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Gang of Fiction: A Clockwork Orange 50 Years On 

Review by Gerry Fitzpatrick

24 August 2010

Had Anthony Burgess known in 1960 what would become of the pot boiler he had decided to write to generate income for his wife during what he thought was his final illness - he would never have bothered writing it. The name of the potboiler was A Clockwork Orange and it was for that book alone that Burgess’s name would become known and to which he would be fatally linked.  And as he contemplated his own death in 1960 and leaving his wife without any money, he recalled, once again the violent attack to which she was forever linked in his mind.   A terrible brutal act that Burgess would remake and rewrite in his own unique way: he turned it into a Tory philosophical fable-thesis on free will and the free will of one particular individual –Alex. 

But who was Alex or more importantly what was he? I will say right now that Alex and his gang were a product of Burgess’s over agile imagination, which notoriously exaggerated his talent to amuse and to confuse and to garble the realities of his day.

In shaping Alex Burgess drew on some well-worn antecedents, the first was Swift’s Gulliver. The second was Orwell’s Winston Smith. Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s comic satire about a man who tried to be virtuous among the unvirtuous, was certainly relevant as was 1984 and the destruction of one man’s individuality. 

Enthusiasts for A Clockwork Orange like to add a third non-existent element: Burgess from his window watching Mods and Rockers in 1964 fight-it-out on Brighton seafront. Only the book was published in 1962 and Burgess never lived in Brighton and had by 1964, moved away from nearby Hove. 

If there was a Brighton connection it was to Brighton Rock – Graham Greene’s 1938 novel about a young sociopath called Pinky. When I say ‘connection’ I mean in terms of Burgess’s understanding of literary form and technique and their effects. In the way that Burgess knew that writing a novel using a first person narrator would increase the novels future cult value. The trauma or secret world experienced by the main character would then become the reader’s own, which in turn give rise to the vast tapestry of melancholia, mania and obsession now connected to the book. 

But as far as Burgess was concerned it was simply an appreciation of how a first person narrator such as Holden Caulfield trying to be ‘the catcher in the rye’ became one of the most successful modern stories ever written. And like Burgess J. D. Salinger had deep regrets about writing his own subjective report from a troubled teenagers mind. Salinger, Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess all had regrets about their most famous creations. For they did not share the public’s (or the academics’) consuming interest in the famous and infamous books they had written. 

The world Burgess wanted to show us was as he says, “the world of adolescent violence and governmental retribution in the slang that was current at the time among the hooligan groups known as the Teddyboys and the Mods and Rockers” and the Russian, “Stiyagi” who Burgess tells us were then, “smashing faces and windows”. In other words who, or what, these people were, only existed for Burgess in terms of the moral panic they had provoked. These were to be grist to his own moral mill. 

The moral schema Burgess devised for the book was simple and remained the same in both the early and later versions: 1. Teenage boy creates mayhem. 2. Teenage boy is punished by the state and then by everyone he has wronged, 3. Teenage boy gets married and becomes a non-violent adult. There is a fourth element that can be included, which was Burgess’s attempt to answer Greene’s moral schema for Brighton Rock – 1. Young thug murders a former associate. 2. He marries an impressionable young girl to protect himself from the police. 3. Young thug is caught 4. The girl he married is taken in by nuns.

Burgess admired Greene as a fellow Catholic writer but he did not admire Greene’s politics, which were radical and socialist (Burgess remained a high Tory monarchist for most of his life). Greene had wanted to show that Catholic marriage and family life were not what made people good but a radical will -which can come through religion but was not of it. Burgess’s view and his answer to Greene was much more traditionally conservative: the excesses and problems of youth would disappear amidst the mundane realities of family responsibility. That was the lesson to be learnt from the story but something else happened instead. 

What was supposed to happen was the reader would penetrate the outer shell of the work and gain access to the story’s ultimate moral and ethical purpose. When Denis Potter wrote the Singing Detective (1986) he showed how his protagonist - a writer of detective stories - used his skill to explore deep-seated fears and doubts about his life and how illness was affecting his body as well as his mind, which produces a need for him to be the Singing Detective – a man never lost for words who coolly tells it like it is and then acts. But for Burgess and A Clockwork Orange the reverse happened - he became a prisoner of his fiction. But how Burgess became Alex’s prisoner is interesting and enlightening. 

As he writes in the Clockwork Testament, what he had tried to do was to produce,  “a novella, a sort of allegory of Christian free will. Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action. If he chooses good, he must have the possibility of choosing evil instead: evil is a theological necessity. I was also saying that it is more acceptable for us to perform evil acts than to be conditioned artificially into an ability only to perform what is socially acceptable.”

However, the necessity of evil in moral choice is not an idea from Christian theology at all but from Frederic Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and of the necessity of being able to choose evil in a direct rejection of Christian theology. 

