Time Pieces History Project Item 59: A Clockwork Orange

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange – Introduction to Item 59

Cover of a Clockwork Orange, showing a face with no features other than a cog for an eye. The head is wearing a bowler hatThis copy of A Clockwork Orange was my dad’s, so no doubt I was given it or found it one day. It’s fairly short, but there’s a lot packed into it, and it’s thought-provoking. Burgess is clever, as he manages to make us feel sorry for the protagonist Alex, despite the fact that he is thoroughly unlikeable.

While the book is bloody and violent, it’s nowhere near as weird as the film, which came out in 1971. Director (and producer) Stanley Kubrick later requested it be withdrawn from British release, a ruling that stayed in place until his death in 1999. There was apparently a small cinema in Paris which showed nothing but the film, which I always wanted to visit.

The Plot of A Clockwork Orange

15 year old Alex lives in a town where older people are afraid to go out at night in case they’re targeted by a gang of youths – much like the one he’s a part of. The book, set probably in the early 21st century, opens with Alex and his droogs (friends) on a night of mayhem. Drinking milk plus (milk + a drug), they beat up an old man and rob a tobacconist shop, finishing off with house-breaking and gang-raping.

Surprisingly, Alex likes to end his nights (and afternoons) of debauchery and violence by listening to classical music. His bedroom is full of speakers, and the music transports him to a higher state. When he’s imprisoned for murdering an old lady, he shows an interest in reading the Bible – although he prefers the gore of the Old Testament – accompanied by religious tunes.

Alex is almost a model inmate for two years, assisting the prison chaplain during services and working hard. Malcolm McDowell as Alex in the film version of A Clockwork Orange. He wears a black bowler hat and white shirtEventually, though, he can’t resist indulging his baser instincts once again, this time causing the death of a new arrival in his shared cell. The governor decides he’s an ideal candidate for an untested and controversial treatment – the Ludovico Technique.

Alex is drugged and forced to watch scenes of brutality, often accompanied by classical music, until he finds them too distressing to tolerate. The Ludovico Technique works by making him feel unwell whenever he has violent thoughts, and only by doing good deeds will he feel better. So Alex is now ‘reformed’ and unable to commit violent acts, but he has no free will over whether he’s good or bad; he’s a clockwork person.


It would be reasonable to assume that gangs are a recent thing – the news is full of horror stories of shootings and stabbings in London and elsewhere. But of course, anywhere there is unrest, low employment, few opportunities and disaffected young men (and sometimes women) there is a need to group together, particularly to defend home territory from ‘the others’.

A Clockwork Orange was first published in 1962, at which time twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray were causing havoc in London’s East End, with the help of their gang, The Firm. The Krays were keen on any kind of organised crime that made them money or built their reputation – beatings, arson, armed robbery, protection rackets and murder. Ironically, the Krays became celebrities, making friends with the stars of the day and glamourising the criminal underworld. They were jailed at the end of the 60s, and served life sentences.

The BBC’s drama series Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham in the 1920s, focuses on the Shelby family, whose businesses, including gambling services, are borderline legitimate. Much of their behaviour, however, is not. The Peaky Blinders were a real gang, active from around 1890 until the end of the 1920s, and many of the characters who appear in the TV show are based on real people.

A black and white photograph of Charles Derby Sabini, wearing a hat and mac

Charles Sabini

Rival gang leader Billy Kimber, for example, ran The Birmingham Boys, who eventually overtook the Blinders. He was deposed by one Charles ‘Derby’ Sabini, who took over Kimber’s patch. Sabini went on to defeat Charles McDonald’s Elephant Boys in 1927, in a fight where eight people lost their lives. Nine years later, the Elephants had their revenge, and the Sabini gang also collapsed.

The BBC History Magazine documents criminal gangs terrorising people in Victorian times. Between 1858 and 1862, Dr. Judith Rowbotham explains that garrotting was popular; two men would work together and mug their victim. A thin rope around the neck allowed one attacker to restrain the victim while his partner went through his pockets (it appears that garrotters targeted men rather than women). Gang members were regularly imprisoned for life, but that didn’t seem to put them off.

