Arguably one of Bermuda’s finest writers, Brian Burland penned nine novels from the 1960s through the 1980s. While tackling difficult subjects such as war, race, class and coming-of-age sexuality, Burland’s Bermudian roots infuse his characters and his subjects.

Bermudian Writer Brian Burland was born in 1931 on April 23, William Shakespeare’s birthday, a momentous birth date for any writer. Like Shakespeare, who drew on accounts of Bermuda to conjure up Prospero and The Tempest, Burland projected magic and meaning over existence in Bermuda, thanks to novels and poems full of light and darkness, celebration and sorrow. Like the Roman poet Ovid, as invoked by one his characters, Burland “weeps tears for human things” even as he gives us the very texture of life. But if every Bermudian can point proudly to Bermuda’s Shakespeare connection, has the island’s own bard, the late Brian Burland, received the acclaim he deserves?

In nine novels, issued by British and American publishers from the 1960s through the 1980s and starting with A Fall from Aloft, which appeared in 1968, Burland showed himself a master of the coming-of-age novel. In A Fall from Aloft and two of its companion novels, A Few Flowers for St. George (1969) and Love Is a Durable Fire (1985), Burland uses a semi-autobiographical protagonist, James Berkeley, to evoke with uncanny accuracy the world of childhood and adolescence. He leaves nothing out: a young boy’s vulnerability, his vivid imagination, the demands and treacheries of adults, the loneliness of strange environments (most notably boarding school and travel), and the stress and anxiety as well as the relief of refuges like sports and schoolwork. When his young protagonist, new to his British school, is caned by a bullying prefect, we too wince at each humiliating slash of the swagger stick. The sensuous texture of life, be it the filth of a wartime English train lavatory, the sting of a snowflake or the soft touch of a first kiss—all evoked as the young experience them—is one of the most powerful achievements of his writing. The shame and ardour of a young male’s sexuality is mapped in detail in his works as his characters struggle to reconcile desire and morality while their bodies and psyches develop, not always in tandem.

In novels like Love Is a Durable Fire, Burland explores the troubled nature of masculinity: all the pain and pressure of “learning to be a man” and the distance that the polarized male and female roles of Western society impose between parents and children, women and men. Young James Berkeley curses his supposed “weakness and babyishness” as the adults in his life urge him to repress pain and fear in order to live up to the rigid rules of behaviour for his gender and class. When James is taken to the dentist at the age of six, his adored grandfather, a Bermuda patriarch, admonishes him to “never show your pain, never cry out however much it hurts.” A gentleman, James learns, must be “a leader,” and if his pain shows, “the battle is lost.” Mothers, on the other hand, tend to be distant angels who find boyhood sex play “disgusting” and who keep up standards of conduct for their offspring by measuring them and always finding them wanting. To be raised in such a world is to have to fight down pain, confusion and fear.

Like another splendid contemporary Canadian novelist, Timothy Findley (The Wars), Burland used war as an intense canvas for his traumatic coming-of-age narratives. Burland senses the terrible pain that two world wars inflicted on mid-ocean Bermuda: the beleaguered local economy cut off from its lifeblood, tourism; the toll in blood for being “British”; and the jarring incursions of world evil on the remote island. Love Is a Durable Fire is dedicated to “J. Hartley Watlington, who came home again, and in memory of those Bermudians who didn’t…. 1914–1918,1939–1945.” James’s Bermudian father successively serves in all three services in World War I, returning home with body and mind marked by a ship’s sinking and a plane crash, both with him at the helm. During World War II, James’s adored older brother, Christopher, an RAF pilot, crashes in occupied France. He escapes, only to learn that the Nazis have executed his Resistance lover; he himself dies on D-Day, ironically from friendly fire, as he escorts the Allied fleet across the Channel. Burland’s work is thus permeated by a profound rejection of war. As Christopher tells his father in a letter of farewell: “You put your hand on Death and it’s got you—that’s the true deep evil of war, isn’t it?”

It is not surprising that Burland’s rejection of war is so vivid and his reaction against the shackles of class and race is so strong. Born into a well known island family of contractors and boat builders, whose construction company was founded by his father, Gordon (the family firm, at one point called Burland, Conyers and Marirea, is now known as BCM McAlpine), Burland and his siblings spent their childhood at Cedar Hill, a pastoral Paget estate overlooking the marsh whose leafy grounds once stretched from Hamilton Harbour to the South Shore. Bermuda’s beauty haunted Burland: he evokes the many moods of her green-blue seas throughout his work, and his Bermudian characters even wish to be buried at sea. For My Beloved Bermuda, his 1998 book of poems, celebrates the island as “Sun-Child in Coral-Cradle Rocked.” After attending Saltus, Burland’s idyll ended when he was sent to school in England just before he was 13. It was 1943, and the Battle of the Atlantic was being fought. A sensitive, intelligent boy would be traumatized by it.

Far from his beloved Bermuda, on board ship, Burland worked as a galley “peggy,” washing dishes and peeling potatoes, to legitimize his wartime passage: many of the ships in his convoy were torpedoed in the icy North Atlantic, instilling in the young boy a dread of death by explosion or drowning. Burland’s work has repeatedly evoked the horror of watching the ship (ironically christened the Empire United in his novels) plough through the Allied survivors struggling in the water, unable to stop to rescue them because of the menace of enemy submarines. The poem at the end of the novel A Fall from Aloft unforgettably recreates the scene, reminding us of the mission of art to transmute experience, to bear witness:

I leaned over the rail
and watched our ship
plough through
and down
the bobbing heads
of the seamen
torpedoed on station in front of us.

