In fact, Burton knew a lot about excremental places. Twenty-seven years before this incident, we find, in the matter-of-fact diary of the fourteen-year-old Richard Jenkins (he later adopted the last name of his guardian and mentor Philip Burton) laconic entries: “Bucket of D.” “Went up Mountain and had a bucket of D.” “Fetched a bucket of D. There was another man up there but I was very keen today I could smell D. a mile off. This mountain is nothing but D.” “D.” is code for dung. The adolescent Richard earned money by climbing the mountains outside the industrial town of Port Talbot, scooping animal manure into his bucket, carrying it back down the mountain, and selling it to gardeners in the town. The alchemy of Burton’s career is the transformation of dung into diamonds. There is a delicious moment in the diaries when he is reading in bed “and E. was around the corner of the room I asked: What are you doing lumpy? She said like a little girl and quite seriously: ‘Playing with my jewels.’” The innocence is as much his as hers: Burton’s idea of wealth—dressing your princess in diamonds—is a fantasy of childhood poverty.
more from Fintan O’Toole at the NYRB here.