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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Burgess, Anthony (1917-1993)
"All human life is here, but the Holy Ghost seems to be somewhere else."

"Rome's just a city like anywhere else. A vastly overrated city, I'd say. It trades on belief just as Stratford trades on Shakespeare."

-- Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess was an English novelist and critic. He was also active as a composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator and educationalist. Born John Burgess Wilson in the northern English city of Manchester, he lived and worked variously in Southeast Asia, the United States and Mediterranean Europe. His fiction includes the Malayan trilogy (The Long Day Wanes) on the dying days of Britain's empire in the East, the Enderby cycle of comic novels about a reclusive poet and his muse, the classic speculative recreation of Shakespeare's love-life Nothing Like the Sun, the cult exploration of the nature of evil A Clockwork Orange, and Earthly Powers, a panoramic Tolstoyan saga of the 20th century.

He wrote critical studies of Joyce, Hemingway, Shakespeare and Lawrence, produced the treatises on linguistics Language Made Plain and A Mouthful of Air, and turned out large quantities of journalism in several languages. The translator and adapter of Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus the King and Carmen for the stage, he scripted Jesus of Nazareth and Moses the Lawgiver for the screen and composed the Sinfoni Melayu, the Symphony (No. 3) in C and the opera Blooms of Dublin.

John Burgess Wilson was born on February 25, 1917 in Harpurhey, a northeastern quarter of Manchester, to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. He was known in childhood as Jack. Later, on his confirmation, the name Anthony was added and he became John Anthony Burgess Wilson. It was not until 1956 that he was to conceive and to begin to use the pen-name Anthony Burgess.

He lost his mother, Elizabeth Burgess Wilson, at the age of one. She was a casualty of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic ("Spanish flu"), which also took the life of his sister Muriel. Elizabeth, who is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Manchester (the City of Manchester General Cemetery, Rochdale Road), had been a minor actress and dancer who appeared at Manchester music halls such as the Ardwick Empire and the Gentlemen's Concert Rooms. Her stage name, according to Burgess (there has never been any independent verification), was "The Beautiful Belle Burgess".

Burgess described his father, Joseph Wilson, as descended from an "Augustinian Catholic" background, which probably refers to recusancy. Burgess père was among other things an army corporal, a bookie, a pub pianoplayer, a pianist in movie theaters (accompanying the silent films of the era – see the novel The Pianoplayers), an encyclopaedia salesman, a butcher, and a tobacconist. Burgess described Joseph, who remarried (to a pub landlady), as "a mostly absent drunk who called himself a father".

Burgess was raised by his maternal aunt, and later by his stepmother. His childhood was in large part a solitary one. His home was rooms above an off-licence and newsagent's-tobacconist's shop that his aunt ran, and above a pub.

Youth and education
Burgess was schooled at St. Edmund's Roman Catholic Elementary School, and later at Bishop Bilsborrow Memorial Roman Catholic Primary School in Moss Side. For some years his family lived on Princess Street in the same district.

Good grades from Bishop Bilsborrow resulted in a place at the noted Manchester Catholic secondary school, Xaverian College. It was during his teenage years at this school that he lapsed formally from Catholicism, although he cannot be said to have broken completely with the Church.

He entered the University of Manchester in 1937, graduating three years later with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, 2nd class honours, upper division, in English language and literature. His thesis was on the subject of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

He had originally wanted to study music, but his grades in physics – then a requirement for the subject – were deemed not high enough to qualify for a place on the programme.

Burgess's father died of flu in 1938 and his stepmother of a heart attack in 1940.

War service
In 1940 Burgess began a rather unheroic wartime stint with the military, beginning with the Royal Army Medical Corps, which included a period at a field ambulance station at Morpeth, Northumberland. During this period he sometimes directed an army dance band. He later moved to the Army Educational Corps, where among other things he conducted speech therapy at a mental hospital. He failed in his aspiration to win an officer's commission.

In 1942 the marriage took place in Bournemouth between Burgess and a Welshwoman named Llewela Jones, eldest daughter of a high-school headmaster. She was known to all as "Lynne". Although Burgess indicated on numerous occasions that her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones, the name "Isherwood" does not appear on her birth certificate. Nor was Lynne related to the writer Christopher Isherwood as many people had believed. Lynne and Burgess were fellow students at Manchester University. Their marriage was childless, and, to put it mildly, tempestuous. She died of cirrhosis in 1968.

Burgess was next stationed in Gibraltar at an army garrison. Here he was a training college lecturer in speech and drama, teaching German, Russian, French and Spanish, and helped instruct the troops in "The British Way and Purpose". He was also an instructor for the Central Advisory Council for Forces Education of the UK Ministry of Education.

Early teaching career
Burgess left the army with the rank of sergeant-major in 1946, and was for the next four years a lecturer in speech and drama at the Mid-West School of Education near Wolverhampton and at the Bamber Bridge Emergency Teacher Training College (known as "the Brigg" and associated with the University of Birmingham) near Preston.

