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A Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In A Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: A Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in A Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of A Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.

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You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

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Anthony Burgess discusses Evelyn Waugh:


From Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess (1984).

Brideshead Revisited [1945]

The creation of a television series based on this book (in 1981) was a pretext for the reappraisal of the book itself. The general consensus was that Brideshead Revisited was a sham and a snobbish sham. This referred as much to Waugh’s recension of the book in 1960 (he trimmed off the fat, meaning the gluttony appropriate to deprived wartime but reprehensible in peace) as to the self-indulgent first version. Everything in the novel would seem to be wrong — the implausible invention of a rich English aristocratic family haunted by the God of the Catholics; the Hound of Heaven pursuing the agnostic narrator-hero; the implication that only the upper class can be taken seriously. Charles Ryder, who narrates the story, is seduced by Brideshead Castle and its denizens: but this seduction is merely the prelude to his improbable seduction by God. The eschatological does not sit well with the sybaritic. And so on. And so on.

And yet. And yet. I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears. It is, appropriately, a seductive book. Even the overblown metaphors move and charm. The comedy is superb: Mr Samgrass, Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche are wonderful portraits. And the evocation of pre-war Oxford and Venice, where Ryder “drowns in honey”, is of great brilliance. This is one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter. (Increasingly one finds that the greatest works of literary art are those with the most flaws — Hamlet, for example.) Waugh’s regular Augustan stance, suitable for a comic writer, becomes confused with one romantic as a rose blown by moonlight, but it does not matter. Apart from its literary qualities, it breathes a theological certainty which, if a little too chic, is a world away from the confusions of Greeneland and the squalor of the Irish. It is a novel altogether readable and damnably magical.

Sword of Honour

Evelyn Waugh [1952-61]

This work was not originally planned as a trilogy. Men at Arms came out in 1952, to be followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955. The author considered then that he had said all he had to say about the experiences of his near-autobiographical Guy Crouchback in the Second World War, but he changed his mind later and completed the sequence with Unconditional Surrender in 1961 (published in the United States as The End of the Battle). In 1966 he pruned and revised and issued the trilogy as a single novel in one volume. Most readers prefer to take the items severally and in their unrevised form (compare Brideshead Revisited).

Guy Crouchback is a Catholic gentleman with a castello in Italy and a private income. His wife has left him to indulge in a series of marital adventures and his religion forbids divorce and remarriage. He is lonely, dim, dull, and has rejected the current of life. The coming of war fires him with a crusading zeal, but he is in his late thirties and the fighting machine does not want him. Eventually he joins the Halberdiers, trains, sees action in Dakar, Crete, finally Yugoslavia. Waugh does not push Crouchback too much into the foreground at first. There is a fine galaxy of comic characters — the magnificent Apthorpe, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, the uniformed clubmen, as well as some more lovable than the satirist Waugh was previously able to give us — honest professional soldiers like Colonel Tickeridge, old Mr Crouchback with his firm and simple faith, eventually Uncle Peregrine, a universally dreaded bore who is not boring. But the pathos of Crouchback’s situation is woven strongly into the fine war reportage and the superb comic action. Virginia, his wife, divorced again, rejects his advances. His new bride, the army, is proving a slut. Disillusionment about the true nature of the war grows with the entry of the Russians into the conflict.

The age of the gentleman is disappearing. Men whom Crouchback admires prove treacherous or cowardly. There is a new type of hero emerging, summed up in the failed officer and imposter Trimmer, a former ship’s hairdresser. Trimmer sleeps with Virginia and begets a child on her. Crouchback and she reconsummate their marriage and ensure that a great Catholic family has an heir, though — by an irony appropriate to the new age — this child is really a proletarian by-blow. Crouchback survives the débâcle of Crete, is sickened by the “people’s war” in the Balkans, feels the death-urge, regrets the passing of an old order of chivalry and humanity but, with the stoicism of his kind, makes unconditional surrender to history. He had much in common with the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a tetralogy of the First World War on which Waugh’s work seems to be modelled) — Christopher Tietjens, the incorrupt and traduced gentleman of Christian ideals. What Ford’s book did for one war, Waugh [sic] has done for the other. Sword of Honour is not merely the story of one man’s battles; it is the whole history of the European struggle itself, told with verve, humour, pathos and sharp accuracy.

