aspects of Burgess

Work methods

“I start at the beginning, go to the end, then stop”, Burgess once said.

He revealed in Martin Seymour-Smith’s Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction (1980) that he would often prepare a synopsis with a name-list before beginning a project. But Seymour-Smith wrote: “Burgess believes overplanning is fatal to creativity and regards his unconscious mind and the act of writing itself as indispensable guides. He does not produce a draft of a whole novel which he then revises, but prefers to get one page finished before he goes on to the next, which involves a good deal of revision and correction.”

His output from when he began writing professionally in his early forties until his death was to produce, at a minimum, 1,000 words of fair copy per day, weekends included, 365 days a year. His favoured time for working was the afternoon, since “the unconscious mind has a habit of asserting itself in the afternoon”.


* Burgess was often confused with two members of the Cambridge Five, one of the five being Guy Burgess and another Anthony Blunt. By the time they achieved notoriety, Anthony Burgess’s pen-name was established. He succeeded in extracting an apology from the Paris International Herald Tribune in 1983 after the newspaper referred to him in print as “the spy, Anthony Burgess”. The London Sunday Times perpetrated a similar error in 1999, referring to “the other British defectors, Anthony Burgess, Donald Maclean and George Blake”.

* Burgess is believed by some, though it is conjectural, to have engaged in low-level espionage during his Gibraltar, Malaya and Brunei years and possibly later. See, for example, the London Mail on Sunday, “The greatest story Anthony Burgess never told: his life as a secret agent” and other media articles in this not very authoritative but intriguing vein. It is speculated that he may have provided his superiors (the Colonial Office and perhaps the Kuala Lumpur-based British intelligence authorities, and later MI6) with information about any communist actions or sympathies, however trivial, among his colleagues and students and, after his return from the East, among the people he met and associated with. Since lives were at stake during the Malayan Emergency, this would not have been unusual or exceptionable–it might well have been regarded as irresponsible to refrain from assisting in this way. The term used for an operative of this type and pay-grade was “ground observer”, and he would have been providing his information to MI6′s East Asian operation through Singapore. The biographer Roger Lewis claimed that while at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kota Bharu, Burgess “was part of a secret plan, in 1955, for the chief ministers of Malaya and Singapore to meet the leader of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party in a jungle clearing”.

* Military authorities who came across a copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Burgess’s possession in 1941 thought it might be some kind of code book.

* Burgess published a fictional work in the Ian Fleming genre which he entitledTremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel (1966).

* He wrote the preface to the Bond novels under the Coronet imprint.

* Burgess prepared a screenplay for the James Bond feature The Spy Who Loved Me, which Albert R. Broccoli produced in 1977. It was not used. Burgess wrote: “My script…was rejected, but my oil tanker (a camouflaged floating palace for the chief villain) was retained”.

* Burgess’s biographer Roger Lewis claimed that when he returned from his Burgess research trip to Malaysia in 1999, he met an ex-spy who “told me that Burgess had had dealings with the CIA and that the mind control experiments inA Clockwork Orange, which was written in 1961, were not the novelist’s invention….I was told to look closely at what was written on the college pennants that the novel’s main character, Alex, had on his bedroom wall: South 4; Metro cor-skol blue division; the boys of alpha. This, I was told, was an encryption. The words could be decoded to give the map reference to Fort Bliss, Texas, where experiments on interfering with the alpha wavelengths of the human brain were being conducted. The word bliss, moreover, appears on this same page six times.”

* When he asked the CIA if it would be in a position to release its files on John Wilson (Anthony Burgess), Lewis received this response: “We must neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of any records. It has been determined that such information would be classified for reasons of national security under sections 1.5(c) (intelligence sources and methods) and 1.5(d) (foreign relations) of Executive Order 12958.”


* Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy has been banned intermittently in Malaysia. The Malaysia Sun reported on 5 December, 2006 that the country’s internal security ministry was barring books deemed “offensive” to Malaysian society. A number of titles were being denied entry by road at Johor Baru, among them The Long Day Wanes. The secretary of the publications and Koranic texts control division at the ministry, Che Din Yusoh, was reported as saying that the minister enjoyed “absolute discretion” to gazette “undesirable publications”, i.e. those banned under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, section 7. One of several passages that may have offended the Malaysian authorities is to be found in the second volume of the trilogy, The Enemy in the Blanket. The character Hardman, a hard-up albino British lawyer who has married a wealthy Malay woman for her money–and had to convert to Islam in order to do so–becomes disillusioned with the religion and muses on the Koran as follows: “I wonder how, with such a repetitive farrago of platitudes, expressing so self-evident a theology and an ethic so puerile, Islam can have spread as it has.”