Similarly, Burgess’s observation that, ‘Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action’ is an elision of the Enlightenment doctrine that moral choices are dependant on man’s condition of freedom or their lack - the slave, the serf and the poor didn’t and still don’t have the freedom to choose as a Lord or Nobleman.

Writing in the heady days of the Cold War and when all of the Anglo-American human sciences had absorbed the influential idea that ‘choosing the selfish’ or ‘evil’ option - in the contested atmosphere of nuclear brinkmanship - was always the better option, as it increased your chances of winning the game of computerized warfare (see separate review of Adam Curtis documentary The Trap). 

But Burgess was in the writing game and had seriously compromised his moral schema by reversing his terms, the reader is then left with his best and most effective invention: Alex’s idiolect:

‘...the cause of badness is what turns [Alex-Burgess] into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of goodness….badness is of the self, the one, the you or me….and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self.
And there he standeth on his own noggin, all Neitsche-Erasmus-Thatchi like - one eye lash before the wig, head only in bowler, not yet wearing his Zigger-Zagger scarf but Bog warbling in the Church of the empty mind.

The first para is from the book, the second is my own invention, which can or cannot be taken as seriously as the first paragraph. The choice is not free and is determined by an agreed fee to be paid to the publisher.

Natsat’s is musical, raw, cultist and comical. Burgess tells us that he had chosen Slav words as they can more easily be fixed to English words and secondly because it helped in the making of Alex and his gang’s comic opera routines (Burgess was also an Opera Composer) an aspect that Stanly Kubrick exploited to the full with long sections of the film staged to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie and Hollywood’s Singing in the Rain – the bitter taste of blood, violence and murder sweetened artificially with popular music.

That said it is important to also accept that Burgess categorically did not see himself as part of 1960s radical counter culture and was genuinely appalled when he became one of its heroes. 

Burgess had a deep-seated loathing of counter-culture movements and this was further reinforced by his adherence to the mores of his own ‘subculture’ that of Schoenbergian musical modernism and the ideas of its presiding guru - Theodore Adorno (1903-1970). Alongside Adorno’s blatant propaganda for Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic system, Adorno could also be seen on television and heard on radio denouncing the latest popular song release supporting the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. 

In short Burgess admired authority but knew that it could be unappealing, so he invented and borrowed themes to make the authoritarian sound interesting and alluring. It’s not surprising then to find in A Clockwork Orange that it is the Prison Chaplin who councils Alex in the Nietzschian - not Christian lesson of the book - that he must be able to choose evil to be free - a rather odd thing to say to someone who is in prison; but not if you are in the upside-down-backwards world of Anthony Burgess. And what if everything in that world that was upside down and backwards - was reversed and then inverted what would it look like? 

The answer is something closer to the realities of the counter culture revolt and rebellion. 

The Realities of The Counter-Culture Revolt

Mods & Rockers 

The Ted’s and later Rockers tended to be from outer London and the Home Counties and began traveling around in large groups following the building of the M1 motorway in 1959. A year before they traveled in smaller groups to London to join white teenage gangs to attack West Indian immigrants in the Notting Hill Gate race riots. The police notoriously arrested the West Indians a Black Afro-Caribbean people - who were trying to defend themselves from gangs of roaming white youths who were attacking them and their homes. So they could not be considered material for Burgess and his gang of fiction - who he imagined to be ‘untouched by politics’ (Burgess You’ve Had Your Time p.38). 

What Burgess retained from paper and pub banter was that some of the Mod pioneers (this was 1960 after all) were from the East End of London.

There was one particular London Mod gang that was actually from Illford - a more well to do outer suburb of the East End. But they could not have been further from the violent thugs of Burgess’s imagining - or his Nietzschian-Christian morality. For a start most of them were Jewish, saw themselves as mates and merry pranksters, who drove scooters and sometimes took mandrex. In those days they went under the name of The Firm:

‘They weren’t a violent group. Compared to the Highbury lads or any of the other London gangs of that era the Firm were mild indeed. I never saw them kick anybody.’  Chris Rowley of International Times from Days in The Life 1988 p.234. 

‘We didn’t have higher moral principles in those days. But we were quite just: if we were asked to do something or sort something out we’d do it; we wouldn’t let people do horrible things.’ Peter Shertser of The Firm quoted in Days in The Life p.235.

Shertser and his gang knew that a good night out could always be spoiled by one or two hopeless drunks ready to trade blows. The Firm liked to show their metal by stopping things from escalating rather than being the cause of a confrontation. If they did have to intervene it was in the manner of the man who appears from nowhere just as a fight is about to start and says in loud sensible voice, “now we’ve all had a drink!” The DJ John Peel reported that The Firm once gave him a drink – they poured a bucket of water over his head.

