Old friends. Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron.


It was interesting reading this after the clarity, verve, and lightness of touch of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Two blokes writing about the same war, sort of, but chalk and cheese in their storytelling.

Any Old Iron was published in 1989 and is somehow showing its age. Maybe that’s because it was a very late book by Burgess, published only four years before his death; maybe it’s the actual physical book itself: Arrow imprint, of Random Century Group (now there’s publishing history itself!). Or maybe it’s the content; the story.

There are a lot of editing things in this edition (the first imprint): confusing and twisted sentences, typos, a couple of times referrals to the wrong character. I wondered, as I read, if Burgess had become immortal by the time his publishers got this manuscript and no editor was allowed to clean it up.

‘Any old iron’ refers to the sword of King Arthur, or Attila the Hun, depending on how one interprets the letter A embossed on a very old sword that seems to defy age.  So the story is a sort-of rewriting of that Arthurian legend. However there’s no nobility of battle here,  but a tour through various aspects of war: so much seemingly-relished description of fighting and bloodshed, Hitler, Russia during both revolutions, after-effects of war, Welsh Nationalism, Israel/Palestine war and war and war.  This book could only have been written by a bloke! So much aggression.

I rather enjoyed the trip through history, which hung off the strange journey of Excalibur (or Caledvwlch to the Welsh) through those above-mentioned conflicts and into a stone near a small pond somewhere in Wales.  And I really enjoyed the quite sardonic voice of the narrator, who himself was a character in the story.

That said, after a while I jumped over long passages of war-things and over-descriptive sections. I don’t like to do that and would rather give honour to the writer, but it felt like a second draft that had yet to be polished.

I felt it was a poor-relation of his early work, particularly A Clockwork Orange which explored the darkness of society, and that scared the wits out of me in the film version.  That book was not overcome by the brilliant film, but I have no intention of revisiting it.

Next old friend?  Don’t know. I’m about to start editing my book ms when I get the report from the wonderful Elizabeth in a few days. I’ll be in touch.






Old friends: Michael Ondaatje

I’m revisiting some of the old mates living in my bookshelves; Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient was my first pick.

Wow!  Just, Wow!

I first read this just after the film was released in 1996 and obviously didn’t appreciate its brilliance. Or maybe I did, because I kept it, and it (and its many friends) has travelled with me many kilometres up and down the east coast.  The book itself isn’t in too bad condition, considering long periods in packing boxes, a little foxing at page edges only. But I’m confused by the publication details:  the cover is from the film, released in 1996, with Ralph Fiennes looking sexy and staring off into the desert. Colours all yellows and browns, of course. But the publication details read ‘this edition published 1993 by Picador. Maybe Picador just changed the cover – but doesn’t that make it a different edition? The vagaries of the publishing world.

So why did the book so engross me this time? (Don’t you just love rhetorical questions?)

The narrative shape of it, for a start. The assumption that the reader is intelligent enough to follow the jumps through time without a map except the text itself. I reckon that most current publishing house editors would have a fit at this and demand more structure, more signposts as to those leaps. Not mine, of course, as she’s the best.

And the language! Open it at any page and beautiful sentences leap out, polished and perfect for that specific moment in the story. Try these random picks:

‘A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father—whenever she collected moments of him…’

‘Removed from his barracks Singh had no idea of his location. There was a map on a roller high up on the ceiling. Alone one morning he pulled the roller down until it touched the floor. Countisbury and Area. Mapped by R. Fones. Drawn by desire of Mr James Halliday. “Drawn by desire…” He was beginning to love the English.’

Desire, of course, is at the very heart of the story. Desire sexual, desire for love, desire for peace, desire for country. And Ondaatje’s  tiny drops of language reinforce that without the reader being aware. Surely this can be done by only the best writers.

I moved on to his Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalised story of the life of the Jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, published in 1979. I loved this book when I first read it, but this time I got a bit impatient with it for some reason. I see now that it was rather a dress-rehearsal for The English Patient, with its structure that is like impro jazz, but it doesn’t have the depth and layers that The English Patient has.

It could be that my reading has matured as I age; or that writing fiction myself makes me very appreciative of the complexity of really good writing. Whatever, re-reading The English Patient was more than worthwhile — it has been a long time since I’ve read a book right through without putting it down.


I’m about to tackle Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron. I’ll let you know!