Anthony Burgess blue plaque bid

Image above: Anthony Burgess
B & W portrait photographs courtesy of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation 

Academics, historians and local residents are backing a fresh bid to secure a blue plaque for the house in Chiswick where the writer Anthony Burgess lived in the 1960s.

The author and composer, best known for his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, lived for five years at 24 Glebe St, between 1964 and 1968. Current owners of the property Tracey Logan and husband Richard Szwagrzak told me they were very excited when they found out they were living in his house, as both had read his novels. They bought the house in 1994 and found out from the neighbours on either side, who have since died, but who remembered Burgess and his wife Lynne.

Image above: Richard Szwagrzak and Tracey Logan, outside their house, whose front door is painted orange in tribute to A Clockwork Orange. Photograph James Willcocks.

The Colonial Service and Lynne saying something “obscene” to the Duke of Edinburgh

They were a colourful couple, by all accounts. They had lived in Malaya where Burgess had worked as a teacher in the British Colonial Service, publishing his first novels, known as the Malay trilogy, but regarding writing as ‘a sort of gentlemanly hobby, because I knew there wasn’t any money in it’.

They had then moved to Brunei, where he continued to write while teaching. He collapsed in the classroom one day and was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and given, erroneously, just a year to live. He later told a totally different story in an interview with Jeremy Isaacs on the BBC The Late Show in 1989. He said:

“Looking back now I see that I was driven out of the Colonial Service. I think possibly for political reasons that were disguised as clinical reasons”.

He told another interviewer that Lynne had said something “obscene” to the Duke of Edinburgh during an official visit, and the colonial authorities turned against him. He was invalided home in 1959 and tested at the neurological ward of a London hospital, where they found no evidence of illness. Lynne inherited some money from her father and Burgess was sufficiently financially independent to become a full-time writer.

By the time they moved to Chiswick he was becoming successful. A number of his novels had been published, including A Clockwork Orange in 1962, and he was working as a journalist, reviewer and critic as well as having his own work published. In fact he moved to Chiswick because BBC 2 launched. Burgess was working as a reviewer for The Listener at the time but couldn’t get a signal to watch it at their house in West Sussex, so he and Lynne moved to Chiswick, buying 24 Glebe St for £3,000. It was also within easy reach of BBC Television Centre in White City.

Image above: Anthony Burgess at the house in Glebe St, with Lynne on the rug behind him

Moving in to the Glebe estate

The Glebe estate had a reputation as being pretty rough at that time. He gave this account of moving in, in his autobiography You’ve Had Your Time:

‘In the early spring of 1964 Lynne and I travelled to 24 Glebe St in Chiswick to assume residence. We travelled on a half-heartedly cleaned up coal truck with two cats in a basket and the dog Haji. I lay in coal dust with Haji on a lead, and he slavered at the great world he had not seen before, while Lynne quietened the cats in the driver’s cabin..

‘We had furnished the house with little taste out of a great store in Hammersmith. The previous owner had installed a bar with ingenious concealed lighting, and I blew the coal dust off out three Chinese bar stools and placed them in position.

‘It was early evening, opening time, and there was an off-licence at the end of Glebe Street. I staggered to our new home with a crate of Gordon’s gin and a bottle of bitters manufactured at Ciudad Bolivar on the Orinoco. That would do to start with.

‘Then we went out, greedily rather than thirstily, to sample all the Chiswick pubs, with Haji choking himself on his lead. All along Glebe Street tough tomcats assembled at their garden gates at nightfall, and some of them dealt Haji token paw-thumps as we passed. I was reminded of some of the schools I had visited on teaching practice in Lancashire, where children were thumped as they entered: that was for doing nothing; wait till they started doing something.’

They were well known in the local pubs in Chiswick, many of which were Irish pubs, and according to Burgess played IRA songs loudly on the juke boxes. Lynne would get into arguments ‘but I demurred at having to take up her quarrels and transfer them to the region of fists’ he wrote.

Images above: Anthony Burgess with a stack of books, courtesy of Penguin Books; A Clockwork Orange, 1980s Penguin edition

Living it up in the London literary scene

Burgess has very active in the London literary scene, says Professor Graham Holderness, one of the academics behind the bid for a plaque to commemorate his achievements as an author and as a composer, for he also wrote music.

“His tax returns and his expense claims show the life of a professional writer, having lunch with other writers, broadcasters and publishers”.

He was a big friend of the novelist Kingsley Amis and a regular drinking partner of novelist William S Burroughs; one of his receipts shows lunch with broadcaster and bon viveur Ned Sherrin.

