Finbow on Burroughs
Off the plane after a seven-hour flight, through passport control, I’m going to be late. I sprint through customs. I’m booked on a coach from Manchester airport to Liverpool, there will not be another for three hours, and I don’t have enough money to catch a train. My ticket is for the 6:15. Uniform, eyes of a retarded sheep, outstretched arm, raised hand, wrist back, palm facing out. I don’t need this. I really do not need this.
“Woah, son,” he says.
“Where have you come from?”
I want to say my mother’s cottage-cheese womb, the voodoo-enflamed loins of my father, the bulbous testicles of a Venusian sea-dragon. I bite my tongue and taste the stale airline food, luke-warm beer, the acid zest of my impatience.
“New York,” I say.
I am wearing black-and-white Converse high tops, ragged and patched Levis, a faded and barely-holding-itself-together Ramones T-shirt, my hair cropped except for a Tintin-like coif.
“Do I look like I’ve been to New York on fucking business, you cunt?” I think.
“No. Research,” I say.
“Oh, research,” he says, as if it is some rare and exotic animal.
“Yeah,” I say. “Look, my coach is due in 10 minutes.”
“Really? Open it up,” he says, pointing to my bag.
“Bollocks,” I think.
A drab olive holdall, rusted rosettes of old punk badges – Patti Smith, The Overcoat, The Shirts, Subway Sect, the Slits – scab the tatty canvas, making the bag appear scrofulous, diseased. I look at the customs man and he looks back at me. I don’t want to do this. I want to get on the coach, press my head against the cool window, and sleep all the way home. I fumble with the buckles, stabbing my finger in the process. Eventually, I open it, pull the flap over, and expose the contents.
“I’ve been doing research at Columbia University,” I say as an excuse for what he will find on top of my fusty clothes.
“………” he says.
“Yeah, at the Butler Library,” I say.
“……….” he says. He moves his hands within my holdall as if performing a caesarean section.
“You see, these books are part of my research on William Burroughs,” I say, sweat trickling down the sides of my face, dripping off my jaw onto my collarbone where it gathers in small pools.
“……….” he says, extracting something.
“For my PhD,” I say, as I look down at a book he lays out on the table as if it is a brick of Semtex. Titled Junkie, published by the New English Library in 1969, this particular edition’s cover depicts, on a lurid red background, a man’s arm, fingers furled, an oversized hypodermic syringe plunging into the purple tributary of an Amazonian delta of raised veins. I look at the customs man and he looks back at me.
“Er…,” I say. “Er.”
He flicks through the book’s mackerel-hued pages.
“That was the first book Burroughs wrote,” I splutter. “1953,” I say, as if these magical numbers transform the musty, spine-broken paperback into The Book of Kells.
“Written mostly in Mexico City,” I say, perspiration popping on my forehead, “Bit like Raymond Chandler on smack,” I say. “Er, heroin, I mean,” I meant. “Yeah,” I add.
Pushing the book to one side, his hands delve into my bag and it feels like he is investigating my intestines, probing, prodding, squeezing, making my sphincter tighten, relax, tighten, tighten, tighten again.
“Oh,” I say, “That’s a sequel to Junkie written straight after but not published until 1986.”
If he had pulled out a leprous lobster, it would have received more sympathy. He holds the book by the tips of his right thumb and forefinger – Queer is the title.
“He planned to write or did write but it was lost somewhere a third to complete the trilogy, he was going to call it Con, but as I said the manuscript was lost or destroyed or…”
He places it on top of Junkie. His face expressionless; mine, a firework display of fear, guilt, humour, anxiousness, and resignation.
1987 – I was in my second year of a PhD pretentiously titled Phantom Presents, a study of the early novels of William S. Burroughs with special reference to autobiography. Basically, my theory was that Burroughs would not have become a writer if he hadn’t accidentally shot his common-law wife Joan Vollmer through the head. With the publication of Queer in 1986, Burroughs admitted this. But my theory went further: it asserted that Burroughs unconsciously imbedded Joan’s death in the opening chapters of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. Her death was further alluded to in later works: The Wild Boys, Ah Pook Is Here, and the first two books of the “Red Night” trilogy, Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads. The Western Lands, the final volume, would not be published until 1988 and would re-enforce my theory, dealing as it does with Ka, the double, and rebirth.
