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A colossal waste of time


By Anthony Burgess 

26 Jan, 2015

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Yesterday I complained about a novel that was more obscure than it merited. Today’s review features a book that should be more obscure than it is, Anthony Burgess’s 1985, a thematic sequel of sorts to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. What this book deserves is 1111 words of me screaming incoherently. That would be a suitable riposte to a book that consists of a book’s worth of an elderly1 conservative moaning on about how the trade unions, women’s lib, gay homosexuals2, and Those Darn Kids ruin everything, leaving poor Britain supine before the virile might of the Islamic world. That might relieve my feelings, but it would not be amusing or instructive to read. So, have a review! A review resentful that I read this crap at all. 

The book (published in 1978) begins with a series of essays about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Some passages are vaguely interesting if you don’t know much about Orwell’s works (in which case you’d be better off reading Orwell himself); other passages illuminate the darker corners of Burgess’s mind. 

Having padded his book with 102 pages of essay, Burgess launches into the novella portion of his work. In a world where George Orwell died in Spain, thus depriving the world of works like Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Britain, or Tucland (from Trades Union Congress) as it is known in 1985, languishes under the doleful lash of syndicalist trade unionism. Britain has been transformed from the vibrant (if, as Burgess admits in his essays, steadfastly stupid) society of yesteryear to one in which predatory tribes of homosexuals roam unchecked, an alien society quietly infiltrates, and any worker can provoke a general strike for such absurd goals as a reasonable wage and safe working conditions.

Poor Bev Jones, once a paid intellectual, was driven out academia when his sort of academia was defunded for irrelevancy in the eyes of the dullards now running Tucland. Now a — unionized, of course! — confectioner, he lives a not-especially-fulfilling life with a wife whom he apparently loves in the passionless, vaguely repelled way of the British of Burgess’ sort. The couple has a daughter, whose promiscuous ways and general lack of intelligence make her a perfect example of the modern Tuclander.

Bev abandons his moping submissiveness after his wife is left to burn to death as a result of a fireman’s strike. He becomes a steadfast anti-unionist. Unfortunately, while the author seems to be on Bev’s side, most of his fellow Britons are not. Bev’s feeble attempts to speak out against the flaws of Modern Society see him stripped of his union card, his job, and his humble niche in society. 

There seems to be a ray of hope when Bev discovers the Free Britons, who oppose Tucland for their own reasons. As Bev will discover to his cost, just because he is on their side does not mean that they are on his.

Readers might possibly come away from this book with new perspectives on Orwell. They definitely will come away with new perspectives on Burgess, perspectives that did not feel I gained much by acquiring. (Though it was mildly interesting to learn that switching from imperial to decimal measurements can stir up such passion dissatisfied peeving3). I learned that the world and more importantly, Britain, had changed over the course of Burgess’s life and no one had ever asked his permission for such outrageous changes! Changes he hated with all the fervor his tepid little soul could muster!! Shocking!!!

The book’s title and the introductory essays invite comparison with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This comparison cannot be said to come out in Burgess’ favour. Orwell was wrestling with totalitarianism; Burgess is unhappy because people he regards as his social inferiors — women, young people, workers, homosexuals — dare to have voices and political ambitions. The resulting book is recognizably kin to those novels of Pohl and Kornbluth wherein some short-term trend is dialed up to eleven, but it lacks the energetic charm those two American colonials could bring to their absurd thought experiments. Orwell produced a classic. Burgess produced a book in which he shouts at length for people to get off his lawn. 

There is one aspect in which 1985 could be considered an anticipation of today’s UKIP, GOP, Front Nationale, and Pegida: the hysterical assertion that the feeble and degenerate West is fated to be overrun by Islam. Britain has long been fascinated by the Arab World (Burgess acknowledges this by naming the leader of crypto-Muslims Lawrence). By the mid-1970s, when this novel was written, not only had the Winds of Change stripped Britain of most of its empire, not only was immigration alarming the more timorous Britons with the possibility that they might find themselves next door neighbors to people who were different and foreign, but skyrocketing oil prices had enriched Middle Eastern oil barons who were snapping up posh estates in the UK. That is, they were treating Britain as the British had once treated Spain and Greece: once great nations where desirable real estate could be had for quite reasonable sums. 

Although Burgess is naturally inclined to disapprove of any change, he does not seem as hostile to or fearful of Islam as are modern authors like Simmons, Kratman, Steyn, or any number of Fox News commentators. The sense I get is something closer, in an odd way, to the views of Robert E. Howard, something that I am sure would horrify Burgress: that older, weaker overcivilized cultures will always be displaced by younger, more vigourous ones. While Burgess didn’t really seem to care for Islam, not least because it was foreign and unBritish, his tours as a teacher in Malaysia and Brunei appear to have left him with a respect for Islam’s resolve and strength. Like so many conservatives, Burgess seems to yearn for authority. Anglicanism and the British establishment having failed him, he looks forward to the defeat of his ideological enemies at the hands of a younger and still vibrant culture. 

One might expect that the sight of UK liberated from the ineffectual fumblings of Heath and Callaghan for the energetic lash of Thatcherism would have pleased Burgess but apparently not. I guess there’s just no pleasing some people. 

1: To be honest, when I say elderly, I mean only about seven years older than I am. The tendency of men my age to go emeritus weighs heavily on me. Can you tell from the inside when that happens? I think not.

2: Specifically the male sort. I’m not sure that Burgess ever noted the existence of lesbians. 

3: I was reminded of Arlo Guthrie’s Get Off My Lawnery about the metric system: