On the trapeze with Alexander Trocchi

One of our members who swam against society’s tide was avant-garde writer, provocateur and heroin addict Alexander Trocchi, a Scottish writer at the heart of the 1960s counter culture.

“Trocchi was the foremost British writer of the Beat era, the first ‘prophet of permissiveness’, leader of the British cultural underground and a prime mover of many of the cultural underground and a prime mover of many of the cultural events which characterised the 1960s and 70s, including the Sigma Project and the London Anti-University movement…. In the fifties he had been a prominent figure in the expatriate literary circles of Paris – the only British member of the Situtationalist International, and one of the founder members of the Beat community in Venice West.”

Introduction to Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader, Edited by Andrew Murray Scott, Polygon, 1991

Alexander Trocchi was born in Glasgow in 1925 to parents Alfredo and Annie Trocchi. Alfredo was an Italian immigrant – he had a relative who was a Cardinal in the Vatican – who was a succcessful bandleader after the First World War. However this career declined and the family moved from the south side of Glasgow to a house in Bank Street, near Glasgow University, where they took in lodgers.

Trocchi attended Hillhead High School until he was evacuated in 1939 to Cally House School at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries, where he was popular with friends, a talented student and played in the rugby team. There’s a film about the wartime school at Cally House on the Moving Image Archive.

Trocchi’s mother died of food poisoning early in 1942, and later that year he went to Glasgow University to study philosophy and English. But in 1943 he was called up and joined the Royal Navy to serve in the Second World War. He initially trained as a pilot but ended up serving as a seaman on ships escorting Arctic convoys to Murmansk.

He returned to Glasgow University in 1946. There’s more about his experience at Glasgow University, and his relationship with poet Edwin Morgan on the Glasgow University Library blog.

In his later student years he started a pig farm in Balfron with his new wife – veterinary student Betty – who he had first met at Cally House School.

Trocchi and the Arlington Baths

We know he was a member of the Arlington Baths in 1947 because of an entry in the membership list.

List of members' names including Trocchi, Alexander, 10 Rosslyn Terrace, W2.
Arlington Baths Club 1947 Membership List, Glasgow City Archives (TD965/93)

In an unpublished autobiographical novel, in which he uses the name Nicholas to refer to himself as a child, he used the experience of swinging on the trapeze over the pond at the Arlington Baths as a metaphor for childhood adventures around the tenements and streets of the West End.

“Frightstruck to the trapeze in the Arlington I swung high over backgreens where my brother Alfie with blood streaming from his nose fended off four ragged urchins with curses and blows..”

Pages of an Autobiography, in Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader, Edited by Andrew Murray Scott, Polygon, 1991, pg 14

A footnote by editor and Trocchi biographer Andrew Murray Scott states that “Trocchi was a regular attendee at the Arlington Street Baths”.

It’s not clear yet how long he was a member: more research is required.

Paris, Venice Beach and New York

Trocchi graduated from university in 1949 and left Glasgow for Paris, where he wrote fiction (including several erotic novels for the Olympia Press), worked at Shakespeare and Co bookshop and acquired his heroin habit.

In 1954 he published Young Adam, probably his most well-known work. Set on the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow it is the story of a young drifter who finds the body of drowned woman. In 2003 it was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Emily Mortimer and Peter Mullan.

Betty and Alex later split up and she later moved to New Zealand with their two daughters. In 1956 Trocchi went to the USA – first to Venice Beach in California, then New York – where he met his second wife, Lyn.

He published his novel Cain’s Book in 1960. A roman à clef, it’s the story of Joe Necchi, a heroin addict and writer, who is living and working on a scow (a cargo boat) on the Hudson River in New York.

In the USA he also published articles and essays and joined in debates about drug use, famously injecting heroin on live TV. Under threat of conviction in America for supplying drugs to a minor, he fled to Canada and then managed to return to the UK in 1961, arriving in Aberdeen.

Back to Scotland

At this point Trocchi returned to Glasgow, living in West Princes Street. Might he have returned to the Arlington Baths at this point? He was struggling for money so probably membership was not an option.

“Here I am in Scotland whose narrow cultural world I should be bestriding like a collossus as the poet said; on the contrary, rather seedy-looking and desperately short of cash… I sit day after day in a half-furnished room waiting, and turning on, and waiting…”

Letter from Troccchi to his friend Don Getz, 14 October 1961, quoted in Alexander Trocchi: The Making of Monster by Andrew Murray Scott, 2nd ed, pg 131

In 1962 he applied for a job as an assistant teacher in Glasgow Corporation schools. You can read the reference he was given by poet Edwin Morgan on the University of Glasgow Library blog, in which he refers to an “element of nonconformism in his character which gives him the virtue of sympathy with others’ difficulties”.

Presumably, given his public declaration of drug use, he was not offered the job. Eventually his wife Lyn and their son Marcus were also able to leave America; for a while they joined him in Glasgow and then the family moved to London.

“Cosmopolitan scum”

Trocchi was back in Scotland again in August 1962 for the Edinburgh Writers Festival, ad five day conference organised by Scottish avant-garde publisher John Calder and Sonia Brownell, a publishers’ commissioning editor and widow of George Orwell.

Every day more than 2,000 people gathered in the McEwan Hall at Edinburgh University to hear discussion by a stellar line-up of writers including Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, William Burroughs, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, Erich Fried, and Khushwant Singh, as well as Trochhi.

