Monday, March 19, 2007

Burgess in the Independent

In August 1954 an eccentric, chippy English teacher named John Burgess Wilson made a rather miserable boat journey to Malaya. His first two novels had just been rejected by Heinemann. He and his wife, Lynne, had become addicted to gin on the long voyage; by the time they arrived at Singapore, Lynne was so paralytic that their journey north into the peninsula had to be postponed until she had dried out. Wilson hadn't even intended to apply for the teaching position in the Colonial Service. He thought, he said later, that he had written about a job in theChannel Islands, but had mixed the locations up when posting his letter drunk.

During the five years he spent in Malaya and Brunei as a Colonial Officer, Wilson was frequently in trouble with his superiors and the police, his marriage became hellish and he ended up being invalided home with a suspected cerebral tumour after he lay down on a classroom floor and refused to get up.

But it was the making of him. For, as his biographer Roger Lewis puts it: "John Wilson went to Malaya and came back as Anthony Burgess." The man who was to go on to write such celebrated novels as Earthly Powers and A Clockwork Orange - and to assume the persona of the pseudonym he wrote under - finally found his voice in a country where the white man's role was to prepare three races, the Malays, Chinese and Indians, for independence; and, while he was at it, to try to avoid being shot or garrotted by the Communist insurgents who lurked nearby in the omnipresent rainforests.

By the time he left the East, Burgess was the published author of the three novels known as the Malayan Trilogy and had begun, in his forties, one of the most prolific and successful literary careers of the late 20th century. He was happy to acknowledge his debt to the country. "The Malay language," he wrote, "changed not just my attitude to communication in general but the whole shape of my mind."

Fifty years after the declaration of independence - the focal point of all three novels - I stand outside Burgess's classroom at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, a boarding school set up in 1905 for the sons of the Malay upper classes and known as the "Eton of the East". Here it was that the trouble all began for Victor Crabbe, the trilogy's hero; here too it began for Burgess. It was to this classroom that Crabbe, and Burgess, walked from quarters in the King's Pavilion (the former British Residence) overlooking the Perak river, arriving drenched in sweat. It was around this town, thinly disguised as Kuala Hantu (estuary of ghosts), that Burgess/Crabbe earned odd looks from his fellow colonials for drinking in local dives rather than amongst white men.

For Time for a Tiger, the first of the trilogy, and set around the Malay College (renamed Mansor School), is no mere novel. It is so closely related to actual events that many identified themselves - often with displeasure - when it was published. (The second book provoked similar reactions, and even a libel case.) It was this authenticity that led Burgess to claim that he had captured Malaya and Borneo more accurately than either Somerset Maugham or Conrad. But it also led to ambivalence among those who knew him then. Should they be proud to have been im-mortalised by such a famous writer, or was he just using them?

The Malay College old boys of the class of '55 who had Burgess as their form master as well as English teacher are agreed on one thing: they'd never come across anyone like him before. "He was the first Bohemian we had met," recalls Ariff Babu, now a businessman in nearby Ipoh. He wore bell-bottomed trousers, and rarely a tie. He sweated profusely - "wiping out the drips from his forehead and neck to no end, while his armpits were never dry," remembers another pupil, Suleiman Manan - and constantly ran his hands through a stubbornly errant forelock. Mr Wilson was certainly no smooth Oxonian. "He was not elegant in speech," says Suleiman, "munching his words to a mumble as though he had had too much whisky the night before."

But Burgess impressed by not speaking down to his charges - he addressed them as "gentlemen", a term Suleiman says had never been used to them before - and also by his command of Malay, written in Jawi, the Arabic script common at that time. "I can never forget his first day in class," says Ariff. "He strode to the blackboard and in a firm hand wrote, ' Nama saya [my name is] John Wilson' in Jawi. He bowled me over. We thought then of the British as being the supreme power. They wouldn't want to mix with us. But here was this orang puteh [white man] who was able to relate to us."

Burgess was more liberal than J D Howell, the headmaster whose stern but amiable features still stare down from the gallery of portraits in the college's Hargreaves Hall. It was with Howell that Burgess clashed over the expulsion of a pupil who had been caught in a compromising position with a girl. The monitor of his form, Abdul Rahim Ismail, headed a group who went to complain to Burgess. "We told him that we thought it was unjustified," says Rahim. "He seemed receptive." The incident is recorded in Time for a Tiger, and Crabbe, just like Burgess, ends up being transferred to a different establishment on the east coast of Malaya for challenging the headmaster's authority. But it doesn't seem likely that Burgess could have stayed at the Malay College for long in any case. Crabbe spurns the Iblis Club, full of planters and colonial officers, in favour of local kedais (roadside shops), but Burgess went further.

