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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Coded messages in "A Clockwork Orange": Was Anthony Burgess "spooked up"?

Would it kill us to talk about something other than Donald Trump? No, it would not.

For a while now, I've suspected that Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and a zillion other things, dabbled in work for Her Majesty's Secret Service. For one thing, his extraordinary talent for languages would have made him irresistibly attractive to recruiters. Burgess based Clockwork's Nadsat on Russian, a language he learned just prior to his bizarre trip to the Soviet Union, made during the height of the Cold War. (After foolishly trying to out-drink some ordinary Russians, he said: "What is there to do with such people but love them?")

Turns out that my long-held suspicions may have been correct:
Burgess is believed by some, though it is conjectural, to have engaged in low-level espionage during his Gibraltar, Malaya and Brunei years and possibly later. See, for example, the London Mail on Sunday, “The greatest story Anthony Burgess never told: his life as a secret agent” and other media articles in this not very authoritative but intriguing vein. It is speculated that he may have provided his superiors (the Colonial Office and perhaps the Kuala Lumpur-based British intelligence authorities, and later MI6) with information about any communist actions or sympathies, however trivial, among his colleagues and students and, after his return from the East, among the people he met and associated with. Since lives were at stake during the Malayan Emergency, this would not have been unusual or exceptionable–it might well have been regarded as irresponsible to refrain from assisting in this way. The term used for an operative of this type and pay-grade was “ground observer”, and he would have been providing his information to MI6′s East Asian operation through Singapore. The biographer Roger Lewis claimed that while at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kota Bharu, Burgess “was part of a secret plan, in 1955, for the chief ministers of Malaya and Singapore to meet the leader of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party in a jungle clearing”.
In 2002, a writer named Roger Lewis produced a Burgess biography (unread by me) which contains this passage:
“You realize,” 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 and manuscripts, “that the capitalised lines on page twenty-nine of A Clockwork Orange give the HQ location of the psychotronic warfare technology?”
Here's the capitalized bit: ‘SOUTH 4; METRO COR-SKOL BLUE DIVISION; THE BOYS OF ALPHA.’ In context, it seems senseless. Lewis argues that these words offer coded directions to Fort Bliss, Texas. (You'll have to read the above-linked article for the details.) The word "bliss" appears six times on page 29 of ACO.

Writing in Lobster, Garrick Adler discusses this business and offers reason to doubt Lewis' claim. Clockwork is about a behavioral modification program gone awry, but the literature on psy-war and behavioral modification never mentions Fort Bliss. Of course, the literature available to the public is incomplete. I have been privately informed of programs at two Air Force bases, one in Texas, the other in California; these programs which have not, to my knowledge, been discussed in public.

It has been argued that Burgess would have made a poor spy: His wife, who accompanied him on the Russian jaunt, was an emotionally unstable alcoholic, and Burgess himself enjoyed rather more than the occasional sip. Nevertheless, Adler draws our attention to an episode during the USSR trip in which Burgess seems to have gone out of his way to provoke the attention of a KGB agent. In other words, the writer acted as a "dangle."

I would add this: The purpose of the dangle may have been to further a molehunt. Once the KGB became curious about this strange visitor, they would have asked their agents-in-place within the British establishment to be on the lookout for any scuttlebutt -- or, better still, documentation -- regarding Anthony Burgess. Anyone in the UK government who suddenly went out of his way to learn about Anthony Burgess would be identifying himself as a Soviet spy. That's a classic trick.

(And now you know the real reason why Lee Harvey Oswald went to the USSR. You may want to Google the name "Otto Otepka.")

Anthony Burgess' trip to the USSR was subsidized by his publisher, with the expectation that a novel would result. A book did result, under the title Honey For the Bears. At the time, Burgess was not very well-known -- Clockwork had not yet appeared -- and it is difficult to comprehend why the publisher felt that the investment was justified.

There's much more; I suggest that you hit the link and check out Adler's piece. A good read. We all need something non-Trumpy to think about right now, do we not?
The John Schlesinger film of Alan Bennett's A Question Of Attribution (1991) would delight any sort of buff.
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