Richard Briers has sadly died. We pay tribute with a story of how a beatnik legend wanted to be the man in question...
I’d been interested in Edinburg, Texas (they dropped the ‘h’ in the 1930s) ever since I’d bought a souvenir mug in a junk shop that read: Edinburg: Gateway to the Future. In fact, located as it is in the Rio Grande Valley, 19 miles from the Mexican Border, it’s more like a gateway to drug war horror. But who could resist such a promise?
The town also has an interesting origin: founded in 1908, it was originally called ‘Chapin’- until Mr. Chapin shot and killed a man that is. Concerned about bad PR, the locals renamed their town after the birthplace of John Young, a big man in the history of the Valley. Actually, nobody remembered what town Young came from – only that he was Scottish. Edinburgh was their best guess.
Meanwhile I’d been talking with a Scottish TV producer about making a travel documentary. The plan: get something on BBC Scotland first, aim for a real channel later. The problem: the show had to be about Scotland, and provincial TV kills my mojo. Fortunately I had an idea: a blackly comic travelogue studying the impact of Scottish settlers in the New World, with Edinburg, Texas as the focus. I wrote a pitch, working in a lot of stuff about Dualism (always popular in Scotland), making Edinburg the dark, twin of genteel Edinburgh – a Texan Hyde to Scotland’s Jekyl. But it needed a stronger hook.
Then I discovered that author/legendary drug fiend William Burroughs had owned land in Edinburg in the 1940s, and spent five years growing peas and carrots down there shortly before he shot his wife in the head. Now admittedly, Burroughs wasn’t Scottish, nor even of Scottish descent, but I came up with a link between Burroughs’ Junky and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting that I figured just might work. Toss in some colossal prisons, Mexican gangsta polka, and a half ton woman who beat her two year old nephew to death in 2008 and the proposal was looking good.
Now all I had to do was conduct a few interviews, take a picture of Burroughs’ pea field and I’d be champion of the TV universe. Well, maybe not: I knew BBC Scotland never commissions good things, or even tolerable things, but it was worth a shot.
Three hours on the road, and the phone rang:
‘Er Dan… it’s for you’ said Sandy, my photographer friend.
On the other end was Jim McAllen, a rancher descended from the widow of John Young. His family had wielded power and influence in the Rio Grande Valley for over a century. He was my key to its secrets.
‘Hi, Mr. Kalder- my wife wants me to take her to San Padre Island for the weekend, so I can’t meet you. Y’all enjoy Edinburg!’
At least he was friendly. The same could not be said for the next person to cancel, whose secretary called an hour later. His family had been embroiled in South Texas politics and business for decades. He didn’t even have an excuse. He’d just changed his mind, and didn’t want to talk.
‘We just lost our two main interviews’ I said. ‘Do you want to turn back?’
But we were already half way to Edinburg; and besides – there was always Burroughs’ pea field.
‘Fuck it’ I said. ‘Let’s keep going.’
The heart of Edinburg was marked by an abandoned watch tower that stood in the middle of an empty car park attached to the Hidalgo County courthouse. Opposite the watch tower was a defunct cinema. On the marquee, somebody had spelt out the message: PLEASE, NO MUSIC.
This void was strange, because Texas towns usually take pride in their central squares and especially their courthouses. Edinburg’s looked like a tax office in the West Midlands.
Aside from the car park there were a lot of Adult Day Care centres, something I’d never seen before. I imagined grown men giggling and dribbling in dark corners, as girls on the minimum wage spooned mush into their mouths. Didn’t they have psychiatric wards? Old Folks’ Homes? (Later I realized the locals were too poor to pay for full time care and so had to leave their aged parents at these places while they were at work).
There were also dollar stores, video libraries, junk food joints and an endless succession of medical clinics. It was as though half the populace was sick or dying, or simply couldn’t take care of itself – either that or some genius had figured out a way to bilk the federal government for Medicaid cash. My favourite clinic resembled an Ottoman Palace. All the doctors had Turkish names. It gleamed amid the decrepit Americana like an alien spacecraft.
Since I was so close to the border I anticipated that some fine Mexican food would be available. There was, but Sandy is vegetarian and there’s not much in Edinburg for lettuce nibblers. We wound up in a Denny’s, mainlining sludge.
The highlight of the Museum came early, when my guide showed me a wooly mammoth skeleton that had enjoyed a small cameo in X-Men 3.
Apart from that I learned that whenever something interesting had happened in South Texas, the participants had made sure to avoid Edinburg – a problem for my proposed documentary. In World War I the Germans had messed about in the Valley, but nowhere near Edinburg. Then there was the psychotic Mexican revolutionary who had disseminated propaganda among Tejano (Spanish speaking Texans) farmers, urging them to kill the white man, his women and even his little white babies. He too had avoided Edinburg.