Ariff drives me to the location of the local toddy shop. Now a patch of wasteland, it is just across the road from the Idris Club (for Iblis, read Idris, named after a former sultan of the state), so his presence there could hardly have been discreet. Burgess makes it sound like a local drinking spot, but Ariff corrects me. "The government used to create areas to control the consumption of toddy [a low-grade, noxious coconut beer]. It was not a place a normal Malayan would go - it was for Indian coolies. He must have been really desperate to go there."

Lynne's behaviour was also the subject of talk. "We hardly ever saw her, but we suspected she was drunk most of the time," says Ariff. In Little Wilson and Big God, the first instalment of his memoirs, Burgess makes much of their mutual infidelity. I ask Ariff about this. "There was a rumour that a Malay teacher was carrying on with her," he says. "We thought he must be blind - she was terrible!" As for Burgess himself: "I don't think that women were ever his weakness. In fact we worried about his sexual preference sometimes."

Burgess returned to Malaysia (the country was renamed in 1963 after the Federation of Malaya joined with the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, and, briefly, Singapore) to film a segment for the BBC series Writers and Places in 1980. "We met up at the Royal Ipoh Club," remembers Ariff, "where my wife and I entertained him for dinner. We saw quite a bit of each other during the few days he was in Ipoh, and he was even kind enough to appraise a short play my wife had written for the radio.

"I was all set to reinstall him on my pedestal. That is, until I witnessed his live BBC interview, in which he proceeded to paint a very disparaging picture of Malaysia since independence." A furious Burgess is seen unable to make himself understood when speaking Malay to a waitress. "The country and I," he says finally to camera, "have nothing to say to each other."

Burgess always had a reactionary streak, and he disliked the way that Malaysia had embraced modernity and consumerism, just as he had been unimpressed with the changes he found in Britain on his return from the East in 1959. But he did forge a connection with his class at the Malay College. "I liked the senior boys whom I taught, and felt that a rapport was growing," he said of the class of '55, describing them as "delicate of perception".

"When my father read the trilogy," remembers Rahim, "he said, 'this man understands us and our surroundings. Unlike all the other English writers.' And he specifically mentioned Somerset Maugham. I think the same." For Anthony Burgess, the strange, prickly, egomaniacal man who saw "the tropics as normality and the temperate zones as the locale for suicidal dementia", there could be no greater compliment. For it was in Malaya, as he "sweated and was happy to sweat", that Little Wilson became Big Burgess.
Thanks Ted for e-mailing me this link from the Independent. Sholto Byrnes writes about Burgess in Malaya and interviews several of the folks who knew him.

This is a very important piece which echoes my own article on the Kakiseni website and in my blog entries regarding the importance of Burgess and the neglect of him in Malaysia. And Byrnes also notes the lack of a commemorative plaque on the walls of Malay College. Great minds, hey?

*The article can now be found here.


Greenbottle said...

what a brilliant write-up! exactly the kind of article that makes me want to read an author that i've never been interested in before.

and i can perhaps now understand a little why these 'melayu baru' feel uncomfortable with anthony burgess...but he's exactly spot on about the malays (and i should know as i'm one too 100%)! ...

what i don't understand about us malays is that why do we want to petend otherwise...we ARE basically a laid back people! no harm in that! we're lazy but not retarded.

"...The Chinese and Indians, who did the work of the Federation while the Malays watched the coconuts fall..."


bibliobibuli said...

it's a lifestyle others could emulate, greenbottle! :-D

but a stereotype none the less ...

Anonymous said...

More than great minds, Sharon? It does seem strange that things that you have been writing about here such as the whole neglect of Burgess get picked up by a foreign newspaper. And the bit about the wall plaque, that was your idea. I don't remember anyone else raising the issue.

the legend said...

wah, that's the MCKK building in Kuala Kangsar, my birthplace la...

MCKK for the boys.. hahaha

Rob Spence said...

Thanks for highlighting this, Sharon. I missed the article on Sunday. And thanks for the email. I hope to get back to you with some news soon.

bibliobibuli said...

anonymous - heard from my ex-student that some others in mcoba thought the plaque idea was a worthwhile one. i hope it happens. it would be nice to honour some of the other writers connected with the school too. i only heard about the famous malay poet zaaba long after i'd left.

legend - i took it when i was an old girl of malay college (way before your time!)

rob - thanks. i'm glad this article came out, it may make our fight to get the book unrestricted a little easier and it may make it easier to actually hold an event.