INCREDIBLY TALL TALES OF THE LONDON JUNK SCENE
Anyone who spends any time looking at the scene around Alex Trocchiin London will eventually come across Barry Ellis. Among a very motley crew of would-be writers centred on a not-exactly-prolific novelist (Trocchi preferred getting high to knocking out books), Ellis stands out as an even greater under-achiever than his cohorts. Whereas the hipster addicts around Trocchi like Grainger and Phil Green decided they were living poetically and therefore didn't need to write, Ellis had his lurid 'autobiography' "I Came Back From Hell: The Story of Barry Ellis" (Digit Books 1964) ghost-written by journalist Alastair Revie (AKA Alistair Revie, his first name is apparently misspelled on this book). The back cover blurb gives a fairly good idea of the contents:
"I Came Back From Hell is the story of Barry Ellis, a one-time drug addict who managed to cure himself of the worst illness known to man. Known internationally as the daddy of all junkies, Ellis had taken more drugs than anyone else alive. It is on record at two London chemists that in 18 years he used 46,000 grains of heroin and a not much smaller quantity of cocaine. Enough to kill a normal man 250,000 times!!!"
Barry Kenneth George Ellis was born in Godalming (Surrey) on 16 January 1925. The story goes that his violent father married his mother for money but her family went bankrupt before this inheritance came through. After attending a bewildering range of schools and doing a couple of dead end jobs, Ellis found employment at The Whitehall Theatre, where stripper Phyllis Dixie was the star turn. Despite being just 16, he was soon promoted to stage manager, but decided to volunteer for the army in March 1942 because he wanted to fight the Nazis. After being injured and shell shocked, Revie-as-Ellis claims he got hooked on the morphine found in the medical kits used to treat injured soldiers. According to "I Came Back From Hell", Ellis was eventually invalided out of the army; other sources suggest he was court-marshalled and possibly also jailed for stealing morphine amps.
Revie's book about Ellis consists of a series of picaresque episodes that fail to provide a coherent narrative of the subject's life, and alongside these are various rants about the ills of modern society. For example: "They say this is the age of the teenager as if the new freedom kids enjoy was a wonderful thing. It is so fraught with dangers that I am thankful I am not bringing up a teenage family. As I used to sit watching the rebellious young products of the Welfare State in jazz clubs and juke-box dominated coffee bars, I could see something new and frightening emerging on the British scene – a generation of would-be 'kicksters,' seeking new thrills, new diversions to relieve the boredom of their pointless lives. Alas, I was right. Once upon a time – in the period of my addiction – medical junkies (i.e., people prescribed opiates by doctors for real illness, who became hooked on the habit by circumstance) far outnumbered kickster junkies. Now the scale has swung the other way with a vengeance."
Before meeting Trocchi (who isn’t mentioned by name in the book), Revie-as-Ellis claims to have been hanging out with the dregs of the 1920s London party scene including Brenda Paul Dean, the woman dubbed 'Queen of the Junkies' by the press. If you are credulous enough to believe Revie's book, then in the 1950s top gangster Lucky Luciano attempted to recruit Ellis to his international drug running operation but 'the daddy of all bullshitters' walked away and lived. According to "I Came Back From Hell", others were not so fortunate, and Revie-as-Ellis suggests that two famous failures of the 1920s - Brian Howard (the inspiration for a whole series of Evelyn Waugh villains) and Sam Langford - were murdered by Luciano after failing to perform successfully in his drug racket.
Another dead celebrity, Chet Baker, gets a whole chapter (there are no libel issues with those who have passed on), but mostly "I Came Back From Hell" does the usual hack trick of taking the reader on a highly fictional tour of the drug scene with much dubious information about pot parties, the evils of cocaine, the dangers of heroin, and what are mostly hints about inside knowledge of the huge sex and politics scandal involving Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward and John Profumo. We also get descriptions of Ellis on the skippers kick (living rough) and shooting up in public toilets, the sordid places he lived and too many long rants about young people needing love and religion to give them enough backbone to resist the lure of drugs and the blandishments of 'kicksters'.
Revie-posing-as-Ellis moans: "No longer are women dependent on men. No longer are children able to look with certainty to mother for love and to father for authority and guidance. Everyone tends to overlap the other or to go off in different directions. The family is no longer the centre of everything, and the keystone of the British way of life. We have moved on from the alarming emancipation of adolescents. Some women are capable of climbing their hurdles, but how can young people, at the most insecure and dependent time of their lives transfer their needs from their parents to the grasping, commercial figures who are now trying to wean them? How can they substitute the temptations of Soho for the security of home?"
"The Barry Ellis Story" comes to a happy conclusion when Baz meets an art student called Barbara in a train station waiting room. They fall in love and with Barbara's helps Baz get off the ‘H’. It's a rocky path but Revie-as-Ellis says he was determined to pull himself up from the degradation of drugs and that Barbara encouraged him to write a book about his experiences as a part of this process and a warning to others. Obviously, the ('auto')biography that was eventually published is ghost-written, so the reader is left wondering whether the whole exercise is simply a fiction.
The real Barry Ellis story did not conclude quite as happily as this book. After living for some years out of London, possibly in Brighton, Ellis reconnected with the Trocchi scene in the early 1980s. Den Browne - who was also around Trocchi at the time - described Ellis this way to me: "I knew him as an old mate of Alex's, who turned up a year or so before Alex died. I think Barry was hoping that Alex would 'adopt' him and take care of his habit, but Alex found him too dependent. In the end Barry got registered at a clinic in Croydon run by a Dr Savanthanam. I knew quite a few people who went there, but he'd only give out very small scripts (couple of amps a day), and it always seemed too much hassle to me. In a lot of ways, the scene had changed in Barry's time away - he'd always wear tweed jackets, pince-nez glasses, tie etc, (so wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes in any street drug environment), and he couldn't adjust. The last time I saw him was really sad - he turned up sick at the Portobello stall, begging me to buy his last 2 amps (before he had a chance to take them) as he hadn't eaten for days."
Ellis became friendly with Grainger (the dealer my mother, Julia Callan-Thompson, was living with when she died). Grainger moved down to the Elephant and Castle in part as a response to issues around my mother’s death in Ladbroke Groove in December 1979. I’m told by an anonymous source that by the time he met Ellis and Grainger: “They were both living in the most bizarre circumstances, in two flats somehow winkled off the council. It was clearly a scam, and as to how they acquired these properties I never found out. Barry Ellis died as a result of a fire in his flat in Peckham in 1995.”
Grainger, I’m told, routinely described "I Came Back From Hell" as 'the worst book ever written'. Despite the low estimation in which many of those who knew Ellis hold the tome, and its self-evident unreliability as an account of his life, this has not stopped "I Came Back From Hell"from becoming a collectable drug culture item - with many book dealers currently asking around £35 for a copy! It's good for a laugh, but only approaches the category of essential reading if you have a really deep interest in the Alex Trocchi circle or 1960s representations of drug addiction. This is not really a work that merits rescuing from obscurity…
The Real Dharma Bums (more junkie tales)
London Art Tripping (psychogeography of 50 years of bohemianism)