Adam project. It was a tale I would become familiar with as the years went by with no new material.
Just as Alex was no longer the firebrand activist I’d expected, nor was he the voracious smack-fiend I’d been hoping for. He had his own secure personal scene, but kept it very discreet and cautious, for good reason, as I was to find out. He was sympathetic to my riches-to-rags junk story and the hassles of the lower end of the scene, but wary of involvement. Anyway, it turned out that Sunday was always Methadone Day.
“Sorry, I can’t turn you on today, old man. Why don’t you meet me here next week, and you can come back for a hit and I’ll show you some of my stuff.”
Great! I tried to sound cool as we prepared to leave the bar. As we left, Alex casually thrust the slim volume my uncle had rejected into my hand, “Eh, you might as well have this,” he said, casually, “Give me a call next week.”
We emerged on to a bleak and wet Kensington Church St and went in separate directions. As I waited for the bus on the High Street, I opened the book and read the dedication — “To Denis, a fellow-conspirator, from Alexander Trocchi.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 13th, 2006.