Burroughs and Scotland

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

A recent post mentioned the Edinburgh Beat scene. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, William Burroughs appeared in several Scottish literary magazines and made a memorable appearance at the International Writers Conference in Edinburgh. I have often wondered why Scotland was a hotbed for Burroughs and why he appeared in Scottish literary magazines so early in his publishing history.

In 1959, Burroughs contributed “And Start West” to Jabberwock magazine. Jabberwock was printed in Edinburgh. This section opens Naked Lunch beginning “I can feel the heat closing in” and ending “So we stock up on H, buy a second hand Studebaker and start west.” The Restored Naked Lunch returns the title (“And Start West”) to the opening section. In previous versions like the Olympia Press or Grove editions, there was no opening heading. I assume that the piece in Jabberwock is the first section of Naked Lunch. I have never seen a copy of Jabberwock and I know next to nothing about it. Early in the 20th Century, Jabberwock was the name of a London-based monthly magazine for children. Possibly, the editors of the new venture were aware of this and meant their magazine to be a literary magazine for young hipsters. I dimly recall Jabberwock being a spin off of a University publication that ran afoul with the board of directors à la Big Table, but I could be confusing this with another Scottish magazine mentioned later: Cleft. Anybody with more information on Jabberwock, please pass it along. It was not the only literary magazine in Edinburgh publishing the Beats.

In 1960, Alex Neish published William Burroughs in Sidewalk Issue 2. Burroughs contributed “Have You Seen Slotless City?” from the still in progress Soft Machine. Jennie Skerl has this to say about the image of Slotless City: “Slotless City is a futuristic fantasy of violence and chaos produced by sexual conflict. Through insoluble conflict the Nova Mob seeks to destroy the earth, and the Slotless City fantasy envisions sexual conflict as the cause of a future apocalypse. This narrative portrays science-fiction methods of reproduction in a society in which men and women are at war, leading to the creation of fantastic new life forms fighting with each other for existence, and ending with the destruction of all life on earth. The final apocalypse is conveyed in ambiguous cutup imagery. It is unclear whether the destruction is positive or negative, a victory for the Mob or for the Police, for the disintegration of present reality structures is a form of liberation from control.”

The editorial comment to Sidewalk sheds some light on why Burroughs was included in the magazine. In 1960, Scottish postal authorities seized a copy of Francis Pollini’s Night published by Olympia Press. The book was burned and poet Hugh MacDiarmid was questioned (the book was sent to him in the mail) by police. As a result, obscenity and censorship were hot topics in literary Scotland. Burroughs recently published by Olympia Press was a poster child for censorship issues as proven by the problems concerning Big Table and postal authorities in Chicago.

In addition in April 1960, Burroughs moved briefly to London. Having just escaped a jail sentence in France concerning a drug bust and fearing deportation, Burroughs needed to get away from the Beat Hotel. He lived at the Empress Hotel in London working quietly on Soft Machine. Dr. Dent’s apomorphine cure was nearby and so was Ian Sommerville who Burroughs met in the summer of 1959. It was at the Empress Hotel that Mikey Portman knocked on Burroughs’ door. Earlier in 1958, Burroughs visited Oxford to see Michael Horovitz and David Sladen as suggested by Allen Ginsberg. As a result, two sections of Naked Lunch appeared in the first issue of New Departures magazine in 1959. A similar situation occurred in 1960. The appearance in Sidewalk can be explained by Burroughs’ presence in Great Britain coupled with the censorship issues. Yet larger forces were also at play.

Sidewalk created quite a stir and was part of a larger cultural phenomenon happening in Scotland. In the early 1960s, Scottish culture was incredibly provincial as was Scottish literature. Poets and writers often wrote in Scottish dialect and dealt in age-old Scottish themes handed down from Robert Burns. Social class and authority were respected and protected. Scottish poet Edwin Morgan appeared in Sidewalk 2. Morgan was one of the major forces in Scottish poetry and literary innovation. In a talk on the Scottish Left, he describes the swirl of activity happening in Scotland at the time of Burroughs’ arrival in London and thereafter. Morgan states: “In the Sixties, there was an atmosphere, an excitement, a sense of liberation, of potentialities, of boundaries being crossed, which came from a great variety of things outside Scotland — the music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, a new explosion of poetry and prose in America with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, a new generation of poets in Russia with Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, the beginnings of space exploration, the international growth off the idea of a counter-culture. All this was reflected in Scotland, to the surprise of not a few observers.”

