Burgess beyond Burgess

Anthony Burgess, Life, Work, Reputation, Centenary Conference – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

One thing marked this conference out from the start, a simple rule: No Clockwork Orange. That slim work has become so swollen that it has eclipsed the burning star of Burgess’s talent. It definitely needs to orbit away somewhat.

But can you imagine another conference or arts festival doing that, at this point in history? Or even a university event? There would be Alex mugs and bowler hats for sale with expensive ironic vitamin milk during the breaks.

Not here. There was a straightforward dignity about this event. The idea of Burgess scholars relaying the dark side of The Burgess World for three days might sound off-putting to the more casual reader. But the papers were all accessible, as well as high quality. There was a generous intellectual atmosphere on both sides, that of the presenters and the audience. People enquired in the spirit of wanting to know, there was no needling. There was an early start each day – lots of papers were got through – and the atmosphere was unpretentious and non-combative, at the same time as it was never dumbed-down. All of these things are possible, they can exist in one space. PhD students can give papers without feeling they are about to be torn apart by horrible grey wolf professors.

One of the main pleasures over the three days was this: To take a slice of Burgess is to take a slice of the entire twentieth century. Earthly Powers is perhaps the concentrated form of this, but Burgess is clearly a world-historical writer, and many of the papers spoke to that theme. The papers were skilfully grouped to speak to the larger dimensions of Burgess’s work, Empire, for instance.

According to Nicholas Rankin on ‘Burgess in Gibraltar’, the ‘comic dimension’ of Burgess’s take on Empire was ‘well-meaningness gone wrong’. Siti Saridah Adenan followed this with a paper on ‘Lethargic Empire’ and ‘Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels’. She discussed empire and detachment, in the Burgess character Fenella Crabbe, who sees her new Malayan surroundings as a ‘shabby version of Europe’. Here we got Malaya as boring, as opposed to London, the thrilling centre of Empire.

Crabbe also described the north of England as provincial. Crabbe believed civilisation only happens in temperate climates, ‘where sweat starts, nothing starts’, she explained. There are echoes of this in the current although fundamentally broken London-centric attitudes that have recently been cracked by the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The start of the Cold War in Gibraltar, said Burgess, will also ‘be the end of it’, and perhaps only now can we see how truly prophetic that was.

Matthew Whittle explained how Matthew Arnold was important to Burgess. He took up the quest of the middle class guide for the masses. For Burgess the TV was static and the music hall was social. Television, for Burgess, was the ‘brutal hypnotic eye’. Great points were made here about Burgess’s theme of the little individual versus the imposition of the state, in his novel The Doctor Is Sick, Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. The paper on the The Doctor Is Sick, actually, by Jess Roberts was enthralling.

Burgess’s Toryism must surely be a part of his attitude, but elsewhere we heard how in Italy ‘Burgess rooted for the anarchists and communists’. Burgess was one of those truly independent liberal intellectuals, in the strong sense of that, a permanent dissident and a man who knew his own mind seemingly instinctively, then put that opinion forward no matter who it offended.

Burgess, uncovered by the obscuring bulk of Clockwork Orange, is essentially a rich archive curated by Andrew Biswell and his colleagues, novels, non-fiction, poetry and music. We went to the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night for the premiere of a Burgess symphony. The book reviews of Burgess, as with Orwell, are a whole other historical dimension. Joe Darlington’s paper on these was magnificent.

In a break, Manchester Review of Books writers discussed the Burgess reviews and blurbs they had encountered: As novel readers, in their student days; they were all over, including one on the dust jacket of a single-volume dictionary which simply said ‘this is a fine dictionary’. Burgess perhaps over-reviewed, but he was a staunch advocate of the less successful writers he admired, as well as those he considered to have potential.

There are very large archives beyond not only Clockwork Orange, but beyond all the published work. This said, the ‘No Clockwork’ rule was actually broken three times (let’s call it a rule of thumb) for a paper on performing and re-performing the work for theatre in different countries, translating it into French, and a keynote presentation by Jonathon Green, the slang expert who has been described as the ‘greatest Lexicographer since Johnson’.

Green was there to talk about the recently discovered Nadsat Dictionary fragments. And they are really fragments. But the other thing this conference had was a sense of humour. Green and others addressed this aborted project with an endearing mix of reverence and gentle laughter. Andrew Biswell put up a slide ‘of Burgess getting pissed’, how he would like us to remember him, and Burgess was well remembered throughout.

In fact it felt like he was strangely present, as his piano and other bits of furniture were in the room with us. Many of the discussions ended up talking of ‘Anthony Burgess’ – after all, only a pen name for a bloke called John Wilson – as a shifting series of layers, rather than a solid core. Taken this way, Burgess was in fact present, as the archive holds many of those layers, some of which are still being discovered. Burgess had not, as the saying goes, ‘left the building’. I think John Wilson would have loved this.

