Object of the Week: Burgess in the Classroom
- 23rd May 2017
- Object of the Week
These pictures, dating from between 1955 and 1957, have recently been discovered in the Burgess Foundation’s archive. They show Burgess in front of his class at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kota Bharu. The blackboard behind him shows that he is teaching phonetics. Remembering his time in Malaysia, Burgess writes, ‘I taught potential teachers of Malay in their own language, introducing the alien science of fonetik, along with homemade terminology, with bunyi bibir-bibir (‘sound lip-lip’) for labial phonemes, and fonem and alofon as straightforward loan-words.’
Burgess’s teaching career began when he was posted to Gibraltar during the Second World War. Working for the Army Education Corps, he delivered a lecture course in civics titled ‘The British Way and Purpose’, modifying the official material in the face of cynicism from his audience of soldiers. Three years in wartime Gibraltar gave him experience of teaching a variety of subjects, from the idealistic political discourse of the British Way and Purpose to courses in drama, German and Elementary Book-keeping. After his demobilisation from the army in 1946, his experience of Army Education led to further teaching roles at Brinsford Lodge near Wolverhampton, Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College, and eventually to Banbury Grammar School in Oxfordshire, where he taught English to students between the ages of eleven and 18. At Banbury Grammar, as he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I gave my pupils at least one weekly lesson in phonetics and earned rebukes, mostly from parents who saw no use in it.’
Burgess was an enthusiastic teacher who apparently knew how to communicate his passion for literature to students of all ages. His former students at Banbury recalled his sense of humour, his unusual dress sense, and his ability to turn his lessons into ‘adventures’. On one occasion, he set a poem he had written (one of the ‘Revolutionary Sonnets’) for detailed commentary on a sixth-form examination paper. But his career as a school teacher came to a sudden end in Brunei in 1959, where he succumbed to a mysterious illness in front of a class and was sent back to England for treatment. From this point onward, he made his living primarily from writing and reviewing novels.
Burgess’s work as a school and college teacher is reflected in much of his writing. In an introduction to The Malayan Trilogy (inspired by his life as an education officer), Burgess writes: ‘It is hoped that this novel, which has its own elements of diversion, may, through tears and laughter, educate.’ He often made teachers and academic environments the focus of his novels: The Worm and the Ring, The Doctor is Sick, The Wanting Seed, Nothing Like the Sun and A Vision of Battlements all include teachers as central figures. There are also sections of Enderby, Earthly Powers, and The End of the World News in which the protagonists are involved in university teaching.
Being a writer gave Burgess the opportunity to revisit his former career when he taught creative writing at institutions such as City College New York, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At each of these places, Burgess gained a reputation as an enthusiastic teacher who took literature seriously. Bruce Parks, a former creative writing student from City College New York, remembers him as an encouraging mentor:
‘[Burgess] always encouraged us, always found something good in our work to point out. Sometimes he would read a student’s work out loud himself, adding to it a new dimension brought by his dramatic voicing and diction, and it made everyone’s writing sound pretty good. Were we at risk of throwing our lives away for a dream we never would have the talent to achieve? I think AB considered this, and he concluded that we would be better people for the pursuit, even if we didn’t succeed, than we would be if he were to discourage us.’