Without question, the book that has most influenced my life has been Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs. I was astonished by the outrageous pot-head humour: crazy ideas taken way beyond their normal limits. The book was a savage indictment of American racism and consumerism, it dealt with the corruption, graft and lies of politicians with Swiftian humour. I had never read anything like, then or since.
I first read chapters from it in the first issue of New Departures, an avant garde magazine published in 1959 specialising in the work of the Beat Generation, Samuel Beckett, John Cage and other experimental writing. Wild rumours about Burroughs circulated in Oxford and London student circles: he was gay, a junkie, he shot his wife, he lived in a male brothel in Tangier. It was all true, though by that time he had moved to the Beat Hotel in Paris. He seemed a romantic, bohemian figure of the old type. Naked Lunch was first published by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1959. Olympia published the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Beckett, JP Donleavy, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, but most of all it published cheap porn. All Olympia books were banned from Britain which made them most desirable.
Copies of Naked Lunch were very difficult to obtain (it was not published in the US until 1962, and not in Britain until 1964); they had to be smuggled in, wrapped in dirty laundry or stuffed down the back of your shirt. Anyone returning from Paris had a duty to bring back some Olympia titles. Pete Russell’s Gallery Bookshop at 20 D’Arblay Street in Soho sometimes had copies of Naked Lunch, but very much under the counter, and they were expensive. In the early Sixties I stayed in John Hopkins’ communal flat in Paddington. One of the residents was Peter Wollen, later to become a well-known film critic. I remember Peter commenting one day: “This is such a cool pad, man. There’s always a fresh copy of Naked Lunch on the table.”
I began corresponding with Burroughs in 1964, met him in 1965 and became friends. Over the years I published him in anthologies and underground newspapers, I interviewed him for glossies, I described his archives, wrote his bibliography, wrote an introduction to his life and work, and produced a three-volume CD set of his cut-up tapes.
In 2001 James Grauerholz (Burroughs’s literary executor) and I edited the Restored Text edition of Naked Lunch, hoping to fix an accurate text for future editions and translations. I came full circle.
Barry Miles’s ‘William Burroughs: A Life’, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson