While staying recently in Chiswick, I went on a literary pilgrimage to Glebe Street, where Anthony Burgess and his wife Lynn lived in the 1960s. I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got to No. 24. Genuflect at the garden gate?
Halfway down the street, a triangulation took place. The postman came out of a front gate, a woman arrived from the opposite direction and stopped him, and I stepped aside to circumvent them. As I did so, I heard the woman say, ‘Have you got anything for No. 24?’
Coincidence? It seemed more like a prearranged meeting. ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘You live in Burgess’s house!’
She too was a fan, and in the flush of the moment she invited me in for tea.
We should have had Burgessian triple gins and water, then gone on a pub crawl, got into fights, lost teeth. But I settled for gin and water without the gin, quicker to down than tea. I’d had the sudden realization that she might have decided I was a potential maniac.
‘I don’t normally invite strange men off the street like this,’ she said. She obviously did think I was a maniac; I had better go. Before I did, I tried to take in my surroundings. The house had had makeovers but would have been easily recognizable to Burgess. It was very quiet. In the silence, I listened for Lynn, softly coughing her liver and her life away in the bedroom upstairs. Burgess had heard his wife’s cough after her death; Haji the border collie had pricked up his ears, too.
There was nothing. Only that negation of noise which is not silence but the sound of the flow of time.
Here in Kuala Lumpur there is noise – the hum and buzz of an Asian city, thunder rumbling round a tropical forest of cranes and towers. Time has flowed fast.
Looking out of our Barbican-Brutalist condo, I wonder what Burgess would recognize if he made a ghostly visit to the land where he set his first three published novels, the books that made his name – literally: Anthony Burgess, in place of John Anthony Burgess Wilson. We are in his old KL carousing-ground, seedy Chow Kit. But KL is no longer ‘Kouala L’impure’, as Burgess claimed Cocteau dubbed it; there is nary a red light to be seen (or is it age that dims the sight?). There are, however, odd survivals: one is the Coliseum, down the road, where you can still get a decent colonial-era tiffin: ‘a portion of fried fish, a steak with onions and chipped potatoes, a dish of chopped pineapple and tinned cream’, washed down with Tiger beers. I would wager that Burgess peed a few pints into the Coliseum’s Duchampesque urinals. (They are kept filled with ice cubes . . . Why? I asked the barman. ‘To cool your balls, sir.’ Burgess, chronically randy despite or because of Lynn, would have benefited.)
Otherwise, Burgess’s Malayan trilogy seems to be set in a different world – in the low-rise ruins of the British Empire, suburban Piranesi with the ‘snaky, leechy jungle’ and its Communist terrorist denizens lurking on all sides, and National Service Tommies being vomited from bar to brothel. That other world is hyper-real. When Burgess pre-warns the reader (and the litigious) about the first of the trilogy, Time for a Tiger (1956), that ‘The Malay state of Lanchap and its towns and inhabitants do not really exist’, it is rather like Magritte declaring ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ It is all of the utmost verisimilitude, with events copied and pasted direct from his and Lynn’s six Malayan years in the 1950s. Admittedly the names are changed. Lanchap (‘Masturbate’) is Perak; Kenching (‘Urine’) of The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second volume, is Kota Bharu. In the third, Beds in the East (1959), the setting is unnamed, but events and characters are drawn no less from the life.
Burgess’s Malaya, then, is impeccably authentic, despite the smutty schoolboy renamings. In contrast to Maugham, the outsider, and even Conrad, whose viewpoint was seaborne, he was there almost long enough to count as an old hand; certainly long enough to raise two fingers to colonial mores. The setting ought to be visitable. Yet whereas Glebe Street has had mere makeovers, Malaya seems to have undergone the total Grand Designs metamorphosis. The Malayan trilogy is a period piece.
