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Anthony Burgess spent Christmas in the damp heat of Malaya during the late 1950s, and his experiences of the feast appear in a number of his writings.
Christmas in Malaya was not well understood by Burgess’s Muslim, Hindu and animist neighbours, who regarded it as a pretext for calling at his house in search of a free drink. His short story ‘A Colonial Christmas’ (published in Punch, 4 December 1968) describes the confused farce of an early-morning Malayan Christmas drinks party, attended by a magician, a haji and his wife, a prostitute and a ‘small electrician’:
‘The haji, high-flown, told the prostitute that she was a prostitute, and the prostitute alleged that his wife was an adulteress, and the electrician was sick into an ashtray. The magician said nothing but turned off his shadow – a common and ominous trick of black magicians. … The haji accused me of race prejudice and the prostitute offered me a whispered free short time and then was offended because I would not accept.’
Burgess’s narrator turfs out his guests and takes a shortcut to his next drinks party, but his car gets stuck in crocodile-infested waters; eventually rescued by a passing fishing-boat he arrives at the party to win third prize in the fancy-dress competition as ‘A Castaway’. The story ends with a Christmas carol:
‘Silent night, tropical night:
Dogs howl, sandflies bite.
Some are busy with bottles and knives,
Others sleeping with other men’s wives.
The mosque is losing its dome.
There’s nothing to do but go home.’
Similar sentiments are expressed at the end of Burgess’s novel Time For A Tiger (1956), which concludes with the protagonist Victor Crabbe trying to comfort his sobbing wife Fenella after an equally disastrous gathering:
‘Then midnight sounded from the halfdrowned town clock. Above the broken meats, the drained bottles, the insect noises, the gunfire, the snores and the retchings he wished her a merry Christmas.’
Burgess’s memories of the season from his boyhood were rather more positive. Here he is reading from his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), recalling the family gathering and the singing around the pianos that characterised his Christmases in Manchester.
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‘Dickens was right – Christmas is a good time and a loving one. I send such seasonal blessings as you will accept.’ – Anthony Burgess, ‘Merry Xmas Nevertheless’ (The Observer, 24 December 1978).
A merry Christmas to all our readers.