I Once Met An­thony Burgess

The Oldie - - NEWS - Peter Mullen

In the early 1990s, I was sent by the books ed­i­tor of a na­tional news­pa­per to in­ter­view An­thony Burgess, au­thor of A Clock­work Or­ange. He was in Eng­land to pro­mote the sec­ond vol­ume of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, You’ve Had Your Time.

I rang his door­bell – in a West End ho­tel – and waited. No an­swer. I rang again. The same. I was just about to get into the lift, when I heard a door open, turned, and there he was, peep­ing out of his room – I can only say furtively. He saw me and called out, in that melo­di­ous voice of his, ‘Come along, boy. Come along!’

‘Boy’? I think I was 49 at the time. Later on, dur­ing our in­ter­view, I said he had a pleas­ing, melo­di­ous voice. His re­ply was archetyp­i­cally Burgess: ‘Don’t say “melo­di­ous”. Say “canorous”.’ There was still a trace of his home­town, Manch­ester, in it.

In the mid­dle of his room, there was a large car­boy of malt whisky. And when I say large, think bath­tub. I thanked him but told him I was not a whisky man. ‘I used to be – with Wil­liam Bur­roughs, you know,’ he said, ‘I loved to sit in the de­par­ture lounge at in­ter­na­tional air­ports and sink a solid stream of dou­bles. Not these days. In fact, I don’t drink much at all.’

Over the course of our in­ter­view, he got through three bot­tles of red. He was the most in­ven­tively ar­tic­u­late man I ever met. With him, con­ver­sa­tion was an art form. And what con­ver­sa­tion!

‘I re­cently gave a talk in Amer­ica to a herd of aca­demics…’ He held his nose. ‘I tried to ex­plain to them the dif­fer­ence be­tween trans­par­ent prose and prose that’s opaque. Take Ju­dith Krantz’s air­port novel, Princess Daisy. That’s trans­par­ent – like a bloody shop­ping list or a list of symp­toms. Now this…’

He reached down for the copy of Ulysses by his chair and be­gan to read in a canorous Ir­ish brogue:

‘ “In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose grave clothes, giv­ing off an odour of wax and rose­wood...” Now that’s opaque.’

Liana, his tiny Ital­ian wife, came in and asked An­thony if his in­ter­viewer was to stay for sup­per. With a shock, I re­alised we’d been talk­ing for two hours. An­thony was all wide eyes and an­i­ma­tion upon dis­cov­er­ing I was an Angli­can priest in mufti.

‘Why does God al­low evil? I don’t go for St Au­gus­tine’s ex­cuse – that it’s just the ab­sence of good, pri­va­tio boni. To say that, when there’s so much evil, is pre­pos­ter­ous.’

‘I’ve read your novel, Earthly Pow­ers.’

‘That you have. That you have.’ He was all Ir­ish again. Then, solemnly, ‘It’s nec­es­sary for there to be evil; oth­er­wise we’d have no choices. No choices, no moral­ity. Y’see.’ Then, with em­pha­sis, ‘Yes, Fa­ther Peter will stay for sup­per.’ Liana was his sec­ond wife. His first, Lynne, had drunk her­self to death years ear­lier. Sup­per came and went. ‘You’ve read the first part of my Con­fes­sions, you say? What did you think?’ ‘Opaque. Hi­lar­i­ous. I liked es­pe­cially the early part about your up­bring­ing in Manch­ester.’ ‘Fa­ther would pre­tend to read to mother out of the Manch­ester Even­ing News: “Kaiser Bill’s fleet spot­ted in the Ir­well…” Fa­ther got his come­up­pance though. He in­vented the death no­tice of a well-known lo­cal man, “Bill Eck­er­s­ley dead”. Then fa­ther slipped out for his twilight li­ba­tion and the first words the pub­li­can spoke to him were, “Bill Eck­er­s­ley dead”. He stopped off read­ing the pre­tend head­lines af­ter that.’ I thanked Liana, and then said I’d bet­ter be off or I would miss the last train. He walked with me to the lift: ‘You know I think of my­self as a com­poser first and a writer only sec­ond. My mu­sic does get played. Not in this coun­try, though.’

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