The Forgotten Core of A Clockwork Orange

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr Branom. ‘Violence is a horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it. … You are being made sane.’

Given A Clockwork Orange‘s standing as one of the greatest and most influential books of the 20th century, you would expect Anthony Burgess to carry a considerable level of pride for his most well-known work.

Not so. In his Confessions of Anthony Burgess he described being “sickened by my own excitement at setting it down”; in 1985 he went as far as to say he should not have written it at all.

Part of his regret came from the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess felt ignored his book’s core message and instead twisted it into a glorification of sex and violence. “It made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about,” Burgess said, “and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.”

But in Kubrick’s defence, it’s not hard to see where that misunderstanding came from—A Clockwork Orange is an extremely violent book. Inspired by his first wife’s assault by drunken American servicemen, it follows Alex, a sociopathic teenage delinquent living in a dystopian vision of England. During the day, Alex skips school to the frustration of his social worker; at night, he terrorises the streets of his hometown with fellow thugs Georgie, Dim and Pete. Hyped up on drugs and bloodlust, Alex and his gang tear around in stolen cars, assaulting strangers, robbing shops and invading homes.

And so it begins. Put the book down after a few chapters and you’d be forgiven for thinking it nothing more than an orgy of ultra-violence, as gleefully written as it is perpetrated. Alex and his “droogs” rip through the pages like a gallery of Gotham City villains, laughing away as they beat and batter, while Burgess hides the sick details of their spree beneath a blanket of his own “Nadsat” street slang:

That was old Dim’s cue and he went grinning for this veck’s dithering rot, crack crack, first left fistie then right, so that our dear old droog the red—red vino on tap—started to pour and spot the nice clean carpet.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (Warner Bros., 1971)

But it would be wrong to judge A Clockwork Orange on its opening alone. As Burgess himself said, this book is about more than just violence; underneath the outer level of perversity, it’s packed full of questions about free will and human behaviour.

Because as Alex’s criminality gets ever more impassioned, so too do the efforts of those intent on reforming him. And when the threats of the police and his social worker prove impotent, the government decides the only option remaining to curb his brutality for good is to subject him to the Ludovico Technique, a form of nauseating aversion therapy designed to condition away Alex’s violent compulsions.

It’s that—Alex’s enforced rehabilitation during the second act—that form the centre Burgess felt was lost in the Kubrick version. Because although Act I leaves no doubts about the barbarity of Alex’s inner nature and the need for it to be dealt with, Burgess makes it abundantly clear as to what he thinks of his characters’ preferred solution.

It’s enough just to read his descriptions of the doctors and officials overseeing Alex’s treatment: these are slimy, almost lizard-like, characters—gargoyles who loom over Alex from a moral perch as sound as a crumbling church roof. Seen through that lens, their work comes across as meddlesome and sadistic; one image that came to my mind was of children pulling the limbs off an unwanted toy.

And, in a way, that is exactly what Dr Branom and his behavioural team do to Alex. They don’t rehabilitate him, they leave him impotent, stripped of the free will to choose between violence and compassion. The Ludovico Technique transforms him into the titular clockwork orange, described by Burgess as “the junction of the organic—in other words, life—and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined”. Conditioned by fear into doing good, is Alex really any better than a man who makes the choice to do bad?

And that, O my brothers, is what A Clockwork Orange is really about.

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June in Books: The Waves; The Crossing; One Hundred Years of Solitude

I’ve spent a lot of time on trains this month, and a lot of time waiting in train stations. But as bad as that sounds, the upside is that it means I’ve had an awful lot of time for reading, which I’ve put to good use catching up on a couple of those overlooked classics kicking about on my to-be-read pile.


The Waves, Virginia WoolfAny time of the year is a good time of the year for reading Virginia Woolf, but with a title like The Waves this book was really crying out for the summer.

I’ve really loved getting back into some Woolfian waters at last (this is the first book of hers I’ve read since To the Lighthouse last year), and after being a little numbed by Tad Williams’ gargantuan Stone of Farewell last month it felt really good to follow up with something short and fluid. As a writer, too, it was fascinating to see yet another way of presenting a narrative, through the streaming monologues of six friends rather than conventional prose—like The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, only with added modernism. Definitely something I’ll come back to pore over again in the future.


The Crossing, Samar Yazbek
It’s become such a cliché these days to describe a book as “important” or “a must-read”, but when it comes to The Crossing—the testimonies collected by journalist Samar Yazbek during three illegal border crossings to the Syrian frontline—it really is difficult to find any other way words to use.

