This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Anthony Burgess – already noted in the media and surely with further mentions to come.
My admiration of and fondness for Burgess was heavily based on his regularly available journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Principally the fortnightly Observer book reviews on intimidatingly varied subjects – as can be judged by a scan through the collection Homage to QWERTYUIOP – from religion to linguistics to Grace Kelly to James Joyce to Adolf Hitler to Russian literature to all types of classical music. Although the regular articles in the Daily Mail about contemporary life reminded you, the star-struck young fan, that in many ways his experiences and attitudes were rather closer to those of your parents than to yours.
The other part of his appeal was his speaking. I heard Burgess give a talk in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow around 1982 or 1983. Shamefully most of the content from that evening is forgotten, but I do remember one snippet that all of the best writers in the English language of the 20th century had actually been Celtic rather than English – the best poets being Hugh MacDiarmid and W.B. Yeats, and the best novelist the aforementioned James Joyce. I also recall an attention-grabbing comment that, since he had mostly lived in the Far East and in continental Europe and his wife was Italian, the most memorable of his sexual experiences had been with non-English women – but that was possibly later on television!
His public speaking persona was highly individual. The melodious drawling voice, the way he flaunted his learning while pretending the opposite – “Yes, I’ve read it about 10 or 15 times now..” – the prickliness he never hid at feeling undervalued compared to some of his contemporaries. All qualities which suited the TV appearances such as the astonishingly erudite Book Game one Christmas with Germaine Greer and Adam Mars-Jones. His Desert Island Discs broadcast from 1966 is one of the few from that long-running series which are not available to hear currently, but many other TV examples are.
A recent commemorative series on BBC Radio 3 brought the public Burgess back to memory. Simon Rennie, an academic with a suitably Burgessian unconventional route to professorial status, suggested that it was the writer’s working-class Manchester background which gave him the confidence to combine populism with intellectual rigour. In addition, Rennie drew an unlikely but convincing comparison between Burgess and the US musician Frank Zappa: both intellectual populists and experimental modernists, both political and social conservatives, both careless with their physical health yet prodigiously productive.
Another contributor on the same series, my Scottish contemporary A.L. Kennedy, reminisced about her own youthful experience watching Burgess on TV. It reminds you how he loved to entertain and impress, she said.
Kennedy proposed that it is unusual now to see a literary novelist perform on TV in the way that Burgess did, but you might argue that some current writers, in their alternative guises as commentators and columnists, do appear on discussion programmes like Question Time or on one of those ubiquitous TV slots previewing or reviewing newspapers. I frequently find such appearances annoying rather than stimulating, and so I wonder whether, if I had been older in the 1980s, I might have taken a similar dislike to Burgess and his ability to pontificate on any topic.
Burgess wrote over 30 novels and many other works in other forms. The only novel I ever read was A Dead Man in Deptford, about Christopher Marlowe, although I also greatly liked Jesus of Nazareth, the TV drama which he co-scripted. I have also owned a copy of his famous Booker Prize short-list novel Earthly Powers since 1983, so I think this should definitely be the year when I read it, either in an attempt to revive my youthful affections or in honour of its author’s centenary.
Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1987) Homage to QWERT YIOUP : Selected Journalism 1978-1985 London:Abacus