Monday, September 12, 2011

GUEST POST Anthony Burgess in Leicester

Phil Beesley on his discovery that the novelist once lived in the Leicester suburb of Aylestone and set his novel The Right to an Answer there.

Over a pint of Tiger, somebody told me that Anthony Burgess used to drink in our pub. The story sounded implausible -- that Burgess had been a familiar face at the Black Horse, Aylestone in the 1950s - but I filed it away mentally.* The legend was that Anthony Burgess got drunk in the bar, chatting with the landlord, Bernard, while, his wife was keeled over in the lounge. 

Burgess's real life is difficult to follow, thanks to his vivid imagination when being interviewed. Every story about him needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The snippets that I have heard about him came from people who were around at the time. 


Burgess started his writing career whilst working in Malaya. In autumn 1957, he left Malaya, moving to Leicester with his wife. In 1958, Burgess got a new job in Brunei but was forced to return to the UK in the following year owing to illness. Incorrectly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and spending long periods in hospital, Burgess still managed to write several novels. Recuperated, Burgess moved to Sussex and then London.

In later years, Burgess claimed that his productivity at the start of the 1960s was motivated by the desire to support his wife, Lynne, financially. Incidental evidence suggests that his Leicester novel, The Right to an Answer was already well formed.

For five months or so in 1957/58, Anthony and Lynne Burgess shared her father's home at 2 Franklyn Road, Aylestone. Franklyn Road is a brief hop from the Black Horse on Narrow Lane. Biographer Andrew Biswell describes it as a "back-street drinking den", but those who frequented it at the time regarded it as a typical Leicester pub. The description, however, seems appropriate for Burgess who despised almost everything about England.

Even the brief journey from home to the Black Horse (Mucky Duck or Black Swan in the novel) offended Burgess:
The Black Swan stood in a pocket of decaying village, the dirty speck round which the pearly suburb had woven itself. The village had shrunk to less than an acre. It was like a tiny reservation for aborigines. From the filthy windows imbeciles leered down at the weed-patches; cocks crowed all day; little girls in pinafores of an earlier age shnockled over stained half-eaten apples; all the boys seemed to have cleft paletes.
Probably unknown to Burgess, Sanvey Lane in Aylestone was formerly called Mad Lane.

The Black Horse landlord was Bernard Tomlin (Ted Arden in the novel) and a bizarre friendship was established. Years later, Burgess was sending postcards to his old drinking mate in Aylestone. And Bernard had his inscribed copy of The Right to an Answer. In the manner of Ted Arden, we can assume that Bernard looked after such trophies. 

I can recall Bernard visiting the Black Horse post retirement for a Guinness or mild, with a vodka chaser. Fencing swords were still mounted on a beam in the lounge when Bernard died, but the rest of his armoury, which features prominently in the novel, had been removed. Today the most violent relic in the Black Horse is a wooden butter churn.

Black Swan regulars and staff are treated less sympathetically than Ted Arden, so it would be unkind to try to identify them. An exception might be the nattily dressed barman whose real name sadly escapes me.

St Andrew's, Aylestone: "'They say the church spire interferes with their 
bloody television reception,' he [the vicar] said."
We can unquestioningly accept that the Black Horse was only one of the Leicester drinking establishments familiar to Burgess. J.W. Denham, narrator of The Right to an Answer, introduces readers to the members-only Hippogriff Club in the city centre. Perhaps a reader may be able to suggest a venue on which it may have been modelled?

Leicester legend is that the oldest curry restaurant is the Taj Mahal on Highfields Street which opened in 1960. This doesn't quite tie in with the period when Burgess lived in Leicester, so Denham's fictional dining review may be based on experience elsewhere:
I had a sudden longing, like a pain, for the hot smelly East, and remembered that Everett had said something about an Indian restaurant. I asked the barman, a hot-haired Irishman, and he asked one of the business-men (who, I saw now, was a Pakistani) and then was able to tell me that the Calicut Restaurant was on Egg Street, by the Poultry Market. I went there and ate insipid dahl, tough chicken, greasy pappadams, and rice that had congealed to a pudding. The décor was depressing - brown oily wallpaper, a calendar with a Bengali pin-up (buff, deliriously plump, about thirty-eight) – and it was evident that the few Indian students were eating the special curry prepared for the staff.
There are other identifiable references. Denham describes a taxi journey from the city to Aylestone which passed a cricket ground. That would be the Leccy cricket ground which last hosted a county championship game in 1957, not Grace Road. And the Leicester Mercury became the Evening Hermes.


That's a quick review of the Leicester that Burgess perceived, not the book. If the novel interests you, I suggest that you buy a copy on Abe Books to read it in full. Ignore the reviews on the web which fail to capture Burgess's bitterness and insight. The Right to an Answer is a very black novel.

With thanks to Ken Beck, Paul Rose and Big Harold.

* I waited impatiently for more information in the 2002 biography by Roger Lewis. Alas, Lewis had fallen out of love with his subject and the biography informs the reader more about its writer than Burgess. Fortunately, Andrew Biswell was writing another biography, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (2005). Biswell made the effort to investigate Burgess in Aylestone and Leicester, as you might hope of a University of Leicester graduate, but he should have spent more time in the Black Horse.


Anonymous said...

The Leccy ground is becoming the literary flavour of the month.

It also appears in Time of Hope by CP Snow, who is the subject of a recent post at Down At Third Man.

geoffreygrigson said...

Many thanks to Mr Beesley for this article, which is of considerable interest. He is right: 'The Right to an Answer' is well worth reading. Indeed I think it is one of Burgess's greatest novels. For a closer look at 'The Black Swan', try this video:

Tom Wolfe said...

So Burgess may have the got the name Enderby from Enderby!!! I always hoped that was the case

Anonymous said...

I think it highly likely. Enderby is only three miles from Aylestone.