Extracts from Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987).

The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. They missed out on the suffering, never gave a drop of blood to the cause, and yielded not one rood of land to the Henrican expropriators. (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987), pp. 7-8 of the 1988 Penguin paperback)

The converted Catholics of modern literature seem concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in — naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue. [I disagree: I think he might have enjoyed this in a perverse way.] (pg. 8)

Jack Tollitt became, like Greene and Waugh, a fierce and pedantic Catholic, shame and example to us all. (pg. 53)

The situation presented in Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms applied to potential rank and file as well as to Oxford gentlemen like Guy Crouchback. What could be sickening about that novel, if the nausea were not mitigated by comic irony, is the assumption that a certain segment of British society was, on the grounds that it had an income from land, an Oxbridge education, and friends among the ruling classes, specially qualified to lead those with none of those irrelevant advantages. Kingsley Amis, reviewing Men at Arms, was right to ask what was wrong with Guy Crouchback’s enlisting as a private in the Pioneer Guards if he were so keen to do his duty. Hore-Belisha’s army reforms, which assumed that the gift of leadership was something to be learned by anyone who could learn it, and not a paracletic bestowal on gentlemen graduates, were considered to be Jewish impertinence. (pg. 222)

Evelyn Waugh was right, in his Put Out More Flags, to point to the peculiarly dreamlike nature of that first war winter. It was cosy. There was no shortage of Player’s cigarettes, real cream cakes and whiskey at twelve shillings and sixpence the bottle. There was a blackout, but this on moonless nights was a call to erotic adventure. (pg. 223)

Trevor Wilson, a Malayan Information Officer with whom I had dined in Kota Bharu, had given me some silk shirts to take back to his friend Graham Greene. Greene had an apartment in the Albany, no longer decorated with the miniature whisky bottles which he had been collecting and was to empty into the pages of Our Man in Havana. He was amiable and I signed a copy of Time for a Tiger [which I think is better than anything by Greene] for him. He took me to lunch at the Café Royal and, as it was Friday, we ate fish. Greene made it clear to me that he had achieved much and had reached a plateau where he could afford to take leisurely breath. He had not written the definitive Malayan novel which would match the definitive Vietnamese one entitled The Quiet American, and he did not seem to think I would write it either. I was comic, there was frivolity in my book. He praised the other great Catholic, Evelyn Waugh, and considered The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which had just appeared, a masterpiece. My own Catholicism, being of the cradle variety, was suspect. I was evidently not to be taken seriously as a novelist, rather as a colonial civil servant who had had the luck to find excellent fictional material in the course of his duties. I was an amateur. This was pretty much my own view of myself. I shook hands with Greene, whom I was not to see again till we were both settled on the Côte D’Azur, and went to look for a job. (pg. 418)


Words on Waugh’s World

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Front cover of Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony BurgessLittle Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mancunians will forgive any faux pas but one: success. In the 1960s and ’70s, the author of A Clockwork Orange became a core component of the M.M.F.T.M.(T.C.) community: Mooch More Famous Than Me (The Coont). In the 1980s, Morrissey would join him, but the two Mancunians already had two big things in common: music and Irish Catholicism. Music is how Mozza made his name and how Buzza originally wanted to make his. Mozza is I.C. on both sides, Buzza was I.C. on one, the side of his birthname, that of the Wilsons:

They did odd jobs, sang and danced, joined foreign armies and disappeared into Belgium, migrated to Dublin, came back with Irish wives. There was a regular tradition of marrying into Ireland, which meant often into Irish families that had taken the boat from Queenstown to Liverpool and wandered inland to Manchester. I ended up as more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon. My father broke the tradition by marrying a Protestant of mainly Scottish ancestry – Lowland, hence Anglo-Saxon – but he married her in a church with a Maynooth priest and she converted easily. (pg. 9)

She died easily too, swept away with Burgess’s older sister Muriel in the epidemic of influenza with which Mother Nature reasserted herself after the clumsy, man-made slaughter of the First World War. Whatever man can do, Ma can do better. Arbitrary loss and natural evil are important themes of Burgess’s fiction, but death didn’t just shape his writing: it made him a writer. Given a year to live in 1959, after the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour, he set about creating a pension for his wife:

