I Once Met Anthony Burgess
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.’