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A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess

David Bailey, plugging his new exhibition of East End snaps, has been reminiscing nostalgically about the Kray twins. The Queen has shaken hands with Martin McGuinness. This must be Rose-Tinted Spectacles Week. But then, the British have always had the generous tendency to glamorise villains who were once notorious. How fitting, then, that in Manchester this week a three-day gathering of academics, film-makers, sociologists and musicians is celebrating the 50th anniversary of a novel that glamorised thuggish violence so brilliantly that its title still sends a frisson through sensitive souls.

Anthony Burgess claimed in later life that he knocked off A Clockwork Orange in three weeks to get some quick money for his wife, when he wrongly thought he had a fatal tumour. I’m not sure how much quick money he made, because the first edition sold precisely 3,872 copies. That’s hardly surprising, since the reviews were either scathing (“tawdry clichés about juvenile delinquency” — The Times) or condescendingly sarcastic (“Even I, all-tolerant as I am, found the double child-rape scene a little uninviting” — Kingsley Amis in The Observer).

Yet the book struck a chord. Middle England at the time was gripped by tabloid-fuelled paranoia about gang violence (when is it not?). Mods and Rockers were regularly beating up South Coast resorts and each other. Burgess’s masterstroke was to project their defining characteristics — their stylised costumes, secret slang, hatred of authority, shared musical tastes and indulgence in violence as a pleasurable pastime — into a surreal near-future.

This is a world in which the kids’ language, enriched with a virtuosic relish that James Joyce might have envied, has a Russian twist (regarded as very sinister at the height of the Cold War), and the anti-hero narrator, Alex, has hijacked Beethoven, the composer most revered by the middle-aged middle classes, to supply a soundtrack for his spree of rape and murder.

Burgess also inserted a curious detail into his novel’s most horrific episode — when Alex and his crew rape and murder a woman while her husband has to watch helplessly. The husband, it transpires, is an author working on a book called A Clockwork Orange. But as Burgess later revealed, this chapter was based on a traumatic real event. During a blackout in 1942 his own wife had been assaulted by four American soldiers. Burgess, stationed in Gibraltar, was refused leave to see her. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to wonder how much A Clockwork Orange was triggered less by concerns about “society’s ills” than by irrational but nevertheless profound feelings of guilt about not being around either to protect or comfort his wife. Inevitably, perhaps, such an incendiary novel was turned into a film just three years after its 1962 publication.

But no, this wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s infamous movie. Almost forgotten today (rightly so, because it’s terrible) is Andy Warhol’s Vinyl. It presents A Clockwork Orange as a black-and-white experimental shambles in which unrehearsed amateurs (mostly Warhol’s New York loft friends) move and talk like zombies. Laughable though this is, it does seem to be Warhol’s way of emphasising one important strand of the novel: that of a troublesome youth subjected, by state officials, to a chemical “therapy” that not only purges his taste for violence but also erases his capacity for free will.

Kubrick’s film came out six years later. No arthouse shambles, this. The rapes and beatings had been transformed, with a cinematic verve that was both brilliant and shocking, into graphic set-pieces. Burgess hated the movie, though he didn’t mind the royalties. His main gripe was that Kubrick (unwittingly or deliberately) had worked from the American edition of the book, which omitted the final chapter. Symbolically numbered 21, this is the chapter in which Alex realises that he should grow up, settle down, get a wife and a job, and have kids — even though, as he wryly muses, his kids will probably go through the same adolescent rebellion as he has done. In other words, it’s a typically pragmatic, British ending — much too sanguine and anticlimactic for the Americans. They lopped it off and Kubrick followed suit, leaving the impression that Alex was unreformed and unreformable, and society doomed and damned.

Dozens of stage adaptations and even musicals have come and gone since then. I recall a 1990 Royal Shakespeare Company version (with music by Bono and the Edge) that was so awful that wags nicknamed it “A Clockwork Turkey”. Even Burgess himself had a go at adaptation. Last night at the Manchester conference some Clockwork Orange lyrics and “music cues” composed by the author (a musician good enough to write a symphony when he was 18) were resuscitated in a reconstruction called A Clockwork Operetta.

Half a century on, the power of this savage, disturbing and yet verbally intoxicating book is undimmed. Yet one puzzle remains. What on earth is a clockwork orange? To the end of his life in 1993, Burgess never quite offered a convincing explanation. At various times, he claimed that the phrase was a pun on the Malay word for “man” (orang), or a metaphor for “an organic entity being turned into a mechanism”, or that the phrase “queer as a clockwork orange” was “good old East London slang” (though no Cockney had ever heard of it). I suspect that, like the enigmatic “Rosebud” in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the phrase had a much deeper and probably autobiographical significance for Burgess. But we will probably never know what it was.

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