I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I would have to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job… I would have to turn myself into a professional writer… (pg. 448)

It’s a good way to end a highly readable autobiography, which might be called a B.B. book: Before Burgess, before fame. You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the highly readable sequel, is A.B., After Burgess, after John Wilson made his dead mother’s maiden name internationally famous. But he never forgot his roots:

I am proud to be a Mancunian. I have, after a struggle with a people given to linguistic conservatism, even succeeded in importing the epithet mancuniense into the Italian language… and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a cittadino mancuniense, cioè romano. At the time of my birth, Manchester was a great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian debased itself when it grew ashamed of the city of its origin: a superb liberal organ was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism. (pg. 15)

That showing-off and opinionated self-importance is characteristically Burgessian, but self-importance isn’t unknown among other Mancunians. You can learn a lot about the northern inferiority complex from this book and about the refinement of it that came with being both northern and Catholic. But Burgess is right to resent certain things. He was always a better and more interesting writer than the southerner Graham Greene, a convert who thought Burgess’s “cradle Catholicism was suspect” (pg. 418). He wasn’t a better writer than the convert Evelyn Waugh, but some of his best writing was inspired by Waugh. The very funny, but also sinister, misunderstanding in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second book of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy, is obviously Wauvian, but with Burgessian embellishments: it involves an edentate Chinese cook, a cat, and a kitchenmaid, and hinges on the ambiguity of the Malay verb makan, which can mean both “to eat” and “to fuck”.

Burgess says that “the Malay language, and later the Chinese, changed … the whole shape of my mind” (pg. 371), but his fascination with language and languages began well before his encounter with the polyglot gallimaufrey of Malaya. As a child, he was attracted to the exotic French on the label of an H.P. sauce bottle. But he also heard exotic language from his family:

My grandfather would say, if [his wife] Mary Ann had a headache, “Oo’s gotten ’eed-warch.” The “oo” is Anglo-Saxon heo and the “warch” is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as “She’s got a headache”, but Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons… Since the provincial revolt of the 1950s, the Lancashire accent, especially in its Liverpool form, has become acceptable in the wider world, but the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography, and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. (pg. 11)

This is another of Burgess’s losses: to have lived long, as he did, is to have lost much. Not just his mother: his mother-tongue too. But the dialect, “automatically comic” in England’s “centralising linguistic culture”, lingered into his adulthood. After the war he moved to the hamlet of Bamber Bridge near Priest-Town Preston. His first wife Lynne could not understand what she was asked when she went into a pub during heavy rain: “Art witshet?” Lancashire lad Burgess could translate this as “Art thou wet-shod?” (pg. 347) Through Lynne, whom he had met while both were students at Manchester University, he encountered another disappearing linguistic tradition. She was Anglo-Welsh and her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones:

Llewela is the feminine form of Llewelyn. It has noble leonine connotations, but to the students of Manchester it was a joke. The English always have trouble with the Welsh unvoiced lateral unless, like me, they have studied phonetics… Llewela solved the problem for the Sais [i.e., the Saxons] by borrowing the masculine termination and calling herself Lynne. (pg. 208)

But she wasn’t a Cymric incarnation of Burgess’s “darkly Mediterranean” erotic ideal: she was “a tall athletic girl, blonde and blue-eyed, with a superbly developed body” (pg. 206). One of Burgess’s most famous books, Earthly Powers (1980), is about a homosexual writer based on Somerset Maugham; one of his most memorable characters is a homosexual Malay called Ibrahim in Time for a Tiger (1956). But Burgess said book and character were exercises in imaginative sympathy: he never felt inclined that way. If Little Wilson and Big God is anything to go by, he didn’t have time. When he wasn’t studying phonetics, composing symphonies, or translating menus into Latin, he was seeking or shagging women. This is the metaphor he chooses to sum up his introduction to Asia:

I wandered Singapore and was enchanted. I picked up a Chinese prostitute on Bugis Street. We went to a filthy hôtel de passe full of the noise of hawking and spitting, termed by the cynical the call of the East. I entered her and entered the territory. (Part 5, pg. 373)

There’s lots of lechery in this book. And lots of literature, but Burgess didn’t always acquire it in the conventional way. Although his degree would be in English Literature, his first love was music:

