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ON THE TRAIL OF TROCCHI – Scottish Review of Books

Cain's Book

Alexander Trochi
Format: Paperback Pages: 224 pages Publisher: Alma Books Ltd Publication Date: 24/08/2017 ISBN: 9780714544601
by James Campbell


November 10, 2018 | by James Campbell

In June of 1972, I hitchhiked from Glasgow to Istanbul, via Bulgaria, then down to the Aegean island of Spetses, where I spent the summer leading tourists from coast to coast on horseback. The autumn changeover swept me to Israel, Kibbutz Mishmarot, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. I arrived back in Glasgow in November, with the pages of a novel stowed in the bag, so far untitled.

The model for the work was Cain’s Book. Alexander Trocchi’s best-known novel – though it was only barely a novel – was originally published in New York in 1960. When a friend gave it to me to read before my departure, I was electrified. Even the title had something extra, some glow, that the titles of other books didn’t possess. “Cain’s Book”: the book left out of the Bible. The book of the Pariah dog, the un-Chosen. Trocchi lived on the extreme margin of society, and would have liked to go farther out than that. For me, the book itself became a kind of Bible. Other novels were measured against it, and found lacking. The author’s hollow-cheeked face stared at you from beneath bushy brows on the cover of John Calder’s Jupiter Books edition: an inverted prophet, a Glasgow hard man in revolt against social constraints not of his making; wise, tough, against. I continued with my earnest pastiche:

‘The hangman is mocking me again…. My head is lowered to the ground. I know I can rise and walk away, but only when the hangman’s smile is removed will I be able to stare into his eyes. That is the condition of my release. To leave now, while he still laughs, I would have to rearrange my terms. And that I refuse to do.’

The editor of Glasgow University Magazine, known as GUM, heard through mutual friends that I had this and other writings, and we arranged to meet. By the age of twenty-one, Jack Haggerty had a developed literary taste and a sense of style far in advance of his contemporaries. While others tricked themselves out in Goulimine beads and amulets and embroidered tunics, Jack preferred to dress in a sober suit, sometimes with that truly exotic accessory, a tie. Everyone grew their hair long and parted it in the middle, while Jack’s was tidy and properly cut.

Every Friday he bought a new novel in hardback from John Smith’s Bookshop in St Vincent Street, frequently by an unfashionable author – he recommended the English provincial novelist Stanley Middleton, for example – while the rest of us surfed over the Hip Bibliography (anything by Hermann Hesse or Albert Camus, bits of Rimbaud, the Black Mountain poets), trusting in paperbacks, sometimes borrowed or stolen. Jack read with attention to nuance and style. Short sentences create one mood; long, unbroken paragraphs something different. Adjectives and, particularly, adverbs – here he might invoke Graham Greene, his ultimate arbiter – should be handled with care. The backbone of every sentence is the verb, therefore it must be made as strong as possible. Tone is all.

For a brief period, like most of those in our circle – I was an exception – Jack was a student at the university, but after a year he quit his courses in order to pursue a career as a journalist on a local newspaper. Nevertheless, he continued to act as editor of the university magazine. No one needed to know that he was no longer a student. Those who did know didn’t seem to care. He was divided into two: Dr Jack and Mr Haggerty. During the day, he worked as a reporter in Clydebank, near Glasgow, a town that had gone into decline with the shipbuilding industry it had existed to serve. The opening of a new hospital, a school’s annual sports day, a grandmother who gave chase to a thief while wielding her frying pan; Jack was there, notebook in hand. By night, he returned to the pubs and cafés of Byres Road, in the university district, and assumed the role of literary editor. His parents lived in a modest council flat on a housing estate on the Western outskirts of Glasgow, and Jack continued to stay there, unlike most people we knew, who lived in a bedsit or a head pad (not a ‘hippie flat’) shared with others.

He had grand plans for the student journal. Jack was a devoted reader of the New Statesman, Encounter, the TLS. He would put on an amiably sceptical expression when I mentioned International Times or Rolling Stone. If someone was going to be in London, Jack would ask to be brought back Esquire – ‘Esquire magazine’, he would say – or Harper’s, with specific instructions as to where it could be bought on Charing Cross Road. When we arranged to meet in a café or one of the restaurants he liked to frequent, I might arrive to find him already at the table, pencil in hand, marking some well-turned phrase in a review, or underlining a word that was new to him. He would later slip those words into conversation. Epicene, he muttered once; Brando was epicene. Diaphanous – referring to the light blue blouse on the pretty girl at the party. A decorous unbuttoning gesture. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous to be the one…?’

