Death often inspires the most remarkable hyperbole. At the memorial service for Anthony Burgess in 1994, novelist William Boyd eulogized the author of A Clockwork Orange as “a genius,” “a prodigy, a daunting and awesome one,” who “would compose a string quartet in the ten minutes he allowed himself between finishing a novel and writing a monograph on James Joyce,” whose “polymorphous abilities are genuinely amazing.”
High praise indeed. Yet, Mr. Boyd wasn’t finished, Mr. Burgess, he said, was “one of our great comic novelists.” Boyd gave, by way of example, that off-used line from one of the Enderby novels. This was the line with which Burgess proved (allegedly for a bet) he could write a sentence where the word “onions” appears three times.
‘Then—instead of expensive mouthwash—he had breathed on Enderby—bafflingly—(for no banquet would serve, because of the redolence of onions, onions) onions.’
Hardly a knee-slapper, rather the kind of literary snobbishness that epitomizes Burgess, and by association Mr. Boyd.
Burgess was low comedy. He was for the cheap fart jokes, like Dudley Moore when competing against the loquacious comic invention of Peter Cook on Derek and Clive, or like the trademark raspberry (“Bronx Cheer”) used by Goon Harry Secombe when confronted with the manic genius of Spike Milligan.
Burgess’s idea of comedy was to have a dog called the n-word (The Doctor is Sick), or a “hero” poet (Enderby) writing his verse (blast) on the toilet; or where Shakespeare is cuckolded by his brother and catches the clap from his “Dark Lady” (Nothing Like the Sun)
Though I like Burgess, I would hardly call his work comic. Too often his books present an author more interested in flashing his learnedness to an audience, rather than his imagination—which is why his books lack emotional resonance, and his characters rarely have an interior life.
Burgess always wanted to be seen as smarter than everyone—when readers pointed out to the master the mistakes in his magnum opus Earthly Powers, Burgess claimed he had deliberately included these errors to see who would discover them, which is like ye olde Thelwell cartoon of the riding instructor who when thrown by his horse, asked his pupils, “Which one of you spotted my deliberate mistake?”
Perhaps aware of this lack, Burgess was usually quick to take offense—watch any interview and he types himself as the victim, the Catholic in a oppressive-Protestant society, a northerner in a London-centric world, a student from a red-brick university rather than the hallowed groves of Cambridge or Oxford. Burgess is Jimmy Porter, full of petty grievances against the world. Which all makes for an interesting character, and author, but not a great one.
Burgess’s best known novel is A Clockwork Orange, which became an international success once it had been filmed by Stanley Kubrick. Burgess came to hate it and told Playboy in 1971, of all his books it was the one he liked least. But without A Clockwork Orange would anyone have taken an interest in Burgess?
This question becomes more interesting when considered in light of information revealed in Roger Lewis’s controversial biography of the novelist. Lewis was a fan of Burgess, and started his biography with the man’s knowledge. Lewis then spent twenty-years working on his Burgess biography—the time it would take Burgess to write twenty novels, several screenplays, a library of books reviews, and the odd symphony or two. Lewis was scathing about Burgess, like the love-struck schoolboy disillusioned by the humanity of his object of devotion—this time it’s Anthony, not Celia, who shits!
It’s a scurrilous biography, but does capture something of Burgess, bit all too often this is lost in Lewis’s almost tantrum like rancor. Around the 280-page mark, Lewis details his meeting with a British secret service man who informed the Welshman that Burgess was not wholly responsible for A Clockwork Orange. Rather it was a work of collaboration with the British secret services.
Lewis was told by his source that A Clockwork Orange was about:
....the mind-control experimentation conducted by Dr. Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal, between 1957 and 1963, and the Remote Neural Monitoring facility that operated out of Fort George Meade. The CIA were funding controversial research programmes into electronic brain stimulation. They induced exhaustion and nightmares in patients; they put hoods or cones over people’s heads to broadcast voices directly into their brains; they irradiated the auditory cortex or inner ear. When patients had their own speech played back to them, incessantly, they went insane. There was a misuse of civilians in these covert operations, and intelligence on these devices remains classified.
Indeed there is an hilarious appendix containing Lewis’s correspondence with the CIA, who neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence on files pertaining to Burgess’s secret service work.
According to Lewis, Burgess “had been a low-grade collector of intelligence data (or ground observer) in the Far East” for the British. On return to England, he found himself in a world of spy scandals (Burgess, Philby and Maclean) and double agents (George Blake), where the American cousins were questioning their bond with the Brits. A plan was hatched where Burgess would essentially front a novel that would:
...lift the corner of the carpet and put into his novel classified material about the (then) new-fangled conditioning experiments and aversion therapies being devised to reform criminals—experiments which had wider implications for the concept of social engineering.