Dr Angela Bartie and Dr Eleanor Bell from the University of Strathclyde, wrote that before the conference John Calder told the press that speakers and contributors would have complete freedom of expression.

“The frank discussions of love, sex and homosexuality (as well as drug-taking) at both the Conference and its daily press conferences were certainly shocking. Its impact was felt in many other ways too; not least in the way it effectively launched the career of William Burroughs, who was largely unknown at the time. In Scottish circles, the famous clash between Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid has helped to redefine debates about Scottish national cultural identity. The Conference has also been cited as the starting point for many other large gatherings and conferences (e.g. the Albert Hall Poetry Reading of 1965, which characterized the counterculture in Sixties Britain) and even the existence of the major book festivals that we have today.”

1962 International Writers Conference, Edinburgh. An edited history by Dr Angela Bartie and Dr Eleanor Bell, 2012-2013 Edinburgh World Writers Conference

Day Two of the conference focused on ‘Scottish writing today’ and became famous for a heated clash between Alexander Trocchi and Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

At the time MacDiarmid was the grand old man of Scottish literature and at the centre of debates around Scottish culture and politics. He was unimpressed by modernist literature and dismissive of what he saw as peripheral issues such as sexual freedom.

This gives a flavour of their exchange:

Alexander Trocchi famously states that he was right to leave Scotland. The whole atmosphere ‘seems to me to be turgid, petty, provincial, the stale porridge, Bible class nonsense.’ MacDiarmid, whom he has a ‘certain love and respect for’, is nonetheless ‘an old fossil’. Hugh MacDiarmid retorts ‘Mr Trocchi seems to imagine that the burning questions in the world today are lesbianism, homosexuality and matters of that kind. I don’t think so at all. I am a Communist, and a Scottish Nationalist and I ask Mr Trocchi and others, where in any of the literature they are referring to… are the crucial burning questions of the day being dealt with, as they have been dealt with in Scottish literature, if you knew enough about it’ to which Trocchi responds, ‘We have been exerting our nationalism in Scotland as long as I can remember, and I am damned sick of it.’

1962 International Writers Conference, Edinburgh. An edited history by Dr Angela Bartie and Dr Eleanor Bell, 2012-2013 Edinburgh World Writers Conference

Following the public debate Trocchi claimed that MacDiarmid had referred to himself, American writer William Burroughs and Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay as “cosmopolitan scum”.

It’s a phrase that has now entered the cultural consciousness of Scotland, most recently being used for the book Cosmopolitan Scum! Edinburgh, The Arts and The Counterculture by Brian Hogg, which presents the history of the avant-garde in Edinburgh in literature, theatre, art and music from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The 1962 conference was reconceptualised in 2012 with a gathering of writers who revisited the themes of the event from 50 years earlier; this time Irvine Welsh gave the lecture on ‘Scottish writing today’.

Bans, drugs, and poetry

In 1963 Trocchi’s novel Cain’s Book was published in the UK. Later that year it was confiscated as obscene. There’s more about the book in this short film from the National Library of Scotland.

At the time of publication it received good reviews, though not from the Glasgow Herald which headlined its review ‘Scowling Scowman’. Trocchi wrote to the paper, and his letter was publsihed on 11 March 1963.

“If the silly, prudish little review of Cain’s Book is the kind of treatment your Glasgow journal deals out to the only local writer who has achieved something like international recognition…LBW’s [the reviewer] triviality is symptomatic of Scotland’s cultural plight… it is not my habit to react violently to irresponsibe criticism. But Glasgow is my city… it is Glasgow, not I, who is insulted by such a crazy review. It is as a Glasgwegian I protest.”

Quoted in Alexander Trocchi: The Making of Monster by Andrew Murray Scott, 2nd ed, pg 148

Trocchi was popular with the media and appeared on several TV shows and radio programmes talking about the book and debating drugs issues.

In 1965 he chaired the Poetry Festival at the Albert Hall in London where 7,000 people came to see poets like Allan Ginsberg, Michael Horowitz, Adrian Mitchell, George Macbeth and radical Glasgow poet and playwright Tom McGrath.

Trocchi never produced another significant work but continued to work intermittently on his own writing. He also did translations, including the erotic romance The Girl on the Motorcycle by André Pieyre de Mandiargues which was made into an X-rated movie with actors Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon, and directed by Jack Cardiff. Here’s the trailer (which is very much of its time!).

Final years

Lyn died in November 1972 of hepatitus and liver failure, aged 35. Tragically their 19-year-old son Marc died of cancer in 1977.

Image credit: Sally Child. Reproduced in Life in Pieces. Reflections on Alexander Trocchi by Allan Campbell & Tim Niel

Not long after Marc’s death Alex Trocchi began a new relationship with a young fashion student called Sally Child.

They were still together when he died in April 1984. Later that year his son Nicholas, 18, died by suicide.

In the anthology compiled by Allan Campbell and Tim Neil is a photo, shared by Sally Child, of Alex and Lyn at an unnamed beach. It’s undated but perhaps it shows that Trocchi did continue to enjoy swimming.

In fact, perhaps he also encouraged his sons to learn to swim; among an archive of Trocchi’s papers in the Special Collections of Washington University in St Louis, USA, is an Amateur Swimming Association award presented to his young son Marc.

Researcher: Lucy Janes

Sources

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