At the end of 1950 he took a job as a secondary school teacher of English literature on the staff of Banbury Grammar School (now defunct) in the market town of Banbury, Oxfordshire (see The Worm and the Ring, which the then mayoress of Banbury claimed libeled her). In addition to his teaching duties Burgess was required to supervise sports from time to time, and he ran the school's drama society.

The years were to be looked back on as some of the happiest of Burgess's life. Thanks to financial assistance provided by Lynne's father, the couple was able to put a downpayment on a cottage in the picturesque village of Adderbury, not far from Banbury.

Burgess organised a number of amateur theatrical events in his spare time. These involved local people and students and included productions of T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes (Burgess had named his Adderbury cottage Little Gidding, after one of Eliot's Four Quartets) and Aldous Huxley's The Gioconda Smile.

It was in Adderbury that Burgess cut his journalistic teeth, with several of his contributions published in the local newspaper the Banbury Guardian.

The would-be writer was a habitué of the pubs of the village, especially The Bell and The Red Lion, where his predilection for consuming large quantities of cider was noted at the time. Both he and his wife are believed to have been barred from one or more of the Adderbury pubs because of their riotous behaviour.

In January 1954 Burgess was interviewed by the British Colonial Office for a post in Malaya (now Malaysia) as a teacher and education officer in the British colonial service. He was offered the job and accepted with alacrity, being keen to explore Eastern lands. Several months later he and his wife travelled to Singapore by the liner Willem Ruys from Southampton with stops in Port Said and Colombo.

Burgess was stationed initially in Kuala Kangsar, the royal town in Perak, in what were then known as the Federated Malay States. Here he taught at the Malay College, dubbed "the Eton of the East" and now known as Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK).

In addition to his teaching duties at this school for the sons of leading Malayans, he had responsibilities as a housemaster in charge of students of the preparatory school, who were housed at a Victorian mansion known as "King's Pavilion". The building had once been occupied by the British Resident in Perak. And the edifice had gained notoriety during World War II as a place of torture, being the local headquarters of the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police).

As his novels and autobiography document, Burgess's late 1950s coincided with the communist insurgency, an undeclared war known as the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) when rubber planters and members of the European community – not to mention many Malays, Chinese and Tamils – were subject to frequent terrorist attack.

Following, but not necessarily consequent upon, an alleged dispute with the Malay College's principal about accommodation for himself and his wife, Burgess was posted elsewhere – the couple occupied an apparently rather noisy apartment in the building mentioned above, where privacy was supposedly minimal. This was the professed reason for his transfer to the Malay Teachers' Training College at Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Kota Bharu is situated on the Siamese border; the Thais had ceded the area to the British in 1909 and a British adviser had been installed.

Burgess attained fluency in Malay, spoken and written. The language was still at that time rendered in the adapted Arabic script known as Jawi. He spent much of his free time engaged in creative writing, "as a sort of gentlemanly hobby, because I knew there wasn't any money in it". He published his first novels, Time For A Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East. These became known as "The Malayan Trilogy" and were later to be published in one volume as The Long Day Wanes. During his time in the East he also wrote English Literature: A Survey for Students, and this book was in fact the first Burgess work published (if we do not count an essay published in the youth section of the London Daily Express when Burgess was a child).

After a period of leave in Britain in 1959, Burgess took up a further Eastern post, this time at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin College in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, a sultanate on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Brunei had been a British protectorate since 1888, and was not to achieve independence until 1984. In Brunei Burgess sketched the novel that, when it was published in 1961, was to be entitled Devil of a State. Although the novel dealt with Brunei, for libel reasons the action had to be transposed to an imaginary East African "sultanate" the like of Zanzibar.

About this time Burgess "collapsed" in a Brunei classroom while teaching history. He was expounding on the causes and consequences of the Boston Tea Party at the time. There were reports that he had been diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour, with the likelihood of only surviving a short time, occasioning the alleged breakdown. This turned out to be wrong. He was, however, suffering from the effects of prolonged heavy drinking (and associated poor nutrition), of the often oppressive Southeast Asian climate, of chronic constipation, and of overwork and professional disappointment.

As he put it, the scions of the sultans and of the elite in Brunei "did not wish to be taught", because the free-flowing abundance of oil guaranteed their income and privileged status. He may also have wished for a pretext to abandon teaching and get going full-time as a writer, having made a late start in the art of fiction.

Describing the Brunei debacle to an interviewer over twenty years later, Burgess commented: "One day in the classroom I decided that I'd had enough and to let others take over. I just lay down on the floor out of interest to see what would happen." On another occasion he described it as "a willed collapse out of sheer boredom and frustration". But he gave a different account to the British arts and media veteran Jeremy Isaacs in 1987 when he said: "I was driven out of the Colonial Service for political reasons that were disguised as clinical reasons."

Repatriate years
He was repatriated and relieved of his position in Brunei. He spent some time in a London hospital (see The Doctor Is Sick) where he underwent cerebral tests that, as far as can be made out, proved negative.

