Burgess Memories: William Chislett
Aged 18, I spent a month in the village of Deià on the island of Majorca in the summer of 1969 where an American professor of English, Bob de Maria, from Dowling College, Long Island, founded and ran the Mediterranean Institute. Burgess was one of the guest writers, as was Colin Wilson, who, at the age of 24, leapt to fame in 1956 with The Outsider. The book was a bestseller and helped to popularise existentialism. Colin was a family friend. He was writing The Occult. Also there was the Scottish poet Ruthven Todd, a friend of Dylan Thomas, and George Cockcroft who, under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, became something of a cult figure after the publication in 1971 of The Dice Man about a psychiatrist who begins to make life decisions based on the casting of dice. As if that was not a sufficiently eclectic mix of writers, it was crowned by Robert Graves who had made Deià his home in 1929 and at 74 was still very much a towering presence. He would walk down the mountain path to the sea every afternoon and dive off a rock.
Graves was not part of the Institute. Indeed, he was against it and tried to persuade de Maria not to go ahead. As soon as the students arrived in Deià, Graves summoned them to the little open-air theatre on land opposite his house and told them that they were guests in the village and should behave themselves. These were the hippy years.
My two sharpest memories of Burgess are of him pounding his typewriter (one of those on display at the Foundation), which I could hear as the pension where I was staying was right next to the house he had rented with his wife Liana and son Andrew. He was writing MF (or M.F, or M/F), written in response to a suggestion that somebody should update the Oedipus story and retitle it ‘motherfucker’. It was published in 1971. The other is of him playing Debussy I think it was on the piano in the village bar run by William Graves, one of Robert’s sons. Burgess was immensely knowledgeable about all things musical. He was unassuming and kindly.
William Chislett is a journalist and writer who has lived in Madrid since 1986. He was a correspondent for The Times in Spain (1975-78) and the Financial Times correspondent in Mexico (1978-84). His books include Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by Oxford University Press.