A Flying Lesson
with William Seward Burroughs
by R L Tilley
was 1982 and the English paperback edition of
Cities of the Red Night had just been
published and William Burroughs was sitting in a
bookshop in the Fulham Road signing copies of his
published works. I was down, but not out, in
London, but not in Paris, and I was working for
the Government of the day in Ealing and my shift
was due to begin at 1 pm. However, some things
rank higher in the order of priority and I had
called in to say that I would be maybe one, two
hours late for my shift. I offered no excuses but
I did offer an apology and I walked across town
to keep my appointment with Mr Burroughs. As far
as I know he was unaware of this appointment. But
when one is talking about immanence, who can tell?
not much money but enough to buy the paperback
edition of the aforementioned text. I already had
hardback editions of The Job and
The Third Mind but could hardly, so I
thought, have taken previously purchased
publications to a book signing. Perhaps Mr
Burroughs would not have minded. I do not know.
So, having made my purchase I got in line with
the other aficionados, devotees, culture vultures
and opportunists. We were a random and typical
cross-section of English, or should I say, London,
society, and, for the most part, well turned out
there he sat, this living legend of the
counterculture, looking elegant, and glowing with
good health, in a camel jacket and a green shirt
and a conservative tie.
The woman preceding me in the queue was called
Mary. I know that because Mr Burroughs
courteously asked her what he should write in the
book she had purchased and she told him, To
Mary, with best wishes.
I handed him Cities of the Red Night
he did not ask me what he should write but looked
at me quizzically, with honest blue eyes, and
then bent his head to signing his name under the
printed version on the title page. His signing
wrist was bandaged, to militate against strain?
He was occasionally sipping what looked to be
Coca Cola. He turned to a man behind him, saying,
in a midwestern drawl, Shoulda stuck to
William Lee, eh? Shorter.
man was vaguely familiar to me and he smiled and
greeted me ... dissolve to dreamscape ... a
screen that is not of the cinema but of some kind
of life that flickered in grey images. Soldiers
slaughtered and tortured fresh-faced students,
circa 1950s and early 60s. I saw a student, a
youth, throw out his arms and a soldier plunged
an axe into his head, laughing the while. Mr
Burroughs was with me and he led me down a street
and stopped outside the terraced house that was
my childhood home.
We can escape across the rooftops, he
said, holding his arms akimbo. Fly.
levitated to the rooftops but I could not.
only have to believe, he said.
I could not fly so I decided to cautiously follow
his rooftop progress by way of the street. I
thought I would be safe as long as I did not lose
him. I came to a square where I had played as a
child. I was moving slowly, peering around
corners. I noticed soldiers coming from all
directions. they had not seen me. Mr Burroughs
was safe on the roof ... I turned to leave the
shop, the book in my hand.
should learn to fly, he drawled.
walked across the road to a bar. The sun shone in
dusty beams through the slats of blinds. I
ordered a beer thinking, I must go to work, to
first time I wrote this anecdotal review of Mr
Burroughs' literary legacy I pasted, instead of
copied it, lost the text, and inadvertently
replaced it with a poem called The World
Tonight that was written in another time. I
hope it does not happen again. Like Farnsworth in
the opening chapter of Cities of the Red
Night am I so grudging in what I expect of
life that I count each loss a win?
the text is rewritten and are there differences
from the original? We shall never know, shall we?
is it all true?
still have the signed paperback edition,
published in 1982, of Cities of the Red