When Sidewalk appeared in Edinburgh, there were complaints about its American title, to say nothing of its contents. A newspaper headline read “EDINBURGH SURRENDERS TO THE BEATS!” Sidewalk 2 also published Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder. Burroughs and the Beats were the first shots across the bow in a culture war that would be waged in the Scottish literary scene and in Scottish society at large in the 1960s. The literary and cultural change in Scotland reflected changes occurring across Europe and the United States. To Scottish artists in search of new freedoms and art, the Beats spoke in a frank, hip language that opened up new experience and a whole international scene.

Given the literary climate in Scotland and Great Britain in general, a need arose for a daring publisher. Great Britain possessed its own anti-censorship, pro-avant-garde publisher along the lines of Barney Rosset and Maurice Girodias. John Calder sought to expand the freedom of the press through the same plan of action used in France and the United States. Calder took literary works of high quality that deal with taboo or daring topics in a frank, explicit manner, like The Ginger Man, Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Naked Lunch fell into that group. Calder was Scottish. Perhaps this explains the presence of Burroughs in Scottish literary magazines at the dawn of the 1960s. It definitely explains Burroughs’ appearance at the International Writers Conference in 1962.

The cultural battle in Scotland as well as the fight to get Naked Lunch in print in Great Britain and the United States played out at the 1962 International Writers Conference held in Edinburgh. The Conference was a major reason for the interest in Burroughs in Great Britain in the early 1960s and would have repercussions throughout the West. Calder sponsored the conference as a means to champion innovative writing as well as to launch a pre-emptive strike against censorship of works like Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer. In line with that goal, the American delegation consisted of Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and William Burroughs. For most participants on the panels and in the audience, Burroughs was an unknown commodity. None had heard of Junkie. Few may have heard of Naked Lunch and most were unaware of Burroughs’ new direction, the cut-up, represented by The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Minutes to Go, and The Exterminator.

The Conference became a media hit. Ted Morgan writes, “[I]t turned into one of those ‘the-lines-are-drawn-and-which-side-are-you-on’ running battles between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns,’ with various side shows concerning regional and national issues. Calder was gratified to see a paying audience of about 2,500 attending the sessions…” Panels discussed the future of the novel, the contemporary novel form, Scottish writers, the Writer and Commitment, and censorship. Alexander Trocchi, a symbol of new Scotland, debated with Scottish poet Hugh MacDaimad, representative of Scottish tradition. MacDaimand wore a kilt; Trocchi sported track marks. The cut-up and the form of Burroughs’ novels were discussed. Burroughs gave a speech on censorship. Mary McCarthy linked him with Vladimir Nabokov as one of the two most interesting and innovative writers in the contemporary scene. Through it all, Burroughs emerged an international figure.

Literary magazines captured it all. While not based in Scotland, the Transatlantic Review published Burroughs’ pieces from Edinburgh. The support of Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer would appear forever after on blurbs for Burroughs’ novels. More importantly, the quotes supported Rosset’s and Calder’s anti-censorship crusades and served as ammunition for obscenity trials. Mailer testified on behalf of Naked Lunch at the 1965 trial.

In 1924, Transatlantic Review ran for 12 issues. Like transition, the magazine was an English language review based in Paris. Ford Madox Ford, author of The Good Soldier, edited the magazine. It captured the writing and excitement of the Jazz Age in Europe. Most famously, the Review published early pieces by a reporter named Ernest Hemingway. In 1959, the name was revived for a new magazine this time based out of New York and London. This project ran for an impressive 60 issues until June 1977. Burroughs appeared in several issues throughout the 1960s and 1970s alongside mainstream heavyweights like John Updike. From 1962-1964, Burroughs appeared in three issues of Transatlantic Review. Issue 11 printed Burroughs’ contributions to the Writers Conference. “Censorship” was subdivided into four pieces: “Censorship” and “The Future of the Novel” (read at Edinburgh) as well as “Notes on these Pages” and “Nova Police Besieged McEwan Hall.”

Scotland also possessed a burgeoning tradition in drug literature thanks to the life and work of the previously mentioned Alexander Trocchi. Born in Glasgow, Trocchi went to Paris in the early 1950s and started the literary magazine Merlin which helped bring Samuel Beckett to worldwide acclaim. Trocchi also hooked up with Olympia Press writing pornographic novels as well as working on his drug masterpiece: Cain’s Book. Trocchi, like Burroughs, was a heroin addict and his novel, like Junkie, provided an unsparing and even glorified account of heroin. Burroughs considered the novel a rival to Naked Lunch and a classic of drug literature. Thirty years later, Irvine Welsh created another international sensation building on the Scottish tradition of drug literature begun by Cain’s Book. Trainspotting and Welsh’s other works owe a direct debt to Trocchi and even Burroughs. Through example, Trocchi lead a fight against Scottish tradition and became a figurehead of the international avant-garde. Trocchi showed Scotland that great and meaningful literature could step outside national borders and literary boundaries.

