Burroughs & Scotland
“We are walking down a street of worn blue cobblestones rather like the outskirts of Edinburgh when a little boy falls in beside us.” - From Cities of the Red Night
Something was in the air that day, something dangerous and potent. Gangs of Broken Boys were roaming the streets of Tollcross, Leith, Pilton and Broomhouse. The South Side and Gillie teams from Gilmerton had heard about privileged cunts gathering around McEwan Hall. Meanwhile, the Leith Team and the Tollcross Rebels - the two biggest mobs (resplendent in bowler hats, ankle-length coats and, rolled-up brollies) - were already battling all the way up Leith Walk right into Waverley Station. Scores of bloodied men could be seen running along Gorgie Road and down the steps of Haymarket. The mobs convened though and charged down Princes Street looking for innocent skulls to smash. Edinburgh was in a vice-grip of utter chaos. These gangs were the physical manifestation of the culture war simmering within the University halls. They represented the action painting that would dismantle the rigid structure of reality as we knew it.
The 2300-capacity McEwan Hall was brimming with university students desperate to see the exotic Americans ruffle a few feathers. And it was on day four of the conference, Censorship, that Burroughs really stole the show.
And it was here, at the 1962 Writer’s Conference in Edinburgh, where Hugh MacDiarmid would condemn both Alex Trocchi and William S. Burroughs as ‘vermin who should never have been invited’. The conference atmosphere had become tense and MacDiarmid had no hang-ups about coming across as unwelcoming.
Still, Burroughs sensed the significance of the event and the value of his presence, expressing to fellow Succès de scandale, Mary McCarthy, that he “could not but feel that it would indeed be the last Writers’ Conference.” In a sense it has never been replicated. McCarthy described the conference in a letter to Hannah Arendt, recalling "people jumping up to confess they were homosexuals or heterosexuals … an Englishwoman describing her communications with her dead daughter, a Dutch homosexual, former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptise him."
And it was McCarthy who would coin the phrase, ‘stateless novel’ – which she described as an ‘action painting’ that would signal the end of the national novel. Trocchi was after a similar product, something that transcended nationalistic borders and which was written with the hard-edge intensity of the commitment of exile. The stateless novel is littered with broken territories located in an alternative world, somewhere where the exiles can prosper – or at least indulge in their individualist lifestyles and practices unjudged, in peace. Dr Eva Kowalska, teacher of English and Critical Thinking at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, explored the idea of these ‘counter-sites’; interstices between society where Burroughs and other transgressive writers of the time would populate with their fictional denizen. Kowalska consults Michel Foucault’s formative 1984 essay, Of Other Spaces in her argument. Foucault ponders the notion of temporary social and geographical spaces on the outer rims of mainstream society. Kowalska sees these ‘counter-sites’ as versions, however imperfect, of a utopian ideal in which heterogeneity is valued. “They are by nature non-hegemonic, and in the modern context are often the spaces of subculture or deviance; in literature, they are often the setting if not the subject of transgressive fiction. In the work of the Beat Generation writers, scenes such as nocturnal Times Square, the transient lives of migrant worker communities, port and border cities, or downtown rooming houses, can be understood as heterotopias in terms of their liminality, their difference from conformist society, and the sometimes idealised potential for freedom, expression, and experience they are portrayed as holding.”
These heterotopias are ‘outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality’. This may have been a way for Alexander Trocchi to write about Scotland, outside of Scotland. A Scotland of his own making. Indeed, further down the line the modern would truly embrace this idea of statelessness – even writers who were famously patriotic would use this idea of multiple temporalities in a single space.
Burroughs & Scotland is the forthcoming book (2021) from Beatdom Books by Chris Kelso.
Chris Kelso is a multi-translated British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, editor, and illustrator from Scotland. His work has appeared in Evergreen Review, The Scottish Poetry Library, Sensitive Skin, Locus, Dennis Cooper's blog, Black Static, 3AM, and many more.