Thanks to Henry Mantel for supplying this interesting snippet regarding one of Xaverian College’s more famous alumni, Anthony Wilson, better known as the novelist Anthony Burgess remembered mainly for his influential novel A Clockwork Orange.
There is a film clip of Anthony Burgess on YouTube returning to Xaverian College.
Writing under the pen name Anthony Burgess he was Anthony Wilson when he entered Xaverian College from 1928-1937. His form included Donald Birtles (Brother Cyril C.F.X.) and in an effort to reach out to the isolated boy in the class Donald sat in a paired desk with him for a year. (Yes we did use those in the 1960’s!!)
Brother Cyril in the last years of his life would invite my wife and I to tea at the Brother’s House in Twickenham. He explained that Xaverian College in the 1920’s was a private fee paying school with a commitment to educating working class boys. The Birtles family was not well off and private education required sacrifice. In marked contrast Wilson’s father ran a group of shops and was well able to afford the fees. Wilson therefore had an air of superiority toward his form mates and was a rather isolated pupil.
In this light Wilson’s education at Xaverian was probably not a happy memory. Brother Cyril said that he was invited to return later in life but never responded. Then the BBC contacted to ask if they could film scenes for a documentary about his life; the You Tube clip shows him knocking at the door of Firwood and then cuts to a thank you as the door closes on the Brothers refectory room which Wilson recalls as the headmaster’s office.
Brother Cyril opened the front door to Firwood and closed the door leaving the film crew and their subject. Only when the crew had packed up did Brother Cyril enquire of Burgess if he recalled any of his class mates at Xaverian. He did not; Brother Cyril then described where he sat in the form room and how the pair had sat in a paired desk at Xaverian. A rather embarrassed Burgess left never to return.
Also on You Tube is a risible clip implicitly criticizing the College for not celebrating or recognizing Burgess in the English department. Perhaps if Burgess had shown any interest in the development of the College in his life this might have been a possibility.
5 thoughts on “Anthony Burgess aka Anthony Wilson”
Anthony Burgess attended Xaverian College under his real name, John Burgess Wilson, from 1928 to 1935. He writes in detail about the school in his memoir, Little Wilson and Big God, and in a novel, Tremor of Intent. The documentary described above was made by Granada Television in 1980. Burgess returned to Xaverian in 1987 with a Belgian film crew to make a second film, broadcast under the title The Confession of Burgess.
Anthony Burgess went on to teach in the Far East in both Malaya then in Brunei Darussalam. I spent nineteen years in Brunei also teaching in local schools. I met an Indian lady who remembered Mr Wilson as he was then known. His book Devil of a State is all about Brunei and if one compares it with the chapter of his Brunei experience from his biography Little Wilson and Big God, it is very clear how much fact is moulded into fiction. The former book is considered a banned book in Brunei. One would needs to have lived in S.E. Asia to appreciate the book. His Malay Trilogy also demands some experience of the heat, humidity and necessity for a Tiger beer whatever the time
Thanks for your interesting contribution, I look forward to reading the Burgess book. The only Far East book I have read previously would be Orwell’s Burmese Days as well as the odd story by Somerset Maugham. My Aunt Madge became a Franciscan nun and taught English in a convent school in Ceylon for many years but received short shrift when Mrs Bandaranaike, who decided to reform education. She presumably took against the catholic involvement after being educated in catholic school herself.
I recall Brother Cyril (Donald Birtles) quite clearly.
He was a strange character but then some of the Brothers were very strange. He was quite morose and his conversation and speeches never showed any sparkle.
I remember that he appeared more human when he was in charge of the Prep. Maybe the extra responsibility of running Xavs proved to be something that weighed heavily. Thanks for the comment.