Mr Burgess’s ‘special students’
Anthony Burgess’s expatriate years as a teacher began at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, then known as the ‘Eton of the East’; later he took a post at the Malay Teachers’ Training College in Kota Bharu. These experiences inspired not only his Malayan trilogy of novels but also the framing mechanism for his fiction on Shakespeare, Nothing Like The Sun. In the novel, a lecturer called ‘Mr Burgess’ delivers a farewell class to his ‘special students’ while imbibing bottles of samsu, a potent rice-spirit which eventually renders him drunk.
These students are named in the dedication, listed alphabetically as in a classroom attendance roster, as “Misses Alabaster, Ang Poh Gaik, Bacchus, Brochocki, Ishak, Kinipple, Shackles, Spottiswoode and Messrs Ahmad bin Harun, Anguish, Balwant Singh, Lillington, Lympe, Raja Mokhtar, Prindable, Rosario, Spittal, Whitelegge etc”. These are not names of actual students Burgess taught at the Malay College; but they aren’t names chosen at random either. Burgess was fond of inserting sly references into his texts as in-jokes, and the names of Mr Burgess’s special students are very special indeed.
The surnames range from the perfectly plausible to the highly unlikely. Miss Bacchus seems an especially unusual name for a student in Malaya, but is perhaps a sly reference to the alcohol fuelling Mr Burgess’s lecture. Many of the other names are similarly oblique references to the core subject of Nothing Like The Sun, which is the idea that Shakespeare had a child with a South-East Asian prostitute, who eventually returned to the East.
Some of the special students are, in fact, luminaries of the region. Ishak is the name of Singapore’s first President while Sir Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas was the last British governor of the Straits Settlements. Mustapha bin Harun was the first governor of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Haji Mokhtar was a Sufi mystic who issued a fatwa against the Malayan Communists during Japanese occupation in World War II. Balwant Singh is a Sikh name common in Malaysia among Indian immigrants, just as Poh Gaik is a common name among ethnic Chinese Malays. Even Spottiswoode is a park adjoining Singapore’s railway station.
Similarly, Lillington is a Warwickshire village mentioned in the Domesday Book, now a suburb of Leamington Spa and less than ten miles from Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Alabaster, in Shakespeare’s time, was calcite rather than the modern gypsum, and was known as Oriental alabaster since it was imported from the Far East. Shackles, Anguish and Lympe could all be read as references to suffering from syphilis, the illness which kills Shakespeare in Burgess’s novel.
Prindable may refer to G.C.G. Prindable, who was controller of Government Stores in Brunei while Burgess lived and taught there. Spittal may connote spittle, or the London district of Spitalfields, which in the Elizabethan era was close by the site of James Burbage’s ‘The Theatre’ in Shoreditch, and was where Shakespeare, according to tax collector records, resided in 1598.
Mr Burgess’s ‘special students’ include people of political power in the Malaysian region during the time that Burgess lived there, as well as locations Shakespeare would have known, and phrases suggesting physical states of suffering. The names of these putative listeners bring together the worlds of Shakespeare and syphilis, Burgess and Malaya, just as the novel Nothing Like The Sun itself does.