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Anthony Burgess’ 1985

[1]2,542 words

Anthony Burgess
London: Hutchinson, 1978

Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame celebrated thirty years of Nineteen Eighty-Four with his 1985. It is in two parts: a discussion of Orwell and freedom, and a novella updating Winston Smith’s struggle. Now, instead of the exhortations of Big Brother, Bev Jones, the new Winston, goes home the week before Christmas, hearing Islamic calls to prayer throughout West London.

Before we enter this nightmare, Burgess has a Socratic discussion of Orwell, his masterpiece, and the nature of freedom versus tyranny. Burgess implies Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a comic novel in many ways. The name Winston Smith gets a laugh in England; it suggests a political amateurism that never stood a chance against relentless ideologues.

The first part is very approachable, covering much of Burgess’s views on politics and life, with observations and one-liners that rival Shaw in their honesty of human pretensions. Arguing the reasons intellectuals seek power:

For, in a free society, intellectuals are among the underprivileged. What they offer — as schoolteachers, university lecturers, writers — is not greatly wanted. . . They go to the barricades in the name of the peasant or the working man. For “Intellectuals of the world unite” is not a very inspiring slogan.

Burgess examines the background of Nineteen Eighty-Four, from Marxism to anarchism and growing state power, as well as Orwell’s development as a social democrat. Burgess argues that Orwell’s novel is not necessarily about politics. The great divisions of the world are not national or religious or economic, but rather those of youth and age. Education is a struggle between the old passing on knowledge and the young resisting it. The old offer the meat of education, while the counter-culture goes back to grass. Education, he says, is taking swift and economical meals out of the larder called the past. Winston Smith becomes a thought criminal when he begins to remember, keeping parts of the past in a diary, enjoying the old-fashioned feel of ink on paper. 

Burgess takes this generational struggle deeper:

The Orwellian world is one that could have a strong initial appeal to the young. It has a striking anarchic feature — a complete absence of laws. It treats the past as a void to be filled with whatever myths the present cares to contrive . . . Newspeak has the laconic thrust of the tongue of youth.

Burgess cites Orwell’s devotion to democratic socialism and firsthand account of the Spanish Civil War in giving him an edge in understanding tyranny that most English intellectuals lacked. He refused to dismiss the rise of Nazism and Fascism as crude forces unleashed by the ruling class to stifle dissent:

During World War Two, Orwell bravely wrote that neither Hitler nor his brand of socialism could be written off as sheer evil or morbidity. He saw the attractive elements in the Fuhrer’s personality as well as the appeal of a political system that had restored self-respect and national pride to a whole people. Only a man capable of appreciating the virtues of oligarchy could write a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Burgess argues a major failure of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwell did not include family and human love as a counter to Ingsoc and Big Brother. True resistance to such tyranny is the family unit. Winston and Julia engage in clandestine love, but they don’t marry or have a family.

Interestingly enough, in an earlier novel by Orwell, Keep the Asphidistra Flying, its bitter, would-be poet Gordon Comstock fights what he calls the money god of society, giving up his rebellion when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, marries her, and moves forward with his life. Love between man and woman, however problematic, is preferable to love of the state.

Burgess returns to a favorite theme of his — perhaps the essential one — from A Clockwork Orange. Is man essentially good? He calls this the Pelagian/St. Augustine divide, after Pelagius, a British theologian who dissented with Augustine’s reaffirmation of original sin. Pelagius argued that man is free to choose salvation as much as damnation. 

Considering America and most of modern life as Pelagian, Burgess argues we are both Pelagian and Augustinian, caught in an endless wrestling match:

If good is concerned with promoting the ability in a living organism to act freely, evil must be dedicated to taking such freedom away. If we are Pelagians, we accept that man has total liberty of moral choice. To remove that choice is to dehumanize. Evil is at its most spectacular when it enjoys turning a living soul into a manipulable object. . . The State has a considerable interest in dehumanizing.

