Saturday, October 14, 2006

Anthony Burgess's Rites Of Spring; and Letting The Side Down Badly

Anthony Burgess’s Rites Of Spring
Fictitious First Performance
Of The Symphoni Malaya, 1957

As the final movement nears its end,
the timpanist rolls in C,
and “Merdeka!” cry the crowd.
“Freedom!” they cry, egged on by the harpists,
the xylophonist and trumpeters;
and the timpanist, one Anjing Panas,
alias John Wilson, alias Anthony Burgess,
symphonic composer incognito,
rolls and rolls and triumphantly rolls,
in his mind the middle C from which all else follows,
and the symphony’s coda
becomes a beginning of something else,
a well-spring of independence,
a mass crowd-voice of freedom,
a gut-felt wildness suddenly unleashed
after long years of oppression.
Such a pure vision perhaps cannot last,
and –look: just there– a fight breaks out
and spreads, bodies sprawling,
knocking over the impromptu seating
like a John Wayne bar-brawl but in Malay.
Yet still, when the timpanist breaks off at last
and the orchestra pack up their kit in disgust,
there’s the sense that this coda-still-never-quite-finished
has become a revolution just begun –
has become not a coda after all,
but instead the first movement
of a messy symphony of freedom
that will continue forever.

David Bateman

Letting The Side Down Badly

It’s very easy to be critical of Anthony Burgess. His faults that immediately spring to mind include snobbery, persistent lying, religious hypocrisy, and some appallingly muddled thinking on morality.
But, reading of his time as a teacher in Malaya in its final three years as a British colony (from 1954 to 1957, the period in which plain John Wilson became also Anthony Burgess the published author), there are a couple of very endearing things about him. One is his hatred of the racism in his fellow colonials. Another is his general difficulty in accepting authority of any sort, and specifically his obvious dislike of the colonial administration (the same administration that would not even allow him, an employee, to publish his novels under his own name).
Unlike his fellow colonials, Burgess bothered learning Malay --to the equivalent of degree level-- and socialized with local people. He saw Malaya as “the most remarkable multi-racial society in the world,” and his immediate friends included people from Britain, Malaya, Sumatra, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and India. His headmaster, a disciplinarian who apparently referred to his Malay pupils as “wogs,” commented, “Wilson lets the side down badly.”
Anthony Burgess’s poor relationship with his headmaster was typical of his relationships with his bosses and with authority figures in general – a pattern of antagonism that would last all his life. “When you make your peace with authority, you become an authority,” said the singer Jim Morrison, who Burgess would doubtless have hated; but Burgess certainly never made his peace with authority.
Though Burgess felt that the British still had a useful educational role to play in Malaya, his overall attitude to the colonial administration was one of resentment of its all-too-obvious failings -- “the shambles, [...] the obscurantism, the colour-prejudice, the laziness and ignorance” -- so he was able to identify with the Malay wish for independence. It was because of this sympathy --and possibly also in an attempt to gain publicity by jumping on an obviously popular Malay bandwagon-- that Burgess came to write one of his most ambitious musical pieces to date, the Symphoni Malaya, to celebrate the handover planned for August 1957.
Though his main potential market, Radio Malaya, showed no interest in the piece, Burgess was later (1975) able to give a vivid description of the symphony’s riotous first performance in 1957, where the audience’s cries of “Freedom!” --encouraged by the orchestra-- merged with the closing movement, and where ultimately the actual ending was never played due to the outbreak of a free-for-all fight.
For all its vividness, Burgess’s description is entirely fictional, for no such performance ever occurred -- indeed, the symphony has never been performed at all. But, partly because this instance of Burgess’s fabulation is such pure fantasy, such pure wish-fulfilment, I find it gives a rather endearing insight into the wishes he would like fulfilled. Not only does he want to have his work performed by a full orchestra: also he wants a reception for it as memorable and chaotic as that of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, but better; also he wants it to be part of a whole national mythology, and also he wants his art to be fused and identified with a movement towards freedom. For sure, his false account is self-aggrandizing; but, for me at least, there is a certain charm in its sheer ridiculousness, and even a certain nobility through the principles with which he chooses to align his fantasy.
Reading of this bogus event in Andrew Biswell’s (2005) biography of Burgess, and suddenly seeing (or at least thinking I saw) how Burgess’s mind had worked at a particular moment, I wrote the poem “Anthony Burgess’s Rites Of Spring” almost immediately. The two poems about Burgess I’d written before had concentrated on the more negative elements of Burgess’s false accounts and his music, so it felt good to write something more positive.
The first draft of the poem practically wrote itself, I think in less than half an hour. Drafts two and three were mostly just neatenings-up and adjustments to the rhythms, but then I suddenly realized that what Burgess would really want was to be in the orchestra itself as well as being the composer. So I decided to add further lies to Burgess’s own; and, seeing as how I didn’t have the burden of expecting anyone to believe me, I could put Burgess in any orchestral role I wanted, so naturally I made him the all-important timpanist, playing incognito.
Two other little serendipitous details crept in at this point. Firstly, I was able to draw his alias, “Anjing Panas” (which is literal Malay for “Dog Hot”), from separate parts of two equally spurious names created by Burgess (1958) in his novel, The Enemy In The Blanket. Secondly, the fact that the timpanist was rolling in C reminded me of the importance of middle C to Burgess. When he was a child, his father had shown him middle C on the piano and the musical stave; and from these very skimpy basics, Burgess had managed to teach himself music. “Find middle C,” he wrote later, “and you have found everything.”

David Bateman


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