* Burgess was dismissed as literary critic for the Yorkshire Post after he wrote a review of his own Inside Mr. Enderby and it appeared in the newspaper. The novel had been published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell, and the newspaper’s editor did not know that Kell was Burgess. Burgess protested, to no avail, that Walter Scott had also once reviewed one of his own novels. The offending review, which was not exactly commendatory, read in part: “This is, in many ways, a dirty book. It is full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals…and halitosis. It may well make some people sick….It turns sex, religion, the State into a series of laughing-stocks. The book itself is a laughing-stock.”

* When Burgess applied for the job of schoolteacher at Banbury Grammar school in 1950, he claimed in his résumé to be the co-author, with “Dr. H.P. Bridges”, of the soon-to-be-published work Engelsk Grammatik. This was a fabrication.

* The London Daily Mail published in the 1960s a number of comically puritanical letters written by Burgess purporting to be from an Indian Muslim named “Mohammed Ali”, who expressed for the benefit of Mail readers his disgust at the degradation of contemporary western morals.

* In The Enemy in the Blanket, Burgess calls the state’s main town Kenching, which is “urine” in Malay, while another place is named Tahi Panas (“steaming excrement”).

* Burgess was dismissed from a job he held for a short time as a pub pianist after he insisted on playing, in its entirety, the Jupiter part of Holst’s The Planets.

* Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in Britain when Burgess was a teenager. When he was 15 Burgess travelled to France to procure a copy, allegedly smuggling it back into England “cut up into sections and distributed all over my body”.

Linguistic gifts

* Burgess’s multilingual proficiency came under discussion in Roger Lewis’s biography. Lewis claimed that during production in Malaysia of the BBC documentary A Kind of Failure (1982), Burgess, supposedly fluent in Malay, was unable to communicate with several waitresses at a restaurant where they were filming. It was claimed also that the documentary’s director deliberately kept these moments intact in the film in order to expose Burgess’s linguistic pretensions. There was a mixed response to the charge. For example, one critic appeared to accept the veracity of the claim, saying it “had me laughing immoderately”, while another dismissed it as “another of Lewis’s little smears”. A letter from David Wallace that appeared in the magazine of the LondonIndependent on Sunday on 25 November 2002 shed light on the affair. Wallace’s letter read, in part: “…the tale was inaccurate. It tells of Burgess, the great linguist, ‘bellowing Malay at a succession of Malayan waitresses’ but ‘unable to make himself understood’. The source of this tale was a 20-year-old BBC documentary….[The suggestion was] that the director left the scene in, in order to poke fun at the great author. Not so, and I can be sure, as I was that director…. The story as seen on television made it clear that Burgess knew that these waitresses were not Malay. It was a Chinese restaurant and Burgess’s point was that the ethnic Chinese had little time for the government-enforced national language, Bahasa Malaysia [i.e. Malay]. Burgess may well have had an accent, but he did speak the language; it was the girls in question who did not.” Lewis may not have been fully aware of the fact that a quarter of Malaysia’s population is made up of Hokkien- and Cantonese-speaking Chinese. However, Malay had been installed as the National Language with the installation of the Language Act of 1967. By 1982 all national primary and secondary schools in Malaysia would have been teaching with Bahasa Melayu as a base language (see Harold Crouch,Government and Society in Malaysia, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996).

* During his years in Malaya, and after he had mastered Jawi, the Arabic script adapted for Malay, Burgess taught himself the Persian language, after which he produced a translation of Eliot’s The Waste Land into Persian. It was never published, in Tehran or elsewhere. He also worked on an anthology of the best of English literature translated into Malay, which also failed to achieve publication.

* Anthony Burgess, known in Argentina as “the British Borges”, and Jorge Luis Borges, known in Britain as “the Argentine Burgess”, each spoke both English and Spanish fluently. But when Burgess and Borges met, each decided it would be unequal and unfair to the other, and inappropriate, to plump for either of the two languages when conversing. So the polyglot pair forged a compromise, deciding to conduct their lengthy, wide-ranging philological and literary conversations in Old Norse.

