Object of the Week: Anthony Burgess in Cleveleys, 1927
This photograph is one of the few from Anthony Burgess’s childhood in the collections at the Burgess Foundation. The ten year-old Burgess is seen on the beach at Cleveleys, Lancashire, a seaside town close to Blackpool, where the Wilson family used to holiday throughout his youth. The girl in the photograph is likely Sheila Tollitt, the daughter of Burgess’s stepsister Agnes, who often joined them on holiday.
The beach at Cleveleys is sand and shingle, and Burgess remembers it as full of ‘vacationing workmen in full dark suits but no tie, handkerchiefs knotted on their scalps’. The sea was full of jellyfish, but ‘the stinging and the screams were part of the fun’.
The Wilson family usually stayed in private hotels rather than one of the coast’s many boarding houses. Private hotels had slightly better amenities than the boarding houses, but were still rather ramshackle. The Mass Observation Archive contains reports that, in one specific hotel, there were thirty rooms with only one bathroom, in which the water was never hot. It is also likely that the Wilsons stayed in private hotels run by Mancunians as landladies advertised the town of their origin to encourage a community feel among guests of home town affinities.
The Lancashire coast was a formative location for the young Burgess, and he writes nostalgically about it in Little Wilson and Big God (1987). ‘Every year, almost as an act of discipline,’ he writes, ‘I went to Blackpool of Cleveleys, Scarborough or Torquay. Sea air was therapy, and the sea air was most therapeutic on the northern coasts. Torquay and Bournemouth were posh and southern […] The Lancashire coast was best.’
But Burgess’s memories of Cleveleys are not all about the health-giving qualities of the sea air. He remembers his reading progressing from The Boy’s Magazine and Radio Times, to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Schopenhauer over the course of his many holidays.
His last visit to Cleveleys was in 1934, when he was 17. On this visit, Burgess’s view of the resort had changed from one of relaxation to one of erotic possibilities. It was on this visit, he embarked on a holiday romance with a girl named Amy, a waitress at his hotel. As with many of Burgess’s encounters of this type, the initial ecstasy eventually gives way to anxiety. He writes, ‘There was a great divide between the joy of sex and its social implications.’
The Lancashire coast reappears in Burgess’s fiction. In The Pianoplayers (1986), Ellen Henshaw and her father Billy move to Blackpool for him to pursue his musical career in the music halls of the town. In the novel, the seaside is portrayed in much the same way as it is in Burgess’s autobiography, complete with sex, entertainment, jellyfish and dirty boarding rooms. Ellen becomes an object of sexual desire, and is forcefully assaulted by the landlord of her boarding house and by her father’s lover. It’s also the location of Billy Henshaw’s fateful piano marathon.
While the influence of Manchester on Burgess’s life and work has been well documented, his other experiences in the North West of England have not been thoroughly explored. This photo offers a glimpse of John Wilson’s life before he became Anthony Burgess.