1987 – I am standing in the customs hall of Manchester airport as a uniformed official, straight out of Kafka, like some mutant Stephane Mallarmé, is rummaging through my beloved and ancient holdall. He pulls out another volume. Please be my Calder edition of Exterminator – plain white cover, two black Xs, one red X, that’s it. No problem… Oh, shit. It’s my 1973 Corgi The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead. OK. Nothing much wrong with the title, but the cover…
This was the first William S. Burroughs’ novel I owned. 1974, and I am sitting in my friend Des’s bedroom. There also – Shakey, Gary, and maybe Peanuts. We are probably waiting to start a game of Dungeons & Dragons, or to drop a pyramid of acid, or for Des to return from the off-licence with bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale and Pilsner Urquell. Most probably, we are waiting for all three things. Anyway, what I am definitely doing is looking through Des’s book collection.
While my friends Shakey, Twig, Ziggy, Jung, and Peter (long story) introduced me to the music of The Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, The New York Dolls, and Jobriath (thanks a lot, Brian), and the books of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Genet (I was a teenage existentialist), it was Des who introduced me to the out-of-Feltham-world of fantasy literature.
I take a swig from a can of Skol Special Strength and take from the shelves books with interesting titles or cool artwork: William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland and Night Land, E.R. Eddisson’s The Worm Ouroborous, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu – before I read this book, I thought it was about a Welsh shepherd and his dog. Des collected fantasy books. Des did not collect science-fiction books. For Des, there was a very strong demarcation between the genres. In later years, we would argue about the classification, it would go something like this:
Hatton Cross – southwest London, The Green Man public house, saloon
bar, table at back of pub, three figures sit at the table, each has the dregs of a pint of Holsten lager, empty packets of beef crisps cover the table. Shakey – 18, long curly blond hair, white shirt, dark blue cords, black brogues, cigarette held effeminately in right hand, legs crossed, sits turned toward the door, he is reading a book by Krishnamurti and is, apparently, ignoring the other two people at the table. Des – 18, long greasy brown hair, blue Harrington, blue jeans, grimy white plimsolls, and Steve – 16, long blond fringe, dark blue velvet jacket, off-yellow chamois-leather shirt, jeans, Converse. The two face each other like young rams about to mount their first butting contest, they are deep in conversation.
Steve: How can you say Moorcock’s Eldric the Conqueror isn’t sci-fi?
Des: It has all the characteristics of classic fantasy.
Steve: Which are the same as sci-fi.
Des: Would you say Vathek is sci-fi?
Steve: Why not? It uses space as a setting.
Des: Another pint?
Steve: Yeah, please. Could you get me a slice of gala pie as well?
Des: Got any money?
Shakey: (raises eyebrow) Yeah, right.
I never had any money. Nor did I ever win the argument. But that pie tasted good.
I am sitting on Des’s dirty, torn carpet looking at book covers, especially the ones with tanned women wearing metal bikinis or white chiffon robes, and I come across a book I’d never seen before in Des’s collection. My first thought is, “Oh, my God! We were right all along – Des IS a bender.” Let me explain something here. The four or five of us present that day were in a gang – The Dudes – named after the David Bowie-penned, Mott the Hoople-performed All the Young Dudes. Most of us had gang names taken from characters in Bowie songs: Dave was Ziggy (Ziggy Stardust), Brian was Twig (Drive-In Saturday), Stephen was Shakey (Watch That Man), Duncan was Jung (Drive-In Saturday), Peter was Boogie (….) hence he kept the name Peter, there was also Peanuts – a very strange Indian guy who had a pet clay head called Heady, and Des who was known as the Preacher. Gary and I, coming late to the group, didn’t have gang names. The aesthetics of the group, based on glam and pre-punk rock, led to us being called queers, benders, poofs, shirtlifters, etc. and the clothes we wore – satin shirts, velvet trousers, platform shoes, earrings, and make up when attending local discos – certainly didn’t help other people – including our relatives – correctly gauge our sexual preferences. Nor did the fact that we all danced – to Bowie, Bolan, Cockney Rebel, and that we took drugs – marijuana, LSD, speed, the occasional