I hope this brief note will demonstrate something of the kindness and generosity Anthony Burgess showed, back in 1990, to one very inexperienced writer – me. Burgess had been my literary hero ever since I read Earthly Powers, which made a huge impression on me: I was incredulous and spluttered indignantly on his behalf when it was passed over for the Booker Prize in 1980. Towards the end of that decade, having started to read James Joyce (with, I must admit, the help of Here Comes Everybody) I had begun to write a little, sitting hunched over a battered old upright Imperial typewriter in a cloud of smoke (though not from Schimmelpennincks) bashing out mainly plays for my school pupils, but also what eventually became a rather too Joycean short novel of my own – Loseable Paradises. Of this, in my innocence, I sent a copy to Burgess; as a kind of thank-offering, I suppose. I don’t know how many unsolicited manuscripts he used to receive; I would guess a great many. Nevertheless he took the trouble to read it, and wrote back to me with encouraging words – and stern advice too – for which I have been grateful ever since. I attach a photo of his letter, which is a treasured possession:
Apart from the introduction to James Joyce, there is so much else for which I am indebted to Burgess. In a way, his writing – not just the fiction but the criticism such as the QUERT YUIOP reviews – opened the world of literature for me. I’ve learned too from the practical example he left of what being a writer means: the voracious reading; the hours you need to put in at your desk if you’re going to get anywhere; the need for accuracy in your use of language; and- to quote from Kingdom of the Wicked – ‘the exercise of decency, tolerance and humorous scepticism.’ Now that I have retired from my teaching career, I’m thankful that I finally have the chance to put in those hours myself and try to follow the advice Burgess gave me all those years ago. I don’t have a fraction of his energy or learning, but he remains an inspiration. There is a little homage to him in my latest novel, Anthropocene Park: a chapter entitled Earthy (sic) Powers.
Nigel Timms is a writer. He has written three novels, the most recent of which is Anthropocine Park. Visit his blog here.