As you can probably imagine, The Crossing is quite a heavy-hitting book. But it wasn’t so much Yazbek’s depictions of bloodshed and atrocities (harrowing though they were) that made her account so affecting, it was the human stories she retells—that of the student intent on sitting her university exams despite losing her home to shelling, the children without schools who sell petrol to soldiers on the roadside, and the building contractor who now repairs salvaged tanks for the rebels. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about Syria than the names and cities in the news, you could do worse than start at The Crossing.


One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
This is a book that’s been on my reading list for some time now, having been recommended to me first by several friends, and then again by its frequent mentions alongside Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, my Colombian Booktrotting read and one of my favourite novels.

At first, I really struggled to get into One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I suspect that’s because those constant comparisons with The Armies proved to be spectacularly wide of the mark—besides their respective authors both being Colombian, there really is little stylistic similarity between Rosero’s desolate stream of grief and war, and Márquez’ multi-generational tale of the trials and triumphs of the Buendía family.

But once I got going, I found it really hard to put this book down. Sometimes Márquez’ magical realism and heavy use of symbols made Solitude a little too velvety to swallow all at once, but overall his lucid style became something I enjoyed coming back to the more I read. Much like The Waves, this wasn’t necessarily the gentlest of novels on the mind, though I’m sure I’ll be returning for another read one day.

Summer Reading List: America, Asia, and Desert Heat

Last year, my summer reading was all about taking on some of classic literature’s biggest slogs—namely Moby DickUlysses and Don Quixote. But as much as I enjoyed that challenge, this year I’ll be sticking to some much smaller and more easily-digested novels—some continuing the swing in my reading this year towards American voices, others picking up on some of the new authors I’ve fallen in love with recently.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Of course, while I may not have any mind-bending Joyce or Tolstoy epics lined up, I’d still like to tackle at least one Big Read this summer, and Michael Chabon’s 600+ page opus about two Golden Age comics writers taking on the Nazis fits that bill splendidly. I really loved Chabon’s madcap Wonder Boys, so hopefully this will be more of the same—and if I enjoy it, I might just have to extend my stay in New York with Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.


Heat, Ranulph Fiennes

I’ll admit, summer isn’t my favourite time of the year—like land snails, lungfish and the East African hedgehog, I thrive much more when the temperature is well below my age. Quite why that makes me want to spend these aestival months reading about Ranulph Fiennes’ “extreme adventures at the highest temperatures on Earth”, I’m not sure; maybe it’ll have the same cooling effect as a hot drink during a heatwave?


The Vegetarian, Han Kang

With my Booktrotting journey currently moving through East Asia, I’ve been eyeing up a few books to compliment those stops, like Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods. As I’m currently reading through Korea this month with Krys Lee’s Drifting House, it seems like the perfect opportunity to add Han Kang’s Man Booker International-winner The Vegetarian to that list.


After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry

When I lost my heart to The Essex Serpent earlier this year, one of the first things I did (besides recommending it to literally everyone I know) was order Sarah Perry’s first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. It goes without saying that I’m really looking forward to this one: at the risk of sounding bitter and/ or jealous, Perry’s writing is pretty much everything I wish I could do, and then some. Whilst I’m spending some time revisiting new favourite authors, I also dug Jessie Burton’s The Muse (follow-up to 2014’s The Miniaturist) and Eleanor Catton’s debut The Rehearsal out of a charity shop recently, so I’ll line those up for later.


Skin, Ilka Tampke

My summer reading is already set to be pretty fantasy-heavy as I continue working through the Mistborn and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series’, but even so I’d still like to find room for this novel. I can’t say I know anything about Skin or Ilka Tampke—this was really just an impulse buy based on my soft spot for Finnish writers and awesome female leads. But if there’s any time of the year to try something new, when better than summer?

May in Books: Stone of Farewell; The Deathly Hallows; In a Land of Paper Gods

With May bringing the first heatwave of the summer, the days have been just perfect lately for sitting under a tree and reading al fresco. And even though that means the weather here is beyond lovely, I always like my books this time of year to go somewhere—whether that’s to the fantasy realm of Osten Ard, a Chinese missionary school, or back to the nostalgic halls of Hogwarts.


Stone of Farewell, Tad WilliamsWhen I found The Dragonbone Chair, the first part of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, last year, I fell in love with it completely—not because it’s a well-crafted paragon of the fantasy genre, but because it’s utterly ridiculous, dripping with just about every trope you can imagine, and absolutely impossible to take too seriously.