But it is much more. It was written on a cusp in time, between the death of empire and the birth of nations, and, as Paul Bowles saw in Morocco and Lawrence Durrell in Cyprus, the demise of the 500-year European imperial project was a good point to write from. Things were falling apart and re-forming; change is the motor of literature as much as the subject of history. It was a time of bathos rather than pathos. One of Burgess’s main characters sees the end of empire as Götterdämmerung; in truth, it was less Wagner than Gilbert & Sullivan. The Malayan trilogy may be fiction, then, but it is also eyewitness history. It ponders, too, on what is to come: the triptych ends with Malaya’s independence, and with a glimpse of its future – one in which there is hope of inter-racial harmony in this ‘exquisite, impossible country’, but in which the new order would be ‘based on racial mystique’. That is prescient.
The three novels also prognosticate Burgess’s own future. His Malayan teddy boys – ‘Punch him in the bodek,’ they yell (those parts one cools at the Coliseum) – are elder brothers to the Nadsat-speaking droogs of A Clockwork Orange. Learning Malay, Burgess said, ‘changed the whole shape of my mind’. His ears were opened to the strange music of words, not least words in his own native tongue: ‘the brontoid dawn’; ‘plenilunar buttocks’; an ‘apneumatic bosom’. All this is classic Burgess.
Burgess himself realized that he ‘came here as a teacher, but left as a writer’ – a fully formed writer, ringmaster of settings and atmospheres, emotions and motivations, words, plot (which is another term for coincidences) and, best of all, characters. The Observer critic wrote of his ‘splendidly mad’ cast. We tend to think of imperial Brits as Newboltian rugger-buggers. Many of them were; many of them were, or went, clinically bonkers. Burgess’s main character, Victor Crabbe, is quietly mad but not at all splendid: he teaches and adulterizes his way through the trilogy, central to the plot but crabwise to the action. Burgess denied that Crabbe was himself; he is, rather, an avatar, a self-generated plaything of a reckless imagination. The rest are gleefully splendid, and include Ibrahim, Crabbe’s cross-dressing Malay houseboy, Fatimah Bibi, for whom kissing is ‘the blackest sensual depravity’, and Rosemary Michael, a pre-#MeToo peach serially wooed by perfidious Albionites, and serially jilted because of her Tamil hue; Burgess called the real-life Rosemary ‘a true victim of imperialism’.
Most memorable of all is Nabby Adams, a shambolic giant of a policeman in the Transport Pool with a dog that answers to the name of ‘Cough’ (in strict orthography, ‘’Ck Off’: her previous owner, Nabby explains apologetically, ‘was always telling her to get from under his feet’). Ruinously fond of beer, Nabby is both holy innocent and tortured hero, ‘Prometheus with the eagles of debt and drink pecking at his liver’. Strangely, he – a Northamptonshire sexton’s son – is eloquent in Urdu, thanks to an unexplained past. Far from being some monster of Burgess’s creation, he was closely based on a certain Donald D. ‘Lofty’ Dunkeley. We forget that empire threw up such marvellous mutations.
With many others, they make up a Hieronymus Bosch crowd of grotesques. It is all mad indeed – Kipling on speed, Willie Maugham on laughing gas. It could also have been anarchic, but Burgess was a deft orchestrator of themes and forms; it helped that he had been a composer before he was a writer. The theme of the trilogy’s first movement is music’s great accompanist, booze. Burgess claimed he applied for the Malaya job when drunk, then forgot about it until summoned to the interview. In Malaya he went on as he began. Time for a Tiger is the beeriest book imaginable, with its constant refrain of ‘Tiger, Anchor, Carlsberg’. The title itself was a slogan on advertising clocks supplied to kedais, Chinese shops-cum-bars. Nabby is ‘six feet eight inches of thirst’; beer is ‘his houri, his paramour’, offering ‘euphoria far beyond the release of detumescence’. I once unwisely read the book in a period when I was deprived of booze, and it made me physically ache for beer. Even thinking of the title still produces a Pavlovian response, an irresistible craving to put a Tiger in my tankard.
