The Psychogeography Of A Clockwork Orange
The rain had penetrated the bricks and infiltrated the electrics of my basement flat, so that when the doorbell finally rang near midnight, it was with the barely audible rattle of a drowning cricket. He was late. I climbed the stairs to the communal foyer, beyond the slagheap of unsolicited mail, the Raleigh bicycle with no front wheel, and the evaporating river of dog piss. I shucked the chain and lifted the latch to pull him inside by the beige lapel of his trench coat. London belched in at his back, pellets of freezing rain spraying the lurid Victorian wallpaper. I dragged him downstairs and stood him beneath the bare red bulb of my rented bed-sit. Motionless, he stared at me. I recognized the feral cast of his eyes from photographs. The soaking fronds of his gray hair clung to his brow. He looked like a rodent scanning the apocalypse from the shelter of a rotting tropical plant. In the shivering fingers of his right hand he extended a disintegrating tourist map toward my face. He looked as though he might weep.
I spoke first: “Mr. Burgess…”
“I’m delighted that you could come.” I offered him a mug of Ovaltine, but he declined it.
’Tis a naughty night to swim in,” he said, removing his coat and standing before the orange buzz of my three bar electric fire. “King Lear,” he explained.
“Yes, I know.”
“We had rain like this when I was teaching in Malaya, only it didn’t promise pneumonia. Monsoons, you know. They called my school the Eton of the Orient…” He crouched down in front of the heater and rubbed his pale hands together. “An expensive thing: nostalgia.” He said this as I sipped the remnants of my hot milk. “Regrets, also. You know I wish I’d never written that book? Worst of all, I sold myself out to get the advance from Norton in America. Look, I’m never going to get dry, I’m here against my better judgment, so shall we just get it over with? Hand me my coat back, will you?”
In the hallway, I detached the headlamp from the abandoned bicycle. We would use it to examine the tourist map that the writer had brought with him. The batteries were weak, but would be sufficient for our drift though the city. I had secured the map inside a zip-lock freezer bag to protect it from the squall. Burgess protested that the map was of no use, anyway. By the time we reached the vertical dystopia of Tower Hamlets, we were wet to the marrow.
“What’s it going to be then, Anthony Burgess?”
“Don’t get smart, boy.”
“Priestly Place,” I offered.
“This isn’t Priestly Place,” he protested regarding the wounded sockets of the buildings. “I told you on the telephone, the locations in that regrettable little novel are fictitious.”
“Almost fictitious,” I countered. “This way to the flatblocks. Want me to begin, Tony?” A police car slowed as it passed us, but continued. “So, to the landscape of A Clockwork Orange: it’s obvious that Priestly Place is named after J.B. Priestley, who popularized the term ‘Angry Young Men’ in the New Statesman. That’s where is begins for you, ain’t it, the summer of 1956?”
Reluctantly, he caught up with me. His soaking hems and socks were rubbing his ankles raw. “Yes, all right. The summer of ’56 was the summer of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. The angry young man was a fashionable type, but an existential baby. That’s the teat of it, if you like. From there, one draws a straight line through the Mods and the Rockers, and the Teddy Boys before them, of whom I despaired. When I returned to Britain in 1960, these gangs were in their ascendancy, except for the waning Edwardian-styled Teds. The gangs were often too young to drink alcohol in pubs, but they did congregate to drink American-style milkshakes, colas, or more caffeine in Italian coffee shops. The pomp of these youths was in the dismal circumstances that followed the end of Empire. These were violent groups, bricoleurs convulsed with amphetamines and tawdry music. A Clockwork Orange, although it preceded the beach riots of the Mods and Rockers at Clacton, Brighton, and so forth by a couple of summers, anticipates the boiling over of their mother’s milk, the brute infantilism of the young outsider who became an overnight, albeit inconvenient, national treasure. And remains so.”
“Alex lives in Municipal Flatblock 18A between Kingsley Avenue and Wilsonsway. That’s a tangled geography. You’re acknowledging the nascent angry young man in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, sort of blaming him, right? Amis’ Jim Dixon, through Osborne’s Jimmy Porter and this even continues, against your will I suppose, into Jimmy Cooper in the Mod film Quadrophenia. Gatecrashing the upper classes is vital to Porter, Cooper and Alex. To be a porter or a cooper: working class professions.”
