Man at His Best

Beds In The East

Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, The Malayan Trilogy and Earthly Powers, was a whirlwind of literary, musical and cinematic energy. Yet, in the centenary year of his birth, the jury still can't make up its mind about admitting him to the pantheon of the 'greats'.

BY Mark Disney | Nov 14, 2017 | Culture

Illustration by Rebecca Chew. All photographs from The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Curmudgeonly, arrogant and alcohol-fuelled, John Anthony Burgess Wilson is a hero of mine. I can’t say that he was a great writer (have faith in your opinions, man) but nor can most of our literary jurists. Is he a first or second-division novelist? Or will he be remembered as an also-ran, a nearly man, a skilled practitioner, but not a heavyweight? Only time, that most pitiless of critics, will tell.

Whatever the equivocations, the sheer braggadocious (Donald Trump™) energy of the man makes him impossible to ignore. Two fleeting moments of synchronicity kindled my interest, the sort that makes us imagine a connection with famous figures that doesn’t exist. Mine began on Oxford High Street in the early ’80s—he appeared to be in conversation, or rather monologue, with one of the dons—and then again in a pub in Soho in 1991. Even had I read The Malayan Trilogy (at the time I hadn’t heard of it), I would still have been too nervous, too polite, too English to come between the maestro and his whisky. How was I to know that two years later he would have reached the end of his lifelong mission to smoke himself to death? Another opportunity wasted.

Burgess with his students, Malaya, 1950s.

Why now?

Anyway, here we are, 25 years none the wiser, teaching Antony and Cleopatra (“for the Beds i’th East are soft”) to a small group of Malaysians, gazing at a faux-Georgian sight that would be very familiar to Mr Wilson, as he was known in his Malayan classroom. All of which brings me, in a rather solipsistic and roundabout fashion, to the question at hand: why Burgess, and why now?

Well, if 2016 was the year you couldn’t avoid Shakespeare, 2017 ought, by right, to have done something similar for Anthony Burgess. Perhaps, there are documentaries and books on the Burgess phenomenon still in the pipeline (Tash Aw gave a talk on BBC Radio 3), but if so, my newsfeed is malfunctioning. It is more sad than surprising, given the ideological zeitgeist, that one of England’s greatest literary exiles has been consigned to the bin labelled “dead, white, male authors” with such apparent indifference.

He drew his first breath on a bitter February night 100 years ago in Manchester; but his real life, his literary life, only took off during his five-year stint teaching in the tropics; “I came to Malaya as a teacher but left as a writer,” he said. He would have loved the propinquity of his name to that of Shakespeare. If the critic Harold Bloom is right that all artists work under the “anxiety of influence”—an Oedipal precursor to whom the writer pays homage but whom he yearns to eclipse—then Burgess, never one to underestimate his own genius, set his sights high.

This unswerving, unanswerable self-belief urged him to tackle the big guns—Shakespeare, Keats, Joyce, Mozart, Beethoven—in poetry, prose and music. Not for him the post-war parochialism of the kitchen-sink or the angst of the angry young men, although “the loneliness of the long-distance runner” might have made a suitable alternative title for his autobiographies. No, he sought the exotic, the bizarre, the transcendent. Nothing Like the Sun, for example, timed to celebrate the quarter-centenary of the bard’s birth in 1964 was written in cod-Shakespearian prose where Burgess “reimagines” the “bawdy bard’s” love life long before Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s the virtuoso paying self-conscious homage to the master.

While at Malay College, Burgess was housed in King’s Pavilion, where he is pictured below. This building was designed by the British architect AB Hubback, who was also commissioned by the 28th Sultan of Perak in 1913 to build the grand Ubudiah Mosque in Kuala Kangsar. Kings Pavilion has a gruesome history, and prior to Burgess’s tenancy, it was used by the Japanese military to torture their prisoners during WWII. Burgess remembers that “dried blood, irremovable with any amount of Vim, stained the floor in the main bathroom, through whose open channels much blood had flowed.”


Clockwork man

Burgess’ first novels, the ones that brought him to public attention, were published from 1956-58: Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East. These semi-autobiographical accounts of his time at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar were subsequently released as a trilogy, The Long Day Wanes. But most people think of him as the author of A Clockwork Orange (“clockwork man” in Malay?).

