Richard Burton 1925-1984: Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press.

One of the great pleasures of Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton is the liberal sprinkling from the man’s diaries.  Bragg’s book passed between my wife and me for some weeks when it came out, the funnier selections read aloud, and we regretted mightily that the rest of Burton’s own prose was out of reach.

Good news came last year when it was announced that the whole of it would be given to the Swansea University with a view to eventual publication.

Better news now that about a quarter of the whole has been published.  This was the stuff we’d been waiting for.*

Worth the wait?  Pretty much yes.

There’s plenty of Hollywood gossip if that’s your thing.  Snarky remarks about actors he didn’t think much of, appreciations of those he did.  A boatload of comments on his infatuation with Liz Taylor that frequently falls into  TMI.  And a dispiriting number of days where the only thing of note is “Booze”.

He had some contempt for the acting profession, though I wonder if he would have been quite so dismissive had he been less wildly successful.   Million dollar paydays for disposable work can do that to you, even as it allows you to support a wide array of friends and family (remember that he came from a poor mining area) and a lavish travel schedule.  The boat. The private jet.  To say nothing of Liz Taylor’s jewelry box.

The most constant expenditure, however, is for books.

Truth was, the passion for the written word was genuine.  He liked books.  Scratch that.  He really liked books.  All sorts of books –  history, mystery, thriller,  comic fiction (he had a great appreciation for Evelyn Waugh, regardless of how that man described Wales).  Like Erasmus, books are what he spent his money on (unlike Erasmus, he had plenty left over for food and shelter).

As a result, he was about the best read actor of his time.  Or any time, really.  And he wasn’t just wracking up numbers for their own sake.  Never mind what he thought about Lucille Ball (a “monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour”), what he really found compelling were how writers stacked up.

On Ian Fleming – “A clever schoolboy mind and atrociously vulgar. And every so often he stops his narrative to give little homilies about food, drink, national moralism etc all of excruciating banality.  Yet ever since the phenomenal success of the films about his hero James Bond and the books, I’m not sure which came first, and of course his death, he is actually being treated seriously by serious critics.

“Yet you cannot help liking Fleming. He is obviously enjoying the creation of his extrovertist, Hemingwayesque, sadistic, sexually-maniacal boyscout that in the end he becomes likeable.”

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz: “ I am finding it very tough going and one of those assertive books which make me long to argue back.  Like most books of self-conscious philosophy, it is totally lacking in humour. I like merry philosophers. To relieve my mind I would read a fairly entertaining thriller-with-a-message by Simon Raven between slabs of the Paz book.”

No surprise that he is a man for the poets as well, a subject on which he had dug deeply.

“E and I chatted for three or four hours….I told E lots of stories about the Romantic Poets.”

Likes Pound (wish he had said why), but as to Auden: “Last night in a glut of gloom I ploughed through the ‘collected’ poetry , ‘all he wishes to preserve’, of W.H. Auden. In ten thousand there is hardly one  memorable line. Most of it is type-writing. Some of it is scribble. Much of it is indifferent prose cut up. Almost totally it is formless. When is a poem a poem? I will slash away again at Auden since his aura glitters and find out.”

Name brand recognition did earn him a few professional writing gigs.  He flustered over them.  Faced with a piece for  Look magazine on Wales, he sums up a phenom familiar to writers:  “I am falling into a trap as  writer that I should guard against very carefully if my ambitions as a minor scribe persist. The trap of talking myself out. I’ve always known it to be fatal for any writers but particularly the kind who are as glib and articulate as myself. I will frequently reject a fairly fine turn of phrase when writing because I’ve heard myself say it a couple of times and therefore seem to be a cliché.”

Granted,  the prose is at times self-conscious, aware of the reader over his shoulder, but when he forgets himself he’ll toss off a brief vignette of near poetry:  “The pool is a green pool. Unswimmable. A combination, they say, of acid, chlorine and copper coins dropped into the pool by our intelligent children. The green mantle of the standing pool. Who wrote that?”  (Shakespeare, in Lear.)

It’s a damned shame he didn’t live in the age of the blog.

And what of our age?  It’s hard to think of an actor working today who could write that interestingly.  Off hand Simon Callow comes to mind.  I suppose Stephen Fry, perhaps Hugh Laurie, for those who like their written stuff.  But somehow, I just don’t think I would bookmark their pages as instantly as I would Burton’s.

Pity, really.  Still, absent that, this will do nicely.

*(The entirety is promised to be online in due course – which raises an interesting question about how Burton, book man to the end, would take to ebooks and such.)

The title quote is from William Dunbar, a favorite of Burton’s.

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