Upstaged by a Muppet

Images aboave: Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange; Kermit of The Muppets

Why no blue plaque for Anthony Burgess?

By Torin Douglas

It was a bit of a week for Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage.

She organises the London Blue Plaques scheme and some weeks ago she accepted my invitation to brave the lions’ den and speak at the Chiswick Book Festival on the decision not to award a plaque to Anthony Burgess. Best known for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, the author lived for five years in a house at 24 Glebe Street in Chiswick.

The case in favour of Burgess was to be put by John Walsh, former Sunday Times literary editor and director of the Cheltenham Literary Festival. When the application was turned down in 2015, Walsh wrote a blistering article in the Independent headed “If Anthony Burgess doesn’t merit a blue plaque, then few do.”

It promised to be an enthralling discussion, further enlivened by the presence of Rose Sandy, author, publishing director and founder of the HarperCollins Author Academy, which supports writers from under-represented ethnic backgrounds – under-represented, not least, in the blue plaques that have been awarded over the past 150 years.

Images above: Jim Henson with puppets; Miss Piggy

A week ago, further spice was added to the debate. On Tuesday morning, the Festival organisers announced that Chiswick’s bid for a Burgess plaque had been turned down for a second time. At the same time, by total coincidence, Anna Eavis was set to go on the Radio 4 Today programme to talk about a new plaque that was to be unveiled on the Hampstead home of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets!

As she explained later in our debate, Anna never got to speak on the Today programme. She was gazumped, by a puppet. Kermit the Frog stole her airtime, talking eloquently about Jim Henson and his achievements and legacy. At the end of the interview, the presenter Simon Jack said it had been one of his career highlights – and Nick Robinson sounded suitably jealous. We didn’t hear from Anna at all.

But the juxtaposition set up some intriguing cross-currents for our discussion:
Burgess vs Henson. A Clockwork Orange vs The Muppet Show. Chiswick vs Hampstead.

Image above: L to R Torin Douglas, Rose Sandy, John Walsh, Anna Eavis; photograph Roger Green

Chairing the panel session, I set out the context – how I’d felt that Chiswick’s literary heritage had been under-recognised and so set up the Chiswick Timeline of Writers & Books, spearheaded by a Writers Trail highlighting 21 distinguished writers who between them had chalked up one Booker Prize, two Nobel Prizes for Literature, three Oscars, four plaques and a Poet Laureateship.

When the Observer declared that “Chiswick may be the UK’s most literary location”, I’d felt that my work had been done. And yet… if literary worth were to be measured in blue plaques, Chiswick seemed hard done by compared with Hampstead, with its 38. Why HAD Burgess been turned down again?

John Walsh took up the banner, in an impassioned speech setting out Burgess’s prolific literary achievements – recognised with awards in other countries but not his own, barring a cheap plastic trophy given him by Margaret Thatcher at the British Press Awards. He quoted from a letter by Anna Eavis stating that “the high public profile of Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange and the productivity of Burgess’s time in Chiswick” were outweighed by point that “much of his career was spent outside London” and that in the panel’s view “at present, the durability and extent of his overall literary impact is not sufficiently clear”.

Supporting Walsh in the audience were Andrew Biswell, director of the International Anthony Burgess Institute, and the current owners of 24 Glebe Street, who had painted the front door orange in tribute to his best-known work.

If Anna Eavis were daunted, she didn’t show it. With charm and a smile, she explained the background and how the scheme works. How English Heritage had inherited responsibility for the blue plaques from the Greater London Council and the London County Council; how just 12 plaques are awarded each year representing all fields, not just literature; how they are discussed and chosen by a panel, advised by experts, from nominations submitted by the public; and how they actively seek more nominations, and want particularly to recognise more women and those from ethnic minorities.

On the specific case of Burgess, she said there had been a lengthy discussion among the panel, the decision had been a narrow one and another panel might have made a different decision. But now that he had been considered twice, no further application could be made for another ten years.

Stretching the impartiality of my role as chairman, I asked why – in view of the statement that much of Burgess’s career was spent outside London – a plaque had been placed on Gerald Durrell’s home in Dulwich where he lived only till the age of three? Anna conceded that the panel’s decisions were not all entirely consistent but that the impact of Durrell as a naturalist and writer – and indeed of Jim Henson, as a puppeteer who had harnessed the enormous potential of television for entertainment and education – made them entirely suitable for recognition. When I asked why Hampstead needed yet another blue plaque, she said this was not a factor taken into consideration.

Rose Sandy said she’d been interested in blue plaques when she saw them round London, but had not thought much about them till being invited to take part in the discussion – and she would now invite her Academy students to explore whether there are names they might like to submit to English Heritage for recognition.

When the debate was opened to the floor, there was immediate support for the rejection of Anthony Burgess by the playwright John Caine, a Mancunian who lives in Chiswick. Despite coming from the place of Burgess’s birth, he thought the author’s objectionable moral behaviour and sentiments expressed in his novels made him unsuitable for recognition, particularly in the present climate. Others agreed.

Supporting Burgess, Andrew Biswell pointed to his growing international stature and popularity, a point backed by other audience members, while an art college lecturer said Burgess was highly regarded by students.

Anna Eavis was asked how many women were on the blue plaques panel and how many were from ethnic minorities. She said that when she started in her role in 2014, the panel was all white and overwhelmingly male. Now there are several women on it and two non-white members – and there are also vacancies which are publicly advertised.

So if anyone would like to change the balance of the blue plaques, please apply! Read more on the English Heritage website: english-heritage.org.uk

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Anthony Burgess house in blue plaque bid

See also: Blue plaque for Chiswick writer Anthony Burgess rejected

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