Published in 1962 to mild indifference and released as a 1971 Stanley Kubrick film to cacophonous controversy, it’s difficult now to believe that the general public could be so horrified by a piece of mainstream art. Yet, despite critical acclaim, the press and the public were scandalised and traumatised in equal measure. The furore surrounding scenes of violence and rape were exacerbated by supposed copycat crimes in Britain—a forerunner to the controversy over Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. As a result, Kubrick and his family received death threats and he withdrew the movie from British screens in 1973. It wasn’t seen legally in the UK until after his death in 1999.

Kubrick bought the film rights to the novel from The Rolling Stones, which left the famously cash-conscious Burgess kicking himself when it grossed USD26 million in the US alone. Mick Jagger wanted the role of Alex, subsequently made famous by Malcolm McDowell and his eyeshadow, with the Stones playing his Droogs. Fortunately, for cinematic history, scheduling conflicts meant that it never quite came off.

Although Burgess made little from the movie, he did cash-in on the subsequent notoriety, which led to a huge demand for the book and invitations to pontificate in his cultured Lancashire drawl on chat shows and panel discussions on both sides of the Atlantic. Interviewed on The Parkinson Show, he claimed that “I became associated with violence because of the film. So, if a couple of nuns were raped in Berwick-on-Tweed, I would always get a telephone call from the local newspapers. I had to deal with this all over the world.”

He always claimed that the novel was “about man’s freewill, the existence of good and evil, and the necessity of choosing between them,” themes that run through his novels and were hangovers from his English Catholicism, a condition he shared with 20th century novelists like Chesterton, Waugh and Greene. He agonised over leaving the faith, and because of this, felt morally (and artistically) superior to his contemporaries, who were mere Johnny-come-lately converts. All religious art, if it is any good, opines Burgess, must be in conflict with the religious impulse. Indeed, the first volume of his (unreliable) autobiography is called Little Wilson and Big God.

Jack of all trades

Not content with churning out two or three novels a year, he was also a prolific poet, screenwriter, translator, columnist, literary reviewer, inventor of languages and composer. In terms of genre, he is impossible to pin down, with an almost-manic output covering social satire, sci-fi, spy fiction and historical epics, among others. What is more astounding is that he did it all in the second half of his life. This is unthinkable today. The nature of modern existence, the distractions, the options, the sheer 24/7 of it all means that nobody has the time or the discipline to survey, let alone master, anything like his polymathic range. At his memorial service in the “actors’ church” of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, William Boyd praised his “prodigious fecundity and prodigious invention. One was in awe of it.”

It’s puzzling, therefore, that Burgess never received the recognition this fertility deserved, either in his own country or in his adopted Malaysia. In Europe, where he spent much of his final 20 years “dodging the taxman”, he was regarded as a Renaissance man; in England, he was a man for all seasons, master of none. Too clever by half, too haughty, too northern, too certain of his own brilliance, suspiciously Catholic and non-Oxbridge, the literary establishment never took him to its bosom.

Burgess teaching at a Malay college. 


Recognition and resentment

Perhaps, there was resentment at his self-imposed exile—Martin Amis received the same vitriol from the establishment when he upped sticks for America—but there is no doubt that he always felt himself to be an outsider. The roll call of literary knights among his contemporaries—Greene, Kingsley Amis, Chesterton, Naipaul—let alone those who have been ennobled since—Rushdie and Pratchett, for instance—only highlights Burgess’ conspicuous absence from the honours’ list.

His magnum opus is the wonderful Earthly Powers, with its wonderfully provocative opening sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” This managed to upset Catholics, Muslims, homophobes and the Maltese authorities (with whom he had a run-in over tax), in equal measure. Fifty-odd terrifying pages of the novel take place in Malaysia, featuring a would-be Pope battling it out against the black magic of shamans and bomohs. Although tipped as a hot favourite for the 1980 Booker Prize, he lost out to William Golding’s Rites of Passage.