Valium, and that we read books – Oscar Wilde, Herman Hesse, and Jean Genet. Some of the gang – Ziggy, Jung, Peter, and, surprisingly, Shakey – were also extremely violent. We needed to be. Most nights, we had to fight our way out of a disco, a party, a pub, or just fight our way home. And because of our difference – or they wanted to borrow our black nail polish – we were very popular with the girls. Sometimes, I’d get a female hand-me-down from one of the older gang members. One of these second-hand girls went on to become a celebrity chef – I wouldn’t eat anything she cooked if I were you, I know where her hands have been. We indulged in the odd teenage same-sex fumblings when drunk or stoned but nothing serious. Des was another matter, though. While we all had a number of girlfriends over the three or four years the gang lasted, the thing was, the thing still probably is, Des never had a girlfriend. Ever. Ziggy had his Iris. Shaky had his Carol. Twig had his Lesley. Gary and I had several different and very similar (some say the same) girlfriends. Caroline Carney, Angela Somethingorother, and Lorelei Brewerton shared their favours around the gang or were up for a gang-share, if you know what I mean. But Des…
Things Des liked: William Hope Hodgson, H.P.Lovecraft, Dungeons & Dragons, beer, Spooky Tooth, The Soft Machine (I was unaware of the Burroughs connection), The Doors, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and spreading newspaper around his bed before he went out drinking for the evening so that, after he had spewed up everywhere during the night – “the inevitability” – he could just pick up the puke-splattered Daily Mirrors and throw them away.
Things Des didn’t like: Samuel Beckett, science fiction, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and girls. He was never comfortable in their company. Des’s bedroom was no place for girls. The majority of the gang spent a lot of time in Des’s bedroom – listening to music, reading aloud from our dreadful writings, playing guitars, drinking beer and Thunderbird wine, and taking drugs – and that meant we had to explain to our girlfriends why they couldn’t come with. We couldn’t say Des didn’t like girls. That Des got all weird when we mentioned our girlfriends. That Des called his younger sister a whore and a slag – she was. That Des would leave the room if any of us talked about sex. And what did all of us Bowie-listening, Oscar Wilde-reading, feather-boa-wearing Dudes conclude from Des’s behaviour? Why, of course, he was a fudge-packer. Trouble is, we didn’t have the proof. Well, not until now, that is.
I look around the room to see if anyone has noticed my reaction to the book cover. Gary, Shakey, and Peanuts (if he was there) are talking about Buddhism. Des is yet to return with the beer. This is what I see:
The Wild Boys
A Book of the Dead
William S. Burroughs
That’s not all. The top of the cover shows a man’s arse. He wears rainbow-coloured underpants. His legs are open. His thighs form an inverted V. The backs of his legs drip with blood and what looks like semen. Framed by these legs, a poster of a laughing man – Big Brother? – and in front of the poster, a supine man/woman/android flails about in flames, leaning against the wall two youths nonchalantly watch the burning body. Violence, distopic satire, allusions to George Orwell’s 1984 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – ladies (if you must) and gentleman, I give you William Seward Burroughs.
The customs man looks at the book cover and looks at me. I look at the customs man and smile. The customs man doesn’t smile and looks away and opens the book. When I’m bored and when I’ve drunk enough that my ego, swollen most of the time to the size of a ghostly grizzly bear, breaks free and floats around the room zeppelin-like, I play a game with my friend Mike. He sits by my Burroughs collection, opens a book at random, reads a sentence or two. 98% of the time, I know from which book the passage is taken. I can tell, within five pages or so, whereabouts the sentences are located in any given book. I look at the customs man and I know he is reading “The Penny Arcade Peep Show” section with its six-foot phallus, pearly lubricant, and pink rectal flesh. He flips forward and back. A look of distaste flashes on his face and I’m sure he blushes. But then, I’m bright red, sweating, licking my dry lips.
I take a long swig of Newcastle Brown Ale as I flip through the pages. Des, Gary, and Shakey are arguing about Krishnamurti.
Des: But who is he? What is it he’s saying?
Gary: Yeah. I mean, I’ve read it and stuff but I don’t get it as much as you do.