In the mid-1960s, Burroughs continued to be featured in the Scottish literary scene. In 1963-1964 in Cleft 1 and 2, Burroughs appeared alongside Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and Hugh MacDiarmid showing the influence of the Writers Conference two years before. Editor Bill McCarthur started Cleft after University opposition to what had been published in Gambit. Gambit published “The Mayan Caper” in Spring 1963. The theme of radical youth self-publishing morally and technically challenging literature continued in Edinburgh. The story of Big Table, New Departures, and Cleft highlight the slow rise of the youth culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s that would reach full bloom with the flower children, the Summer of Love and Woodstock Nation. Even in the silent decade, radical students existed or were being awakened. These battles against censorship and the fight for freedom of speech/press foreshadowed student movements like the Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and student protest and University occupations throughout the West.

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan appeared in Cleft 2 which points to another overlapping theme in Burroughs’ Scottish magazine appearances: the international avant-garde, the cut-up and Burroughs the poet. With the cut-up, Burroughs found himself smack in the middle of a newly forming literary and artistic avant-garde. Burroughs’s appearance in Cleft alongside Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan shows Burroughs treading the same terrain as the concrete poets. Finlay and Morgan remain Scotland’s most famous concrete poets. The term was coined in the 1950s and by 1956 an international conference on the subject was held. Concrete poetry is a school of poetry that often focuses on the visual aspect of writing; the visual shape of letters and their placement on the page rather than the content or meaning of language is stressed. Concrete poets also experiment with the sound of words rather than their meaning. Burroughs’ work in this direction in the early 1960s is another reason he appeared in Cleft. Scotland with poets like Finlay and Morgan was a major player in the international concrete poetry scene. Burroughs contributed “Martin’s Folly” to Cleft 1 and “A Distant Hand Lifted” to Cleft 2.

A close look at Burroughs’ literary appearances in Scotland tells much about the cultural ferment in Scotland and the West at large. A Burroughs contribution to a magazine symbolized a blow against censorship, announced participation in the literary avant-garde, sparked media circuses, provided insight into the drug underworld, and ushered in countercultural change. Burroughs in Scotland highlights his importance in the major events and themes of the 1960s throughout the Western world.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 21 June 2006.

7 thoughts on “Burroughs and Scotland

  1. Jabberwock was the name of the literary review at the University of Edinburgh. The situation in Scotland/England mirrors that of the United States. University reviews or little mags created by students published Burroughs first and were instrumental in getting Naked Lunch into book form and into the hands of readers. Young readers especially, as Naked Lunch would be a bible for the youth culture of the 1960’s.

  2. Scotland had the world’s first literate society – the church taught the populace to read so they could read the Bible. The country has always had a respect for the written word – witness the celebrations this year for the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth. Scotland also has a strong oral tradition stemming from fire-and-brimstone preaching, and, once again, this reinforces the value of words to the populace even to this day.

  3. Also remember Hugh MacDiarmid calling Trocchi “cosmopolitan scum” at the Writer’s Conference – nothing like using the word ‘cosmopolitan’ as an insult to prove your parochialism! Trocchi came away with the best fest quote (dunno if it was in reply): “I am only interested in lesbianism and sodomy.” Stuff like this must have turned the hair on MacDiarmid’s sporran white!

  4. A late response to this article inspired by my forum post.
    After digesting much in meetings and readings it appears that Jim Haynes had a bookshop in the University area of Edinburgh which focussed on a lot of the censored literature of the counterculture paradigm shift, let’s say. Opened in 1959 with help from Richard Demarco and others, they were in the centre of a divided city and culture with The Fringe and Festival visitations from Horovitz and Yevtushenko and the like catalysing a growing hunger. Robin Williamson in his CD Mirrorman’s Sequences portrays in poetry and song disguised tales of the early 60s beat movement in Edinburgh.
    Finally, Burroughs was in Edinburgh at some point visiting the Scientology Centre. Maybe that was late 60s during his London time.

  5. I truly hope someone is talking to and recording both John Calder (Paris/London/Edinburgh) and Jim Haynes (Paris) while they are still with us – also asking Richard Demarco about his archive, and tracking down master of Whimsy Alan Jackson. These people rescued Edinburgh from dire bourgeois sclerosis – their legacy has been forgotten here, and the city sinks in a mire of commodified opportunism and crass commercial tackiness. Jabberwock was a great little mag – I still have its copper print block of MacDiarmad used in a 1958 imprint.

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