Fondness for tobacco

* Burgess smoked, by his own admission, up to 80 cigarettes, panatelas, cigars, cigarillos and/or cheroots per day. Virtually all photographs and drawings of Burgess after about 1970 show him with cigarillo or cigarette in hand or mouth.

* He described his tobacco smoking habit as “a patriotic duty to the Chancellor of the Exchequer”, tax accounting during Burgess’s life, as it does now, for over 80% of the price of a pack of cigarettes in the UK.

* Burgess’s preferred cigar was the Schimmelpenninck Duet.

* High nicotine ingestion was the cause of the Bürger’s disease Burgess suffered, and of the lung cancer that killed him.

* Burgess was an occasional smoker of opium, which he described as “a fine drug”, during both his Kota Bharu and Brunei years, but he was under no illusions as to its negative effects: “Later, abetted by an ailing liver, the bad visions would come”, he wrote.

* Burgess was an opium smuggler. In 1957 Graham Greene asked him to bring some Chinese silk shirts back with him on furlough from Kuala Lumpur. As soon as Burgess handed over the shirts, Greene pulled out a knife and severed the cuffs, into which opium pellets had been sewn.

* Burgess evinced qualified approval towards the smoking of hemp or cannabis, but with the proviso that it should be a means to an end rather than the end itself. Speaking of young people in a BBC Omnibus documentary in the 1960s, he said: “They smoke their marihuana, which is an admirable thing in itself, but no end of anything…”

* In Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange cigarettes are referred to as “cancers”.

Quest for ‘maximal erotic fulfilment’

* Burgess admits in his autobiography that his first act on arriving by ship in Singapore in 1954 was to visit a Chinese brothel while his wife slept in a room in the Raffles Hotel.

* He claimed that Holofernes was in Elizabethan times used as a slang word for penis.

* He prepared a translation of the erotic poetry of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, but it was never published. However, he produced what the poet and critic Anthony Thwaite has called “cheeky imitations” of Belli’s satirical sonnets in the novel Abba Abba.

* His first wife Lynne, who has been described as “oversexed”, is believed to have conducted a short-lived adulterous affair with Dylan Thomas. Burgess also knew Thomas slightly, and greatly admired his work.

* In Burgess’s novel Time for a Tiger, the Malay state of Perak is named Lanchap, which is the Malay word for masturbation.

* Burgess announced on several occasions–it appeared to be a matter of some pride–that he had never in his life had carnal relations with an Englishwoman.

* He enjoyed a miscellany of sexual partners from other lands, however, including Buginese, Japanese, Welsh, Malay, Chinese, Siamese, Italian and Sinhalese women. But it appeared to be a matter of some regret that he had never bedded a Bengali or a Punabi. He wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (p. 386 of the Penguin edition), that he had had sexual encounters “with Tamil women blacker than Africans, including a girl who could not have been older than twelve, but none with Bengalis and Punjabis”.

* On a visit to Sarawak, he spent a night in an Iban longhouse where he was invited to sleep with the chief’s daughters. He wrote: “The Ibans waved me off with smiles of gratitude….I sometimes think of the child I may have fathered…I hope I have given something to the East.”

* In Burgess’s novel Beds in the East, one of the principal characters is named Mahalingam, which is “great phallus” in Sanskrit. A character of the same name appears also in Earthly Powers.

* Burgess was occasionally troubled, especially in his earlier years, by the problem of premature ejaculation and writes comically about it in the Enderbytetralogy and elsewhere. But he claimed later to have discovered the secret of controlling climax and prolonging pleasure during sexual congress. It was, he wrote, “a matter of reciting Milton only–’High on a throne of royal state…’ (Paradise Lost, Book Two).”

* The comedian Benny Hill described Burgess as “the greatest living expert on sex”.

‘The imbibing of liquors of all kinds’

* Burgess was by most accounts a heavy consumer of alcoholic beverages, especially of cider during his Banbury/Adderbury years, of brandy-and-ginger beer in the East, and, throughout his life, of gin. He did not drink as heavily as his first wife Lynne, an alcoholic who lost her life to liver cirrhosis; yet when the couple were living at Etchingham, they are reported to have consumed half a dozen bottles of gin a week.