Meanwhile when I raised issues like the historical segregation between “Anglos” and Hispanics, my guide became uneasy. She blamed segregation on northerners who had been lured to the Valley by shady real estate agents who claimed that the land bore fruit all year round (it doesn’t, and the Valley isn’t a valley either – it’s flat). The local whites, she insisted, had married the daughters of Spanish speaking farmers.
Today, most political offices in the Rio Grande Valley are occupied by Hispanics, who constitute the vast majority of the population. This also explains why nobody in Edinburg gives a shit about the town’s vaguely Scottish origins. In Dublin, Texas the town is plastered with four leaf clovers. In Prague, Texas they love the old Czech church. In Edinburg: nothing, not even a haggis.
“Upstairs it sounded like they were having a rape party, to a mixed soundtrack of New Country and Hip Hop. The concrete walls of my cell amplified everything. The dead nun put a finger in her mouth, and pulled a crazy face.”
But Scotland wasn’t the only piece of South Texas heritage neglected in the museum. There was a list of famous residents that made no mention of William Burroughs. Nobody in the museum knew or cared that one of America’s most legendary authors had ever set foot in their town.
There was a big concrete box on the edge of the centre. It was divided into small cells, each of which had an exposed concrete floor. These were very practical, in that they were good for quickly mopping up vomit, semen, poo, blood and obliterating the traces of horrible crimes. 40 bucks a night. We checked in.
I flopped on the rock hard bed to watch TV. Weak, cold and shivering, I soon realized I’d been poisoned. Fucking Denny’s! I crawled under the covers to sweat it out, but they were tissue thin and I couldn’t get warm.
Delirious, I found myself staring at an old nun who was gabbing away on the TV. Big changes are coming, she said. God has plans for all of us. The audience clapped approvingly. Gradually I realized that the future had already arrived; she was talking about the Year 2000. This was an old show, on perpetual replay. The nun, I suspected, was now dead. Upstairs it sounded like they were having a rape party, to a mixed soundtrack of New Country and Hip Hop. The concrete walls of my cell amplified everything. The dead nun put a finger in her mouth, and pulled a crazy face.
The next morning I awoke, feeling as though I had been chewed up, swallowed, digested, shat out and then stepped upon. The poison was still in my system. I should have got in the car and headed back to Austin. ‘Let’s get some pictures of Burroughs’ pea field’ I said to Sandy.
William S. Burroughs arrived in the Rio Grande Valley York in 1946, following an arrest in New York for forging prescriptions. Aged 31, he still lived off the monthly pocket money his parents sent him and had recently been getting into heroin. A childhood friend, Kells Evins, had invited Burroughs to join him in South Texas, where he had recently inherited some land. There was lots of money to be made in Texas, Evins said. Better yet, all Burroughs had to do was hire locals to supervise teams of “wetbacks”- i.e. illegal Mexican labourers – and they’d do all the hard work while Burroughs sat back and raked in the dough.
That sounded promising, so Burroughs tapped his parents for the cash to buy 50 acres. At first he thought he’d grow opium and marijuana down there, but since the land was so flat, everybody could see what he was doing. So he shifted the drug farm to New Waverley, outside Houston, where there were lots of trees to conceal the illicit flora. But Burroughs’ narcotic crop didn’t take.
The peas, carrots and citrus fruits in Edinburg were another story. Interviewed a few years ago for a Burroughs website, Professor Rob Marshal, author of the only book to cover Burroughs’ Texas years in any depth, explained that the future author of Naked Lunch was, for a while at least, quite serious about agriculture and hoped to achieve economic and spiritual liberation by selling peas: ‘Farming was a very masculine occupation and offered self sufficiency and freedom from outside control. Or at least that’s what Burroughs thought (it didn’t work out that way)’.
But Burroughs hated South Texas, describing it in a letter to Jack Kerouac as ‘the valley of heat and boredom’. He liked to hop over the border into Reynosa, scouting for boys, thus earning the nickname Willie El Puto, or “Willie the Queer”. In Texas, cops caught him in flagrante in his car with Joan Vollmer, his common law wife. So Burroughs moved to New Orleans, leaving Evins to run his farm for him. In April 1949 he was busted for drugs again and returned to Texas. With the law closing in on him and the farm going under, Burroughs sold up. By October he was living in Mexico City, where he killed Joan and wrote Junky.
If Burroughs’ career as a gentleman farmer had succeeded, would his life have turned out differently, with fewer guns, less drugs, and no boys in Tangiers? I doubt it. Burroughs was a weird dude. Read his letters written to Allen Ginsberg from Texas and you find him ranting about “Liberals” and FDR, convinced that America was morphing into a totalitarian Communist tyranny. That’s right, he was Glenn Beck.