The hero of 1985 is Bev Jones, and he’s having a rotten Christmas. The country is on another strike — which occur almost daily — disrupting food delivery, electricity, commerce. This is Tucland, a Britain under control of an interlocking syndicate of unions modeled on the disastrous 1970s. I was stationed in Germany then, and Europeans would fly to London, buy whole suitcases of clothes at bargain prices on Britain’s shuddering economy, then resell them on the continent at a profit. Most civilian nurses for the U.S. military were British because they couldn’t make a living wage back home. It was a broken, sad, country waiting for Thatcher.

There’s no Thatcher here. Bev is assaulted by a Kumina gang (Swahili for youth), his daughter Bessie is semi-retarded and sexually developing because of a drug given to her mother to ease childbirth, and he is hooked on telly shows like Rape Encounter, Sex Boy, and Road Floozy. Bev, a former literature teacher who tired of teaching diluted knowledge acceptable to idiots, now works at a confection factory — between the frequent strikes — and plans to visit Ellie, his wife, who is in a hospital. Bev turns on the telly to see the hospital on fire. He hurries there as it goes up in flames because another strike has been called, and the firemen’s union forbids them to come. Bev finds his half-burned Ellie pleading as she dies: “Don’t let them get away with it.”

This becomes the battle cry of 1985, and Bev goes to war. He tries to cross the picket line of his factory. He calls the media in to witness, all to no avail. He is dismissed for being a poor union man, reminded that when baptized in the old days, one always remained a Christian. Once a union member, always a union member. 

Bev plunges into poverty. The symbolic hero of Tucland is Bill the Worker, but no one does any work. Its bureaucracy officially despises owners, and its “Anthem of the Workers” sings:

Muscles tough as leather
Hearts proofed against the weather
Marching in friendly tether
Cradle to grave.
Scorn we a heaven hereafter. . .


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Here’s the Thing here. [3]

There is the dole (becoming infrequent as strikes disrupt supply and distribution), telly, and the freedom to be paid a living wage, even if the inflated money buys little, which means another strike, then a third, and to show solidarity, all unions…

Bev begins to wonder where Tucland would be without the Arabs. Islam is seeping through the cracks. Since the IMF went broke, Tucland lives on loans from the Arabs, and their oil keeps the factories (when they aren’t on strike) going. There is the Al-Dorchester, Al-Hilton, and other such places, with soft drinks in the bar and no bacon. They own breweries where the product is slowly being watered down or injected with mind-soothing chemicals. At Great Smith Street, a monster mosque is being built. 

Bev keeps thinking:

To remind Britain that Islam was not just a faith for the rich, plenty of hardworking Pakistanis and East African Muslims flowed in without hindrance, for the adjustment of immigration laws (which had too stringent quota clauses) in favor of the Islamic peoples was a necessary political consequence of Arab financial patronage. Yet the workers who had forgotten their Christianity were supposed to sing “Scorn we a heaven hereafter.” They ought, thought Bev in a flash of insight, to be more fearful than they were of a people that believed in a heaven hereafter.

Bev demands to work. Shouldn’t a worker have a right to work in a worker’s state? Since he won’t play ball with the union lifestyle, he is not allowed to give his labor. Stumbling into criminality, he joins a gang of Kumina, most of whom steal out of boredom and despise not being given an education. Burgess gives us the incredible view of black kids quoting Latin and Greek as they rob and nick while Bev explains that a socialist state shouldn’t need unions, but a bureaucracy won’t end itself, so things incompetently go on.

While hanging out in a deserted factory with the gang, Bev finds a copy of the Free Briton, calling for a new, revived Britain without the crippling unions. Most of the gang can’t understand the paper’s big words like “indolence” and “obstructiveness,” but can dig the free money the paper’s organization gives to new members.

A stirring article calls for the return of common sense, human dignity, beauty, truth, and goodness, as told by the God of the prophets, from Abraham to Mohammed.

“Don’t let them get away with it.”

Bev gets caught shoplifting and is sent to a reeducation center. He faces his educators, arguing that the system kills creativity and initiative. They counter that such things are unnecessary, because everyone must be equal. A superior talent is, by necessity, an enemy of Tucland and the workers. Such a system killed Bev’s wife, which he mentions. Yes, one educator replies, but sad as this is, the system is justified. 

Bev strangles him. 