Peel and The Firm had gone to UFO - an underground club in London’s Totenmham Court Rd to see an early version of the Pink Floyd’s music and light show - a band that Burgess intensely disliked. In his memoirs You’ve Had Your Time, he recalls a 1960s conversation he had seen on television between Hans Keller the musicologist (a fellow admirer of the twelve tone music of Schoenberg) and “four haired louts” (i.e. The Floyd). 

“Hans Keller was to be seen on television deferring to four haired louts…who clashed guitars and howled illiteracies. ‘First, gentlemen, though, I must deplore the noise level. You see, I was brought up on chamber music,’ to which the answer was, ‘Well, we was bloody well not.’ ” From Burgess autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, p.193

Burgess may have half remembered this famous 60s television counter-culture moment for it had been re-shown a number of times when Burgess was alive - and not paying very much attention. For only one part of the account he gives above was in any way close to the words that were actually said and how they were meant - namely Burgess’s phrase, ‘You see, I was brought up on chamber music.’  What was actually said was: 

Hans Keller: Musicologist:

“Why has it all got to be so terribly loud? For me frankly it is just too loud – I just can’t bear it – I happen to have grown up in the string quartet – which is a bit softer, so eh, why‘s it got to be so loud – so amplified?” 

Roger Waters: Pink Floyd:

“Well I don’t guess it has to be, but that’s the way we like it. And eh - we didn’t grow up with the string quartet. And I guess that could be one of the reasons why it is loud.” 

To which the blessed Syd Barret added, “…some of it is quite quiet. I personally like quiet music just as much as I like loud music.” 
(BBC videotape of BBC arts programme A Look At the Week 1967 – now available online). 

Roger Waters and Syd Barret spoke in highly educated confident upper middle class tones adding the odd ‘I guess’ for humility. If Burgess had been in any doubt about what he had remembered about the exchange, then a quick call to any of his friends in the BBC would have put him right. My point is that the facts and intention were not important to Burgess - for he was convinced in his mind that those who didn’t share his and Keller’s own subculture - of chamber music and the string quartet - were illiterate louts. 

If Burgess wasn’t writing the book for ‘illiterate louts’ or the counter culture of his day - whom then was he writing A Clockwork Orange for? What was it then that Burgess was doing in producing Alex?

What Burgess was doing in producing Alex, was the same thing that Alex was doing with his ‘idiolect’  – he was showing the world that Anthony Burgess was a kind of linguistic genius an artist-outsider trying to rise above the ideological conflicts of his day - or so he liked to think.

In most of his books and in his autobiographies he is the forlorn and powerless teacher-writer who is trying to be an avant-garde composer.  In A Clockwork Orange Burgess is the master who is not only in control of Alex and his language he is also in control of the Cold-War-Nietzschian-Christian-sermon - on Social Control itself. 

Orwell’s nightmare state was one in which Stalin’s Russia had conquered Britain just as it had done much of Eastern Europe. The nightmare state that Alex found himself in, was the one that Burgess the Tory idealist, found himself in 1945-50 – i.e. the modern welfare state of nationalized industry and a National Health Service - a state that many conservative writers (but not Orwell) thought was close to being communist. The idea then that Britain could be or was being controlled by it’s Labour Movement who wanted to force people to be good was common enough belief and still is. For it is a touchstone of Conservative philosophy that people are naturally selfish and therefore need to defend their right to be selfish or as Burgess puts it theologically ‘to choose evil’ against any authority of improvement or social change.

A Clockwork Orange then is not just about a boy in his parents house dreaming about his next act of violence nor is it about Burgess in his study listening to Beethoven and thinking about violence, rape and murder. Rather, it is Burgess having Alex and his gang doing and not contemplating. They perform the acts that he himself fantasized about and are, as a consequence in the book outside the law and therefore beyond social control. 

Through Alex, Burgess was attempting to control himself but he also wanted to demonstrate that an improving authority (like a Labour Government) could not control him or the violent thoughts he had and that even if a government did try to control these urges it would fail - as it does when trying to control Alex. But in the last chapter of A Clockwork Orange Burgess goes further and shows us that what really makes Alex conform are family values – the responsibility of hearth and home. Alex fails at being a sociopath not because he was stopped or was forced to be good but because he faced up to being a family man who can now tell himself he is free because he can still be as violent and as murderous as he likes – inside his own head. In other words Alex really wanted to be Anthony Burgess all along! 

I mentioned above that Burgess wanted to answer Greene’s ‘Rock’ with his ‘Orange’. But I believe we must now reverse this too and not only see Greene’s Rock as the ‘answer’ to Burgess’s Orange but consider Greene’s lesson conta-Burgess: that marriage hearth and family does not necessarily maketh people good or help them groweth up and that good must be fought for - by radical will and that only really happens in society and becomes a distinctive feature of societies in times of immense social change and revolution. Those were the (violent) values of the Enlightenment and the art of Beethoven and not of the Cold War choices between good and evil of Anthony Burgess.

NB The author unlike Anthony Burgess lived in the East End London for over ten years but has never been to Russia.


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