Stone of Farewell, the second part of the series, is pretty much more of the same. Admittedly, it was quite slow-going compared with The Dragonbone Chair (it’s more or less 800 pages of displaced heroes traipsing about and trying to regroup in the wilderness) but the middle books in trilogies are always a bit hit-and-miss, and it’s not as if I was expecting anything more than what I got—a harmless, silly flight of fancy.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (reread)

Nothing says summer like a bunch of school leavers on a camping trip, right? Granted, those school leavers also happen to be on the run from the forces of magical fascism, and they spend less time drinking round the campfire and more time just trying not to die—but nevertheless, when it comes to some light-hearted adventure reading, you can’t really go wrong with revisiting Harry Potter.

Though saying that, I think this will probably be the last time I reread these books for a while now. It’s been an interesting experience going back to where I fell in love with books in the first place, especially from this new perspective of being a writer and an English student, but as much as I adore Harry Potter I think it’s time to put him back on the shelf and leave him be for a while.


In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mackenzie

In a boarding school atop the mountain of Lushan, a band of mischievous missionary children play at being prophetesses whilst their parents pursue their calling across China. But at the mountain’s feet lies a country at war, and as the children play their games the Japanese are drawing ever nearer to Lushan.

Paper Gods is a book that’s been on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Japan’s wartime conquests in eastern Asia by The Garden of Evening Mists that I got round to picking it up—although once I did, I could barely put it down again. There’s not really much more to say about it other than it’s just that compelling; except that it would be wrong not to mention Mackenzie’s brilliance in bringing the relatively alien world of a missionary school in 1940s China to life, a skill which took Paper Gods  to the shortlist for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.

If you’re a devotee of Second World War fiction or you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere this summer, In a Land of Paper Gods will do you just fine.

Like Riding a Bike

I’ve been playing a lot of guitar lately.

Now, that shouldn’t be too much of a revelation. After all, I’ve been a guitarist for more than half my life now; a period in which my instrument has taken me gigging across the country, into studios and on stage with artists of near every kind imaginable—hell, we’ve even played Glastonbury together.

But in recent years, my six-string and I have become somewhat estranged. If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear just how neatly that decline in my guitar playing correlates to the increase in my struggles with depression and anxiety over the years, and nor should you.

It’s pretty well-established that one of the most visible symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation (or avolition, if you prefer the formal term), which can impact sufferers in a multitude of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as not having the energy to cook dinner or make the bed; at other times it can be a cause for immediate concern, its effects being so drastic as to make you feel you can’t even move (otherwise known as psychomotor retardation). Make no mistake, this is no synonym for mere idleness: that is an active choice not to do something, but a full episode of depressive avolition is more like finding all of your limbs suddenly deaf to your brain’s instructions.

Indeed, one of the key differences between the two is that whilst general laziness usually centres around a desire to avoid something tedious or unpleasant, depression (being ever the colossal dick) will more often than not target the things you actually enjoy doing.

And so it was for me and my guitar. Pre-breakdown, music was always one of my go-to escapes whenever I was feeling down or unwell; but when the Big D came along I just lost all enthusiasm for it, and even when I could bring myself to pick up an instrument I found all of sudden that playing them gave me none of the pleasure it used to.

And as the days between practices grew into weeks and months, in came the Big D’s cretinous companions—anxiety, self-doubt, inward negativity. Each time I tried to reconnect with music, my illness would be there to remind me what a deficient guitarist I was: “I don’t know how,” it would whisper in the back of my mind, “but you’ve got even worse since last time.” Before long, just the sight of my once-cherished Epiphone Dot was enough to make me feel like a fraud; what used to be a proud reminder of my achievements as a musician now just made me think of all the other, better guitarists who I believed deserved those opportunities more than me. I soon stopped performing live, then stopped writing and recording too, and before I knew it I had all but walked away from music for good.

Ironically, it’s exactly those feelings that have brought me back to my guitar now. Over the last few years I’ve made some huge strides in reasserting control over the Big D, but in all that time I’ve somehow never come to terms with my lost love of music. I guess if I’m being honest, spending so much time away had left me a little afraid of my guitar: if I didn’t think I was any good before, how bad would I be with four years of rust on my muscle memory?

