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Burroughs and Scotland

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Dethroning the Ancients: the commitment of exile | Chris Kelso | 2020

[posted 07-06-21]

And so, on to Burroughs and Scotland, in which Chris Kelso looks at the relationship between William S Burroughs (WSB) and the titular country, and El Hombre Invisible’s influence on Kelso and earlier generations of Scottish writers.

Before we arrive however, there’s a problem to swerve around. And swerve around it we must, because it’s way too big a problem to ram. It’s a big problem, for sure. An elephantine-sized Elephant in the room problem.

Let me explain.

Last bank holiday weekend, I settled down in the afternoon sunshine of my delightful garden with a cold alcoholic beverage to read Burroughs and Scotland. To be precise – and precision’s my thing, I’m somewhat OCD – I settled down at precisely 14.30. By 15.57, I’d finished. Not finished a chapter or two, but finished the entire book. And that includes a cold alcoholic beverage pit-stop halfway through.

To elaborate: I firstly read Graham Rae’s Intro, then I read author Chris Kelso’s Intro. Then, I read the first three chapters: Rise of the Ancients, The Beast of Birkenshaw, and International Writers Conference.

Fully into Kelso’s groove by this point, I chose the next chapters at random – Ewan Morrison & the Counterculture was the first.

And, in no time at all, there was nothing left to read. Or, to be precise, by 15.57, there was nothing left to read.

And that was a problem. The problem. The book was too short. The book was too short. The book was TOO SHORT.

If somebody had been watching at that moment, they would have observed a humanoid on a garden bench theatrically thumbing through the book, then shaking the book, then putting down the book, then staring at the book for precisely 20 seconds, then picking the book up and then repeating the previous actions. A few times. Cursing may have been heard. Although, if nobody had been watching at that moment, would the cursing humanoid have made a sound?

Later, calmed down, and making the notes that form this fully functional review, I realised that the Elephant in the room wasn’t Burroughs and Scotland. It was me. I was the problem. Like a primary psychopath, I have almost zero impulse control. I’m greedy and impatient. What I should have done was to read a couple of chapters, and then wander the garden, admire my trees, release my attack hounds onto some innocent ramblers (simply because I could) and generally enjoy myself (and the screaming) for an hour or so.

Unfortunately, even were I to possess ironclad impulse control, this would have been very difficult. I fully realise that I’m scraping the bottom of the cliché barrel here, but Burroughs and Scotland was, quite simply, “unputdownable”.

To elaborate: for these new to writings about WSB, Kelso’s book is an exemplar, and, despite (or perhaps because of) its ScotCentric focus, it’s an absolute mini-beast of a feast. For seasoned WSB aficionados, Burroughs and Scotland is a book to be gifted on a special occasion, devoured in one sitting, or in bite-sized chunks, placed on the bookshelf, and revisited as and when. Informative, engaging and intelligent, its small size belies its muscular heft.

In the same semi-scattergun way in which I read the book, here’s a semi-scattergun summary:

WSB’s baleful, mischievous, malevolent, enigmatic and ghostly personality permeates Kelso’s book like psychotic text in a stick of rock. As does Kelso’s (except that, as far as I’m aware, Kelso is not malevolent. Or a ghost), as he exposes something of his own background, as well as a few images of Scotland that won’t appear in the tourist guide.

The International Writers Conference, Edinburgh, 1962. Organised by the single-minded John Calder (with help from Sonia (Brownell) Orwell and Jim Haynes), it exposed WSB to a far wider audience, thereby being instrumental in launching his wider career, whilst simultaneously exposing the old guard – the ancients – for what they were: a bunch of tired old establishment farts.

It’s an intensely absorbing chapter, with some backstory that I was only partly aware of before reading Kelso’s book. The ancients (the old guard Caledonian (mostly, but not all) poets, writers and establishmentese) were, if not immediately dethroned by the moderns, then given an enormous and well deserved kick in the backside. Consider here the ludicrous and utterly repellent homophobe Hugh MacDiarmid, who dismissed WSB as “all heroin and homosexuality”, and claimed that he (MacDiarmid) was “the only fully committed writer present at this conference.”

Counterpoint to MacDiarmid was the flamboyant, flawed genius of Alexander Trocchi. I won’t say more on Trocchi, except to recommend his sublime novel Cain’s Book. I’m not sure of the protocol of recommending one author’s book whilst reviewing the book of another, but there you go.

Kelso’s various interviews with Ewan Morrison, Graham Masterton, Hal Duncan, Graham Rae and Preston Grassman are deceptively well written. No tired, old fashioned and clunky interview structures here. Instead, I felt as if I’d wandered invisibly – like WSB himself – into an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable discussion between old acquaintances.

Other positive points: Burroughs and Scotland is a small press production, but the quality is high: the paper feels and looks good, and the cover (and the cover art) is commendable. The print size is larger than average, which is a good thing, although this may have contributed to me blaming the book for being too short.

So. Burroughs and Scotland is an important book in the wider WSB story. It won’t be intimidated by larger and heavier treatises on the man; it can stand on its own two feet (or however many feet books have), and it can punch well above its inconsequential physical weight.

But control yourself. Read Burroughs and Scotland slowly.

© Dan McNeil 2021