The record was set slightly straighter in an October 2006 poll in The Observer, where Earthly Powers was named joint-third best work of British and Commonwealth fiction of the previous 25 years (alongside Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children). For those interested, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Martin Amis’ Money took the top two spots respectively. The only homegrown literary honour he received from his country of birth was the "North East Book of the Year" for Any Old Iron, although his alma mater did unveil a plaque in October 2012 that reads: “The University of Manchester commemorates Anthony Burgess, 1917–1993, Writer and Composer, Graduate, BA English 1940.” Perfunctory and functional, it is, nonetheless, the only monument to Burgess in the UK.

Burgess with a student.


Not native enough

Perhaps, Malaysia would seize on its brush with literary greatness and adopt him as its own. Sadly not. The Malayan Trilogy, for reasons best known to the Home Ministry, has been on the restricted list of publications (it’s not banned but is hard to come by in bookshops) and, when our photographer visited Malay College Kuala Kangsar, where Burgess spent three years teaching Shakespeare to the sons of the Malay elite, nobody had even heard of him.1

Which is odd given that Burgess really did immerse himself in the ways of his adopted home. He wrote Jawi, spoke decent Malay, understood other dialects, was an enthusiastic patron of opium dens and brothels (the former sadly long gone), and generally shunned the company of other mat sallehs. He clearly made an effort. Perhaps the reason for this is the perception among academics that The Malayan Trilogy smacks of orientalism at best and racism at worst. 

He did himself few favours by indulging a fondness for word play. Kuala Kangsar, the Royal Town of Perak, is renamed Kuala Hantu; and the school is on Jalan Gila in the state of Lanchap through which runs Sungai Kencing. He claimed these name changes were needed to protect him from the threat of lawsuits, but it is hard not to see him smirking quietly through his Malay-English dictionary looking for naughty alternatives.

Brunei, retitled Naraka in A Devil of a State, fares worse than Malaya. Burgess took his revenge on the Sultanate because it repatriated him to the UK, ostensibly on medical grounds but really because of his belligerent drinking and his wife’s loud, very public and, ultimately, tragic alcoholism. Indeed, drink was a big factor in his life—do yourself a favour and read Martin Amis’ hilarious account of their encounter in Monaco—and it became even more central during his time in the tropics. He recounts one official garden party graced by Prince Philip during which his inebriated Welsh wife, Lynne, harangued all and sundry about the heat, the lack of culture, the absence of intelligent company, and the general tedium of life in Brunei. Impressively, this potty-mouthed outburst caused a diplomatic upset and embarrassed the Queen’s husband, a man not unfamiliar with salty language. It is perhaps no coincidence that Brunei is now dry—Mr and Mrs Wilson drank all the booze.2

Despite this, it was surprising, even encouraging, to discover that back in 2010, an early piece of Burgess doggerel was unearthed in Kuala Kangsar. “Ode: Celebration for a Malay College” was written in 1955 to celebrate MCKK’s golden jubilee. It disappeared from the school repertoire not long after the author left to teach teachers how to teach in Kota Baru following a string of increasingly angry confrontations with the headmaster. But Datuk Syed Danial, who helped resurrect the ode by having it performed (with the current Sultan of Perak in attendance) at an MCKK Old Boys’ Dinner, was determined to have it reinstated as an alternative college song: “No other school has an ode specially written by the world-renowned writer, novelist, essayist and musician Anthony Burgess.”

The fact that it never took off might, in all fairness, be on the grounds of literary merit rather than the result of lingering animus towards the “world-renowned author”. Anyway, judge for yourselves: “We offer our youth, to the world we build / With courage and truth, and love fulfilled / A city will rise that is bright and fair / Into cloudless skies and fresh clean air / Proudly we’ll serve and with faith we’ll strain / Muscle and nerve and heart and brain / Till wisdom descends like a silver dove / Till evil ends and the law is love.”

Burgess in front of his class at Malayan Teachers' Training College in Kota Bharu, circa 1955-1957.


The jury is out

Can you be a great writer and an indifferent novelist? Some see Amis fils, a Burgess admirer, in the same light. Critic Roger Lewis, who plunges from unabashed adoration to undisguised animosity, takes this to a whole new level, arguing that Burgess is an awful writer, a terrible novelist, and a badly damaged individual to boot. His "authorised" (then swiftly unauthorised) biography of Burgess is brutal, bitter and bloody. Not content with merely knifing his victim in the back (he began his 20-year collaboration as fan, friend and “official” biographer), Lewis, fuelled by some inner rage, dons the hockey mask and fires up the chainsaw. 

