Category Archives: Brunei

Borneo breakdown

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was teaching a class at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien College in Brunei Town when he suddenly appeared to undergo some sort of personal crisis. He lay down on the floor and ‘let other agencies take over’, refusing to speak.

Burgess writes in his autobiography:

I was teaching one morning when the end of my colonial career was signalled. The class was Form Four, the subject the Boston Tea Party; the fans were not working and it was rumoured that a female cobra was looking for her young in the corridor outside. At the end of the lesson I felt I had also come to the end of my tether. A great deal of tension had been building up — a dissatisfied wife, a libel action, Australians who called me a pommy bastard, a disordered liver, dyspepsia and dyspnoea which morning droplets of Axe oil did nothing to alleviate, a very large measure of simple frustration. I had done my best; I could do no more: let other agencies take over. I lay on the classroom floor and closed my eyes.

There was prompt action. The principal, Bradshaw, appeared, and he summoned strong Malays. I was taken to the local hospital.

I felt well enough now but maintained my passivity: passivity from now on would be the answer to everything. Lying down on the classroom floor had been an act of purgation or reconciliation or something.

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Konfrontasi

Graham Greene stated that Evelyn Waugh

had the rare quality of criticising a friend, harshly, wittily and openly to his face, and behind the friend’s back of expressing only his kindness and charity.

Greene with envy

That is true. Greene also stated:

There were times when certain popular journalists tried to push us [him and Waugh] into what the Indonesians call a confrontation [a reference to the Konfrontasi, Jakarta’s struggle with Malaysia in 1962-68].

That is false. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe anything I read in the newspapers either. But you can take cherchez le journaliste too far. Greene, as I explain here, could be as silly as he was conceited.

Greene’s Konfrontasi with Anthony Burgess wasn’t choreographed by journalists; it was entirely of his own making. Greene became envious of Burgess’s mastery of the medium of television, and professed to consider Burgess’s appearances vulgar. The truth was that Greene, owing to the poverty of his ideas, lacked confidence in the glare of the television lights. In a one-hour documentary for the BBC, he refused to show his face, allowing only his hands to appear. Burgess, by contrast, had something to say and knew how to say it. It caused a gnawing envy in Greene, who au fond regarded Burgess as an upstart.

Matters between Greene and Burgess were not helped by an interview Burgess conducted with Greene for one of the London newspapers. Burgess took the trouble to travel to Greene’s place of residence in Antibes, Greene lacking the confidence to be interviewed anywhere but on home ground. Burgess was rewarded for his pains with snobbery and snideness. Burgess’s crime in Greene’s eyes appears to have consisted in the assumption that they could meet as equals rather than as master and apprentice.

أنتوني بيرجس والإسلام

A number of Anthony Burgess’s books are available in Turkish translation, but as far as I am aware not a single Burgess work is available in Arabic or Urdu or, for that matter, in Malay. An edition of A Clockwork Orange was recently brought out billed as a ‘banned book’, which is a misnomer; the real banned book is Burgess’s 1961 Borneo novel Devil of a State — it is almost certainly banned in Brunei. Meanwhile the Malayan trilogy appears to be tacitly banned in Malaysia, though I would be delighted if it could be shown that this is not so.

It is a pity Burgess’s work is not more widely known in the Islamic world, for he wrote affectionately about the parts of it he knew. He said:

There’s a charm about Islam in a country like Malaya…where it has to stand on its own and jostle up against other religions….And it’s very amusing. It’s very touching to see how it gets on…against Buddhism and Christianity.

Hence the epigraph in the 1959 novel Beds in the East, Arthur Hugh Clough‘s ‘Allah is great, no doubt, and Juxtaposition his prophet’ from the verse-novel Amours de Voyage.

In the late 1950s Burgess seems to have flirted with the idea of becoming a Muslim. As he put it,

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….Four wives and an incalculable number of offspring, all attesting…virility and sustained by…patriarchal authority.