One head, in memory,
seems to rise higher
than the others:
it has bruised and blackened
eyes
and shouts in anger, fury,
beating the waves
like a turtle,
“Save ME!”

The voice is still my own.

After attending Elstree School in Hertfordshire and studying at Canada’s University of Western Ontario for a time, Burland worked briefly for the family business before devoting his life to writing. He lived for periods in England, Connecticut (where he taught creative writing at the University of Hartford and was a guest Fellow at Yale) and elsewhere, ultimately returning to Bermuda permanently in the 1990s. But the values of Front Street seldom exalt the literary muse, and Bermuda is no easy subject for a homegrown writer to broach with his fellow citizens.

Yet reading Burland’s fiction, one is struck by his desire to reach out to all Bermuda across class and racial lines. Certainly his fictional elite Bermudian family of Berkeleys, Hinsons and Halcyons yields the sort of family tree that includes copious nicknames (“The Commodore,” “Skeglee”) and fabled sailboats (Nea, Sirius). Love Is a Durable Fire includes vignettes of both a black and a Portuguese Bermudian soldier serving overseas. Surprise tells the tale, set in the 1840s, of a black sailor, who, with his wife, flees Bermuda racism
to set up a tiny free island colony, which is ultimately destroyed by the British. Black Bermudian writer Ronald Lightbourne commented admiringly that to read another Burland novel, The Sailor and the Fox, is “to know what segregated Bermuda felt like 50 years ago.”

Burland knew in his gut what it is to be a Bermudian, and he captured the sense of frustration that Bermudians can feel when the outside world cannot make them out. One of his characters comments that for a young Bermudian, being called a “Yank” in England and a “Limey” in Canada “made you feel you didn’t belong anywhere.” But in Burland’s fiction, the oracle of the Rock is Sarah Hinson, a 100-year-old former slave and “judge and jury and inspiration” of the Berkeley family. She tells its eldest son before he goes off to World War II: “Be proud of being…a Bermudian—it was not by chance that we got here, us coloured and white people.” Burland draws on his own early memory of being cradled as a youngster by the real-life Sarah Hinson, who lived with the family on their Paget estate, a mainstay of the family.

Brian Burland has been honoured in Bermuda and beyond. Artists as diverse as Noel Coward, Anthony Burgess and actor Ralph Richardson have praised the power of his fiction, and he was made a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature in 1979. One of his fellow professors at Hartford summed up Burland’s genius beautifully, calling him “a master storyteller, a soulful poet, and a nonstop dreamer.” In 2008, the Bermuda government named its fiction prize after him, an award he had previously won for his own writing. So well thought of is he by his fellow Bermudian writers that in the 1980s, some of them asked him to come to Bermuda to
teach a course on novel writing, and he thereby became a source of inspiration for many young island writers.

But literature is a fickle muse, and today Burland’s novels are out of print. Why? Well, writers who concern themselves with the corners of Empire, however profoundly, do not have the cultural centrality of British or American chroniclers like John Updike or Kingsley Amis. In this regard, one critic has commented that writers in places like the English-speaking Caribbean and Bermuda, unlike their Spanish-speaking counterparts, tend to lack “recognized status in the community.” This has certainly been true of Brian Burland, who over the years struggled with alcohol, depression and Huntington’s disease, as well as his relationships with wives and children.

More importantly, the picture of Bermuda that Burland paints is not an easy or simple one for many Bermudians to digest. Burland proudly points to black blood in his own white ancestral family tree, and his fiction reflects a candour and liberalism about race that some find unsettling. In one of his novels, black boat builders at a wartime party to celebrate a launching are shunted off under the trees to drink rum alone, a badge of the colony’s long-time racial divide. He writes of Bermudian families divided by sibling rivalry and commercial tensions, with some members dissipating their lives in liquor and sailing anecdotes at the yacht club. He is not always reverential about Bermuda’s mercantile myths. Himself a descendant of one of the liquor-trade clans on the island, Burland comments ironically in his fiction that one such mercantile family “had made their money as wine merchants; though it sounds less aristocratic if one calls them rum merchants (they would have starved on the profits to be made by selling wine to Bermudians).”

Burland’s sexual candour about the ravages of desire and even about sex play among young siblings means that his novels have never been fodder for Bermuda’s schools. Some Bermuda youngsters, however, have fond memories of their parents reading them his juvenile novel, St. Nicholas and the Tub (1964), written for the children of Bermuda “black, brown and just plain suntanned.” But Burland deserves more recognition, in Bermuda and out of it.

Burland with his daughter Susan c.1990s.

Burland passed away in February 2010. In his latter years, his Bahá’i faith, with its emphasis on world peace, compassion and the equality of men and women, was a mainstay. His Hartford colleague remembers him painting images of a “great star radiating golden light,” a central image of the faith, and pinning them up in every room of his Connecticut house. His poetry bore witness to his continued devotion to Bahá’i spirituality and simplicity of living. But it is time for Bermuda, to take fuller and prouder measure of one of her greatest writers, whose literary genius has thrown light on Bermuda in ways that Shakespeare never dreamed of. Brian Burland’s life work deserves no less.

The author wishes to acknowledge Meredith Ebbin, Daurene Aubrey, Ellen Hollis and Roddy McFall for providing background information for this article, and to Brian Burland’s nephew Giles Belfrage.