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A Flying Lesson with William Seward Burroughs
by R L Tilley

It 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?

I had 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 and scrubbed.

So 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.’

When 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.’

This 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.’

He levitated to the rooftops but I could not.

‘You only have to believe,’ he said.

However, 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.

‘You should learn to fly,’ he drawled.

I 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 the job.

The 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?

So the text is rewritten and are there differences from the original? We shall never know, shall we?

And is it all true?

It must be.

I still have the signed paperback edition, published in 1982, of ‘Cities of the Red Night.’