Stalking Ghosts on Lillie Road

I’m one of those people for which celebrity really has a buggering effect. Some of us are. We tend to be the kind of bores that propose the question ‘If you could invite any 5 people to a dinner party…’ and the kind of people who struggle separating the idea from the man conceiving it.

I’m sorry that you join this blog on its second post for yet another trip to a literary pub . . . but it’s amazing how many locals in London served pints to people I would have clawed my eyes out to meet. This week, not so far from home, I’ve been drinking at The Lillie Langtry on Lillie Rd where 50-odd years ago I could have found a very sad American, the plot of ‘The Wild Boys’ forming in his mind and struggling with the turmoil of having recently murdered his wife.

I’m  not sure what it was about Bill Burroughs that had me staying up all night for so many years growing up, shipwrecked on the idea of him. (That’s William. S. by the way, that’s how a beatnik friend might have spoken to him, or Francis Bacon, or his mother, not a fan in a blog in 2019. But I suppose he’s too dead now to care about that). It’s one of those names that I seem to have clung on to in some vague and perverted attempt to define myself; one of a handful of celebrity names that is. For a long time I figured that if I could have just met this man, just once, well then that would have been enough for me.

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve lost sleep over that dead heroin-addict, but he is, as always, an influence on my mind. It’s strange that after all this infatuation over him that I didn’t know he had been here. It wasn’t until recently that I was re-reading the London section of Barry Miles’ biography Call Me Burroughs that I discovered he had spent a great deal of time living in a hotel on Lilly Road and drinking at the Langtry.

Opinion varies on why it was that he left the Beat hotel in Paris and came to London. The general consensus is a combination between a love affair with Ian Sommerville and the availability of apomorphine – a cure for heroin addiction devised by Dr. J. Yerbury Dent of the British Journal of Addiction. 

I like the idea that the famous Junkie came to London to throw in the towel and it’s strange to think that while The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express were being published the man behind them all was dipping his cigarettes bright green and ‘hanging out with the gays in Earls Court’. Walking Lillie Road now, it’s so easy to picture him there on the pavements breathing in England in the private world of his crazed mind.

The Langtry doesn’t look like the kind of place he’d visit now, but the beer is good and I’ve been sitting outside of it picturing him there. You can almost hear that distinctively raspy, St Louis voice.

I wonder why it is that people go so mad after people like him. Maybe it speaks to the madness in all of us. I’ve told myself it’s more than just the way that controversy provokes. It’s true, a lot of what he wrote is unpalatable to the best of people, and I’ve changed a lot since that child who lapped up every disturbed paragraph and believed the nature of its shock was worthy enough to be considered genius.

As easy as it is to write off controversial and often disturbing writers like that, there is more to Bill Burroughs than graphic gay sex scenes and morbid imagery . . . and when viewed through the lens of an understanding of his life (and a biography like Barry Miles’) I think the reason it attracts us is simply that there is an unmistakable brilliance about him. Even, dare I say it, a softness.

And now I’m re-reading the things that I was writing at that time in my life and I can see through the cracks in my language the influence of that man who was here. And I’ve only just missed him! Nearly 60 years . . . that’s nothing! Nothing in the grand scheme of things.

So I encourage any Beatnik historian or vulture of ‘the interesting’ to wander around Lillie Rd and see if you can catch his ghost there. In any case, as always, the Langtry is a good place for a pint if nothing else.

Sentimentality is the enemy of art” – Burroughs himself would have hated this post. Sorry Bill, I’ll try to get a grip.

THE LILLIE LANGTRY – 19 Lillie Rd, Fulham

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