His criticisms of the novels are marginally less vicious than his full-throttle ad hominems against his subject. He accuses Burgess the writer (and, by extension, Burgess the man) of an emotional coldness that translates into characters with no internal life, no sense of movement, no psychological development; in short, the shiny surfaces conceal a lack of depth. Lewis makes a convincing case at times, but this judgment seems harsh, especially when it comes to the Malayan novels. The bizarre consensus among modern critics is that a white man with his white privilege should not be writing about Malaya or Malayans at all. I know, cultural appropriation is bad, but really?

Edward Said, in his critique of “Orientalism”, asserts that for the westerner, “his Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalised.” That is obviously true, but so what? Burgess was not just an outsider in the East, he was self-exiled from his own kind. In his Malayan novels and both autobiographies, this misanthropy is largely targeted at the whites, although the locals, as one would hope, are not immune from criticism. The novels are humorous and satirical, yet they contain a core of sadness mixed with disgust at the passing of Empire, along with a nervous (and frankly percipient) concern for what would happen as the shadow of Merdeka loomed.

Given the timeframe, it might seem appropriate to think of him in literary terms as the last of the colonials and the first of the post-colonialists. Burgess justifies himself in his essay, Something About Malaysia: “you can read the lives of the expatriate British in William Somerset Maugham’s Malayan stories… In Maugham, only the rather dull, white people are real, while the brown and yellow Orientals are mere padding bare feet on the veranda. When I wrote my own Malayan stories, I tried to restore the balance… I found the Malays and the Chinese and the Indians much more rewarding, and I put them at the centre of my book.”

Burgess once said: “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side,” claiming that the greatest thrill of his life was at the premier of his symphony, The Blooms of Dublin, performed by the Iowa University Symphony Orchestra in 1975. He became something of a one-man Joyce industry—churning out books and musical treatments such as the one above with its paean to prophylaxis—“copulation without population”. Burgess described his Sinfoni Melayu as an attempt to “combine the musical elements of the country into a synthetic language which called on native drums and xylophones.” Roger Lewis scathingly calls it sub-par classical “with bongo bongo drums”. However, The Burgess Foundation says that records in its archive show that "Burgess completed this work in December 1956 and sent it to Radio Malaya, who declined to perform it and lost the orchestral score. As the only copy of this work has been missing since 1956 and no performance has ever taken place, the basis of the judgement quoted is not clear." Geoffrey Grigson, the critical counterpoint to Lewis accepts that Burgess “remains little known as a composer but is widely recognised as one of the most extraordinary writers of the 20th century."

Unreliable narrator

Part of the Burgess mystique is fanned by his autobiographies, Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time, both of which contain claims that Lewis asserts were either preposterous or patently untrue. Very few photos or documentation exist before the mid-’60s (Burgess said everything had been eaten by termites in Malaya), which meant that he could shape his memories in novelistic ways. For example, they give an overwhelming impression of borderline penury, desperate deadlines to pay his bar bills or put petrol in the Bedford Dormobile he was driving around Europe. Yet, when he died in November 1993, his estate was supposedly valued at USD3 million, including a property portfolio of several houses scattered around the nicer bits of Europe.

In the end, “extraordinary” is fair comment—it suspends critical judgment but acknowledges the splendid uniqueness of Burgess’ output. Of course, the extravagant vocabulary is showy, but I, for one, am happy to know that words like omnifutuant, proleptic, apotropaic, strabismus, lambdacism or enclitic exist; indeed, there’s a series of YouTube videos proving that his vocabulary was much bigger than ours will ever be. The last two incidentally are from his time here: the Chinese tendency to confuse the letters “l” and “r” in speech; and the grammatical term for the Malay “lah”, as vital a complement to the language as cili padi is to the food.

Whatever the final judgment, we can all learn something from Burgess. I’m glad he came to Malaysia, and you should be too.

[1] The International Anthony Burgess Foundation says this is inaccurate; instead, the Maltese government was antagonised when Burgess criticised its policy on literary censorship.

[2] According to The Burgess Foundation, this was in fact the Portico Prize for the north-west book of the year, awarded in 1989. This may be Burgess' mistake (or mis-transcribed by a journalist from an interview tape).