Anthony Burgess was everything Iris Murdoch wasn’t, far away from the twitterings of yesterday’s Senior Common Room and the British literary establishment. Northern, Catholic, something of an outsider, he wasn’t just a linguistic virtuoso but an anti-Puritan, the most humane of curmudgeons, and a reactionary of vision. A Clockwork Orange seems so mutated out of its time that it’s striking to remember it is really a product of the Teddy Boy era. But more than Clockwork Orange, I like his Enderby novels and his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, a backstreet Sistine Chapel of a book. Burgess was also an opium smoker, an uncommon pursuit in British writers, and characteristically regretted that over-the-counter laudanum was no longer available to comfort the proletariat on Sundays: ‘the British worker lost his solace and took to football and beer. It is a great pity.’
I interviewed him many years ago, for the unlamented trade paper Publishing News, and I’d like to add that I was struck by what an unassuming and decent man he was.
Phil Baker is a writer, biographer and critic. He has written books about William S Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Dennis Wheatley, and the artist Austin Osman Spare. Most recently he has edited The Man Who was Norris by Tom Cullen, a biography of Gerald Hamilton (the inspiration for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris).