Tuesday, 23 September 2014

William Burroughs in London

Preparing for Friday's walk I'm reading chunks of Barry Miles' hefty William Burroughs A Life, which came out this year for the centenary.  There's a lot of information in here that's new to me and, as usual with Burroughs, a whole new group of people I'd never heard of before, even in the London years, which is the period covered by the walk.  The book is based on a massive amount of research undertaken by James Grauerholz, who couldn't finish the writing and asked Miles to take over. It's very thorough and probably the best Burroughs biography I've read - Miles also knew many of the main players.  He is supposed to be mounting an exhibition based on his archive at Westminster Reference Library next year and hopefully a talk will also be arranged.

As is often the case, unexpected intersections occur, such as Burroughs' visit to Chelsea to see Christopher Gibbs (see the posts on Blow Up Locations and Whistler below - it was Gibbs' flat that was the location for the party scene - see the photo above):

'Bill and Christopher first met in Tangier, when Mikey [Portman] took Christopher around to see Bill at the Muniria, but it was in London that they became friends, and Bill would visit Christopher at Lindsey House at 100 Cheyne Walk, a mansion dating from 1674, remodeled from an even older building.  Bill appeared very at home, lounging on the sofa smoking hashish in front of the huge bay window with its magnificent view of the Thames (James McNeill Whistler, who did many studies of the Thames in the 1870s, had lived next door), attended by his smartly turned-out boys.  The room was dominated by an enormous painting by Il Pordenone that had previously belonged to the duc d'Orleans.  A huge Moroccan chandelier cast a thousand pinpoints of light over Eastern hangings and silk carpets.  In the summer, afternoon tea was taken under the mulberry tree in a garden designed by Lutyens.' [pp.409-410]

Another intersection takes place with Mikey Portman (boyfriend of WSB in his early West London years) and Michael Wishart, the latter an artist who today is almost totally forgotten.  His autobiography High Diver is worth reading - he seemed to meet almost everyone who was anyone in twentieth century art and letters (and dance) and also slept with most of them.  I was annoyed by the usual privileged complaint of poverty ('we didn't have a bean, my dear') while swanning around the south of France swigging champagne and taking copious amounts of drugs.  Portman was one of his many boyfriends - who also included the notorious Denham Fouts and Nicky Haslam:

'He is far more beautiful, capricious and unpredictable than any of the monkeys and marmosets I have entertained and been obliged to dispose of in despair.  Michael's years in the Medina of Tangier, where he was William Burroughs' naked lunch, had hardly equipped him for terra firma.  During his occupation of my house, gramophone records became ashtrays, sheets tourniquets.  The house became a rallying ground for le tout Marseillaise (quartier Arabe).'[p.168]

Burroughs also visited, in the company of Francis Bacon, the Watermans Arms on the Isle of Dogs owned by Soho and Fitzrovia chronicler Dan Farson, who had also enticed, on separate occasions, Jacques Tati, Clint Eastwood and Judy Garland.  I've seen film of this pub (most recently in Paul Kelly's film How We Used to Live) but can't find it on YouTube

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