But the difference between then and now is that, having finally seen the Big D for what it is, I know that that fear was just another one of its lies: I might not be the greatest guitarist in the world, but I’m certainly not as bad as I’d let my illness convince me all those years ago. And like any of the Big D’s previous falsehoods, once confronted it unravelled like the sham it really was—if you’ll forgive a little simile it was like finally managing to open a window in a stuffy room, but instead of a breeze coming in it was Meters riffs and Nile Rodgers’ chords, things I’d learnt years before and apparently never forgotten. Everything I thought I couldn’t do is coming back to me at last, and each spare moment I spend with my Epiphone feels like a mini triumph in itself, complete with a shot of “good on ya” dopamine to keep me coming back—it’s no wonder I haven’t been able to put the thing down for over a month now.

And sometimes, that’s what “getting better” is all about. It’s not always known or understood, but the road to overcoming a mental illness often lies in those little victories, those small pieces of land once lost and now recovered that make the end goal that much closer. It’s not always a case of taking big steps forward—sometimes it’s enough just to remember you can still play the guitar.

April in Books: The Lieutenant; The Sellout; The Silk Roads

After spending March in the company of some edgy short stories and classic dystopia, I was really in need of some lighter reading this month. Though in hindsight, I’m not sure whether a story of colonial brutalism, a commentary on race in modern America and a comprehensive history of the entire civilised world could really be considered “light”…


The Lieutenant, Kate GrenvilleWhen I was searching for an Australian author as part of my Booktrotting project, one of the names that so frequently came up was Kate Grenville—in fact, so frequently recommended was she that even though I plumped for Tim Winton in the end, I just couldn’t resist buying one of her novels as well to read on the side.

The Lieutenant may not be as familiar as Grenville’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret River, but it is cut from similar historical cloth, travelling back to Australia’s earliest days as a British penal colony. Based on actual events, it’s the story of Daniel Rooke, a British naval lieutenant among the First Fleet sent to establish the New South Wales settlement, and of his and his fellow Europeans’ tense relations with their new aboriginal neighbours.

I can’t say I was particularly swept up by The Lieutenant, but reading it did make me want to go out and find Grenville’s other historical novels. I really enjoyed the subtle way she tackles Britain’s dark colonial legacy, using an almost comic juxtaposition of the British settlers’ military pomp with some superb descriptions of Australia’s wild, natural backdrop, to really drive home just how intrusively out-of-place the colonialists were—if that’s any sign of things to come, I look forward to The Secret River and its sequel, Sarah Thornhill.


The Sellout, Paul BeattyWhen the crime-ridden L.A. suburb of Dickens is removed from the map to save California from embarrassment, one resident takes it upon himself to restore the pride of Dickens’ exclusively black-and-Latino population—his method of choice being to reinstate Jim Crow-era segregation, in the hopes that it unites the community as “apartheid united black South Africa”.

It feels like a pretty weak statement to call this an astonishing novel; after all, winning the 2016 Man Booker Prize should be proof enough that Paul Beatty’s work is something special. But even amongst Man Booker winners, The Sellout is something else. It’s one of those novels that by luck or design so perfectly fits the zeitgeist into which it emerges—taking aim at both so-called post-racial America and the very idea that such an America could even exist, Beatty conducts a satirical masterclass that’s so cut-to-the-bone funny it makes you wish it wasn’t. “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” the opening line reads, “but I’ve never stolen anything.”

Admittedly, its plot isn’t the most compelling, and runs at times into baffling farce; but in the end, the events of The Sellout are hardly as important as what Beatty uses them to illustrate. If this doesn’t enter the roll-call of Great American Novels in the coming years, I will eat my copy in protest.


The Silk Roads, Peter FrankopanPerhaps its the years spent under Hermione Granger’s influence, but whenever I’m in need of a detoxing read, my go-to is almost always a large heft of non-fiction.

Generally speaking, any history book is good enough for me, but The Silk Roads has one hell of a unique selling point. Its scope is enormous—say, every major global event from the rise of Rome to the last days of the Obama administration—and rather than just repeating your old school history lessons, Frankopan swings away from the usual Euro-American perspective and refocuses on the lands of the historic Silk Roads, the trade routes through Asia and the Middle East that were once the centre of the world.

The result is a book as ambitious as it is rewarding, one that presents the historical events we think we know so well from fascinatingly different angles. If there is any one criticism I have of The Silk Roads, it’s that towards the end Frankopan’s lens was pulling noticeably back towards the West; but I think given the intention and the size of the undertaking, that’s easily forgiven.

