Tribute: Brian Burland, 1931-2010
'He was such fun to be around'
Friends and family share fond memories of our most distinguished writer, who died last week
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 12:56 PM
Author Brian Burland scribbled his first novel in the bowels of an abandoned boat in Cork harbour in Ireland.
The writer, who leaves behind the only body of published fiction by a Bermudian, would row out to the derelict Motor Torpedo boat and hide away for hours, seeking solitude and inspiration in the empty vessel.
It was there, as a young man struggling to come to terms with the death of his father, that he penned A Fall from Aloft, the novel which received widespread critical acclaim and launched his literary career when it was published several years later.
"That was typical Brian," remembers his sister Rosamond Belfrage.
She said her brother - a gregarious, charismatic and at times eccentric man - would later spend hours locked away in the tool shed of his Connecticut home, working silently on his novels.
Though he spent much of his life outside Bermuda, returning to the island in the 1990s, Mr. Burland grew up in Paget and constantly returned to his island home both in person and through his literature.
His work is deeply influenced by the life, the politics and the ocean that surrounded him in Bermuda.
Close friend and fellow writer Ronald Lightbourne believes reading Burland's novels, particularly The Sailor and the Fox, is more illuminating for students of the island's history than any factual account of segregated Bermuda.
"It was stunning, at the time, to find a white Bermudian whose perceptions of Bermuda's set up rang so true to my own," he said.
Mr. Burland's capacity for blending fact and fiction in his narratives was sometimes a source of discomfort for his relatives.
Mrs. Belfrage admits it was both fascinating and frustrating to see family dramas played out on the pages of her brother's books.
"Some of us were misrepresented. Part of it was his fantasies, part of it was to make a better story. He would sometimes describe us in minute physical detail. If you attacked him for it he would say, 'well it's fiction'."
Lust for life
The fall-outs never lasted long.
It was impossible, says Mrs. Belfrage, to spend time with Mr. Burland and not be charmed by his sharp wit and his lust for life.
"He was a character, full of energy from an early age. He would rush in with a big smile and a spring in his step. He was such fun to be around."
Nephew Giles Belfrage, who spent long afternoons with his uncle later in his life, both at his favourite cafes and more recently at the Sylvia Richardson care home, described him as a quick-witted, incredibly perceptive man who was fun to be around.
He said his uncle loved sailing, cricket and the BBC. A note on his radio warned other residents at the care home not to change the channel from the World Service.
"He was totally different to anyone else you would ever meet. He was a character and a people person. There was no one on the island who didn't know him - black, white or Portuguese," Mr. Belfrage said.
Another nephew, Alan Burland, who runs BCM McAlpine, described his uncle as completely "colour blind".
"He was a deep, complex guy and an amazing literary talent. His life was like going through the waves, it was up and down.
"He enjoyed life and was a real gregarious, outgoing person. He was genuinely colour blind - he loved people of whatever race."
Tapping into the racial dynamic of segregated Bermuda was a challenging, somewhat provocative subject for a writer in 1950s Bermuda.
But critics have lauded Burland for challenging the stereotypes of the day.
"The integrity of Brian Burland is that his life and his writing depict very accurately Bermuda's social and racial set up," Mr. Lightbourne said.
"He was far sighted in terms of Bermuda's search for a way of peaceful co-existence."
Family members cite a black Bermudian nurse named Sara Hinson, who appears as a heroine in one of his novels, as an inspiration to Mr. Burland in his early years.
But Mrs. Belfrage said their mother was also instrumental in instilling in him the belief in the brotherhood of man.
"He latched on to that from an early age. And his great achievement was in trying to understand African Bermudians.
"He wanted to explain to Bermudians that the country was not built only by white men."
For younger writers Mr Burland remains an inspiration.
"He has provided anyone interested in creating literature with a forebearer," said playwright Kim Dismont Robinson.
For others, like Hartley Watlington Jnr, the link is more personal.
The story of Mr Watlington's father, a World War II pilot who evaded the Nazis and was smuggled through a network of wine cellars across occupied France and through the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, was the inspiration for Love is a Durable Fire.
Mr. Watlington, who has fond memories of visiting Mr. Burland among the books and artefacts of his Connecticut home, said yesterday he was saddened by the death of a great family friend.
"He will live on through his work," he added.
Mr Burland, who shared his April 23 birthday with William Shakespeare, was remembered yesterday afternoon with a Baha'i Service at St. Paul's Christian Education Centre.
Further devotional gatherings will be held in his honour at the Baha'i National Centre on Cedar Avenue on February 19, March 19 and April 16 from 5:30pm until 7:30pm.
Push to give writer his due
A durable talent
In his own words