‘Concentration on heavy writing in London was virtually impossible: it was a place for drink, journalism and literary politics’ he wrote in his autobiography.

He also met Italian translator Liliana Macellari not long after moving to Chiswick, with whom he had an affair, which resulted in the birth of his son Paolo Andrea, all of which he managed to keep quiet from Lynne.

‘The kind of London life Lynne wanted was one of heavy drinking in company, seasoned by contention. The pubs closed too early for her but, on payment of an annual subscription of five pounds, one could obtain membership of most of London’s night clubs.’

Perhaps it’s not too surprising then that she died of cirrhosis of the liver in March 1968, after which Burgess sold the house in Chiswick, to his driver, if the neighbours are to be believed. He married Liliana, acknowledged Marco as his own, and moved to Italy, where he started getting involved in film, writing film scripts for Zeffirelli.

Images above: A Clockwork Orange, film stills

Significance as a writer ‘not strong enough’ for a blue plaque in 2013

Stanley Kubrik’s film of A Clockwork Orange came out a few years later, in 1971, and it is to the film that Burgess attributes his later success. Despite the heavy drinking and socializing, during his years in Chiswick he was quite prolific, writing the first two books of the Enderby series: Inside Mr Enderby, (published 1963) and Enderby Outside (published 1968). He also had his fictional biography of William Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun published in 1964, which received mixed reviews, and he wrote his spy novel Tremor of Intent (published 1966). His accounts also show that he was also researching his book on James Joyce, Here Comes Everybody at this time, with a trip to Dublin for research between 5 and 7 November 1964.

Graham Holderness likens him to James Joyce: “He was like an English James Joyce” he told me, “introducing post-modernism into fiction”.

English Heritage award blue plaques on buildings in London ‘to link the people of the past with the buildings of the present’. The plaques honour ‘the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them’. The year the first application was first made, was the year in which Tommy Cooper’s house in Barrowgate Rd was selected. When they turned down the Burgess application they said his reputation needed longer for his reputation as a writer to become established.

‘The [blue plaques] panel noted his many achievements but… they felt his overall significance and profile were not yet strong enough to make a case for a blue plaque.’

There was outrage from supporters.

‘As the author of the modern classic A Clockwork Orange and a famously outspoken cultural pundit, he is one of the greatest names of post-war British literature’ wrote Chris Hastings in the Mail on Sunday. His biographer Roger Lewis called the decision ‘pretty pathetic.’

Image above: Director of the Chiswick Book Festival Torin Douglas; Professor Graham Holderness; Richard Szwagrzak and Tracey Logan outside 24 Glebe St. Photograph James Willcocks.

The English James Joyce

Professor Holderness, who has worked with Burgess’ biographer, told me many well-known writers have acknowledged a debt to him in influencing their work:

“Between 1963 and 1968, when he was living in Chiswick, Burgess revolutionised Shakespeare biography, bringing together fact and fiction as no-one else had ever done. He made a significant contribution to the historical novel, and wrote a musical version of Shakespeare’s life, never produced, that pre-dated the hugely successful and influential Shakespeare in Love.”

This time around, he will be up against a number of women who are being put forward for recognition, as English Heritage acknowledges that the 14% blue plaques which celebrate the achievements of women is just ‘not good enough’.

In his submission, Professor Andrew Biswell, Director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, has provided evidence that Burgess’ reputation is still very much alive and well:

“The 2017 centenary of Burgess’s birth provided opportunities for revisiting his life and work. The BBC commissioned a series of radio programmes, including five radio Essays; a two-hour programme about his music; his translation of Oedipus the King (featuring Fiona Shaw and Christopher Eccleston); and a live broadcast of A Clockwork Orange with music.

“Audiences for Burgess’s literature and theatre have grown across the world. His books are newly available in countries where they were previously censored, with recent translations into Maltese, Chinese, Malay, Turkish, Russian and Romanian. His stage plays are frequently performed in Britain, USA, Germany, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Malta and Singapore.”

Tracey and Richard say there has been a steady stream of Anthony Burgess fans who have come and loitered outside the house, taking pictures, including a French film crew making a documentary about his life. If they notice them quickly enough, they invite them in for a cup of tea.

There are plaques commemorating him in Italy and Monaco, and at the University of Manchester where he studied. We will find out in October whether there will be one in Glebe St. Meanwhile Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival, says this year’s festival will see the start of guided tours around an authors’ trail in Chiswick, and it will most definitely include the house where Anthony Burgess lived and wrote for five years.