We took a coach ride to see No End To Enderby at The Whitworth, which is definitely worth a visit. Then we went on to Xaverian College, Burgess’s old school, then to a drinks reception. Some have claimed that Manchester and Burgess have little real connection, International Anthony Burgess Foundation is changing that erroneous perception.

But they are doing so much more: Here, actually, is the model for the new arts festival, the new conference, and perhaps even the new university. The idiocy of student tuition fees is only just being declared by the politicians who originally advised them. The conference was clearly subsidised, there were no berserk, excluding fees. In fact it was probably cheaper to go to this conference than to sit at home and eat your own supplies. There were no patronising, infantile stage dressings or speeches. The usual galaxy of alibis on a double page spread at the back of the guide was entirely absent. There was no feedback form with a marketing intern standing over you waiting to collect.

The generosity of the Burgess estate is clear: Burgess was a tax exile and criticised for it; he put his money into properties when the tax rate for his income bracket – under Wilson – was 90%, but his estate has now put that money back into Manchester with a faith in the city even Burgess couldn’t quite match some days.

If you swap the patrician capitalism of International Anthony Burgess Foundation for a return to state funding, you have a very good model, in this conference, of how to do things. Formally, the ‘less-is-more’ approach of concentrating on the things that matter and doing them with style, humour, generosity and a fuss-free seriousness should be adopted all over the arts and humanities.

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester Review of Books salutes you, and all who sail in you.

Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta

Rethinking Energy Part 2

Vaclav Smil – Energy and Civilisation: A History (MIT)

Vaclav Smil has largely rewritten his 1990s text on energy because developments in the field have outstripped his original efforts, even though the book remained in print, a staple of the subject. You can see why, too, the term ‘polymath’ was made for people such as Smil.

Smil begins ‘energy is the only universal currency’ and ‘one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.’ He claims that ‘universal manifestations of these transformations range from the enormous rotations of galaxies to thermo-nuclear reactions in stars’. On earth they include ‘the terraforming forces of plate tectonics…’

What Smil does well is to question what energy is. Early on, he says that ‘even Nobel prize winners have difficulty in giving a satisfactory answer to that seemingly simple question.’ Richard Feynman once stated that he did not know what energy was, that he did not have a picture that energy ‘comes in little blobs’ of a definite amount.

‘What we do know is that all matter is energy at rest’, Smil then explains. Here, the anthropomorphism arrives, as though stones can be heard sighing, grateful to no longer be lava, if one listens closely enough.

This kind of anthropomorphism starts on page one and shoots right through the book. Smil does question the linear assumptions of science narratives though: Humans understood how to build nuclear bombs and power stations before they fully understood how photosynthesis worked; windmills acted as important energy catalysts for decades before the mass explosion of machine technology, even though many of the pieces were in place for such a revolution.

But this questioning of development, of ‘it’ moving from better to worse, in an even upward curve, is undermined by the structure of the book itself, which bears the imprint of the kind of thinking being critiqued. It moves from pre-civilised societies to advanced urban ones.

The bottomless depths of relativism open up often: The attempts to frame energy epistemologically, horsepower in Watt’s steam engine, Joules, etc; all of these seem to assume that another value form is nearby, the money form, which is so little touched upon that it is actually overbearingly present for a reader well-versed in Marx.

However, to understand that different types of wheat and then charcoal development led eventually to modernity, that foragers and farmers were co-existent for long stretches of history, because the energy needed for farming is more than for foraging, is to step into a bigger world. This book is that effective.

The scales of horses, from the pony to the shire, and later the power of the suicide bomber belt next to world war two shrapnel impact: This is a useful and instructive book. What it loses by being framed in a default 20th century way, it gains in detail.

That I can even see that a book on energy and civilisation is framed by the rapid movement, change and development of the previous epoch is hopefully an indication that it might not be in the future. Much of the information and narrative explanation in this book could lead to a better world, for humans.

This book makes a very good counterpart to a reading of Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Trilogy. It would also be a really great resource for a reading of Latour’s object oriented ontology, because it gives a wide range of data in accessible form that could be reprocessed through a less whiggy history and a more constellatory philosophy. This, ultimately, is what is needed. Although Smil acknowledges that a quantitative approach cannot ever over-ride the fuzzier cultural explanations of energy developments, the book sometimes seens torn between hard science and the humanities in an occasionally compromised way.

