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We’ve got the IABF: lucky Manchester

Jonathan Schofield talks to Andrew Biswell about the International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Written by . Published on July 9th 2010.


We’ve got the IABF: lucky Manchester

One brief biog of deceased Manchester author Anthony Burgess reads ‘English author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic’. It might also have added, ‘drinker, smoker, conversationalist and general good egg.’

“It’s all self-funded. In fact it’s unique in a British context as far as the arts go. We will be able to do what we like without being hand to mouth, or going cap in hand to the Arts Council.”

Maybe even ‘fibber’.

At university in the 1980s I spent a whole term avoiding going to law lectures, sitting in Cardiff pubs, reading Burgess’ novels including the most famous: ‘ A Clockwork Orange’. The wry tone, insight and verve of the books encouraged me to read his biography, ‘Little Wilson, Big God’.

It remains a belly-achingly funny account of the man’s first forty formative years including stories about his life in Harpurhey, Moss Side, Xaverian College and Manchester University.

“Unfortunately a lot of it is totally made-up,” says Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer. “He was a story teller pure and simple. The extent to which he hallucinates his past is part and parcel of him. John Banville (booker prize-winning writer), once said a novelist spends his time making plausible lies. Burgess’s achievement is huge, covering literature, music, translation, linguistics yet he was always a compulsive novelist.”

Biswell’s biography, ‘The Real Life of Anthony Burgess’, was published by Picador in 2005. The title was chosen carefully. It’s a book that confirms, whether in fact and fiction, how Burgess was a dynamo, a bursting ball of mischievous life. A Mancunian definitely worth remembering.

Fortunately in Manchester we have something very physical to mark Burgess's time on Planet Earth. Andrew Biswell is also the acting director of the recently relocated International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF) on Cambridge Street.

Anthony Burgess

This is a fine space that takes over the same function from a suburban house in Withington, and takes it up several big notches, while occupying part of a mid-nineteenth century cotton mill.

But what does the IABF do, what is it for?

“It’s for everybody with an interest in eating, drinking, literature and life,” says Biswell, who’s a notable bon viveur himself. “We’re a library, a reading room, a performance space, and a cafe. There’s also a small museum devoted to Anthony Burgess, his private library, his dictionaries, furniture of his and an archive that’s in the process of being catalogued.”

“But while the Foundation is in Manchester,” he continues, “it also has the word ‘international’ in the title to show how we will look out across the globe, to fund projects and make contacts. This makes sense. Burgess was a natural linguist speaking Arabic, Malay, Russian, Italian, Greek and so on. He was multi-cultural before we had the word.”

Intriguing. But who pays for it? Europe? The Heritage Lottery Fund?

“It’s all self-funded. In fact it’s unique in a British context as far as the arts go,” says Biswell. “All the money left in the Burgess estate was left to the Foundation by Burgess’s second wife. He had lots of properties around the world, plus the money from the novels, films and other sources. We will be able to do what we like without being hand to mouth, or going cap in hand to the Arts Council.”

Burgess died in 1993, and his Italian wife Liliana Macellari, in 2007. In between Burgess and Lianna’s deaths, their only child, Andrew, also died. Liliana wanted a permanent memorial to Burgess, and having no child or relation to whom she could leave the fortune, chose to create the Foundation.

Andrew Biswell, drinking but not smoking

The beauty of this is that the IABF can act as it sees fit.

It’s free of all the ‘compliance’ bullshit the BBC has to sift through post-Sachsgate. It doesn’t have to worry about some bureaucratic busy-body saying you’ve broken the rules.

The only criteria, according to Biswell, is that “we support the work Burgess may have approved of, the music and literature and art. We can develop new things that other people can’t afford to do: commission new work, have Burgess's music performed.”

“We don’t have a set list of criteria and we will look at each project on its own merits,” Biswell says. “That process should start in autumn when we will be seeking applications from people. There are few foundations dedicated to one artist. Benjamin Britten with the Aldeburgh Festival is one, that’s a model maybe, in supporting and commissioning new works, although it’s made up differently.”

This is all very good for the city.

The truth is that through the backdoor, through old fashioned philanthropy, Manchester has gained an utterly distinctive, attractive venue which will not only receive work but create it too. And it will do that without ever worrying about being called a ‘waste of taxpayer’s money’ from a culturally myopic local hack.

“We want it to welcome all types of people,” says Biswell, “The Engine House cafe (click here)is applying for a licence, so we people can have a drink with their meals, or just have a coffee and chat. The main space is for hire – seats 100 with more for standing events. The only sadness perhaps is that there’s a smoking ban. Anthony Burgess loved to smoke.”

Andrew Biswell pauses for a second.

“But visitors can still look at our marvellous collection of his ashtrays.”

Watch this one folks. The IABF might take wings, might fly. In a couple of years we predict it will be as much a part of Manchester life as the Cornerhouse.

Burgess's second wife, Liliana

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is at The Engine House, Chorlton Mill, 3 Cambridge St, City, M1 5BY. 0161 235 0776. For the time being access is via appointment only. These photographs were taken at a Manchester University Press event.

Events coming up

Inn Verse poetry night (28 July)

Howard Jacobson reading and launch of new novel 'The Finkler Question'(2 September)

Comma Press booklaunch (16 September)

Will Self/60s literature event (partnership with Penguin) (2 October)

Beautiful Books: launch of three reprints of Burgess novels (7 October)

Fritz and Jachym Topol: Czech literature and music (partnership with MLF) (18 October)

Jonathan Schofield (yep yours truly, the writer of the piece) on Burgess and Manchester (18 October)

Allen Fisher, Maggie O'Sullivan and Jerome Rothenberg: avant-garde poetry (partnership with the Other Room) (19 October)

Inpress annual conference - independent publishers (14 November)

Short film event - 'adaptation' (partnership with Comma Film) (20 November)

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AnonymousJuly 9th 2010.

Fantastic news for the city and great to see something different from the current tirade of faceless, short lived bars.

Lucky thingsJuly 9th 2010.

'It´s free of all the ‘compliance´ bullshit the BBC has to sift through post-Sachsgate.' Good God what a lucky institution, let's hope it fulfils the promise and makes Manchester proud.

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