Physically, he could be seen walking through Glasgow or standing at the bar in the Horsehoe in Drury Street with me at six o’clock, beginning a conversation that would last until midnight. In his imagination, we were in New York, where he occupied the skin of Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, writers who held the place in his esteem that folk or rock musicians did in that of others. It was he who introduced me to the works of James Baldwin, a man who came to figure importantly in my life; and to books by Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. To judge solely by his first-name conversation – ‘and you remember what Truman replied when Norman said…’ – you might have thought they were intimate friends. Neither of us had ever been to America. Jack had never travelled outside Britain, except to go to Dublin for a wedding.

He was capable of quoting long passages of prose, verbatim, as others could reel off poetry, and he recounted anecdotes about modern writers as if he had heard them from someone who was there when the action took place. He was there, in every sense – in every sense but the real one – and there was a good place to be with Jack. To grant Vidal or Mailer a continuous speaking part in his imagination was to lend a glow to the dank West End night in 1973: a glow of words, the right words in the right order, one of Jack’s maxims. All the while, he was keeping up with English authors, who offered a more naturalistic reflection of his own experience, and whom he esteemed equally. Baldwin occupied no greater place in his pantheon than Stan Barstow. Styron was not a grander figure than David Storey. Mailer was a prince, but there was an honourable place at the Court of King Jack for modest Stanley Middleton.

Jack read a sheaf of my stories – I held back my Cain’s Book meanderings which, now that I was removed from sun and sea and sky, seemed to have lost course – and printed one of them in GUM, with an illustration. I began to assume the role of assistant editor. We had the right to use a small room in a university building on Gilmorehill, but Jack preferred to do most of the magazine business from a little café-restaurant next to Hillhead Subway station in the dead centre of Byres Road. He ate there most evenings, the only person of my acquaintance who never hesitated to dine out, and who knew how to conduct himself when he did so. My introduction to the look and taste of spaghetti carbonara, even the sound of the words, took place in this café. The sumptuous plate was followed by Black Forest gateau and then ‘un espresso’– splendours suggestive of the other world from which I had lately returned, the one beyond dark-at-4pm, drookit Glasgow.

All the waitresses knew him, and he always left tips. Jack was a figment of Jack’s imagination, with the leading role in a movie called Jack, directed not by Jack himself but by his brother. George Haggerty really was in that glamorous American world, though in his case it was Hollywood, where he was learning to be a film director.

One evening, Jack summoned me to his office – that is to say, the café next to the station. He finished his carbonara, lit a Gitane and hooked an arm over the back of his chair. He said that the editor of Cosmopolitan had once gathered all the staff together in the boardroom and announced that he wanted them to come up with feature ideas for a new magazine which the company was about to launch. Brilliant suggestions poured in, whereupon the boss revealed that there was no new magazine. So, he wanted to know, why had those ideas not been put forward for Cosmopolitan?

After that, Jack began to speak about his latest plans for GUM. First and most important, we had to find a new design and a new title. GUM? Bubble gum? There was a huge department store in Moscow called GUM. Did we want to be identified with that? What would Norman say if asked to write for a magazine with a name like GUM? Never mind the news about student associations, charity drives and so forth, which we also ought to get rid of.

For a title we settled on the Moving Review. I was the one who came up with the name, though it wasn’t entirely original. There was an underground magazine run by Jeff Nuttall in the north of England called Moving Times. Trocchi was associated with it, and William Burroughs was a contributor. I had never seen a copy, but the name had stuck with me. Jack thought about it for a few seconds, then murmured: ‘I like it… yes, I like it, my friend.’ At these moments, you were expected to feel proud, and you did. There was an assistant editor called Brian, a student – so much the better – who had another idea for the title. I forget what it was. Brian felt that I had usurped the place in Jack’s kitchen cabinet that he had occupied himself. With good reason. He was the link to the university. Jack chose my title anyway, and Brian was made to feel that he was part of the old regime.

Jack had the idea of placing at the centre of the Moving Review interviews with celebrated writers, in this way satisfying his desire for big names. He would telephone somebody out of the blue – John Braine, for example, or Alan Sillitoe, two of his Angry Young Men idols – and would hold them in conversation for an hour or more. He had the knack of keeping up a pertinent line of questioning, at the same time sounding intimate, without being intrusive. The writers must have been flattered by his familiarity with their work, by his curiosity, his strange air of worldliness despite being so young. Some kind of future rendezvous would be provisionally agreed.

