Barry Miles's Book of a Lifetime: Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs
Friday 31 January 2014
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
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 4 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
- 5 Yazidi sex slaves undergoing surgery to 'restore virginity' after being raped by Isis militants
Fast & Furious 7 overtakes Frozen to become 5th highest grossing movie of all time
Poldark finale review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
The Visit: Watch terrifying trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film
Apprentice series 11: Claude Littner to replace Nick Hewer as Lord Sugar's aide
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3 - review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton, really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia