Liz and self-loathing

The Richard Burton Diaries - review.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1962
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1962. Photograph: Getty Images

The Richard Burton Diaries
Edited by Chris Williams
Yale University Press, 704pp, £25

The most captivating book of the year, Richard Burton’s diaries start in 1939, when he was 14 and living in the small town of Pontrhydyfen, with the mention of learning Richard II, a party, the cinema, football, acing a game of darts and a death. It continues precisely in this vein for the next 44 years, except with more women and wine. By 1940, his English teacher had adopted him and taken him out into the valleys in high winds to make him yell Shakespeare until his throat bled. By 1956, he was in Hollywood, a physical aristocrat with mooncratered skin and a thigh-flashing skirt as Alexander the Great. By 1963, he had met Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra and the entries – already juicy – lounge in an exultant bliss. Strictly when he’s not working, that is.

Burton is especially relentless on “the loathed subject of acting”. He would say to pretty much anyone that he felt the profession was frivolous, embarrassing: “What a sloppy job to have.” This combination of self-pity and his overreverent attitude to his mining provenance (real men do not act) is representative of how hysterically macho Burton was. In these 700- odd pages – and amid the millions of pounds spent on clobber and jewels for Taylor – he mentions clothes for himself just twice. He moans once about his thinning hair and refers to his acne-gouged skin four times but more with curiosity than loathing.

His true preoccupations are set: Taylor, money, booze and reading. He shows so little interest in the process of movie-making that his career appears a mere inconvenience and he especially despises being told what to do by directors, who, as a breed, he felt were stiffs. Anyone who really respected directors over actors must be a reader of Sight and Sound – another great insult. He makes perversely appalling choices with films; complete Euro-shit, dubbed to hell and often filmed in countries run by tinpot dictators who didn’t know the meaning of an en suite bathroom or a good steak. And all the while, he stockpiles his gold.

Burton writes of only a few people outside his family with any real affection (he loved Rex Harrison when few did) and Brando certainly gets it in the neck: “That self-indulgent, obese fart.” Yet he notes Brando’s “lethargic dyna - mism”, which is a great description and typical of Burton’s eye. You suspect he saw something of himself in Brando, who also publicly hated acting and was the first to make the hating of it a modish thing.

For Burton, however, it was even more complicated: the amount of adoration he received found its perfect rebound in the amount of contempt he had for the adoration. As he got more and more famous, he got more and more contemptuous. And the more contemptuous he looked, the more famous he became, until he spent 20 years encased in a self-hating armour looking just like a guy who really was going to drink himself to death out of disdain and self-hatred. “What the hell is it?” Burton notes with horror as people literally shivered when he entered a room. “Who did it to me?”

Unlike Brando, Burton had a euphoric partner in crime. Although the book documents two divorces from Taylor, theirs was for stretches a delirious relationship (“I love her to the point of pain”). Unable to leave the house without causing a riot, they would stay in and do crossword puzzles and maul each other for weeks on end, sallying out now and again to a restaurant for a post-coital binge. “So now to wake my blissly beautiful animal girl,” he writes, one Sunday morning. “Don’t spoil it nobody, boys, fellers.” All his life, Burton was a voracious reader and the adoring Elizabeth encouraged it. A learned man after years of nightclub singers and spivs! Poetry, histories, biographies, instruction manuals, dictionaries, classics and tripe.

Burton reads everywhere, fast, devouring Dombey and Son in one helicopter journey. His recall is incredible and his many passing quotes and references are always accurate. My father went to see Burton give a reading with W H Auden once and says that while Auden shuffled notes, Burton stood up and reeled everything off wholesale – for an hour. Whole collectionsof Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, unfurling as though he were using an autocue.

Although there’s very little he, rather Derren Brown-ishly, doesn’t notice (for instance, tiny modulations in the gestures of strangers indicating perceived threat), what is more stunning is what he’s not saying.

Taylor would often pick up the diary to read it so, on some level, Burton was always writing it to her. One can imagine the fierce kiss he got for this: “I didn’t care if her legs, bum and bosoms fell off and her teeth turned yellow. And she went bald. I love that woman so much.” And although he was faithful to her for many years – this, a man who managed to screw around on the night of his marriage to his first wife, Sybil – his well-documented affair with the actress Geneviève Bujold, for example, on the set of Anne of the Thousand Days in 1969, is not mentioned once. Instead, he writes boredly of the woman (“She has reinvented biliousness”). The cover is seamless. Man, he’s good. For Elizabeth, this must have been excruciating. If you watch interviews of the pair at that time, she is literally wringing her hands.

No woman escapes Burton’s terminator once-over. He is particularly appalled by Iris Murdoch’s author photograph on the cover of her novel The Red and the Green (he writes of “unattractive lady writers whose photos one sees on the back of Penguins”).

Yet, by the end, it’s not books or Taylor or other women or wives or work or money that preoccupies Burton the most; it’s booze. “The Martini glass fogged with condensation, straight up and then straight down and the warm flood, the painkiller hitting the stomach and then the brain and an hour of sweetly melancholy euphoria.” How sexy he makes it sound. And this is key. In Burton’s mind, as much as in the minds of his fans, he was the embodiment of a mystical view of an escape to an incandescent “Abroad”. A place far, far away from England (and lifetimes from Pontrhydyfen) to be arrived at via private yacht. A land of tacos and tequila and fishing for dorado and baby sharks, salt-cleaned and sunslimmed, down, down in an intense warmth of fame and passion and endless wealth and variety, where you can drink all day and never suffer from it. A glamorous alcoholism with no cheque ever presented. It’s a very hard fantasy to shake.

To read of Burton suffering the joint aches and blackouts and agonising liver-munching decay of your average crummy wino holds a special kind of horror. You are glad when the diary ends abruptly in April 1983, with Burton long bored of keeping it, after a day insulting Taylor in Welsh (which she understood) for being pissed and slagging off a director for being a Noël Coward-loving druggie. That’s my boy. A year later, he died of a brain haemorrhage and didn’t feel a thing.

Antonia Quirke’s novel “Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers” is published by Harper Perennial (£7.99)