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Burroughs and Scotland

By Matt Neil Hill.

 

Chris Kelso, Burroughs and Scotland: Dethroning the Ancients/The Commitment of Exile (Beatdom Books, 2021)

Fiction’s loss is non-fiction’s gain: if Chris Kelso’s expressed goal to never write another novel comes to pass then the literary landscape will be significantly duller, but this offering from Beatdom Books is a painstakingly researched account of William S. Burroughs’ time in Scotland and bodes well for his future endeavours. Wrapped in a suitably trippy cover by Matthew Revert and illustrated throughout by previous collaborator Shane Swank, this is a beautifully produced volume.

Graham Rae’s hilarious, no-holds-barred introduction is the perfect ice-breaker here, an irreverent dig at the Scottish literary old guard shitting themselves at Uncle Bill’s arrival on their shores. It’s a decoy though, a pressure drop before the serious business of Chris Kelso’s very personal introduction. He wasn’t even in double digits when Burroughs died, and there’s a sense in these pages of unrequited connection to a man he would so dearly have loved to meet. Burroughs’ ghost walks through a lot of his fiction, and there’s something electric (and, due to a relatively short page count, occasionally dizzying) about the way he documents the man’s real life exploits. His opening section is a bleak memoir of the banal horrors and easy degradations available living in Kilmarnock, and ties in perfectly with Burroughs’ tales of Broken Boys and Transgressive Men—

A group of horny teenagers complain about being bored. Little do they know this is all the work of the malevolent cosmic deities floating above the town, like a vicious wee cunt with a magnifying glass poised over an ant colony—just waiting for the sun to come out.

—and the toxic masculinity and homophobia so many of them inherit. In the staid world of Scotland’s literary conservatism, Burroughs’ would be an explosion.

Kelso documents a precursor of sorts to Burroughs’ transatlantic shit-stirring in the serial killer and rapist Peter Thomas Anthony Manuel. I think the inclusion here of these grim and apparently unrelated facts is not entirely normal in a biography, but feels like an important hangover from Kelso’s fiction. He’s always been good at making unusual connections, and his idea that Manuel was a demon seed from across the water whose planting on Scottish soil was the beginning of mutations in the country’s collective psyche preparing its population for further subversions is an interesting one.

One of the longer sections of the book focuses on the Edinburgh International Writers Conference of 1962. Organised by revered publisher John Calder, the roster of appearing writers was mouth-watering and its impact profound. The greatest focus is on the grudgingly Scottish writer and “complex and manipulative disintegratory nihilist” Alexander Trocchi, whose doctor and flatmate supplied him and Burroughs with uncut heroin. While the two were vastly different in their personalities and relationship with drugs they were connected by their fierce writing, even if their lifestyles prevented any workable collaboration. The push towards Foucault’s concept of heterotopias in both their real lives and fiction suffused a push towards Mary McCarthy’s concept of the “stateless novel.”

The chief antagonist of the conference was Hugh MacDiarmid, who branded Trocchi and Burroughs as “vermin who should never have been invited.” And not just them: the presence of open homosexuals and/or proponents of zero censorship (Burroughs neatly fulfilling both roles) was an unsettling experience for the more old school among the organisers, even if the audience were lapping up the concepts being espoused, Burroughs’ agenda being the absence of all political and cultural control. The gang riots that apparently raged in Edinburgh at the same time add a violently chaotic backdrop to the event worthy of Burroughs himself. That he had contact with property consultant to the stars Perry Press with a view to sourcing him a suitably “remote property in Scotland to carry out my experiments” is a delicious scrap of information that whets the appetite for greater detail.

Kelso doesn’t stint when it comes to mentioning Burroughs’ connections with publishers and his appearance in their publications, and it’s a part of literary history it’s not hard to be in jealous awe of if you didn’t live through it—including the Jabberwock edition of the Edinburgh University Review and small press magazines like Sidewalk and Cleft. Not to mention the eyebrow-raising revelation that the great man had a regular column in gentlemen’s rhythm periodical Mayfair—as Graham Masterton, friend and deputy editor at the time says: “I knew that many… readers would find it hard going, but it was quite a prestigious name to have in the magazine.” No kidding. His Beat contemporaries and other influences are equally well served, including writer and artist Helen Adams, an expat Scot living in America, whose collages inspired the creation of Gysin and Burroughs’ almost endlessly recyclable word horde.