According to Lewis’s “Curzon Street contact”:
...Burgess’s collaborator was a former CIA officer called Howard Roman, a languages expert whose particular field had been the Polish Intelligence Service, the Urzad Bezpieczenstwa (UB)—and it was a senior officer in Polish military intelligence, Michal Goleniewski, who upon defecting had told the CIA about the mole at Underwater Weapons Establishment Portland.
The US connection explains why A Clockwork Orange is not littered with Russian references (as Burgess always claimed), but Americanisms like “liquor store,” “sidewalk,” “pretzel,” and “candy.”
Lewis also debunks Burgess’s assertion the novel had been directly inspired by the fights between Mods and Rockers on Brighton and Margate beaches. These events did not happen until 1964, two-years after A Clockwork Orange was published.
And then, there is the title.
In his essay, The Clockwork Condition, Burgess wrote:
The writer first heard the expression “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub before the Second World War. It’s an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.
It all sounds very plausible, but is bluff. There is no such Cockney slang “as queer as a clockwork orange.” Kingsley Amis dismissed Burgess’s assertion:
“Unknown to me, a Londoner (John is Mancunian), and unrecorded in Eric Partridge’s monumental |(1065pp.) Dictionary of Historical Slang.”
The closest Lewis came to anything was Caryl Brahms’s:
‘it was all Lombard Street to a china orange’, a phrase to mean the equivalent of in for a penny, in for a pound.
Ah, but this is small potatoes compared to Lewis’s revelation that there is a secret message hidden in the text of A Clockwork Orange.
‘You realise,’ said the spook, as we sat on a bench in Berkeley Square opposite Maggs Bros. Ltd., by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, purveyors of rare books an manuscripts, ‘that the capitalised lines on page twenty-nine of A Clockwork Orange give the HQ location of the psychotronic warfare technology?’
The secret serviceman was referring to the section in the book that described the college pennants on Alex’s wall, each of these ‘being like remembrances of my corrective school life since I was eleven, O my dear brothers…’:
SOUTH 4; METRO COR-SKOL BLUE DIVISION; THE BOYS OF ALPHA.
The spy explained to Lewis that if he looked at a map of America, then he would see that Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are the only states with a right-angled four-corner conjunction (“4…COR”), and that there is a military reservation to the “SOUTH.” This reservation runs north into New Mexico, and is situated around the “METRO”-politan area of El Paso. This is where the training school (“SKOL”) is situated. At the time of the book’s publication (1962), the Navy (“BLUE DIVISION”) were in charge of this operation:
Analysing, isolating and interfering with the ‘ALPHA’ wavelengths of the human collective unconsciousness was part of the set-up. The name of the establishment is Fort Bliss. The word bliss appears on page twenty-nine of Burgess’s novel no less than six times.
Fort Bliss in El Paso is real. Situated beside the Rio Grande, it was the former HQ for Brigadier General John J. Pershing, it was also a training ground for “joint and combined warfare, employing state-of-the-art technologies and fostering interservice, intergovernmental and civic partnerships.” It was also where Training Aids, Devices, Simulators and Simulations (TADSS) were developed.
It seems an incredible tale, but it is one that even Lewis’s harshest critic, Blake Morrison, in the Guardian, admits he had heard:
Most intriguing of all, espionage - which didn’t just mean spying on his Malayan neighbours but working for MI5 in London and liaising with the CIA.
The espionage theory comes courtesy of a “retired security official”, who approached Lewis and told him A Clockwork Orange is full of secret code-names and encrypted locations. Oddly enough, a retired security official once told me the same story. Perhaps there’s something in it, but Lewis can offer no other evidence - and the likelihood of someone as voluble, indiscreet and hell-raising as Burgess being recruited by MI5 stretches credulity. Lewis none the less seems to believe that espionage made Burgess rich and was the “dark secret haunting him” to the end.
Alas, like so much in his biography, Lewis lets this tantalizing theory peter out, moving on to his target—this time the alleged inspiration for the A Clockwork Orange‘s central character Alex (apparently a novel by Michel de Saint-Pierre called Les Nouveaux Aristocrates, which was translated by “Anthony and Llewela Burgess” in 1962), before continuing with his attack on Burgess’s life and work. There are good things in there, but they are too often lost in Lewis’s rancor for his subject. Even so, I’d still recommend it.
In 1989, Anthony Burgess appeared on Face to Face. While he avoided all of the above, Burgess did discuss with interviewer, Jeremy Isaacs, his work, career and A Clockwork Orange.