The final journey of a working writer: Kevin Jackson embarked on a promotional tour with Anthony Burgess the day after the writer discovered he had terminal cancer. He wishes he hadn't left so much unsaid . . .
Monday 29 November 1993
How did he react to this second death knell? In exactly the same way he had responded to the first: he worked, and worked hard. On that particular November weekend last year, it was his professional obligation to promote his new book about language, A Mouthful of Air. Now, 'professional' is often a doubtful word, made slippery from too frequent use by the self-satisfied and self-advancing. Yet though his own definition of the adjective was modest ('the pursuit of a trade or calling to the end of paying the rent and buying liquor'), Burgess's conduct on the promotional tour was a model of what it might mean to be a professional.
He would have been wholly within his rights to cry off with pleas of emotional distress and illness - he was coughing blood, and at meal-times could barely eat more than a mouthful of food - yet he not only carried on as planned but threw himself into the task with all of the vigour, and more, of a man four decades his junior. I travelled with him for three days of his publicity tour, to Cheltenham, Edinburgh and London; our little road company was made complete by his devoted second wife, Liana, and by Bridget Sleddin, then his publicist.
Burgess's touring schedule could begin as early as breakfast time, when bright young journalists would quiz him about everything from the literature of glasnost to Papal infallibility. It would continue with radio appearances, signings, impromptu talks, more interviews, formal lectures, more signings, yet more interviews. . . and would last into the small hours, when he would would peck at his belated supper, wonder whether a plate of spaghetti alle vongole might not rouse his sick appetite, and allow himself some lugubrious digressions on the subject of imminent mortality.
Not that he altogether avoided the topic earlier in the day. On the contrary, he made it into a vein of gallows humour, which had innocent audiences chuckling with almost eerie mirth and carried a horrible sting for those who knew he was in deathly earnest. Greeted by an old college acquaintance with a routine 'How are you?', he replied bluntly 'I'm dying.' On the plane down from Edinburgh, he listened stone-faced to the chief steward chirping that he and the rest of the crew hoped to see us all again soon, and rumbled a single word: 'Unlikely.' But in front of audiences, he knew that it was his business to give instruction and delight. The torrent of applause which greeted his Cheltenham lecture was ample proof that he had succeeded.
Looking back on that trip now, with the shock of his death still fresh, I almost wonder whether I'm not deceiving myself a little, and hyping up the memory of his courtesy, his humour and his tenacity in a spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. (He loved Latin, and once proposed that if the bureaucrats of the European Union really wanted the continent to have a common language, they could do no better than revive the old lingua franca of educated Europe. 'Homesickness for the Christendom of the 13th century,' he said, was at the root of this proposal.) But I really don't think so - I have tapes, and the witness of many others to corroborate my memories. Besides, the humour, the hard work and even the courtesy are all there in the books.
Though I only met him a handful of times, getting to know Burgess through those books has been the pleasure of more than 20 years. Shyness, or what he somewhere calls 'damnable English reticence' prevented me from saying last November the things I now bitterly wish I had said. That he had been a stimulating teacher for me ever since I blundered across Urgent Studies, his first collection of journalism, and bought it for the extravagant sum of 10 shillings. That some of his novels - the Enderby series, Nothing Like the Sun, MF - had given me more pleasure, simple and complex, than those of any other living novelist. That I thought too few of his countrymen, who dismissed him as a bore, a crank, an egotist or a charlatan, had realised what a fine and funny writer he really was.
Instead, I mumbled something about how much I had enjoyed his autobiography, and mentioned a couple of the boosts I had put its way in a review ('gives polymathy a good name', 'incomparable panache' and so on). He was pleased with this, or kind enough to pretend so, and I hope that he inferred at least a few of the other things.
Now that he is gone, certain recollections of that tour have started to redefine his work for me. I've just noticed, for example, how many of his novels are about the death of writers: ABBA ABBA, on the last days of Keats; The Clockwork Testament, which killed off his alter ego, the poet F X Enderby (resurrected for Enderby's Dark Lady); The End of the World News, in which Freud suffered his terminal agonies from jaw cancer; and the novel we must now, unless there are manuscripts in a vault somewhere, call his last, A Dead Man in Deptford, concerning the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
I've also been thinking about how central the prospect of death was to all of his work. It was a mistaken diagnosis of terminal disease which made him into a full-time writer, and it was his persistent awareness of the encroaching dark which made him so massively productive. As he remarks in Little Wilson and Big God: 'Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now.' This was his personal version of a traditional wisdom in the Gospel according to St John: 'I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work.' (Samuel Johnson, whose professionalism Burgess took as his own model, kept that text on his watch; the two writers have other affinities.)
While we were flying back to London, he recited, at my request, Coventry Patmore's poem 'Toys' - a pious Victorian piece which, he confessed in the closing pages of his autobiography, still had the power to make him weep. It's about a widower, who, guilty at having struck his young son, goes into the boy's bedroom and sheds tears of his own at seeing how the child has put his toys by his bedside for comfort: 'Ranged there with careful art / To comfort his sad heart.' It is also a poem about death, and the ways in which art is at once able and powerless to console us at the prospect.
After a final drive into central London, we shook hands, and he went off to yet another signing session. 'We'll meet again,' he said. It wasn't to be, though there were several opportunities for meeting: damnable reticence, again. Burgess had spoken several times during that trip of his residual fear of hell, which no amount of reading rationalist authors could wholly quiet. I don't know yet whether he returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood during the past 12 months, or whether he made a last confession, but I hope that this fear didn't plague him too fiercely, and fervently wish him in a better place, if there is one. Requiescat in pace: few writers have done more to earn eternal repose.
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