Anthony Burgess is the greatest of Manchester’s writers, and if he possesses all our virtues, he more than shares our vices. A Mancunian who has made a splash in the arts or letters is automatically a public intellectual, at least in their own head. There is a loud, ostentatious intelligence to the city’s writers that edges on the strident. It’s a burden, a tic, a nervous habit. After all, there is no reason why a novelist cannot live a private, anonymous life, and absolutely no job requirement to be clever. A great many novelists get by on a sense of the dramatic, with no particular ability for argumentation or logic. But Manchester novelists are both intelligent, and a little too proud of it. This may be because it is a struggle to get an education, or because our accents mean we worry about being judged as uneducated once we leave Manchester. Or perhaps because Manchester is just a very public place, the houses often small and overcrowded and so much of life is lived on street corners and in pubs, shouting to get attention, arguing with friends and lovers, showing off and wounding with abuse.
Burgess reviewed more books than any other novelist, but also wrote for tabloids. He appeared on intellectual late night TV shows but also on tea-time chat shows. He was both sociable and competitive, he knew all the writers of his generation and was well-liked, but he was also cocksure. The day that Graham Greene died he popped up on TV and instead of delivering a eulogy, declared that Greene was not really all that good, after all. His ever-present, cantankerous exuberance means that his novels can never be read according to the high-modernist diktats as texts without an author. Which is not to say that his novels can be reduced to a man and his soap box. Far from it. Toomey, Enderby and others are real and full-rounded characters. But Burgess is also there, not so much as a voice but certainly as a presence. Like the moon pulling the tides, he is a force that pulls his stories in eccentric directions and by his verve and personality makes these directions of greater interest. His theories on art, on music, on religion, on history are a part of this eccentricity, and what might be tetchy and reactionary in a saloon bar or seminar room are transformed into something else – call it pure abstract personality. He is the complete novelist, but also more than that: Burgess is an excess of novelist, all by himself.
Nicholas Blincoe is a novelist, screenwriter and critic. He has written six novels, including Manchester Slingback (1998) and Burning Paris (2004). He is a founding member of the New Puritans movement and a former advisor to Nick Clegg MP.