He was also a follower of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich who preferred it if his patients wore as little as possible and claimed that the atmosphere was awash with Orgones, a cosmic energy that was blue in tone. Burroughs built himself an Orgone Accumulator, i.e. a box that looked like a fridge, placed it in the middle of his pea field and climbed inside, hoping to soak up them Orgones. A little later he got into Scientology. Shortly before he died he appeared in a U2 video.
But I digress. We drove around for a long time, following Rob Marshal’s directions to Burroughs’ pea field. Finally, not far from a boy’s reformatory, a golf course and a lone horse tethered to a tree, we found his fifty acres. If you want to know what the Burroughs farm looks like, I’d say this: imagine a field. Then turn around and imagine another field. With a dog’s carcass lying in a ditch that bisects it down the middle. That’s Burroughs’ pea field, what he described as: “fifty acres of the finest land in the Valley”
‘Do you actually rate Burroughs?’ asked Sandy, as we drove back to downtown Edinburg.
‘Nah’ I said. ‘He’s an interesting character, but Naked Lunch is unreadable. Sure, it broke a lot of taboos and he used the cut-up technique, but now- who cares? It’s his legend that keeps those books in print. What about you?’
‘Me neither. I just couldn’t get into that stuff.’
He liked to hop over the border into Reynosa, scouting for boys, thus earning the nickname Willie El Puto, or “Willie the Queer”.
Our trip was almost over. We took a few shots of the huge prisons on the outskirts of town, then headed back to Edinburg for one final encounter – with Gordon Johnson, the 80 year old former director of the largest school for Spanish speaking missionaries in North America.
My angle on this was that Scotland’s Protestant faith, originally implanted in Texas by the likes of John Young, was now being exported south from Edinburg, even as it died out in the homeland. The problem, as I found out, was that the college was founded in the 1940s by a man from Denmark. Gordon was Canadian, descended from Yorkshiremen. Oh well.
The campus was a tidy, sleepy place populated by neat boys and girls who looked afraid that God was judging them for their sinful desires. Gordon lived on the outskirts of the complex. A lot of what he said would not be interesting to a general audience, although I did find one theme fascinating. Some Mexicans, he had noticed, could pass for Middle Easterners.
I wondered where he was going with this, as it resembled a popular fear on the angry end of the American radio dial – that sleeper cells of Arab terrorists are infiltrating America via the unsecured Southern Border.
But Gordon’s perspective was different. If Arabs can pass for Hispanics and vice versa, why not teach Latin Americans Arabic and then send them to the Middle East as sleeper agents for Jesus? A European missionary would be instantly uncovered, and thus imprisoned, expatriated or executed. But a Mexican? Perhaps not! And thus, gradually, under cover of night, the Islamic World might be converted to Christianity! Mecca, here we come!
It was an impressively grand, immensely ambitious plan. Was this little college, practically unknown outside of evangelical circles, at the centre of a covert, global religious espionage movement? Could it be that from this sleepy campus, deep in the Rio Grande Valley which is not really a valley, that strange, poor place where people and things go to disappear, a mighty change was coming? Perhaps, if Gordon’s plan worked out, an apocalyptic religious war might break out, ushering in the End Times, bringing about the Rapture, the coming of the Beast 666 and the war between Heaven and Hell before the descent from On High of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem! Hallelujah!
We took a few shots of the campus and left.
A few days later I emailed a revised version of the proposal to the Scottish TV producer, who loved it. It was eccentric, yes, but still better than every piece of Gaelic programming ever made- especially Haggis Aggis, the cookery show they used to put on at midnight. That was really shit.
As anyone who has ever had any dealings with TV will tell you however, it’s very hard to get anything past the commissioning editors who decide what gets made for the channels, because none of them want to be held responsible for failure. That’s why there’s so much formulaic, repetitive shit on your TV. BBC Scotland is worse than usual because 1) it has no money and 2) there is only one commissioning editor for the entire country, as if Scotland was the USSR under Brezhnev. I gave myself a 1-2% chance of success.
Alas, I landed in the 98-99% zone. ‘This looks like a travel show’ said the commissioning editor. ‘That’s because it is a travel show’ I explained. Of course, what he was implying was that it wasn’t edgy or innovative enough for BBC Scotland. I mean, they make River City don’t you know. Now that’s edgy. Well, I’ve had better ideas rejected by bigger players than Commissar McSporran, so I wasn’t surprised. I knew it was a game of roulette, and that failure was much more likely than success. I also took solace in the fact that his programming is so crap.
What the hell, I’d got a trip out of it. Now admittedly I’d paid for it myself, come down sick and shivered a lot. But I’d seen William Burroughs’ pea field. Yes I had. It even had a dead dog lying in it. And how many people can say that?