In school essays I would refer to the Mozartian limpidity of Addison’s prose or the Wagnerian richness of Thomas de Quincey… I was the only one in a French lesson to be able to say what a casse-noisette was, thanks to Tchaikovsky. I also knew the Faust legend, because of Gounod and Busoni, and could read Cyrillic, having studied in Manchester Central Library the original score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Asked to compare the styles of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters”, I said one had the austerity of Sibelius and the other the sensuousness of the Venusberg music in Tannhäuser. What I should have said was that one was in blank verse and the other rhymed. (pg. 115-6)

Autodidactism and showing-off: Burgess began both early. He describes composing a symphony in 1934, in his late teens:

The writing of a three-hundred-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. You can spend four hours scoring a passage which, in fast tempo, may take only a few seconds to perform. The ring finger of my right hand is permanently deformed with the strain of writing that one work alone. It was a highly juvenile work, and the Luftwaffe, in the name of Beethoven, to say nothing of Wagner, was probably right to destroy it in 1941. (pg. 159)

That “merely literary” is a dig at the southern literary establishment, which Burgess felt never accepted him or properly acknowledged his talent. But he didn’t devote much of that talent to writing about the war that destroyed his symphony. It wasn’t the overpowering experience people who didn’t live through it sometimes imagine: it had been anticipated for years and Burgess seems to have spent his military service being buggered about and being a difficult bugger. After yet another brush with authority he remarks: “I felt, as often before, that I was marked” (pg. 275). But he saw no fighting and ran no great risk of death, unlike some of his fellow students at university:

Poor as I was, however, I still insisted on the Friday night booze-up, with Gaunt and Mason and two men from the English second year called Ian McColl and Harry Green. Green and McColl fascinated me. They were coarse, rejecting totally the grace of civilisation, but the English language and its literature were their life. McColl was so soaked in Anglo-Saxon that it was a natural instinct for him to avoid Latinisms and Hellenisms even in colloquial speech. He was quite prepared, like the poet Barnes, to call an omnibus a folk wain or a telephone a fartalker. He knew German but hated the Nazis, who, after all, were only disinfecting their language of exoticisms in McColl’s own manner. He and Green knew there was a war coming, and they did regular infantry drill with the university Officer Training Corps. They were both killed in France in 1940, following the tradition of First World War subalterns, and this they were perhaps prepared to foresee. They never spoke of a future; they were fixed in a present of which the literary past was a part. McColl composed orally an endless saga about two lecherous boozers called Filthfroth and Brothelbreath … Green, outside a pub in the Shambles [a district in Manchester] called The White Horse, exclaimed at the ancient rune [Þ], which the Normans replaced with a digraph, in the definite article. In some arty antique signs, like those outside county town teashops, that rune appears as a Y, but it did not here. “Christ,” Green cried, “they’ve got a proper fucking thorn.” (Part 3, pg. 198-9)

Would McColl and Green have become famous if they had survived the war? Perhaps not, but Burgess manages to “embalm” their “poignant history” in “the magical spices of words”, as Lytton Strachey said of another autobiographer, Cardinal Newman. If Burgess had not memorialized them, they, their “Filthfroth” and “fucking thorn” might now be entirely forgotten: two new-lit candles blown out more than seventy years ago by the breath of Mars. Earlier in the book, Burgess has described a lost photograph of his mother and sister, who both died while he was still a baby. It was “long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites” (pg. 16). The photograph had gone; his memory of it remained; now there is just the description of the memory in a book. McColl and Green are one step nearer reality: remembered and recorded from life. Burgess saved a crumb or two of their mortality from Edax Tempus, Devouring Time, and that is part of the value of this book. It’s about a famous man before he became famous and saves many crumbs from his own and other people’s ordinary lives. But he obviously wanted fame: when he stole “pass-forms” during the war and forged signatures to go on illegitimate leave, he used names like “J. Joyce, E. Pound, E.M. Forster, Lieut for Major” (pg. 281), knowing that they were unlikely to rouse suspicion in the philistine army.