“Very amusing. Hand me that map and the flashlight, you’ve got it inverted.” Burgess snatched these from me and tried to shine the lamp on one of the street signs. “This makes no sense. I suppose you want me to tell you about Wilsonsway? Why Wilsonsway?”
“No, I have that worked out. There’s three Wilsons: you, little ‘John Wilson’ looking out from under your pen name; but I reckon you also meant to allude to Harold Wilson, future Prime Minister but leader of the Labour Party opposition at the time you wrote A Clockwork Orange; and also to Colin Wilson, again. In your memoirs, you say that Colin Wilson was part of the easy intercourse of Americanization, the populist victory against the trained intellectual. You disapprove of Wilson’s methods, his ways. Alex is at the intersection, because you really intended to establish him at the confluence of things you were suspicious of, or despised: hooliganism, fashionable alienation, trendy existentialism, violence, socialism, full employment, sociology, State Aid, the abuses of the Left, as you saw them.”
“I’m a reactionary, then; at least insofar as you are concerned.” Burgess sniffed and pushed his dripping hair from his eyes. “The improvised education only cheats itself.”
“Here we are: turn left!” I grabbed his arm. “Attlee Avenue, a dead giveaway; Clement Attlee, our socialist Prime Minister who succeeded Winston Churchill the Tory aristocrat in 1945, before Churchill came barking back again in ’51; mad oscillating blitzed-out Britain. As PM, pee and em, you watched Attlee extinguish the dog end of Empire, the embers of the Raj blowing across the dirt in India. The days of the colonies were numbered. That’s why the Cat Lady lives out past Victoria Flatblock, and the suburb of Oldtown, in a picturesque rectory. It’s all a bit transparent and cheap, eh Tony? I thought you said nostalgia was expensive?”
“Ghastly boy! All we have is the past! You remind me of one of those types I am against. You’re a kind of spiteful, guerilla intellectual. You’ve swallowed all of this angry young man tosh like a drunken fish. The hook is sticking of your cheek boy, yes? It’s almost 2 a.m. Will this take much longer?”
“Not much longer. Check the map. Which way is the Public Biblio?”
“The library? It’s not on the bloody map. I warned you.”
“To the library along Marghanita Boulevard. You were talking – sneaky fucker that you are – about Marghanita Laski: lexicographer, right up your strasse. I mean: A Clockwork Orange is nothing if it’s not a new lexicon. Plus, she was Jewish, so she fits what a lesser reader than myself might call a subtext. I don’t remember you ever mentioning the old queer slang polari, but I know you were thinking of it. It would even be on the BBC by 1965. Look out, there’s Boothby Avenue…”
“Now, Boothby Avenue is a reference to…” At last, he began to enter the indirect spirit of our journey, but I interrupted him.
“Don’t trouble yourself Mr. Burgess. I know where you were going with that. Again, trying to be clever, weren’t you, sir? Sir Brooke Boothby: droog, translator and publisher of Jean Jacques Rousseau! Remember how in Look Back In Anger, back at the tit of all your woes, when Helena accuses Jimmy, the archetypal angry young man, of thinking that he’s living in the middle of the French Revolution?”
“Checkmate,” the old writer exhaled wearily; sound of breaking glass in the darkness.
“The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason…If children understood how they reason, they would not need to be educated. That’s Rousseau.”
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the master of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
“That’s what I was getting at.”
“Yes, I know. Tell me: did you ever notice that the tenement homes of both Jimmy Porter and Jimmy Cooper back onto railway lines?
I imagine that you think that’s important.”
“So does mine. Come on then, Burgie. The Duke of New York might still be open for last orders, if you fancy a drink. We might get a lock-in.”
Anthony Burgess pulled the deliquescent tourist map from its protective plastic wrapping and we watched it fall apart. Finally, we drifted towards the promise of the pub.
James Reich is the author “I, Judas” (Soft Skull Press, 2011), an adjunct faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and a founding member of the post-punk band Venus Bogardus (“World class” – BBC Radio). He has written for SleepingFish, Headzine, Fabric, and The End of Being.com among others. The band has recently recorded music for the soundtrack of the forthcoming movie “The Endless Possibility of Sky” by Todd Verow. James was born in England, but has lived in New Mexico since 2009. He is currently working on his second novel. His website can be found at www.jamesreich.net and the band can be found athttp://venusbogardus.bandcamp.