Smil ends with the French essayist Senancour: ‘Man perisheth. That may be, but let us struggle even though we perish.‘ This book is evidence of how primitive and advanced we are at the same time, the one seemingly paradoxical judgment never cancelling out the other. We can see very far, although there is good evidence that we are reaching our limit, because at the same time we can never escape – despite the wildest post-humanist claims – from seeing through ourselves.

Marx claimed the ur value was money, Smil energy. There are scientists who can see the world as genetic drift after an epoch of only chemistry. But none of them can move us beyond the experience of most humans across the longer historical curve, who experience it all as though it is a peculiar dream. The one thing we can never escape, it seems, is being human. The idea of energy as anything at all is uniquely human, and the idea of energy as currency is unique to humans within a very particular and finite age.

But don’t read my picky comments as a bad review: This book is an absolutely towering achievement; it is that rare species in our times, a grand sweep work over 550 pages long, with more than enough detail to justify its panoramic pictures.

Rethinking Energy Part 1

Karen Pinkus – Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (Minnesota University Press)

Fuel is matter that we use, and use up, to produce energy. When we talk about ‘sustainable energy’, we are describing a state wherein we have enough fuel to continue using it up without worrying about future energy lack. We can sustain energy supply, but we cannot sustain fuel. There are no sustainable fuels; that would be an oxymoron. The sun itself is not sustainable… at least not indefinitely.

Karen Pinkus’ new book, Fuel, is a heroic effort to remind us that sustainability is often an illusion caused by our human-sized view of the world. Where ‘energy’, ‘climate’, ‘environment’, and other ‘green terms’ bring to mind graphs and bar charts on the one hand and images of a pastel-coloured globe on the other (cf/ Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’ Fragile), fuel itself is a palpable thing; the thing we dig, the thing we pour, the think we eat and drink.

Pinkus’ dictionary lists our fuels and the human-sized illusions which imprinted us with the idea of sustainability. The Montgolfier brothers had a balloon ‘powered by air’, but lifted by burning fuel. Jules Verne’s wonderful machines were powered by ‘electricity’, and that’s all the enthralled reader needed to know. Windmills and sails and hydroelectric turbines and tidal power plants all capitalise on nature’s surpluses, during the hours those surpluses exist, but are themselves made of wood, skins, steel, labour.

Something always burns. Something’s always used up. With fuel then comes the measure of value. A refrain that runs throughout the text is provided by the Henry Ford Archive papers, in which are held many letters from mad inventors and speculators to the great magnate himself proposing the next Big Fuel.

Some are insane, some unprofitable, some merely less profitable than petrol: in the eyes of the industrialist all three categories are the same. But petrol itself was once the useless waste byproduct of the usable paraffin, and Ford himself invested in numerous ‘biofuels’ in the search for ethanol powered transport; the vaunted ‘boozemobile’.

Fuel gives energy to move machines but it also, Pinkus suggests, must move us. The chemistry is in thrall to economics, and economics to human-sized valuations. Did the booze ration fuel the British Navy, Pinkus asks, any more than the wind and wood? What fuel is in a flag that it could energise Crusoe alone on his island?

The form of the book itself draws attention to the human proportions of fuel. Presented alphabetically as a ‘speculative dictionary’, the claim to comprehensive coverage made by the form is everywhere undermined by the fragmentary, tangential and speculative content.

It is to be read, one feels, from start to finish. It should be used up like fuel for thought. It has more to do with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, or Sterne’s digressions, than with Rousseau, Dr Johnson, and the Enlightenment mission.

It is explicitly not the only catalogue of fuels you’ll ever need. It’s more like an antidote to the cataloguing disease: a textual disease with symptoms including perpetual over-consumption.

One of the few weaknesses of the text is its conclusion. Pinkus suggests a Heideggerian reconciliation with discontinuity as an alternative to forever ‘sustaining’ energy supply. My personal gripes with Heidegger aside, the image of a self-denying humanity runs counter to the fuel-thirsty animal of the rest of the book. We eat, we drink, we burn, we build, we list – collect, compile and consume.

Going without fuel seems to contradict the rest of the book which is, ultimately, an account of humanity’s desperate centuries-long scramble for more of it. If there is hope in the book it lies in the eccentric amateurs hunting out the next stop-gap, or the technologists seeking to make the next quick buck.

Great breakthroughs are not logical and linear in Fuel, they are bumbling, stumbling things often arbitrary in the time and place of their success. It makes for a great read rather than a practical solution. In fact, it offers so many practical solutions that one begins to suspect that we, as a species, are asking the wrong questions.

– Joe Darlington 

English Journey

Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)

In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.

The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.

His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.

However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.

Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.

Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.

Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.

What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.

Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.

This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.

Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.

Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.

Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.

Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.

Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.

Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seen.’

Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

– Natalie Bradbury