Alexander Trocchi was a Scottish author, publisher and activist, born in Glasgow to Annie and Alfredo Luigi Trocchi on 30th July 1925. He attended the University of Glasgow from 1942-1943 and from 1946-1950, serving in the Royal Navy on the Murmansk convoys in between. Angus Calder has stated that ‘Two reputations—for brilliance and for deviance—began at university’. Trocchi began writing poetry and prose in the late 1940s, and by the early 1950s was an established member of the artistic avant-garde, establishing himself as one of the main Scottish writers of the twentieth century. In 1962 he attended the Edinburgh Writer’s Festival where Hugh MacDiarmid famously attacked him, dismissing Trocchi and his work as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. In contrast Trocchi took the opportunity to describe himself as a ‘cosmonaut of inner space’. In the second of our series of blogs highlighting some of the gems from MS Morgan D – Correspondence: Named individuals, we examine Trocchi’s time at the University of Glasgow, and the file kept on him by Edwin Morgan. Please note that this file is restricted and an appointment is required to request access, please contact Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
In his autobiography of Edwin Morgan, Beyond the Last Dragon, James McGonigal notes:
Alexander Trocchi… was, like [WS] Graham, something of an alter-ego for EM. He was a radical and non-conformist figure, working outside the Scottish avant-garde in the very years when EM was trying to establish or sustain it. Trocchi’s career and his own overlapped fleetingly …. [As a young lecturer EM] came to know of Trocchi by reputation at least: What was he? Brilliant, wayward, charming, passing exams on Benzedrine, starting up a pig farm shortly before his finals. Everyone knew he would make his mark sometime, somehow, somewhere. [p.148-49]
According to his student records Trocchi attended Hillhead High School, before being evacuated to Cally House School with the outbreak of the Second World War. The latter being a residential school for evacuees that was established by the Glasgow Education Authority in Gatehouse-of-Fleet. In May 1942, 4 months after the death of his mother, he applied to the University to do a Law degree with the stated intention of becoming a Barrister.
Trocchi first attended the University of Glasgow in October 1942 at the age of 17. He entered the Arts faculty to study Political Economy, Logic, & History, working towards an MA (Hons) LLB. However this first stint at University was to be short-lived, lasting only a year. Two days after his 18th birthday Trocchi entered the Royal Navy on 1st August 1943. He transferred to the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in 1944 where he trained as a pilot, but upon failing the course Trocchi returned to the Royal Navy, serving on a destroyer until 1945. From 1945-1946 he was a full-time educational instructor in English and History at HMS Dundonald, Troon. His rank being Leading Seaman. For his services in the Second World War he was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, and the Atlantic Star. He was demobbed in November 1946, and lost no time in returning to his studies.
Trocchi matriculated for the second time in 1946; however this time he was studying English and Moral Philosophy, and it was during this stint at University that the paths of Trocchi and EM will have first crossed. Trocchi’s birthplace is noted as being: ‘Hillhead, Glasgow’, and his father’s occupation is recorded as being that of ‘Musical Director’, rather than ‘Confectioner’, which is what had been previously recorded. By the beginning of his 3rd year at University Trocchi had married veterinary student Betty Whyte, and was now living at Garronhead, Balfron – the infamous pig-farm. His course is listed as being ‘Eng Lit & Philosophy MA’, and the subjects he is studying as: ‘Eng Lit (Hi ORD), Logic (J. Hons) & Moral Phil (J. Hons)’.
In 1948-49, it would appear from his student records that Trocchi was retaking Logic J. Hons; ‘Garronhead, Balfron’ has been scored out as his address, and ‘6, Lothian Gardens, Glasgow, N.W.’ has been added in a different pen. The only other difference is that the matriculation slip notes that his father is now ‘retired’. Trocchi matriculated for the final time in 1949. He was awarded Second Class Honours in Philosophy and English Literature in 1950, after falling asleep in his philosophy final, reportedly ‘due to a miscalculation in his use of benzedrine’.
