Monday, October 09, 2006

What We Did On Our Day Out

The first development day for The Burgess Project, on Saturday 9th September, was my first visit to Manchester for several months, and also definitely a bit weird at moments. There were the producers, the audio-visual crew, and we five writers, all in various degrees of shocking ignorance of Anthony Burgess, being driven round various downmarket Manchester suburbs in a coach with Burgess biographer Andrew Biswell as our guide on what had been described to us, rather portentously, as “a psycho-geographic tour of Burgessian Manchester.”
I doubt that the residents of Harpurhey, Miles Platting, Moss Side and Withington, as they idly paused to watch our luxury coach slowly nosing its way between the parked cars lining the narrow streets of terraces and semis, were saying to each other, “Yes, sirree, that’s the Psycho-Geographic Tour Bus going through, bang on time as always. You can set your watch by it.”
The portentousness of its title aside, the tour itself was mostly simply a very informative summary of the early years of Anthony Burgess, or John Wilson as he was then (yes, he really, really could so easily have ended up calling himself Tony Wilson). Driving through the “long-gone Manchester” of Anthony Burgess, we writers showed ourselves very easily distracted by the present day: a sign offering a generous reward for the recovery of a missing parrot, and later a man in the street with a pet python draped over his shoulders, seemed to arouse more excitement than the absent Burgess. After all, you can’t imagine draping a writer who’s been dead for thirteen years over your shoulders (and if you can, that’s sick). (What sort of snake do you imagine Burgess to be? What has he just eaten?) That said, we did get down to proper business as well. For me, two of our most notable stops weren’t actually Burgess’s old residences, but more central, at the end of St. Peter Street, and on Oxford Road. On the steps of Central Library, Andrew Biswell told us of Burgess’s various different stories of his early sexual encounters, leaving me impressed by the number of times Burgess seemed to have lost his virginity; and later, in the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, we had chance to see one of the main settings of Burgess’s early crises of faith.
I think all five of us writers were struck by the grandeur and detail of the architecture and statuary of the Church of the Holy Name – with its massive enclosed space, its side-chapel tableaux, and its tall, pointy-roofed pulpit standing there like a wood-and-marble space-rocket ready to blast off direct to Heaven. The fact that there was a tramp kipping at the back and two cleaners hard at work at the front made the scene all the more enticing for any writer. Sensing that there might be competition to use the church as a source of inspiration, I staked an early claim to the idea of using the stations of the cross as a structural element in my poem – though not, as it turned out, to do with Burgess’s religion at all.
All this, and still only lunchtime. Later in the day, various of us would visit the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, The White Lion and The Bay Horse. Also, I having spoken once too often and too loudly within the hearing of the company of The Phone Book Ltd (technophiles all) about how mobile phones will never catch on, I would be made to borrow a moby and made to learn how to use the damn thing (Curses!); but more usefully, I would learn through sage advice rather than hard experience never to buy chips on Oldham Street, and I would retire to my considerately provided overnight flat in Chatham Street to finish my chips and write the first draft of a poem which I am not going to tell you about yet.

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