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: Ant
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