Without graduating Trocchi left for Paris as the University of Glasgow’s Kemsley Travelling Scholar. The scholarship had been founded in 1944 by Lord Kemsley, Chairman of Associated Newspapers. It was awarded by a selection committee appointed by the Senate, and preference was given to candidates who intended to enter a practical rather than an academic vocation. In Paris Trocchi edited the literary magazine Merlin, which published Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Pablo Neruda, amongst others. Trocchi’s early fiction was concerned with the erotic and much of this early work was banned in Britain, France and America. In the late 1950s Trocchi left Paris for the US, finally settling in New York, where he continued his experimentation with drug culture, and as a consequence was briefly imprisoned. It was at this time that Trocchi wrote Cain’s Book telling of his time living and working on the Hudson River.
Simultaneously castigated and idealised, Trocchi remains an ambivalent character, ‘one whose life demonstrates a truly visionary aspiration for mind and art and enacts the dystopia of an over-reaching idealism’. Much of his sporadic work of the 1960s was collected as The Sigma Portfolio. While he continued to write, Trocchi published very little. Instead he opened a small bookstore near his Kensington home in London, and was known in Notting Hill as “Scots Alec”. He died of pneumonia in London on 15 April 1984.
EM’s file on Trocchi is large and contains a vast array of documents, including such things as: a copy of the French publication ‘The Teaser’ (1964) that features an extract from Young Adam under the pseudonym of Frances Lengel; the uncorrected first proofs of Helen & Desire; a copy of International Poetry at the Royal Albert Hall London: What Happened at the Royal Albert Hall?; a couple of catalogues for The Antiuniversity of London (1967 & 1968); and a selection of Trochhi’s Sigma Portfolios.
Despite its large extent there are only 3 letters specifically written to EM by Trocchi, all dated 1964 and all regarding EM’s purchase of various publications. However, one of my reasons for selecting it for this series of blog posts is that it provides a good illustration of how EM utilised these files. These were clearly working source files that he would refer back to throughout his life, as and when needed, perhaps for articles, essays or lectures. The date span goes from 1950 to beyond Trocchi’s death in 1984, right up until 2003 – thus the file had an active life for EM, beyond the lifespan of the subject.
The second reason for selecting this file of correspondence is that it also provides an example replicated throughout EM’s correspondence, that of his writing of references. In 1962 Trocchi applied for the post of Assistant Teacher in Glasgow, and the Corporation wrote asking EM to supply a reference. This was part of EM’s role as a lecturer at the University and the letter was addressed to him at the English Department.
In his reference EM confirms that he was an Assistant Lecturer in the English Department when Trocchi was a student. He writes a very supportive reference right down to putting a positive spin on Trocchi’s potentially notorious reputation.
The element of nonconformism in his character which gives him the virtue of sympathy with others’ difficulties is also the source of a possible reservation you might feel. As Mr Trocchi has publicly referred – during the Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh Festival, for instance – to the fact that he has taken drugs, I feel free to mention this, not as something which in my own present opinion would affect the quality of his teaching but as something which having been widely reported in the newspapers might arouse parental opposition. I do not think this should disqualify him out of hand, since he is a man of considerable talent, but it is the sort of point which an interview, more than the recommendations of a referee, might help to settle.
Additional Trocchi items, including a number of Sigma Portfolios, from the Papers of R D Laing are also held by the University of Glasgow Special Collections.
Information regarding Trocchi’s studies at the University of Glasgow can be found in: Matriculation Albums (1942-43 & 1946-50) R8/5/63/11; R8/5/67/11; R8/5/68/15; R8/5/69/18; R8/5/70/16; Abandoned and withdrawn student files (not medical) R6/94; University of Glasgow Calendars (1950-52) SEN/10/93-94; and Senate Meeting Minutes (1949-1950) SEN1/1/55, University of Glasgow Archive Services.
James McGonigal Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press Ltd, 2010)
Alan Campbell and Tim Niel A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi (Rebel Inc., 1997)
Angus Calder, ‘Trocchi, Alexander Whitelaw Robertson (1925–1984)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/60219]
Categories: Special Collections