Last month I was surprised – and thrilled – to learn that my essay on the BBC show Pointless had been shortlisted for the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Arts Journalism prize. I don’t enter many writing competitions. About three years ago, in what must have been a blind fever of optimism or delusion, I entered as many as I could. Like the drunkard that I once was, I did not foresee the inevitable hangover of rejection, failure and indifference. Now I tend to avoid competitions that demand my money and my words. There’s better ways of making myself poor (such as buying William Sansom first editions or National Lottery scratchcards). Want to make some easy money? Start a writing competition.
But I was drawn to the Burgess prize. Of course I was. Burgess is one of my favourite writers. He incapable of writing a dull sentence: his prose fizzes with energy and wit. There is earthy erudition on nearly every page. He swaggers, he sparkles. I started (as most people do, I suppose) with A Clockwork Orange. Slim Penguin paperback with the classic cover by David Pelham: cog for an eye, bold colours, the sinister respectability of the bowler hat. I was hooked. Admittedly I was at an age when I was only too willing to be corrupted. I read it while on holiday in Ireland – an unusually bright summer if I remember correctly, which I doubt, for all summers are tainted with sunshine. I had money in my pocket and instead of going into the famous Hargadon Brothers pub, as any self-respecting teenage lad should have done, I visited a small and cluttered bookshop. There was a lot of Yeats, a surfeit of Yeats. There he was, everywhere I looked, thin-faced Yeats in his pince-nez looking a bit too posh and effete for my liking. I came out into the blustery afternoon with four items: a book on Orwell (perhaps my favourite author at the time), Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, a history of Ireland’s Civil War (that was hard going), and A Clockwork Orange. I was perhaps fifteen, sixteen, unpleasantly awkward and splindly-legged. I wouldn’t have got served in Hargadon’s anyway.
I raced through A Clockwork Orange. The lingo took a while to get used to. After that, it was case of reading whatever Burgess came my way. This was before the internet. Buying books, at least those that could not be found in the glare of WH Smith, often involved getting on bus and visiting a second-hand bookshop in an obscure suburb. I remember picking up a jacketless hardback edition of MF in a small but always browsable second-hand bookshop (more of a cupboard than a shop) in Manchester University’s Student Union building. (The shop is long gone.) Manchester’s suburb of Chorlton (now a pseudo-boho enclave) has supplied me with many a Burgess paperback over the years. The Doctor is Sick I bought from a shop on Beech Road. (That shop is long gone, too.) I spent many an afternoon in there, under the distrusting eye of the proprietor, perusing the shelves when I should’ve have been writing my masterpiece or washing the dishes. Over the years I built up a library of tatty egg-stained paperbacks and mouldy hardbacks as I chomped my way through the Burgess oeuvre: Tremor of Intent, End of the World News, Nothing Like the Sun. One Hand Clapping, The Wanting Seed. It was always a thrill to find an unread Burgess on the shelves. That particular thrill is gone, for I have read all his novels: but the pleasure of reading them remains. It remains and grows.
So I was invited to this prize-giving in London. I booked my train tickets, bought a new shirt, tousled my barnet. The big day arrived. I was ready. It was also the day of storm Doris. I took no notice of her – a bit of wind and rain, blah blah blah, hardly deserving of a name at all. I set off with my travelling companion to the train station. We found that our train had been cancelled. Oh well. We’ll get the next one. We marched grimly out of the station in search of breakfast, heads down against the rain. We took refuge in a café. Eggs, bacon, sausage, strong tea. A workman studied the sports section of his tabloid. I felt horribly over-dressed, fearful of splattering my tie with yolk, stretching my neck like a giraffe so as to avoid soiling the silken knot. Replenished, we ventured back through the cold, frenzied rain. Thick grey sheets of the stuff. Miserable. Mucky. My trousers sucked up wetness from pavement.
At the station we were met by melancholy staff in red coats. They shook their heads. They apologised. Walkie-talkies crackled with bad news. Delays. Cancellations. A man, small and trim and wearing an expensive-looking raincoat, trotted into the station. He received the grim information with surprising equanimity, almost as if he’d been vindicated. He was on his mobile immediately: ‘Oh,’ he chirped, ‘I’ve spent twenty quid on cabs already but I’m still no nearer … You’ll have to start without me. It’ll be fine … Yes, yes.’ A woman turned up with a small family of suitcases, all as sodden as she was. ‘No trains? Not even the twelve-oh-four? But your website says it’s running … Are you sure? But it says on the website …’ No trains to London. No trains back. The dream was over. We had no choice but to go home. All dressed up and nowhere to go.
I sent an email to Will Carr at the Burgess Foundation in Manchester, explaining the situation. Doris was on the warpath. Country grinds to a halt. I would have to stay at home and watch Pointless instead. (Actually I watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a magnificent way to spend a rainy afternoon.)
The next morning I learned that I had won nothing. I tucked away that ten-page acceptance speech in the bottom drawer. I’d lost and hadn’t even been there to witness it.
Doris had done her business in Britain. She was now frolicking over Belgium and Holland, uprooting tulips and blowing the froth off potent beer. Later that morning, as I took an unglamorous train to a familiar place, I looked out and saw a broken fence, it’s wooden planks jagged and jumbled, dreadlocks of green tumbling through the gaps.
I took out my notebook and jotted down a few lines. I must remember to get a refund for those train tickets.