Secret Languages

Nadsat, the language that Alex and his gang use, is not a made-up language, but heavily influenced by Russian – Nadsat itself comes from the suffix for ‘teen’. However, it’s not used by the adults in the story, only the young people. Burgess helpfully provides a glossary in the back of the book.

Secret languages are used predominantly by gangs or groups of people between themselves, as a way of communicating that isolates those who are on the outside, and as a way of identifying those with the same views. They are also known as a cant, cryptolect or argot, although there are some differences between them.

Probably the best-known secret language is Pig Latin, which is usually used by children and was first observed in Blocks of letters for printing1869. I’ve always assumed it was more common in America, because I don’t know anyone who ever used it.

It’s not especially complicated – if a word starts with a vowel, you add ‘way’ to the end (e.g. ‘excitedway’); if it starts with a consonant, you move the first letter to the end and add ‘ay’ (e.g. ‘chip’ – ‘hipchay’). Children are particularly adept at inventing their own languages, and there are at least a hundred different ones on record.

Of course, it’s not just for kids to confuse their parents. Listverse explains that Polari, originally used by 19th century sailors, was adopted by British homosexual men in the 1930s. Not only could they converse with each other, but they could safely approach men to sound out their preferences. ‘Polari’ means ‘talk’ and includes aspects of Romany, London slang and Italian.

While Polari is widely recognised, secret languages can be very specific to an area, such as ‘Boontling’, used between 1880 and 1920 in Boonville, California. Even the act of speaking it has its own word – harp. It contains words from Spanish, Native American languages and made-up words by the locals. Boontling is pleasingly imaginative, and words are created based on characteristics of the locals.

For instance, Jeff Vestal had a habit of setting fires around the town, so ‘to jeffer’ is ‘to burn.’ One unfortunate lady burped a lot, so ‘almittey’ (‘to burp’) is named after her. Even worse was the small-headed girl who was known as ‘applehead’, which was then slang for ‘girlfriend.’

In Vietnam, where the native language is tonal, Nói Lái exploits that to create a bafflingly inventive new way of conversing. Sometimes it’s just the tones (represented by accents) that change, but other times letters in pairs of words are swapped (although retaining the first letter of each) to create new words. Phew!

Matryoshka Dolls

The novel uses various words for man and woman, including ‘babushka’ to refer to old ladies. Babushka is also one of the names (most often used in the West) for Russian nesting dolls which are also known as ‘matryoshka’ – ‘little matron.’ Babushka is apparently also the word for the headkerchief that many of the dolls wear.

A series of Russian nesting dolls, wearing black dresses and blue headscarfs over blonde hairIn case you’ve never seen one, a set consists of successively smaller dolls, each one hidden inside the previous one, with the smallest being made from a single piece of wood. The larger dolls are hollow and all come apart at the middle, to allow the other dolls to be nested inside it.

Russian craft painter Sergey Malyutin first came up with the idea for the dolls in 1890, and commissioned a wood-turning craftsman by the name of Vasily Zvyozdochkin to make them for him. The first doll is traditionally a woman, dressed in a peasant dress or sarafan. The dolls are often highly decorative, sometimes on a theme.

This first matryoshka contained seven smaller dolls, mostly female but with one male and one which could be male or female, and each is shown with a traditional object – a broom, a bowl of food, a scythe. One of the key symbols of the dolls is motherhood and fertility, so the matryoshka can be thought to represent a mother with her children safe inside her.

The matryoshka dolls were originally created to look like peasant girls, decorated with flowers and scenes from nature, or they were themed for festivals. In the late 1980s, however, political babushkas were made, with past leaders of Russia nesting inside an outer doll of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was president at the time. These were known as ‘Gorbys.’ There’s no information on if the man himself owns one.


Listverse: Top 10 Secret Languages
Londonist: London’s Most Notorious Gangsters
Nesting Dolls: The Meaning of Matryoshka Dolls



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