Solvitur Ambulando: Walking with my Mental Health

Solvitur ambulando: an appeal to practical experience for a solution, Latin, literally “(the problem) is solved by walking”.

Huntspill River

I feel very fortunate to have grown up where I did. Granted, when I was actually doing that growing up I didn’t think much of my stretch of the Somerset coast, what with its murky seawaters, its treacherous sinking mud, its boggy, flooded fields. But now that I’m a little older and (I like to think) a little wiser, I’ve really come to appreciate how privileged I am to have been shaped by what truly is such a beautiful and formidable landscape.

I’ve been exploring that landscape a lot lately. I’ve always been a firm devotee of rambling—when it comes to the great outdoors, I believe that following your nose and getting completely lost is all part of the fun. And so when the springtime brings with it clear skies and warm weather, I can usually be found miles from home, perched on a hillside or following a riverbank deep inland.

River Brue

Now, one of the things I so love about embarking on a good ramble—besides the opportunity for some bitchin’ Facebook cover photos, of course—is the benefits it yields for my mental health.

It’s advice that’s given out so often it’s almost become a self-care cliché, that a little exercise and fresh air can go a long way when it comes to issues like depression and anxiety.

But as generic as it sounds, there is actually a lot of truth to it. Admittedly, I’m not too clued up on the exact reasons why—partly because research on the subject still appears to be relatively scant, and partly because I payed too little attention in school science classes to start understanding biology now. But according to organisations like Mind and the NHS, even the simplest act of exercise is enough to give you a quick shot of endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals whose name I can only imagine was chosen to conjure images of happy, playful mind-dolphins.

Or, if like me you still need the help of Pixar’s Inside Out to understand the complexities of the human brain, the simpler explanation is that being active, much like Shalamar, can make you feel good. And although walking might not involve Lycra or ball skills, it still counts as exercise, and is still enough to get those endorphins flowing.

Glastonbury Tor

For me, however, the role walking has played in my recovery over the years goes beyond just getting a quick self-esteem boost from a little physical activity.

As a writer, I’ve always found walking to be highly conducive to problem-solving: whenever I feel writer’s block setting in, I always go outside and work through it on my feet. It’s as if by undertaking the physical act of getting from here to there I’m able to trick my brain into making a progression of its own from problem through to solution. In fact, I’m actually writing this very sentence on the move—to borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

In time, I came to apply this practice to my mental wellbeing too. If you’ve not suffered from a mental illness before, you might not be aware that part of what makes them so potent is the state of reeling confusion that floods in their wake, as the initial Blitzkrieg assault leaves you with no idea of what the hell is happening to you or where the hell it came from. All of a sudden your emotional spectrum is thrown off balance, your nerves are stretched tight, the earth itself might have moved beneath your feet for all you know—all you can say for certain is that something, somewhere, has gone wrong.

Jennycliff

It was whilst in this state of blindness that walking became invaluable to me. Where some sufferers use exercise as a distraction or to rebuild confidence, I used it to piece together the puzzle my life had become. It was a form of meditation, I suppose, or self-counselling. Just as I did with writer’s block, I would leave the house with a single, simple question in mind, and allow the cadence of my feet and my surroundings to coax some sense out of the uncertainty; the only difference was, instead of exploring some sticky passage or narrative hitch, I’d ask myself “Why do I struggle talking to people now?”, or “Why do I keep having panic attacks in the middle of Tesco?”

Although confronting my newfound vulnerabilities in that way was terrifying at first, by talking them for a walk (so to speak) I was able to explore them in a calm, methodical way, following those daunting questions through to clarity the same way I’d follow my feet to a destination. It enabled me to make sense of what I was going through in a way that counsellors’ advice and medical definitions had never come close to before, and ultimately led me to regaining that feeling of self-control I had lost when my illness began—in other words, walking through my problems allowed me to go from just knowing how to fight fires when they arose, to understanding why they started in the first place and thus how to prevent them in the future.

And so whilst it would be beyond a stretch to say that my beef with the Big D has been completely solved by walking, I certainly feel justified in saying that a large part of my journey back to stability is owed to the introspective power of a good long walk. Solvitur ambulando? Perhaps not yet—but it definitely is helping.

Plymouth Hoe

Disclaimer: although walking, and indeed any exercise, is great for taking a little extra care of your mental wellbeing, that doesn’t necessarily make it a treatment for mental illness by itself. Mental health issues are complex, with as many solutions as there are problems, and exercise is just one of many potential ways of tackling them—for more on that, read this post on Mind.org.