Shakey: Read it again. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read.
Des: What? Rubbish? How can you say that?
Gary: No, I can see that. I’ll read it again.
Des: Sum up in one word what Krishnamurti is?
Shakey: He’s just a liver.
Embarrassed by the nascent erection forming, I decide not to go to the toilet in case the boys see the bulge in my jeans. I read on. I have never read anything like this before. It’s certainly different to The Return of the Native I am currently reading at school. How do words make me react physically? I mean, it’s not exactly Lesley Charlton giving me a handjob at the train station after school or Kathy Thompson blowing me at home in our lunch hour. Of course, I’d read Genet before but the prose didn’t have the same effect. Was it Burroughs’ use of language? Was I gay? I was 13 years old. I didn’t know. I first had sex at the age of twelve with a girl a year younger and now I was getting it regular. Boys never crossed my mind. A year later, when working in a butcher’s shop, one of the butchers – a man in his late fifties – started to stroke my cock while I was washing knives. For a while I let him, absorbed by the look on his face – slightly skewed, constipative, with a confused grin/grimace – then I slapped his hand away and told him to fuck off and pulled the biggest knife from the bleach-smelling water and dried it slowly and stabbed it into the wet wooden block on the draining board. He never touched me again. I read on, mesmerised by the violence, by the sex, but most of all by the language. I am hooked.
I am not happy. The customs man looks at his watch. I look at mine. It’s 6:20am. I have missed my coach. The customs man picks up the three books, places them back in the holdall, zips up.
“Thanks,” he says.
“What?” I say.
“Thanks. You can go.”
I grab my bag and run. I dodge people dawdling in the arrivals lounge, skip past cleaners, all the time looking up for directions to the coach stop. I dash the way the arrow points. There’s a coach, a cardboard sign for Liverpool in the back window. I slow. It starts to pull away. I gather speed. No way am I shouting. It gathers speed. My acceleration doesn’t match and the coach pulls out into the sparse traffic of a Manchester morning. I stop, hands on knees, panting. “Fucking asthma,” I think. “Fucking customs tosser,” I think. I want to go back and crack his head open with the metal cobra he failed to find concealed at the bottom of my drab olive holdall.
Twenty years later, I sit in a folding chair on the balcony of my girlfriend’s flat in Chitose, Hokkaido, Japan. It is 8:30am. I have had five hours’ sleep. I have an ear infection. My girlfriend is asleep on the futon, the thin duvet cover pushed aside because of the heat and I can see her silhouette through the wire mesh of the sliding door, her body amphora-shaped in the half light. I am reading The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945 to 1959. I lift a cup of tea to my lips to sip and it’s too hot and I involuntarily jerk forward and spill the tea on my naked thigh and jump up and step on a wooden platform that lifts up and falls down again on my foot and I hop onto one foot and my foot scrapes along a nail and blood spurts out in rhythmic arcs and sprays the page I have open. “Fuck!” I say. I wipe my foot with kitchen paper, not too bad, just a puncture, think about tetanus for a second, and pick up my book. The blood dapples page 265 – it’s Feb 12, 1955, Tangier, and Burroughs writes to Jack Kerouac,
I am now settled in my own house in the Native Quarter which is so
close to Paul Bowles’ house I could lean out the window and spit on
his roof if I was a long range spitter and I wanted to spit there. Bowles
is in Ceylon. A friend of mine rents the house and I get access to Bowles’
I am not going to research this but I seem to remember Burroughs spilling blood over one of Paul Bowles’ signed Tennessee Williams plays and this makes my memory perform a causal peristalsis. Since that time in Des’s bedroom, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg have invaded my life and writing. I ended up working for Allen Ginsberg in NYC from 1989-1990. I have a photo taken, annotated, and signed by Allen of me in the Ginsberg office – I look crazed, hung over, and blond. Another of my prize possessions is a copy of Dear Allen: Letters to Allen Ginsberg by William S. Burroughs 1953-57, Full Court Press, New York City, 1982, signed by both Bill and Allen with the addition of a muzzle-fire graze on the front cover – Bill shot it for me. L’Hombre Invisible? L’Hombre Invisible, my ass.
to be continued….