That first forgee is particularly important: Burgess spent the war seeking strength through Joyce, whom he’d first been bedazzled by before the war. “Ironically”, however, the hell-sermons of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had frightened him back to faith: “I ran to the confessional, poured out my sins of doubt almost sobbing, and received kind absolution and a nugatory penance” (pg. 141). I can’t take the same jouissance in Joyce, but Burgess followed him faithfully from the fairly conventional Portrait through the deepening experimentation of Ulysses (1922) into the poly-performative linguistic maelstrom of Finnegans Wake (1939), which “impressed” the unliterary Lynne “only because the apparent typing chimpanzees had put me into it as ‘J.B.W. Ashburner’” (pg. 215) – John Burgess Wilson used to visit her at Ashburne Hall, a female hall of residence at Manchester University. I can’t say how happy Joyce’s influence has been on Burgess’s writing, but it did sometimes get a little silly. In “The Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, Joyce used older forms of English to create “a series of literary parodies which serve the representation of the growth of the embryo in the womb”. Of his Wagnero-Joycean novel The Worm and the Ring (1960), Burgess says:

In describing the adulterous act of my hero Howarth-Siegfried and Hilda on a school excursion to Paris, I tried to go further than Joyce by hiding the shameful deed in a kind of reversed history of French prose style, with the Strasbourg Oath collapsing into Latin at the moment of climax. This had nothing to do with the Ring of the Nibelungs: it was sheer literary self-indulgence. (pg. 368)

You said it, Buzza. His attempt to “go further” than Joyce reminds me of a scene in the Comic Strip’s “Bad News Tour” (1983), a heavy-metal mockumentary in which a guitarist boasts of having learnt “Stairway to Heaven” when he was only twelve, even though Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was twenty-two. Burgess undoubtedly had no time for Led Zeppelin, though he contributed strongly, if inadvertently, to the counter-culture with at least one book: the Led Zeppelin drummer Bonzo would be dressing up as a “droogie” after Stanley Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And Burgess may never have heard of the Smiths and Morrissey, that later Mancunian who committed the cardinal sin of rising to international fame. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if the two had been swapped at birth, Morrissey being sent back in time and Burgess brought forward. The art of both is rooted firmly in northern England, but Burgess’s tendrils wandered much further: he’s right to contrast Maugham’s Anglo-centric Malayan fiction with his own, which drew on all races of the region and mingled all their languages. Morrissey has written about Hispanic gang-members and sexual encounters in Rome, but he’s never tried to translate The Wasteland into Malay.

For Burgess’s full discussion of A Clockwork Orange, you’ll have to look at part two of the autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, but Burgess’s post-war, pre-independence days in Malaya are fully covered in this, part one. They inspired the Malayan Trilogy, which contains some of his best, funniest, and richest writing, and he says they killed Lynne, who became an alcoholic there through boredom and acquired anaemia because of the climate. Burgess ends the book meditating on the irony of trying to earn money for a wife who would die long before him. He begins it in the middle of the 1980s, meditating in New York on his own survival and the endless struggle he has had with the English language: “Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting. This book is another battle.” (pg. 6)

Burgess did die fighting and although he never wrote as well as Waugh, very few people have and Waugh did not mix so many ingredients with such gusto into his writing. Little Wilson and Big God doesn’t have the elegance or elegy of A Little Learning, Waugh’s slender essay in autobiography, but I’ve read both books several times and hope to read both again. Burgess’s is much longer and you’ll laugh more and learn more: he always retained an outsider’s fascination with the strangeness of human beings and their languages. The larger strangeness of mathematics and science passed him by, as it did Waugh, and phonetics was as close as he got to science. Burgess’s experiences during the war weren’t as powerful as those of J.G. Ballard, who spent it in a Japanese detention camp, rather than teaching English on the Rock of Gibraltar as Burgess did, but both writers were influenced by a hotter sun and spicier air. One was born east and came west, the other was born west and went east: that shared experience means that their fiction has an un-English richness and extravagance. Ballard’s literary flight, fuelled on science and psychosis, will last longer, but Burgess is in some ways more entertaining and is certainly funnier. There’s Lancashire music-hall in this book, with Catholic guilt, northern chippiness, and some of the “old sharp flavours” of English life that the rising tide of Americanization and standardization would soon wash away. And much more beside, from rejections by T.S. Eliot and pub-encounters with George Orwell to cats feasting on snakes in Borneo and dicing with death driving through the Malay jungle. As introduction to Burgess or explication for his fans, I’d call it doubleplusgood.

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