I sometimes have to go into HMV or Waterstones with the specific aim of having a look at the charts. I read the backs of CDs and paperbacks for something I might like or something I’ve heard people raving about. I do it because I live in my own subcultural pit which I very rarely stray from. This week, I went on one of my reconnaissance missions and came back with a hardback I’d already read… on my Kindle (I wanted it because it looks nice on my bookshelf, alright?) and a pretzel. So, left largely uninspired by what’s going on in the book world currently, we’re going to get into my cult time machine and natter about something old, but of true literary genius.
This year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of A Clockwork Orange, the absolute don of all dystopian fiction. Written by Anthony Burgess in 1962, the book depicts a future society where youth rebellion and violence have reached extreme heights and focuses on free will and the role it plays in determining whether young people choose good or evil.
Burgess maintains he wrote the book in three weeks, his wife Lynne was very ill at the time and he wanted to make some money to pay for her healthcare. He rejects it as his best work, and years later went as far as to say he shouldn’t have written it, because after Kubrick’s film adaptation in 1971, the public began to misinterpret the malevolent themes.
Burgess had just returned to Britain after a stint abroad and says he barely recognised it. By the early sixties, the battle between Mods and Rockers was monopolising seaside towns like Brighton and youth culture became synonymous with fighting. The story was also inspired by Lynne’s own confrontation with some American youths that were stationed in England during the Second World War, who beat her and led her to have a miscarriage.
The title is derived from an old cockney expression that Burgess heard some years earlier in a pub, “as queer as a clockwork orange” – but there’s no other record of it being used prior to 1962. He also explains that the contrast of something organic and healthy with something dead and mechanical is how he saw the alternate reality in the book.
One of the most impressive things about the book is Nadsat, an argot used by the teenage characters and invented by Burgess, who was a talented linguist. Many of the words in the Nadsat language are derived from Russian or Slavic phrases, cockney rhyming slang and religious texts. The word Nadsat itself is a Russian suffix for 11-19, the years considered to be adolescence.
I suppose the reason A Clockwork Orange is one of my personal favourites is because it could be a contemporary commentary. I re-read it last summer on the train back from a family holiday in Devon, when news broke of the London riots. It wasn’t until I got a fair few chapters in that I realised how relevant it still is:
“I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I’d viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth, about how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieted Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up…”
I always say it when I’m banging on about something that’s decades old but if you haven’t read it before, you should really get online and give it a download. It’s only a couple of quid. The autobiographies of people just in their twenties and reality TV homages can wait until, oh I don’t know, Amazon freezes over?
Written by Becky Shepherd