Monday, October 22, 2012

Oranges are not the only fruit

Fifty Years of a Clockwork Orange, Thursday 18th October, 7pm, Internatinal Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by L.J. Spillane. 

We’re at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Someone suggests I try the Chockwork Orange beer sponsored by Brentwood Brewery. I take a sip. I quite like it. We drink together but he isn’t sure about it, and suggests that being an ale fan is perhaps the reason why. He explains that I, a rioja-swigging sort of gal, might be naturally quite fond of it’s chocholately orangeness.

We’re in the Engine Room. I’ve been here many times and have often noticed the dark furniture, but never realised that everything here belonged to Anthony Burgess himself. Things click into place. The wooden music stand in particular, which always struck me as a strange addition to the venue, now seems so fitting. Mr Burgess was a writer of symphonies in addition to being a prolific novelist - and, of course, the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex, was a lover of classical music, detesting the pop of the day. It’s so obvious, I feel quite daft.

Dominic Sandbrook begins his talk. The historian opens with a surprising truth; Anthony Burgess didn’t like A Clockwork Orange. He wrote critical essays, film treatments, music, reviews and more than 30 books. Despite the diversity of his achievements, he was known only for one novel, the most controversial novel of his career made famous by the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. Dominic explains, it was this controversy that pursued Anthony Burgess until his death.

The controversy is compounded because the film and book are subtly different in ending; Burgess’ version is compensatory and optimistic, his main character becoming reflective and mature, while Kubrick’s ending is dark, unredeeming and cynical. The film concludes in a manner the director himself defended as more believable than the original final chapter of the novel. Burgess lamented that Kubrick’s version made it easy to misinterpret what the book was really about. Sadly, Burgess’ work was seen by the press as the impetus for a film which glorified sex and violence.

Dominic goes on to illustrate Anthony Burgess’ Britain of 1962, the year A Clockwork Orange was published, in order to understand the context which gave rise to the novel and the contention surrounding it. One in three homes had no bathroom and lacked central heating, just coal fires and baths once a week. People largely stayed in the town in which they grew up, few becoming students at universities. Television boasted a meagre two channels in black and white, and footballers earned £20 per week. Beneath this surface however, British society was changing. Living standards were on the rise and unemployment was falling. People were buying their own homes, TVs and cars. The first James Bond movie was released and The Beatles hit the charts with Love Me Do. Britain was optimistic, ambitious and fast becoming consumerist.

Anthony Burgess leaves Britain in the mid 50s with his wife for what was then Malaya. They return to 60s Britain and find it transformed from the austerity invoked by rationing to economic independence and confidence which provokes an overhaul of youth culture. This is the time Burgess perceives teenage gang violence in the media, from Teddy boys in cafe bars, to mods and rockers at Brighton beach. Burgess imagines a future for his novel plagued by modernity gone wrong, where youth aggression has become prevalent and the authorities seek to stamp it out. This poses the theological question of the novel, should free will be controlled by forceful conditioning?

The audience are keen to ask questions. Someone talks about the effect of the film and asks, isn’t the reader responsible for images created in the mind, and, if yes, is that why the film imagery is so disturbing?

Dominic answers that, in all fairness, some of the images in the book had the power to be more controversial. Take the example of Alex pursuing two 10-year-old girls into a record shop. In the film, those girls are much older. Dominic then reiterates that a film is always going to be more visceral, immediate and accessible. Is it the accessibility of ideas that makes them so disconcerting? When did you last hear a contention on Twitter, or through any other social media? I’d stake a healthy sum it was probably today, maybe one hour ago, or possibly even this minute. 

A young woman brings up the subject of female marginalisation in the novel. While Dominic admits the book is filtered through Alex’s eyes and he doesn’t take women seriously, women would always represent a greater percentage of victims in a story like A Clockwork Orange. In a novel exploring gangs and aggression, ask yourself, how believable would it be if the muggers were female?

Another woman touches on a similar point; why women are passive in the book during a rise in feminism? Dominic describes the unfortunate explosion of violence towards women in 1970s film and literature. It is during the 70s that James Bond first hits a woman. Sam Peckinpah directs Straw Dogs in 1971, the film of a woman brutally raped by a male gang. Dominic poses a question regarding sexual liberation; was this a movement for women to be seen as equals, or just a way to explore misogynistic views? Was masculinity being threatened at that time as an older generation felt anxious about emerging youth culture?

I take another sip of dark ale. I needn’t worry about threatening anyone’s masculinity. The beer’s sweet and frothy. Perhaps unlike Yorkie bars, this ale’s for girls.

L.J.Spillane has a writing blog at You can catch her on Twitter at @LJSpillane.

You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review