Burgess beyond Burgess

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Anthony Burgess, Life, Work, Reputation, Centenary Conference – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

One thing marked this conference out from the start, a simple rule: No Clockwork Orange. That slim work has become so swollen that it has eclipsed the burning star of Burgess’s talent. It definitely needs to orbit away somewhat.

But can you imagine another conference or arts festival doing that, at this point in history? Or even a university event? There would be Alex mugs and bowler hats for sale with expensive ironic vitamin milk during the breaks.

Not here. There was a straightforward dignity about this event. The idea of Burgess scholars relaying the dark side of The Burgess World for three days might sound off-putting to the more casual reader. But the papers were all accessible, as well as high quality. There was a generous intellectual atmosphere on both sides, that of the presenters and the audience. People enquired in the spirit of wanting to know, there was no needling. There was an early start each day – lots of papers were got through – and the atmosphere was unpretentious and non-combative, at the same time as it was never dumbed-down. All of these things are possible, they can exist in one space. PhD students can give papers without feeling they are about to be torn apart by horrible grey wolf professors.

One of the main pleasures over the three days was this: To take a slice of Burgess is to take a slice of the entire twentieth century. Earthly Powers is perhaps the concentrated form of this, but Burgess is clearly a world-historical writer, and many of the papers spoke to that theme. The papers were skilfully grouped to speak to the larger dimensions of Burgess’s work, Empire, for instance.

According to Nicholas Rankin on ‘Burgess in Gibraltar’, the ‘comic dimension’ of Burgess’s take on Empire was ‘well-meaningness gone wrong’. Siti Saridah Adenan followed this with a paper on ‘Lethargic Empire’ and ‘Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels’. She discussed empire and detachment, in the Burgess character Fenella Crabbe, who sees her new Malayan surroundings as a ‘shabby version of Europe’. Here we got Malaya as boring, as opposed to London, the thrilling centre of Empire.

Crabbe also described the north of England as provincial. Crabbe believed civilisation only happens in temperate climates, ‘where sweat starts, nothing starts’, she explained. There are echoes of this in the current although fundamentally broken London-centric attitudes that have recently been cracked by the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The start of the Cold War in Gibraltar, said Burgess, will also ‘be the end of it’, and perhaps only now can we see how truly prophetic that was.

Matthew Whittle explained how Matthew Arnold was important to Burgess. He took up the quest of the middle class guide for the masses. For Burgess the TV was static and the music hall was social. Television, for Burgess, was the ‘brutal hypnotic eye’. Great points were made here about Burgess’s theme of the little individual versus the imposition of the state, in his novel The Doctor Is Sick, Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. The paper on the The Doctor Is Sick, actually, by Jess Roberts was enthralling.

Burgess’s Toryism must surely be a part of his attitude, but elsewhere we heard how in Italy ‘Burgess rooted for the anarchists and communists’. Burgess was one of those truly independent liberal intellectuals, in the strong sense of that, a permanent dissident and a man who knew his own mind seemingly instinctively, then put that opinion forward no matter who it offended.

Burgess, uncovered by the obscuring bulk of Clockwork Orange, is essentially a rich archive curated by Andrew Biswell and his colleagues, novels, non-fiction, poetry and music. We went to the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night for the premiere of a Burgess symphony. The book reviews of Burgess, as with Orwell, are a whole other historical dimension. Joe Darlington’s paper on these was magnificent.

In a break, Manchester Review of Books writers discussed the Burgess reviews and blurbs they had encountered: As novel readers, in their student days; they were all over, including one on the dust jacket of a single-volume dictionary which simply said ‘this is a fine dictionary’. Burgess perhaps over-reviewed, but he was a staunch advocate of the less successful writers he admired, as well as those he considered to have potential.

There are very large archives beyond not only Clockwork Orange, but beyond all the published work. This said, the ‘No Clockwork’ rule was actually broken three times (let’s call it a rule of thumb) for a paper on performing and re-performing the work for theatre in different countries, translating it into French, and a keynote presentation by Jonathon Green, the slang expert who has been described as the ‘greatest Lexicographer since Johnson’.

Green was there to talk about the recently discovered Nadsat Dictionary fragments. And they are really fragments. But the other thing this conference had was a sense of humour. Green and others addressed this aborted project with an endearing mix of reverence and gentle laughter. Andrew Biswell put up a slide ‘of Burgess getting pissed’, how he would like us to remember him, and Burgess was well remembered throughout.

In fact it felt like he was strangely present, as his piano and other bits of furniture were in the room with us. Many of the discussions ended up talking of ‘Anthony Burgess’ – after all, only a pen name for a bloke called John Wilson – as a shifting series of layers, rather than a solid core. Taken this way, Burgess was in fact present, as the archive holds many of those layers, some of which are still being discovered. Burgess had not, as the saying goes, ‘left the building’. I think John Wilson would have loved this.

We took a coach ride to see No End To Enderby at The Whitworth, which is definitely worth a visit. Then we went on to Xaverian College, Burgess’s old school, then to a drinks reception. Some have claimed that Manchester and Burgess have little real connection, International Anthony Burgess Foundation is changing that erroneous perception.

But they are doing so much more: Here, actually, is the model for the new arts festival, the new conference, and perhaps even the new university. The idiocy of student tuition fees is only just being declared by the politicians who originally advised them. The conference was clearly subsidised, there were no berserk, excluding fees. In fact it was probably cheaper to go to this conference than to sit at home and eat your own supplies. There were no patronising, infantile stage dressings or speeches. The usual galaxy of alibis on a double page spread at the back of the guide was entirely absent. There was no feedback form with a marketing intern standing over you waiting to collect.

The generosity of the Burgess estate is clear: Burgess was a tax exile and criticised for it; he put his money into properties when the tax rate for his income bracket – under Wilson – was 90%, but his estate has now put that money back into Manchester with a faith in the city even Burgess couldn’t quite match some days.

If you swap the patrician capitalism of International Anthony Burgess Foundation for a return to state funding, you have a very good model, in this conference, of how to do things. Formally, the ‘less-is-more’ approach of concentrating on the things that matter and doing them with style, humour, generosity and a fuss-free seriousness should be adopted all over the arts and humanities.

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester Review of Books salutes you, and all who sail in you.

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