In celebration of an English man of letters
AI read through the list of those who had attended Anthony Burgess's memorial service at St Paul's, Covent Garden, last Thursday, I felt a momentary pang that it did not include more literary lions, but then I reflected that there are very few literary lions left. As a species, it is almost extinct. Perhaps Sir Kingsley Amis and John Osborne can still put up a roar, but we could scarcely expect Mr Powell at 88 to follow suit, even if it had ever been in his nature to give more than a polite cough. For the rest, there is a handful of fashion- able, younger novelists, but none with any of the qualities of a lion. Smaller concern is expressed about the disappearance of this magnificent national animal than about a reputed (and long overdue) decline in the number of bats to torment us.
Of course it is not in the nature of male lions to fraternise over a certain age, and Burgess, who was unmistakably a literary lion, would almost certainly have quarrelled with any others in his age group, even if he had not fought with them and killed them. But he was a benign soul with a sweet nature, and I was haunted by the thought that he and Graham Greene were laughing together somewhere in the sky having set- tled their differences, as the congregation settled down to celebrate his memory.
The church was full. The faces, as I con- fronted them from the sanctuary to deliver the first of two addresses, were intelligent, alert, humorous, expecting to be given a good time as they celebrated the memory of a writer they admired, enjoyed, in some cases loved. I felt I was at a private party for a segment of London's humane, educat- ed intelligentsia. Burgess's widow, Liliana, sat in front, a small dignified figure, accom- panied by his brilliant and devoted agent, Lesley Garner. Somewhere in the congre- gation was his son of about 32, Andrew, but I never identified him, as I would dearly have liked to do.
It was a conspicuously friendly, informal gathering. We listened politely to an adagio from Burgess's String Quartet — possibly not the most resounding of his composi- tions — but the Barbican Virtuosi (a cham- ber group of moonlighting LSO players under Adrian Adlam, a Wykehamist) made a grand job of it, and an excellent choral group, I Fagiolini, sang another Burgess composition, based on Thomas Nashe's 'In Time of Plague'.
So much for thanking the tea-ladies. What haunted me was the contrast between this gathering and another I attended in Paris 20 years earlier. That was the funeral of Marcel Pagnol on 23 April 1974, in the Church of St Honore in Place Victor Hugo. Pagnol is quite famous now, because of the recent films of Manon des Sources and Jean de Flo- rette, but at the time of his death he was thought of as a good middling provincial writer — batting some way below Alphonse Daudet, perhaps, but well above Peter Mayle among writers about Provence. I put him somewhere between Jerome K. Jerome and W.W. Jacobs in the English batting order — not a bad place to be, but a long way from the position of intellectual flag- bearer occupied by Anthony Burgess.
For Pagnol's funeral, the Place Victor Hugo was closed to traffic by 60 policemen in ceremonial uniform. A 'platoon of rifle- men turned up to present arms as the coffin left. The President of the Republic was rep- resented by his minister for cultural affairs, Alain Peyrefitte. Pagnol's fellow Immortals (as members of the Academie Frangaise are called) waddled around in their habit vent, with green palm leaves on coat and trousers and two-pointed hat, like a Spanish admiral of the 18th century. God was represented by the good Cardinal Danielou.
I am not saying that Canon Bill Hall, Senior Chaplain of the Actors' Church Union, made a worse job of it. I thought he did very well. And St Paul's, Covent Gar- den, is a fine church. Never mind that someone may have made a slight slip-up and chosen the wrong denomination. Burgess's Irish grandmother brought him up a strict Catholic and he sometimes fan- tasised that he belonged to a long line of recusant Wilsons. But nobody minds about that sort of thing nowadays.
When I was a young reporter in London about 35 years ago, St Paul's had a famous vicar who used to hold family services for pets. Everybody was expected to bring the family pets for a blessing, or whatever. Nobody among the congregation at Antho- ny Burgess's memorial service had brought even a chihuahua, let alone a pekingese, to the service, but I could not help reflecting how much he would have enjoyed it if they had. And then, just as I Fagiolini were sing- ing the last, sepulchral lines of Nashe's 'In Time of Plague', a mysterious brass band struck up outside, playing first the National Anthem, then 'Roll Out the Barrel'.
I do not suppose for a moment that Mrs Rimington was behind this phenomenon. But the contrast between the obsequies of a minor French writer and a major English one was too startling to escape notice, and one must imagine an element of intention. Where were the representatives of the Government, the Queen? Where were Burgess's peers, his fellow 'Immortals'? Where were the police in ceremonial uni- form, the military guard of honour?
There is a grand old tradition in England that we do not encourage our writers to get swollen-headed. We have no Places or Avenues Victor Hugo, no Avenues Mon- taigne or Moliere. On the whole, I think it is very good for our writers not to be encour- aged to take themselves too seriously. One sees this happen to journalists like Polly Toynbee, and nothing but piffle results.
Burgess never took himself too seriously, and remained, as William Boyd pointed out, dedicated to the anarchic principle of the Total Joke. It was he who first discovered something that American criticism still tends to overlook, that Joyce was primarily a humorous writer. Perhaps he remained too excited with this discovery to take it a stage further and establish where exactly Joyce stood in the great batting order of humorous writers — from Roy Hattersley, perhaps, through Jerome K. Jerome to the great Wodehouse himself. Never mind. Burgess had a fine intelligence, an original mind and a beautiful imagination, as well as a certain sweetness of nature which always saved him from pomposity. No wonder the political establishment fought shy of him. His 77 years of service to the English language were not recognised by so much as one of Mr Major's new lower-class MBEs, let alone an official send-off in the Pagnol manner.
So it might seem that official England wins the day. Our writers are disregarded. I would argue in the opposite sense. It is our politicians who are disregarded, our police who are mistrusted, our military who are about to be squeezed out of existence. In no other country in the world is the govern- ment, the opposition and the whole politi- cal process held in such open derision. Our purpose in turning up in Covent Garden was to express our gratitude to Anthony Burgess for his work and for his time among us. No more, no less.
No farther seek his merits to disclose Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, There they alike in trembling hope repose, The bosom of his Father and his God.