But this enthusiasm seems to have been succeeded by disillusionment. In The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the character Hardman, an impecunious English lawyer who becomes a Muslim in order to be able to marry a wealthy Malay, has this to say about the Quran after studying it closely:

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 in an interview has called the Quran ‘a very bad book’, and has expressed concerns about Islam

when it becomes monolithic and a genuine state religion, as in Saudi Arabia. Then it’s rather repulsive. It’s very like Calvinism.

The appealing side of Islam, when it ‘jostles up’, in Burgess’s words, against other aspects of a vigorous diverse society, in the way it does in Malaysia today, is reflected in a new BBC comedy called Citizen Khan, created by and starring Adil Ray. The sitcom centres on a Pakistani Muslim ‘community leader’ and his family living in the Sparkhill district of Birmingham in central England. You can view the first episode here, and some of it is also available here.

The scene at 7 minutes and 9 seconds here, in which Mr Khan belts out the Tom Jones song Delilah and it is relayed through the loudspeakers on the minaret, strongly resembles the scene in Devil of a State in which the character Paolo Tasca is holed up, drunk, in the minaret of the mosque in Brunei Town:

He stood, gasping, his hands on the fitted lectern with its microphone, and looked down….There were the fairy clusters on the streets, there the…hotel, there the Chin Chin Cinema, there the Kool Kaffi. Somewhere below, an angry and agitated worm, was his father. Paolo…laughed….He switched the microphone on….he sang, for a bar or two, Stardust in Italian….Paolo’s voice…smote [Mr Bishopspawn] and the whole town with a few bars — in bops and bups — of Sweet Sue.

The moment in the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan when Mr Khan starts giving a rendition of the Tom Jones number Delilah through the minaret loudspeakers

AB’s ‘willed collapse’

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was teaching a class at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien College in Brunei Town when he appeared to undergo some sort of personal crisis. He lay down on the floor and ‘let other agencies take over’, refusing to speak.

A description of the collapse appears in the 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick — German-language title Der Doktor ist übergeschnappt (1968); later Der Doktor ist defekt (1985) — when something of the kind happens to the character Edwin Spindrift, a doctor (of philosophy) working in Moulmein.

Edwin thought of…his…accident. A lecturer on linguistics in a college in Burma who had one day, quite without warning, fallen on the lecture-room floor while lecturing on linguistics. He had been talking about folk etymology (penthouseprimroseJerusalem artichoke) and then, quite suddenly, he had passed out. He came to to find concerned, flat, delicate-brown Burmese faces looking down on him, himself saying: ‘It’s really a question of assimilating the unknown to the known, you see, refusing to admit that a foreign word is really foreign.’ While he lay on the cool floor he could see quite clearly, on the fringe of the group that surrounded him, one or two students taking down his words in their notebooks. He said: ‘While we honour none but the horizontal one.’ That, too, was taken down.

Burgess writes in his autobiography:

I was teaching one morning when the end of my colonial career was signalled. The class was Form Four, the subject the Boston Tea Party; the fans were not working and it was rumoured that a female cobra was looking for her young in the corridor outside. At the end of the lesson I felt I had also come to the end of my tether. A great deal of tension had been building up — a dissatisfied wife, a libel action, Australians who called me a pommy bastard, a disordered liver, dyspepsia and dyspnoea which morning droplets of Axe oil did nothing to alleviate, a very large measure of simple frustration. I had done my best; I could do no more: let other agencies take over. I lay on the classroom floor and closed my eyes….There was prompt action. The principal, [L.A.] Bradshaw, appeared, and he summoned strong Malays. I was taken to the local hospital. I felt well enough now but maintained my passivity: passivity from now on would be the answer to everything….Lying down on the classroom floor had been an act of purgation or reconciliation or something.

I discuss the ‘collapse’, or ‘willed collapse’ as it might have been, in depth in the three-part video Burgess’s Borneo Breakdown (Part One below).