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Let's do it


by J. C.,
The Times Literary Supplement, August 17 & 24 2012

The International Writers' Conference took place over five days at the McEwan Hall, Edinburgh University, in August 1962. "Nothing was properly discussed", Stephen Spender wrote in his report in Encounter, "but some interesting things were said." This is commonly the case. The more unsettled the times, the more embattled the participants, the more interesting the things said will be. "There was a great deal about sex, homosexuality and drugs", a TLS leader writer stated - "too much for most." But he or she delighted in a "highly provocative week".

Spender described a discussion on "Scottish Writing Today" in which Scots literary elders huddled self-protectively around a carafe "filled with neat whisky. The genie of this Aladdin's lamp gradually took over". Despite the influence of the genie over Edinburgh's poets, the day belonged to a heroin-addicted Glaswegian Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. The work of his adversaries, Hugh MacDiarmid chief among them, was "turgid, petty, provincial, stale cold porridge, Bible-clasping nonsense", Trocchi said. "Of what is interesting in the last ten years in Scottish writing, I myself have written it all."

  two copies of the Edinburgh Review, 1802 and 1985

This was bold, since few had heard of Trocchi. His sole novel to date, Young Adam, came out the year before. Some pornographic yarns had appeared pseudonymously in Paris, but Cain's Book - his "mastercrime" - had yet to be published in Britain.

It was at Edinburgh in 1962 that Norman Mailer described William Burroughs (also present) as "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius". Mary McCarthy concurred, and wrote an influential review of Naked Lunch in the launch issue of the New York Review of Books the following year. Henry Miller seemed to onlookers to be putting literature into action, when he said: "Whenever we see a pretty woman we want to go to bed with her. Let's stop talking about it - let's just do it". At the end of the week, McCarthy said: "If I were to describe in a novel the conference which we have been attending, I would have to tone it down to make it sound credible".

The fiftieth anniversary of the event will be marked at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, a successful commercial show run on the grounds that the author has a book to promote, the organizers want a famous face, so - let's just do it. A good time will be had by all, but no one will come away feeling that events would need to be toned down to sound credible. No one will demonstrate "the future", as Burroughs did in the McEwan Hall, by giving how-to lessons in cut-up and fold-in techniques. To him, the strategies of Naked Lunch were already old hat, even though that novel, like Cain's Book and Tropic of Cancer, had yet to appear in Britain. One of the conference organizers, John Calder, published all three in due course.

For five days, Calder and his co-organizer Jim Haynes had situated the avant-garde in Scotland. Questions for debate at this year's Festival might include: Is censorship good for writers? Is an avant-garde still possible, when everything is permitted and nothing causes scandal, barring careless use of racist or sexist language? Does today's cutting edge lie not so much in what we read as in the technologies used to read it? Cut up these sentences and see if they turn out more interesting.

Running throughout the Edinburgh Festival is City of Words, an exhibition celebrating the capital's literary heritage. It takes in writers, teachers, books, journals and whatever else has served the written word over the past 250 years. On display are copies of the Edinburgh Review, founded in Buccleuch Place in 1802 by Francis Jeffrey and others. Its motto was judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur, which our O-level Latin translates as "the judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted". The Scotch reviewers were thinking of the likes of Wordsworth ("This will never do" - Jeffrey on The Excursion, 1814). The original Review ceased in 1929, was revived, in different shape, as the New Edinburgh Review, in 1967, then reverted to the Edinburgh Review in 1984. The issue of the last shown here contains a feature on Trocchi. City of Words is at Edinburgh University Library until October 27.
To look back at the Writers' Conference is to invite the melancholy thought that few remain to talk about it. MacDiarmid and Trocchi cross claymores in the clouds, with Mailer and McCarthy looking on. Both organizers are still here, however. Jim Haynes, who lives in Paris, visits the Festival every year. We reached him in Edinburgh this week, and in the spirit of Joe Brainard's I Remember (see Marjorie Perloffs article in the TLS of August 3), asked for a dozen "I remembers" about the event. Mr Haynes said "Let's just do it", and we picked up a pen.

"I remember seeing a long queue outside the McEwan Hall on the first day and thinking, this is going to be a success.

"I remember two young women at the end of the queue who asked me if it was true that Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller were going to be there.

"I remember taking them by the hand and leading them into the Students' Union and seating them between Durrell and Miller.

"I remember Mailer being angry with the translator of Dr Zhivago, who had made a pass at Sonia Orwell at a party in the New Town, and throwing the guy down a flight of stairs.

"I remember how the translator, because he was so drunk, bounced up and down and walked back upstairs and the party continued as if nothing had happened.

"I remember having dinner in a Greek restaurant with Sonia and John Calder, and Sonia getting upset with something John said and hitting him over the head with a bottle of wine and knocking him out.

"I remember thinking Oh my God she's killed John.

"I remember Kushwant Singh saying that homosexuals couldn't experience real love, and Stephen Spender mumbling under his breath that they could experience it doubly.

"I remember the Scottish literature day and John asking what wine should be served, and I said serve them the wine of the country.

"I remember that the MacDiarmid-Trocchi encounter was everything people say it was: wild, outrageous, deeply felt on both sides.

"I remember the police coming to 161 Rose Street where Burroughs was staying and finding some white powder.

"I remember them thinking it was talcum powder, and leaving."


Jim Haynes opened the Paperback Bookshop, near George Square, in 1959. On August 22, at 10 Crichton Street, two statues from a competition run by Edinburgh College of Art will be unveiled in his honour.

J. C.
in TLS No 5707/8 p.36
with kind permission from the TLS
©The Times Literary Supplement, 2012



The Times Literary Supplement, August 17 & 24 2012 : Lets do it

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