One Saturday afternoon, as we were coming out of a café of the superior kind in Buchanan Street, where I had chosen the cheapest thing on the menu and Jack the most expensive, he crooked his arm and looked at his wristwatch. ‘Oh dear. Three o’clock. I was supposed to be meeting Alan Sillitoe in London….’


‘Right now… at his house in Ladbroke something.’ It was the first time he had mentioned it.

Jack wanted those good ideas. In the café next to the Subway station I proposed an article on the subject of Trocchi. Why wasn’t he talked about in the pubs and lecture theatres, or written about on the literary pages of the heavy Sundays or in Encounter? The novel was in a dire condition in Britain, yet Cain’s Book, a masterpiece, a mastercrime, was never mentioned. And he was Scottish. So much of contemporary Scottish writing was ‘stale porridge’, Trocchi had once pronounced at an event in Edinburgh, at which Hugh MacDiarmid and others were present. ‘Of what is interesting in Scottish literature of the past twenty years, I myself have written it all.’

In their ignorance, journalists, critics, the reading public, dismissed this majestic declaration. In my ignorance, I embraced it. Jack stroked his chin without at first giving a response. He had heard of Trocchi only from me, had never read his infamous book, which was not his kind of thing. Cain’s Book was a minority taste – ‘a cult’, and I was the most enthusiastic cultist of all. I knew of few others.

Not only did Trocchi live outside society; he lived outside the law. He was a drug addict. He had devoted his life to the habit, in a literary fashion, in the tradition of Baudelaire and Cocteau. Opium was not necessarily a prison. On the contrary, with heroin in his veins he was free – super-free. ‘I would recommend that heroin be placed with lucid literature pertaining to use on the counters of all chemists (to think that a man should be allowed a gun and not a drug!) and sold openly to anyone over twenty-one.’

Cain’s Book revelled in the kind of literary tricks that excited me. For example, the anti-hero, Joe Necchi – Trocchi himself, in every relevant particular – is in the middle of writing a novel, and the title of the novel is Cain’s Book. One evening, after having shot up heroin in a New York pad with some derelict cronies, he reads aloud a passage from the work-in-progress by firelight. But the section in question does not exist elsewhere in Cain’s Book – that is to say, in the novel you are holding in your hand. The reader is steered towards the proposition that there is another book of the same title, existing in an alternative zone – a hidden book, of which we are granted only a glimpse: a pair of hooves beneath the hem of the curtain. It was as if an actor in a film had halted the projector and stepped out of the screen to stand before the spectator. A film by Cocteau, the great modernist conjuror, in my eyes, from the fantasy country of France before and after the war. Trocchi was from Glasgow, not a fantasy land at all; it was the land in which I had first read his book.

Trocchi described with precision and some beauty the effects of narcotic drugs. I didn’t feel the desire to emulate the author or his character. I was, rather, intoxicated by the effects of this writing, a species of magic, even when I could not fully understand it, as any form of magic remains at best partly understood. I carried Cain’s Book with me to the pubs of Glasgow, the souks of Turkey, the ports of Greece… and preached its gospel like a downy, adolescent priest.

As I approached the landing where he stood, he said: ‘I was just about to give myself a fix. Can you wait?’

* * *

Finally, the editor showed his approval. But not a literary essay, please. He preferred the big projects. ‘Why not an interview? Do it long. We’ll rediscover him.’

I wouldn’t have known how to go about finding the man whose face I had gazed at so often on the cover of the John Calder paperback. How to start, even? Jack had no such hesitation. The next day he called the publisher in London and asked for the author’s telephone number, explaining what it was we hoped to do. With his mysterious power of authority, he got straight through to Calder himself – like us, like Trocchi, a Scot, which might have helped – all done from the telephone box on the street outside our ‘office’. Calder gave him the number and promised to send a copy of Trocchi’s latest publication, Man at Leisure, a collection of poems. Jack then rang Trocchi and they talked for a quarter of an hour, as Jack pressed coins into the slot. The great man was flattered by the proposal. He was himself a former student of Glasgow University, news which surprised and pleased Jack. He would welcome the reporter from GUM (we hadn’t changed the title yet) whom Jack recommended, and asked that he – me – call to make arrangements.

How did Jack learn to do all this – to ring publishers and request review copies and telephone numbers with complete confidence? He had met few people of serious literary accomplishment, probably only one or two who had actually written a book.

‘If he invites me to shoot up heroin with him,’ I asked, ‘what then?’ Jack didn’t hesitate. ‘You must accept. Go ahead. It’ll look great in the piece.’

I took the night train to London – the cheapest – and arrived at Trocchi’s place one wintry Sunday at noon. He lived with his wife and two young sons in a top-floor apartment at 4 Observatory Gardens, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, in those days still a dowdy district. I can picture myself from outside my body, as if in yet another film, ringing the doorbell – the clench on the heart, the halt on the voice. Trocchi proved himself to be not just a tough face on the cover of a Jupiter Book by responding on the intercom, the first of its kind I had ever encountered.

‘Ah. It’s you.’ The door opened with a metallic click and I began climbing the stairs to his apartment. He was waiting on the landing at the top floor, looking down at the figure below, a man of enormous frame in a black t-shirt, with a protruding stomach and a nose like the inverted horn of a rhino – a nose so large it was impossible not to focus on it. He smiled when he saw the long-haired emissary from his home town. I wrote: ‘One is immediately struck by his sallow complexion and the scars on his arms which are white like snow.’

As I approached the landing where he stood, he said: ‘I was just about to give myself a fix. Can you wait?’

I had walked through the mirror, like an actor in a film by Cocteau, and entered into the pages of Cain’s Book.

* * *

My girlfriend of the time was with me when I pressed that first intercom buzzer. Trocchi invited us to sit down in the living room and served tea together with muffins hot from the oven, which he recommended with a bafflingly un-outlaw-like enthusiasm. ‘Danish, I think they are.’ We met his wife Lyn, shielding herself on the sofa behind dark glasses, though it was December, and two boys, one of whom obeyed a gentle command to lower the volume on the television. It all seemed disquietingly normal. He had the decorators in, and suggested that I return the next day, when he would be better organized and we would have more time in which to do ‘this thing’, our interview. Do it properly, he said.

I loved the sound of it. His voice was still strongly Scottish, and I was already planning to re-read Cain’s Book through the filter of our native accent. In the meantime, he gave me a copy of Helen and Desire, the most mainstream of his six erotic novels written in Paris in the 1950s and published by the Olympia Press, and an American journal with an essay about him by the Black Mountain poet Edward Dorn. I suppose he hoped it might lend some seriousness to the article I was proposing to write.

The next day I returned alone and we settled ourselves – on the floor, of course – in his wide attic studio. There were books everywhere, as well as loose-leaf binders, a typewriter and letters unfolded from their nearby envelopes. A ‘comfortable shambles’, I called it in the article. ‘Like are you just going to fire questions at me?’ His sentences were dependent on that word ‘like’, the peculiar Scottishness of which has been overlooked. He apologized for the mess. ‘Like that’s one thing about drugs. They certainly make you disorganized.’ Then the wide Trocchi grin, with its invitation to complicity.

The subject was not slow to arise. In Cain’s Book, and in anything about him I laid my hands on to read, which wasn’t much, Trocchi played the evangelist in promoting the salvational effects of heroin. It was one of his gimmicks, like asking you to wait while he gave himself a fix, a part of his grand outlaw persona. Drugs removed him from the mundane despond. Though I didn’t want to share in it, the drug-taking nevertheless had an outsider gleam, and any hint of outsiderism was sure to appeal to me.

Jack was more pragmatic and mature. Before I left Glasgow, he had insisted that I read to Trocchi a few lines from an article by Cyril Connolly which had recently appeared in the Sunday Times: ‘A striking observation is the anti-intellectual climate that prevails in the networks. All who have known someone addicted to drugs… will have remarked on the increasing indifference to reality,
whether to the time of day… or reading, or any of the pleasures and passions, food,
drink, love, sex, places of art or the acquisition of knowledge, which make life worth living, friendship a joy or conversation a pleasure.”

As soon as I read this aloud, I knew that it described better the sphere in which I aspired to live than the scenes of junkies hungrily seeking an uptown fix in Cain’s Book, or in anything written by Burroughs or one of the other underground authors handily passed around. I didn’t even smoke dope. Yet I continued with my romance, for I enjoyed it. It was exactly that: a romance. It consoled me and provided a temporary rescue from my state of under-development. It occupied the place in my imagination that the works of Tolkien did in that of others. They didn’t really think they were going to enter Middle Earth and meet the wizard Gandalf, but the fantasy consoled them.