From drink to food. The Enemy in the Blanket is filled with maniacal menus and fatal feasts, like the ‘Edwardian luncheons’ of Crabbe’s cook, Ah Wing: ‘ox-tail soup, grilled sole, Scotch eggs, beef and four vegetables, caramel cream, Camembert’. And not only does Ah Wing’s cooking form part of the plot, it also explains history, for, in its very indigestibility, ‘a tradition had been preserved in order to humiliate. Perhaps it really was time the British limped out of Malaya.’ A Clockwork Orange would be dystopic; this is dyspeptic.
In Beds in the East, it is Burgess’s great formative passion – music – that pervades the story. A young Chinese prodigy has written a Malayan Symphony. Will the fusion of classical Western symphonic form and traditional Eastern content ever be played? Or will Malaya sell out to the jukebox, the Platters and a global-American future? Music resounds through the book, as it would in many of Burgess’s later works. Orgasm is marked ffff; grief is notated with an allusion to Honegger; booze and music mix in ‘the great Brahmsian movement of the sixth glass’. And, towards the close of the book, when Crabbe penetrates the hulu, the upriver heart of Malayan darkness, music, empire, plot, life all fall apart as disordered 78 rpm discs on a radiogram play fragments of Elgar, Parry and Dame Clara Butt. It is the aleatoric end of the imperial backing-track, Conrad in the age of Naked Lunch.
So, no: this is no mere period piece. Nor is it mere comic opera. It is a record of and reflection on the most traumatic age in Britain’s recent history, an age whose repercussions we still live with today.
In real life it was Burgess himself, not the Chinese boy, who composed a Sinfoni Melayu (never to be performed). Returning in 1980, he bemoaned the fact that Malaysia had Barbara Cartland novels in the bookshops and Dallas on TV, but still no symphony orchestra. The jukebox had triumphed.
Forty years on, though, there is a symphony orchestra, the Malaysian Philharmonic. Time has fleshed out Burgess’s ghosts of Malaya’s future, his dream of a multicultural nation. But I still wanted to look for ghosts of Malaya’s past, and particularly for Burgess’s own spirit. Kuala Lumpur has been exorcized by the sheer velocity of its escape from the twentieth century, but I felt I would find something in the capital of Burgess’s Lanchap, Kuala Hantu (hantu is ‘ghost’). Kuala Kangsar, the real-life Kuala Hantu, is a backwater, and in the slow provincial flow of time, ghosts might have clung on. I went on another pilgrimage.
The physical backdrop was little changed. There was the Malay College, the ‘Eton of the East’, where Burgess taught – inspiration for Crabbe’s Mansor College. There was the Idris Club, Crabbe’s Iblis (‘Devil’) Club, where one drank when not slumming it. And there, on a rise above the kuala, or confluence, was the King’s Pavilion, where Burgess and Crabbe had lived. I looked up at the top-floor veranda where Nabby would snore the night away on a Bombay fornicator, knocked out by Crabbe’s booze. Somewhere within was a literally haunted bathroom, where unspeakable things had happened during the Japanese occupation. Was it still haunted? It was now a girls’ school, so as good as impenetrable.
The Idris Club, closed for the day, was impenetrable too, but I eventually found a kedai, the Double Lion. The Tigers were slightly warm; Nabby would have approved – iced beer to him was ‘effeminate . . . and American’. In the first eucharistic euphoria of alcohol, and for the first time since I had arrived, Burgess suddenly seemed a real presence. But as the Tigers tightened their hold, I realized it was wishful thinking. The only spectre here was me, pale visitant from a distant isle. The only sort of time that flowed was Tiger time – and it all ended in the Universal Urinal, that bourn from which no pilsener returns. The ghosts had gone. Only books, solidified memory, remained.*
Back in KL, writing this, I have just looked at the Malayan section of Burgess’s autobiography. In it I find that Burgess and Lofty used to drink ‘warm Tiger beer in the Double Lion kedai . . .’
Maybe there are no coincidences, only patterns we can’t make out because we’re lost in the geometry.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Tim Mackintosh-Smith 2021