The Day of the Droogs
On 29 January 2014, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, in collaboration with the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at Manchester Metropolitan University, held a one-day colloquium on A Clockwork Orange, under the title ‘The Day of the Droogs’.
Aiming to examine the novel in terms of its cultural impacts, the focus of the papers was on sociological and historical perspectives. There were contributions from criminologists, historians and sociologists, along with papers by film and literature specialists.
The event took place at the Engine House on Cambridge Street in Manchester. It was attended by an enthusiastic and interested crowd of about 80 participants. Especially welcome were the A-level students from Winstanley College in Wigan. Hopefully some of them might become the new generation of Burgess scholars.
When the historian Dominic Sandbrook delivered the annual Anthony Burgess Lecture in 2012, he concentrated on the condition of Britain in two particular years: 1962, when Burgess first published A Clockwork Orange; and 1972, when Stanley Kubrick’s movie was released in the UK. Similarly, the organizers of the ‘Day of the Droogs’ scheduled a historical paper to start the programme and another one to end it. After a word of introduction from Professor Andrew Biswell, Dr Melanie Tebbutt’s paper on ‘The Passions of Youth’ opened the event. This was the first of eight papers, and it dealt with historical aspects of Burgess’s youth, his early education and gang culture in Manchester.
Her paper was immediately followed a joint presentation from criminologists Dr Hannah Smithson and Dr Robert Ralphs, who enlightened the audience with the details of contemporary gangs and their distorted representation in the media. They confirmed that Alex and his droogs would be considered as a ‘gang’ according to the current UK government’s definition.
Professor Steven Miles spoke about the crisis and confusion in the image of young people, and how sociology challenges the way we see the world. During the coffee break, various discussion threads were followed up in conversation between panelists and audience.
A second panel was opened by Professor Berthold Schoene with his paper ‘We Need to Talk about Alex’, which covered A Clockwork Orange as a work of pre-feminism, as well as his original concept of ‘domophobia’ (or fear of domesticity). He went on to compare Burgess’s novel with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, which features a broadly similar vision of lower-class masculinity. It is interesting to note that Welsh, an admirer of Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s novel, has written a new introduction to the Folio Society’s forthcoming edition of A Clockwork Orange.
Dr Nicholas Bentley of Keele University presented a paper dealing with youth in opposition to containment. He compared Burgess’s novel with Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, and devoted some time to explaining his theory about the references to ‘eyes’, ‘seeing’ and the visibility of youth leading to fetishism.
A third panel consisting of two papers on cinema followed. Xavier Aldana Reyes covered some examples of ultra-violent movies as well as the border between reality and fiction. He was followed by Kubrick specialist Peter Krämer, whose full-length study of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was published by Palgrave Macmillan in their ‘Controversies’ series in 2011. He reminded us of the X-certificate controversy surrounding the film and the different levels of critical celebration and commercial success between the US and the UK at the end of 1971 and early in 1972.
The last paper of the day was given by Dr Andrew Davies of Liverpool University, who gave us insights in the research for his book The Gangs of Manchester (2009), as well as historical information about Manchester’s famous ‘scuttlers’.
Penguin Classics have recently published A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Text in paperback, with a new cover by Jonathan Barnbrook and annotations by Andrew Biswell. An expanded electronic version of the novel, with audio and video content, is available as an app via the Apple Store.