Trocchi treated Connolly’s eloquent objection seriously. In my 4,000 word profile which appeared in GUM several weeks later, in February 1973 – the longest piece about Trocchi to have been published to date – I wrote: ‘Trocchi looked at me a little sadly. “What is one going to say about that?”’ He answered with reference to some great literary figures of the past. Here is what he said, transcribed from the recording I made of the interview on a borrowed tape machine the size of a small suitcase: ‘I suppose up to a point it’s true. But it’s referring to a particular group of people who, whether they used drugs or not, would not be involved in this or that intellectual pursuit, would not be interested in reading. I think it’s true that many people who use drugs do use them as armour against experience but I don’t think that could have been said about Coleridge, for example, or de Quincey, who if nothing else were intellectuals.’

He didn’t wish to suggest that it was necessary for everyone, or anyone, to turn on to heroin. From the tape again: ‘I think that for me at a certain time it was necessary to take up this attitude and go far out – but it’s something that can either enrich your experience or destroy you. It can destroy you very easily if you give way to all the social fictions about it. People tend to become what society believes they are.’

What undermined and ultimately ridiculed the outsider stance was the difficulty of obtaining the drugs he wanted, and the penalties attached to doing so. One of the reasons Trocchi had returned to Britain from the United States was to be eligible for the prescription of narcotics on the National Health. In short, the great outlaw became more dependent than most others on the rules established by the society he wanted his readers and literary peers to think he was plotting to overthrow. Who ever heard of a state-subsidized outlaw? He had walked into a trap outlined in a passage in Cain’s Book which had always delighted me:

‘For centuries we in the West have been dominated by the Aristotelian impulse to classify. It is no doubt because conventional classifications became part of the prevailing economic structure that all real revolt is hastily fixed like a bright butterfly on a classificatory pin; the anti-play, Godot, being from one point of view unanswerable, is with all speed acclaimed “best play of the year”; anti-literature is rendered innocuous by granting it a place in conventional histories of literature.’

While I was thrilled at having laid eyes on my hero, my girlfriend Pamela, when she saw him that first day and sat on the sofa sipping tea next to dark-eyed Lyn, said she could ‘smell evil about his person’. I was too much in awe for any such perception, but it chimed with the opening poem in Man at Leisure, which had arrived from Calder just in time for me to read it on the journey to London: ‘Where to begin / which sin / under what sun…?’

Where to begin with sin? And where to end? It is well established now, though I was ignorant of it then, that Lyn had been forced into prostitution in the US by Trocchi, in order to raise money for drugs. She was a junkie herself, and died not long after our encounter in Observatory Gardens. Another of his gimmicks was to say things like, ‘I’ve no objection, if I myself am incapable for one reason or another, to finding some young bull for my wife…’. I didn’t put that into the piece.

It was the flipside of the charm, though charm there still was. And there was another sort of charm for me in hearing the names of Robert Creeley, R. D. Laing, William Burroughs and others, let fall elegantly, without name-dropping clumsiness. Norman Mailer had referred to Trocchi as ‘the most brilliant man I’ve met’. Creeley had written a gnomic preface to a 1967 reissue of one of his pornographic novels. ‘In Thongs, as in other novels he has written in this genre, Trocchi defines the isolation of persons in sexual rapport….’ With Pamela beside me on the train, reading Helen and Desire, I conveyed the tape like contraband home to Glasgow, a blend of callowness and diligence. In my bedsit, I wrote a report of the adventure in longhand and gave it to Jack, who printed it in GUM, without benefit of editing.

Among the material I had brought back was a short article in typescript by Burroughs, ‘M.O.B.’, which in the Burroughs lexicon stood for ‘My Own Business’. I had asked Trocchi for a piece of writing of his own for GUM, and he regretted not being able to offer something. But he held out ‘M.O.B.’ with an easy smile and said, ‘Why not publish this?’ It consisted of three pages, in Gestetner duplicator form. ‘Just phone up Bill and say I suggested it.’

He wrote down Burroughs’s Mayfair telephone number: 01 839 5259. And when I returned to Glasgow I dialled the number, Jack-style, and sure enough Burroughs picked up the phone, listened to my stammered explanation and answered my polite inquiries.

Answered in his fashion, that is. To everything I said – everything – Burroughs replied, ‘Shu-ah’, in an elasticated drawl. Or ‘Yea-ah!’ So, permission given? ‘Yea-ah!’ William Burroughs could from then on be named among the contributors to our magazine. Money wasn’t mentioned (there was no such thing anyway). He became expansive only when I asked for his address, to which would be sent a copy of the Moving Review (as it was by the time his piece appeared in December 1973): ‘8 Dook Street Saint James’, and put down the phone.

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