On his discharge, benefitting from a sum of money Lynn had inherited from her father together with their savings built up over six years in the East, he decided he had the financial independence to become a full-time writer.

The couple lived successively in an apartment in the town of Hove, near Brighton, on the Sussex coast (see the Enderby quartet of novels); in a semi-detached house called "Applegarth" in the inland Sussex village of Etchingham, just down the road from the residence in Burwash once occupied by Rudyard Kipling; and in a terraced town house in Chiswick, a western inner suburb of London, conveniently located for the White City BBC television studios of which he was a frequent guest in this period.

A cruise holiday Burgess and his wife took to the USSR, calling at St Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), resulted in Honey For the Bears and inspired some of the invented slang for A Clockwork Orange.

European exile
By the end of the 1960s Burgess was once again living outside England, as a tax exile. It was in grander accommodation this time; indeed, at his death he was a multi-millionaire and left a Europe-wide property portfolio of houses and apartments numbering in the double figures.

He lived in a house he had bought at Lija, Malta, for a time, but problems with the state censor prompted a move to Rome. He maintained a flat in the Italian capital and a country house in Bracciano, and a property in Montalbuccio. There was a villa in Provence, in Callian of the Var, France, and an apartment just off Baker Street, London, very near the presumed home of Sherlock Holmes in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories.

Burgess lived for two years in the United States, working as a visiting professor at Princeton University (1970) and as a "distinguished professor" at the City College of New York (1972), and teaching creative writing at Columbia University. He had also been writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1969) and at the University at Buffalo (1976). He lectured on the novel at the University of Iowa in 1975.

Eventually he settled in Monaco, where he was active in the local community, becoming a co-founder in 1984 of the Princess Grace Irish Library, a centre for Irish cultural studies ( He spent much time also at one of his houses, a chalet, in Lugano, Switzerland.

After Lynne's death in 1968 at the age of forty-seven of liver cirrhosis (see Beard's Roman Women), he had remarried, to Liliana Macellari, an Italian translator, adopting the latter's son from a previous relationship. An attempt to kidnap the boy, called Paolo-Andrea, in Rome is believed to have been one of the factors deciding the family's move to Monaco.

Burgess once wrote: "I shall die somewhere in the Mediterranean lands, with an inaccurate obituary in the Nice-Matin, unmourned, soon forgotten." In the event he was to die in the country of his birth. He returned to Twickenham, an outer suburb of London, where he owned a house, to die on November 22, 1993. He was 76 years old. His actual death (of lung cancer – he was a lifelong heavy smoker) occurred at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in the St John's Wood neighbourhood of London. He is thought to have composed the novel Byrne on his deathbed.

It is believed he would have liked his ashes to be kept in Moston Cemetery in Manchester, but in the event they went to the cemetery in Monte Carlo.

The epitaph on Burgess's marble memorial stone, behind which the vessel with his remains is kept, reads "Abba Abba", which has several denotations: (1) the Hebrew for "Father, father", that is, an invocation to God as Father (Mark 14:36 etc.); (2) Burgess's initials forwards and backwards; (3) part of the rhyme scheme for the Petrarchan sonnet; (4) the last words Jesus uttered, in Aramaic, from the Cross; (5) the Burgess novel about the death of Keats, Abba Abba.; and (6) the famous abba rhyme scheme which Tennyson used for his great poem on death, In Memoriam.

Burgess's stepson Paolo-Andrea survived him by less than a decade, dying aged 37 in 2002.


"Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of rereading rationalist authors can expunge it. If there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the ultimate reality and that love of life that I intermittently possess is no preparation for it. In face of the approaching blackness, which Winston Churchill facetiously termed black velvet, concerning oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television image in a power cut seems mere frivolity. But rage against the dying of the light is only human, especially when there are still things to be done, and my rage sometimes sounds to myself like madness. It is not only a question of works never to be written; it is a matter of things unlearned. I have started to learn Japanese, but it is too late; I have started to read Hebrew, but my eyes will not take in the jots and tittles. How can one fade out in peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?"

"A perverse nature can be stimulated by anything. Any book can be used as a pornographic instrument, even a great work of literature if the mind that so uses it is off-balance. I once found a small boy masturbating in the presence of the Victorian steel-engraving in a family Bible."

"All human life is here, but the Holy Ghost seems to be somewhere else."

"Rome's just a city like anywhere else. A vastly overrated city, I'd say. It trades on belief just as Stratford trades on Shakespeare."

"The aura of the theocratic death penalty for adultery still clings to America, even outside New England, and multiple divorce, which looks to the European like serial polygamy, is the moral solution to the problem of the itch. Love comes into it too, of course, but in Europe we tend to see marital love as an eternity which encompasses hate and also indifference: when we promise to love we really mean that we promise to honour a contract. Americans, seeming to take marriage with not enough seriousness, are really taking love and sex with too much."

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
The Talk Of Lawrence