Anthony Burgess in Adderbury in the 1950s

Late in 1950 John Burgess Wilson, who was later to find fame as the prolific writer Anthony Burgess, moved to 4, Water Lane, Adderbury with his wife Lynne. He had accepted a post as a junior English master at Banbury Grammar School, and a loan from Lynne’s father had enabled the couple to get a mortgage on the cottage. Although Burgess would write thirty-three novels and more than twenty-five works of non-fiction in his life, including two volumes of autobiography and three volumes of essays, in his Adderbury days as John Wilson he was only at the very beginning of his writing career.

There are many problems to writing about Anthony Burgess: there are two biographies which take very different approaches to their subject and an autobiography which sometimes prefers a good story to the strict truth. But there is one thing on which everybody seems to agree, and that is that Wilson was a very good teacher. He was required to teach English Language in the lower forms and English Literature higher up the school. Audrey Smith, in those days Audrey Froggatt, was both a neighbour of Wilson’s in Adderbury and his pupil at the Grammar School: she was in the second form in 1950; in the third form Wilson was her English teacher and in the fourth form he was her Form Master. She says he was a very modern teacher, very relaxed, who never sat behind his desk. He never had any difficulty in getting people to listen; he was softly spoken with a beautiful voice. He was willing to diversify his lessons: he didn’t just teach English grammar, he introduced the class to Esperanto and to the Cyrillic alphabet. He had his pupils read Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), George Orwell (“1984”) and Evelyn Waugh in class and then discussed the books with them. In school he wore a tatty gown; outside he had a rather hippy style and wore corduroys and baggy sweaters. He was always rather scruffy.

Other opinions from higher up the school have been collected by Andrew Biswell, his biographer (The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, Picador 2005) and confirm that, as a school teacher Burgess was almost universally well liked:

“… Jackie Adkins remembers ‘ He was my teacher and I thought he was great. He used to wear outrageous clothes – gaudy waistcoats and a terrible ginger suit. His fingers were stained with nicotine.’ Another pupil at the school, Susie Kerridge, found his enthusiasm for literature infectious … and she attributes her pleasure in reading to Burgess’s inspiring presence in the classroom …. Sonia Blinkhorn, who studies under Burgess in the sixth form, says: ‘We regarded him as extremely clever. He eWe regarded him as extremely clever. He exerted control because he was unpredictable. He gave us an awareness of the joy of learning and made us feel good about English literature.’ She remembers his lessons on the metaphysical poets as a ‘huge adventure’”.

Wilson’s efforts in the classroom were supported by his enthusiasm both for grammar school education generally and for the particular staff at Banbury, which he described in his autobiography as “good … a staff with brilliant side-talents which produced brilliant children”. Wilson was opposed to the growth of secondary modern schools. He felt that grammar schools were “the backbone of bourgeois culture and gave the community its plays, concerts, even operas, as well as its better citizens.”

Although he did do some journalism for the Banbury Guardian, Wilson’s contribution to the cultural life of Adderbury and Banburyshire was much more as a producer of plays and as a musician than as a writer. He claimed, however, in his autobiography to have written a novel in 1953 in the “box-like study-second-bedroom” of his Adderbury cottage. This was based on his wartime experiences in Gibraltar and would eventually be published in 1965 as “A Vision of Battlements”. In 1950 he formed a group, the Adderbury Players, (“few of them living in Adderbury” according to Wilson himself) and put on, among other plays, O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock”, T.S.Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes”, Christopher Fry’s “A Phoenix Too Frequent”, and Aldous Huxley’s “The Giaconda Smile”. The productions took place in The Institute, Adderbury, although there was sometimes a tour to neighbouring villages. As a musician, Wilson composed instrumental and vocal pieces for talented pupils at the grammar school, a Partita for the school string orchestra, incidental music for a school production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and worked on the libretto for an intended opera. But it was during his time in Adderbury that he reports himself to have given up on the idea of becoming a professional composer.

Wilson seems to have been very ambivalent about life in Adderbury. On the one hand, he could write in his autobiography that:

“There were times, especially in spring when the may appeared, when the life of an Oxfordshire village with … seven pubs was idyllic enough. Long country walks with a dog. Cider in the midst of a Midlands dialect. Little money, but money was not everything.”

On the other hand, it is clear that the bohemian lifestyle that Wilson and his wife went in for was alien to the village. His wife in particular was felt to be scandalous in her drinking and her behaviour generally – “and even after half a century her behaviour is still the subject of village gossip” according to Andrew Biswell. Audrey Smith calls Lynne Wilson “a nice friendly Welsh lady with a Siamese cat”, but even she has to admit that when Lynne and John would come round to their house occasionally for a social evening, while John Wilson would play the piano so that everyone could sing carols, Lynne would scandalise the company by drinking a whole bottle of port and insisting on singing “On Ilkley Moor bah t’at” all the way through although no one else knew it. This background disapproval presumably combined with the feeling that, as Wilson expressed it in his autobiography:

“The danger of becoming settled at a provincial grammar school lay in habituation to the satisfaction of local achievements – well-produced plays which London never heard about, speech and drama festivals that London actors condescended to judge … I seemed likely to stay on at Banbury Grammar School until I was sixty-five, with lowered artistic sights, poor, vaguely discontented … bullying myself into believing I was happy.”

Wilson began to apply for jobs elsewhere, and eventually, under rather strange circumstances, was offered and accepted a post in Malaya, to teach English at a school sometimes known as “the Eton of Asia” at a much increased salary.

When Wilson and his wife set sail from Southampton on 5th August 1954, having disposed of their cottage and sold most of their possessions, it should have been the end of his connection with this part of the world. But in 1960, having returned from abroad and now writing under the name of Anthony Burgess, Wilson published a novel, “The Worm and the Ring”, which narrated events at a school which was clearly related to his time at Banbury Grammar School. There were parallels with characters at the real school and one, the school secretary Gwendoline Bustin, considered herself libelled by the book. She was shown as pursuing the headmaster and characterised as “the sort of woman who should have got married ages ago … just pitiable … suppressing an old maid’s excitement” and as “definitely unbalanced, the sort who might shout out dirty words under an anaesthetic”. She went to law and Wilson’s publisher withdrew the novel and pulped the unsold remainder. While there was a great deal of sympathy and support for Wilson (“We felt Gwendoline Buston had got her come-uppance”, Audrey Smith remembers), the local and national scandal that resulted brought Wilson’s connection with Adderbury and Banburyshire to a definite and far from pleasant end.

Phil Mansell

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