On Burroughs’ involvement with Scientology in Scotland, Kelso writes “[he] was a religious experimentalist, forever perusing the spiritual marketplace for the latest sacred fix… something that would finally rid him of the black mark inside, the lingering guilt he felt on a daily basis and which manifested in dreams of supernatural malignance.” It makes sense that a man who had apparently fallen out of love with psychiatry would investigate the possibilities of a movement with anti-psychiatry as a conspicuous (and gallopingly unsurprising) facet of its existence. That he conducted his experiment with financial and presumably psychic cost only to be branded as a treasonous suppressive when he found the organisation wanting also feels typical of the man, not least because he found material for his book of essays Ali’s Smile, which I now feel duty bound to seek out.

Two later sections of the book are based on dialogues with Kelso’s own contemporaries, with occasional creative non-fiction flourishes. As a fellow Gen-Xer, the thoughts of Ewan Morrison made a lot of sense of my own discovery of and love for “grumpy scary old Uncle Bill” and his adoption by the nihilistic ‘90s counterculture—“We thought he was subversive and we thought being subversive was something to aspire to even though most of us weren’t sure exactly what we were subverting.” Morrison reflects on his own and Burroughs’ writing as attempts to somehow escape rational western culture through transgression, as well as the importance of experimenting with form in order to express unconscious knowledge.

In conversation with Hal Duncan, Graham Rae, Preston Grassmann and Ken MacLeod at Glasgow’s Interzone pub (surly, Albion Rovers-supporting Mugwump handler looming at the bar) Kelso discusses the influence of Burroughs on Scottish (as well as English and American) science-fiction writers in both style and content. Burroughs’ sexuality is also talked about in revelatory terms by Duncan—as a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s raised on effete TV stereotypes and high camp pop, when he discovered Burroughs at the start of the ‘90s it was a revelation: “Burroughs was my kind of queer, writing our sexuality as more ‘manly’ than yer straight male could come close to—more aggressive, more in-yer-face, more take-no-prisoners.” That he initially thought Burroughs’ incendiary work contemporary three decades on is suggested as equally possible today, especially in the current socio-political trend towards staunch authoritarians clamouring for civility while they dip your pockets and grind their boot against your throat.

Graham Rae links Burroughs with J.G. Ballard, himself an enormous fan, highlighting the similarities in both their personal lives and pilgrimage towards healing their traumas through pushing the boundaries of fiction, one a kind of mad shaman and the other a glacial surgeon, each practicing their weird medicine at the edge of literary experience. Rae also pulls no punches about Burroughs’ failings, which is refreshing. There’s so much more to this section of the book, and I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall at this meeting of minds.

The book is rounded out with the inclusion of one of Kelso’s early short fiction pieces, in which Burroughs spends time being compelled by Death to wedge himself deep into a turd-filled toilet bowl serving as a portal to Interzone, which manages to be fun and faecal in equal measures. There’s also an afterword by Steve Finbow which somehow both neatly summarises the book and throws up more questions and associations—Burroughs as the literary equivalent of the mythical Sex Pistols gig that everyone somehow managed to attend, his writing as a kind of guerrilla warfare against the State, the subversion of language through cut-up and fold-in, and Burroughs’ apparently genuine desire to leave the planet with a one-way ticket.

In barely a hundred pages, Chris Kelso pulls off an almost migraine-inducingly condensed history of his literary hero’s Scottish visits and lasting impact on its psychic landscape. It does what all good non-fiction does, in that it creates the desire to read or reread the original source material as well as reappraise one’s own thoughts and feelings about the subject. For a first time non-fiction author (at this length anyway) I’d say that’s a job very well done.

Now… when’s the financially unviable cut-up version coming out?

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Neil Hill lives in London, where he was a psych nurse for many years. His weird/crime/horror fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications including Vastarien, Weirdbook, Syntax & Salt, Splonk and Shotgun Honey, with non-fiction at 3:AM Magazine and Invert/Extant. He is working, glacially, on at least one novel. @mattneilhill

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 31st, 2021.