Although still mourning Ellie, Bev discovers sex with a fellow prisoner. She tries to make her peace with the system: Outward compliance, then going to her inner world of Gibbon, Proust, and Bartok. What happens, Bev asks, when your Bartok records are worn out and can’t be replaced? Bev is released despite refusing to sign a confession. They kick him out, and he’s given a final warning. He returns to an empty life, still denied his union card and any kind of livelihood, having to look out for Bessie. 

“Don’t let them get away with it.”

He decides to join the army of the Free Briton. Colonel Faulkner, a former military officer who served in Arabia, gladly welcomes him into the ranks. The money is very good. Operating out of the Al-Dorchester, Bev sees men in green uniforms everywhere. He pulls Bessie out of a juvenile home where she is happily provided an endless amount of snacks and telly.

The Free Britons and the government clash over building the great mosque. It uses Islamic (hence nonunion) labor, and riots begin in the street. The police intervene. A general strike has been called, and they walk off, leaving the rioters at the mercy of green-uniformed platoons of men using brass knuckles. Work on the great mosque continues.

Bev is disgusted at the use of violence. He is reminded by Faulkner that a free Britain has to come into being. Free, Bev demands, or Islamic? No matter, replies Faulkner, because Islam is the only faith with any values left. Besides, London is already the commercial capital of Islam.

Bev is told England is hardly the place to bring up a girl, so Bessie has been jetted off to Saudi Arabia to begin training as a concubine. She’s excited. They have a whole lot of telly and sausage, but no pork.

Bev keeps a diary of a strike called against building the mosque. The government seems helpless to do anything except disappear. Electricity sputters out here and there. Fires are set in London. The fire department, true to its nature, goes on strike, but green-uniformed Free Britons take over the fire equipment, although not with any degree of competency. 

Finally, the King appears, and in a dotty speech that recalls John Cleese in a Monty Python routine, tells everyone to go back to work and enjoy the telly. They’re having Gone With the Wind on, you know.

Things go back to normal. More Tucland muddling through. The Arabs stay in their respective sphere of influence. Bev is arrested, considered incorrigible, and given a psychiatric evaluation. He’s told to live a healthy and productive life. Bev says it would mean approving of an insane, morbid State philosophy. A counselor reminds him that is undemocratic. Insanity, it is explained, is a rejection of the majority ethos.

Bev writes Bessie. He gets a letter from an official in Saudi Arabia that no such person exists there. 

“Don’t let them get away with it.

But they do. Confined for life in Crawford Manor, Bev watches the world melt into a mix of monstrous inflation, millions of unemployed in Tucland, more sex education for children and history taught in cartoons, Islam continuing its slow advance, now renaming the Isle of Man Gazira-ul-Ragul. He teaches history to the inmates, interest ending after World War Two. He offers to begin again. There are no takers. Bev walks to the electric fence surrounding the manor (the guards and watchdogs beyond never go on strike) and throws himself on it.

They get away with it.

Burgess’ future is hopeless. Tucland is a contemporary Leviathan marching to stupidity, and probably soon after Bev’s electrocution, will heave over and be replaced by an Islamic State; equally relentless in its own way, and Tucland would not be missed. 

Burgess also offers a guide to WE, or Worker’s English. Newspeak would simply label the opening of the Declaration of Independence crimethink. Burgess, however, translates the Declaration into standard WE:

This is true, and there’s no arguin the toss over it, that everybody’s got the same rights to belong to a union, to live for ever, to do what the hell he wants to do, and watch TV, get drunk, sleep with a woman, and smoke. It’s the job of governments to let the unions give union members what they want, and if the governments do not do what the unions want, then they have to get kicked out.

A fanfare for underachievers.

Certainly, the Brexit vote offers a Hurlock-like chance [4] to regain English independence, but Tucland is the reality that will fight and scratch to be kept alive. There is always a strong argument for society to keep things the way they are because the herd must feel at peace. Burgess argues that the war against Bev is a war against excellence and individuality. Equality must reign before all else, and to preserve this goal, society must sink into a communal, bovine lump such as Tucland. 

1985 is pessimistic, and may unfortunately be more realistic. But it is also a powerfully written novel with Burgess’s usual flourishes of reality and imagination.

“Don’t let them get away with it” — a new battle cry for Britannia.

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