* Burgess created his own version of the cocktail, “Hangman’s Blood,” first described by novelist Richard Hughes in his 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica. He described its preparation as follows: “Into a pint glass, doubles [i.e. 50ml measures] of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port  and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with Champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.”

* In his middle years Burgess often drank beer, and in Malaya the two brands he enjoyed were Tiger and Anchor, brewed in both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. He reveals in his autobiography that, when Time for a Tiger was published, he asked the brewery company, Fraser and Neave, for a complimentary clock with the Tiger beer slogan on it. The brewery declined to offer this or any other freebie. Fourteen years later, when Burgess was better known, it relented: the clocks were apparently no longer available, but in 1970 the company told Burgess he could consume any of their beers free of charge while in Singapore, with their compliments. “But it was too late.” Burgess wrote, “I had become wholly a gin man.”

* Burgess cut his alcohol consumption to some extent in later life. “I drank too much until I was 50″, he wrote. He often substituted tea. For his morning “cuppa”, he habitually suffused up to six tea-bags per small teapot. When drinking tea from a (pint-sized) mug at other times of the day, multiple tea-bags were also used. His preferred brand of tea was Twinings Irish Breakfast. He said of his dietary habits late in life: “I drink two gallons of overstrong tea each day and mumble a bit of stale bread.”


* Burgess suffered from Daltonism or colour blindness.

* He was short-sighted—myopic from the age of 10—although reluctant to wear spectacles. He claimed that he once walked into a bank, leaned against the counter and ordered a drink.

* He was afflicted by dyspepsia, constipation and flatulence during much of his life, difficulties that are dwelt on to comic effect in the Enderby cycle of novels.

* He was diagnosed by a physician in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, as suffering from Bürger’s disease—his heavy alcohol consumption contributing to the condition. He described the symptoms thus: “toothache in the right calf, and a sudden accession of pins and needles, like a monstrous toilet flush, in the right foot.”

* During his Malayan years he suffered dengue fever and malaria.

* Burgess suffered what was reported as a collapse in Brunei Town in 1959, apparently occasioned by overwork, indications of incipient (rather than chronic) alcoholism, and poor nutrition. He had to be airlifted to England for tests and treatment. When he was repatriated, he was treated by the neurologist Roger Bannister, who in his days as an athlete had been the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. Burgess claimed to have been trepanned by Dr Bannister.

* He suffered from what he referred to as “the Writer’s Evil” (haemorrhoids).

* Burgess had a bout of chickenpox in 1969.

* He had high blood pressure, which caused problems with his arteries.

* Burgess was addicted to tobacco. He was diagnosed with lung cancer at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in October 1992, and shortly thereafter died of the disease at the age of 76.

* He walked with a limp and often carried a stick.

* He used Dexedrine to aid concentration while working. On unproductive days, he would take two or three Dexedrine tablets, washed down with a pint of gin and tonic (with ice cubes – he described unchilled gin as “an emetic”).

* His mitral valve was leaky.

* Burgess nursed a lifelong dislike of physical fitness and its advocates and exponents. He conceived this antipathy in wartime Gibraltar, where the army put himself and other soldiers through a compulsory, and gruelling, programme of exercise. “Keep-fit men”, he once stated, “are no good in bed.” One of the reasons he apparently did not get on with the Welshman J.D.R. (“Jimmy”) Howell, headmaster of the Malay College where he taught in the 1950s, was that Howell was an enthusiastic rugby player.

* He suffered from trigeminal neuralgia. He had a cyst in his back.


* Burgess made no secret of his determination throughout his career to thwart tax authorities worldwide. “I will, naturally, cheat the fiscal tyrants, but it would be inhuman not to”, he wrote.

* Burgess’s preferred medium of payment for his work, he indicated, was “non-taxable cash”, and he maintained one or more Swiss bank accounts.

* He kept to a strict personal rule of not accepting a publisher’s advance on work not written.

* Burgess’s house in Lija, Malta, was confiscated by the Maltese authorities over non-payment of taxes.

* Burgess was a currency smuggler. His house in Bracciano was, he wrote, paid for “by smuggling dollar royalty cheques into the [Italian] peninsula and paying them into the bank account of an expatriate American sculptor living near Rome”.

* His move to Monaco in 1974 was prompted by the knowledge that there is no income tax in the principality, and moreover that his widow Liana would not be required to pay death duties on his estate.


* Burgess was among a select group of celebrity owners of the classic Bedford Dormobile (a campervan or motorhome of the Bedford marque, manufactured in England by Vauxhall Motors). He and his second wife spent, in the early years of their marriage, long periods on the road across western Europe, especially in France and Sicily, his wife driving the Dormobile while he wrote at a built-in desk behind. He later explained that the Dormobile aided him in what he described as “the struggle against bourgeois conformity”.

* He never learned to drive an automobile.


* Burgess was a Lancastrian, and one of his favourite dishes, mentioned many times in his novels, autobiography and elsewhere, was Lancashire Hotpot. The journalist Auberon Waugh described Burgess’s recipe for hotpot as “disgusting”.

* Burgess often praised a delicacy local to his birthplace of Harpurhey known as cow-heel pie.


* Burgess took his Siamese cat, named Lalage, to Kuala Kangsar, Malaya, with him. It had an enjoyable tour but died in Kota Bharu, just across the border from Thailand.

* He reveals in the first volume of his autobiography that in Kuala Kangsar he also had a European polecat named Farouche (which consumed large quantities of bananas) and a turtle named Bucephalus.

* He had a Border Collie during his Etchingham days, which he named Hajji.


For a brief period during his studies of the Malay language and culture during the late 1950s, Burgess seriously considered becoming a Muslim.

Explaining the allure of Islam in a 1969 interview with the University of Alabama scholar Geoffrey Aggeler, Burgess remarked: “You believe in one god. You say your prayers five times a day. You have a tremendous amount of freedom, sexual freedom; you can have four wives. The wife herself has a commensurate freedom. She can achieve divorce in the same way a man can.”

He later fantasized: “Four wives and an incalculable number of offspring, all attesting my virility and sustained by my patriarchal authority.”

In the novel 1985 (1978), Burgess imagines what Britain might be like if a virile, triumphant Islam won far-reaching influence in the country.

Popular culture

* Burgess displayed more or less open contempt for most post-World War Two popular music. Its proponents are satirised in Enderby Outside, which features a lamentable band called Yod Crewsy and the Fixers, which, like The Beatles, composed “emetic little songs”.

* The epitaph on Burgess’s marble memorial stone at the cemetery in Monte Carlo includes the phrase “Abba Abba”.

:*The Sheffield electropop band Heaven 17 named themselves after a band that appears in Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange (although they dropped the “the”).

:*A popular bar and music venue in Liverpool is named the “Korova.”

Early triumphs

* Burgess’s first published work was an essay on Torbay for the children’s section of the Daily Express in 1928.

* Burgess was placed 1,579th after taking, and presumably failing, the UK Customs & Excise test in 1928.

* One of Burgess’s professors at the University of Manchester was A.J.P. Taylor. Grading one of Burgess’s term papers, the great historian wrote: “Bright ideas insufficient to conceal lack of knowledge”.


* Burgess received the Monégasque Ordre du Mérite Culturel.

* He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

* He took honorary degrees from St Andrews, Birmingham and Manchester universities.


* Anthony Burgess was known to many people in Italy, where he lived for several years, as Antonio Borghese.

* He also published under his real name John Burgess Wilson and the pen-name Joseph Kell.


* Burgess wrote a full-length textbook in 1947 called The Young Fiddler’s Tunebook. It was never published.

* One of Burgess’s last speaking engagements was at the Cheltenham Festivals in 1992. The subject of his address was ‘translation’, and Burgess quipped that he himself was ‘shortly to be translated’. He died 13 months later.

* Burgess was pursued by military police of the British Armed Forces for desertion after overstaying his leave from Morpeth military base with his bride Lynne in 1941.

* He appears as a fictional character in A. S. Byatt’s novel Babel Tower (1996) and in Paul Theroux’s ‘A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed: Fact and Fiction’ (The New Yorker, 1995).

* Burgess, along with Quentin Crisp, took the photographs included in the 1992 Overlook Press edition of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone.

* Burgess jokingly proposed to make the critic and journalist Rhoda Koenig, architect of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, his adopted daughter. He once sent her a review with the note: “To Miss Koenig, who persistently refuses to become my adopted daughter”.

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