Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Anthony Burgess, SF 70

Tigers at the Double Lion

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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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About the contributor

TIm mackintosh-Smith’s most recent book, Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, was published by Yale in 2019. As a historian, he sees the absence of a blue plaque on Burgess’s only London house as a grave omission and trusts the injustice will be remedied forthwith. The lady at No. 24 (who kindly assures TM-S that she didn’t think he was a maniac) and the other good literary folk of Chiswick are doing their best.

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