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Brian Berkeley Burland
April 23, 1931-February 11, 2010
Photo: Courtesy Susan Burland
Brian Burland was the first Bermudian to leave his mark on the literary world as a novelist. He was the author of eight novels that were praised on both sides of the Atlantic and a much-loved children’s book St. Nicholas and the Tub.
Bermuda almost always figured his novels, which occasionally ruffled feathers locally. His novels dealt with war — which he opposed — colonialism, family strife and race.
During the years he was most active as writer, Burland lived outside Bermuda, mainly in Essex, Connecticut. His accomplishments were largely unrecognized in Bermuda, although that began to change in his later years.
Fittingly for a writer, Burland shared a birthday with William Shakespeare. He was born in Bermuda on April 23, 1931, the son of Gordon Burland, founder of the construction company now known as BCM McAlpine, and the former Honor Gosling.
One of four children, he was born to wealth and privilege and into a family that was prominent in business and sailing circles. Unable to turn a blind eye to Bermuda’s racial inequities, he had a strong connection with black Bermudians from a very early age.
An important figure in his early life was Sarah Hinson, his black Bermudian nanny who lived in the household. She died when he was just a toddler but she appears in his novel The Flight of the Cavalier as a heroic figure. Burland’s family honoured his request to be buried next to her at St. Paul’s Church, Paget.
Burland attended Saltus Grammar School, but in January 1944, just months before his 13th birthday he was shipped off to England to attend boarding school. He sailed in a freighter that travelled in a convoy as protection from the German U-boats that preyed on Allied vessels in the Atlantic.
The trip lasted 19 long days. Burland made it safely to England, but some ships in his convoy didn’t. He later recounted the terrifying experience in two novels A Fall from Aloft and Love is a Durable Fire. Those novels and A Few Flowers for St. George were a trilogy whose main character is a fictional Bermudian, James Berkeley.
In England, he attended Aldenham School in Hertfordshire, and then the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He dropped out before graduating, but while there he took a graduate English course, which whetted his desire to be a novelist.Burland then headed off to Ireland and lived on an abandoned minesweeper where his first novel began to take shape. But the death of his father in 1951 brought him home.
He spent the next five years working in the family business. But in 1956, his determination to become a writer undiminished, he turned his back on a life of financial security and sold his interest in the company. His years at Burland’s did more than just confirm his belief that running a construction company was not for him. He played for a black cricket team, which raised eyebrows from blacks and whites. It exposed him to the world of black Bermudians and gave him material for his novels.
At the age of 26, he went to Jamaica where he was introduced to Noel Coward. He summoned the courage to show Coward a short story he had written and the distinguished writer was impressed.
Burland, however, did not see any of his works in print until 1964 when St. Nicholas in the Tub was published in the US.
His first novel was the coming-of-age story A Fall From Aloft, which was published in the United Kingdom in 1968 after he had received numerous rejections from U.S. publishers. It was followed by A Few Flowers for St. George, published in 1970, and Undertow, which was published the following year. U.S. publishers, including Random House, took notice and produced editions for the American market.
In 1973, The Sailor and the Fox, his novel about a bout between an aging white boxer and a younger black man, hit bookstores. Set in Bermuda and inspired by the 1959 Theatre Boycott, it made such an impression that Hollywood producer Quinn Martin bought film rights. A script was written, and actors including Sean Connery were tapped, but the movie was never made. That was a major disappointment, but Burland continued to write.
His other novels are 1975’s Surprise, the story of an “uppity” slave who leaves Bermuda to establish a free colony in the Caribbean, Stephen Decatur, the Devil and the Endymion, which was published the same year, Flight of the Cavalier, published in 1980 and finally, 1985’s Love is a Durable Fire.
His last book is based in part on the experiences of his close friend John Hartley Watlington, a pilot whose plane was shot down over France during the Second World War and was missing for nearly a year.
Burland received warm reviews for his novels from newspapers such as the Times of London, the New Statesman and the New York Times. His novels were studied at several colleges and universities. There was praise from novelist Anthony Burgess, playwright David Rabe and actor Sir Ralph Richardson.
Recognition came from the literary world in 1979, when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1984, he received an award from the Connecticut Commission of the Arts as a novelist writing in Connecticut. Bermuda reviewers were positive as well. However after 1985, Burland, who wrote religiously for four hours a day, was unable to find a publisher.
After he became an established writer, he taught writing seminars at Yale University, where he was a Guest Fellow, and at Connecticut College, and also worked for a publishing house in the U.K.
His novels did not make him a wealthy man. Like many creative people, he had personal demons, which he discussed openly. He suffered with depression and also became an alcoholic, although both conditions were eventually brought under control.
Burland was thrice married and divorced: to Charlotte Ann “Gale” Burland, Edwina Trentham and finally Isabel Lee. He was the father of four: Susan, Anne, William with his first wife, and Benjamin with his second wife.
Burland, who was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bermuda Arts Council in 1994, returned to Bermuda permanently in the late 1990s. He renewed old friendships, established new ones and reconnected with his family. He was the first Bermudian to become a Baha’i and his faith gave him much solace and support.
In 2001, Government’s Department of Community and Cultural Affairs established the Bermuda Literary Awards. Burland won the Founder’s Award and the prize for Children’s and Young Adult Fiction. In 2008, the fiction award was renamed the Brian Burland Prize for Fiction.
Burland, who suffered with Huntington’s Disease later in life, spent his last years at Westmeath Nursing Home and finally at Sylvia Richardson Care Facility. He died on February 11, 2010 at the age of 78.
Burland had once expressed disappointment that his novels, all of which are now out of print, remain unread by most Bermudians. Those who paid tribute to him after his death expressed hope that his novels would be reprinted and for wider recognition in general for a man who had dedicated his life to the craft of writing.
His nephew Alan Burland told the Bermuda Sun: “It’s a bit perverse but sometimes when someone dies it serves as a wake-up call. Let us hope that Bermuda wakes up to Brian’s books. He has left us a legacy, let’s take advantage of that.”
Writer Ronald Lightbourne agreed, saying: “It would be criminal if another generation of Bermudians grew up without reading his work.”
The dream of Burland's supporters for greater recognition in his native land took a major step forward on May 9, 2013 with the opening at the Bermuda College of Brian Burland Centre for Research. It came a year after his daughter Dr. Susan Burland donated his novels and unpublished manuscripts to the College. Plans are in the works to republish some of his novels.
April 23, 1931: Burland is born in Bermuda
January 1944: Is shipped off to English to attend boarding school
Late 1940s: attends University of Western Ontario but drops out.
1951: returns home from Ireland, where he has been living, on the death of his father.
1951-1956: works in the family business Burland’s, turns eyebrows when he joins an all-black cricket team
1956: Moves to the U.S. to pursue a career in writing
1964: His first book St. Nicholas and the Tub, is published in the U.S.
1968: His first novel, A Fall From Aloft, is published in the U.K. and later in the U.S.
1970: A Few Flowers for St. George is published
1971: Undertow is published in London and a year later in the U.S.
1973: The Sailor and the Fox hits bookstores
1975: Surprise and Stephen Decatur, the Devil and the Endymion are published in London.
1979: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
1980: Flight of the Cavalier is published
1984: Receives award from the Connecticut Commission of the Arts
1985: Love is a Durable Fire is published
1994: Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bermuda Arts Council
late 1990s: Returns to Bermuda
2001: Wins the Bermuda Literary Awards’ Founder’s Prize and the Children’s and young adult fiction prize.
2008: Literary Awards fiction prize is renamed the Brian Burland fiction prize
February 11, 2010: Dies at Sylvia Richardson Care Facility at age 78
“Right now the money is getting into the hands of fewer and fewer people without paying anything towards the good of the public. How many Bermudians own their own home? Too damn few! A family does not feel solid until they can feel this is mine. They must have a homestead.”—Mid-Ocean News, November 27, 1971
“Although I am having some rest and relaxation, everything in Bermuda provokes my mind and helps my writing.
But it also shatters the metrology instruments of my craft. Bermuda is most where I feel my life, my heart
and my craft. — Bermuda Sun, April 5, 1975
“I will probably have to take work in teaching. I’ve already asked friends for help and started sending out information. Hopefully, I’ll get a position as a writer in residence at a University — that’s the only way writers seem to be able to survive these days, if they can’t get a best seller.
“Really, I haven’t had what you would call a best seller, though up to now I’ve made a living of sorts. At times I suppose I have been fortunate enough to earn the wage of a New York garbage collector.”
— Bermuda Sun, February 25, 1977
“As a child, I knew there was something wrong. My family was telling me that black Bermudians were inferior but our black cook was the only member of my family who read Shakespeare. That sustained my life. I received the greatest tenderness from the black maids; they gave me love.
“I have optimism for race relations in Bermuda. The tyranny of white Bermudians to blacks cannot survive. This is the age of the black man. I am in the minority. I don’t want to be prejudiced against.”
— Bermuda Sun, December 8, 1978
“Naturally, all the white families felt betrayed by one of their own when the book came out. But they couldn’t touch me because the book was such a success. Even Sir Henry Tucker — who was general manager of the bank at the time — said to me: ‘What I hate most and what I fear most is you white liberals.’”
— Burland, speaking about local reaction to Undertow, his novel about an embittered group of white and black men who rob the Bank of Bermuda. The Royal Gazette, April 11, 1988
Brian Burland promoted his novels during his frequent visits back home.
Brian Burland's novel Surprise is about a slave who escapes from Bermuda in a bid to establish a free colony
in the Caribbean. Photos: Courtesy Bermuda Sun
“Brian Burland dropped out to success”, Mid-Ocean News, November 27, 1971
“I’ve been to hell and back”, Bermuda Sun, March 6-7, 1981.
“Hero Hartley inspired me”, says Bermudian author, The Royal Gazette, April 11, 1988
“A Writer’s Life” by Ronald Lightbourne, The Bermudian, February 2002
“Bermuda’s Master Story Teller”, By Sandy Campbell, The Bermudian, Winter 2008.
Brian Burland obituaries: The Royal Gazette, February 16, 2010; Bermuda Sun, February 17, 2010
Brian Burland funeral programme and eulogy by nephew Alan Burland
Bermuda National Library, Brian Burland biography index