Who created A Clockwork Orange, the strange, disturbing
and darkly humour film that is now recognized as one of the classics of the
twentieth century? The film is more famous than its director, Stanley Kubrick,
and the director is more famous than the creator, Anthony Burgess. He wrote the
original book, which is both very violent and very inventive. Burgess was very
interested in two things: the possibilities of language and the problem of
evil. Why is there so much suffering in the world – death, pain and misery?
He couldn’t escape that question, because he was born in
Manchester at the end of the First World War shortly before a world-wide
epidemic of influenza. Millions of people died and two of them were very close
to Burgess: his mother and his sister. At least, they would have been close to
him if he’d ever known them. He didn’t: he was still a baby in his cradle when
they caught the infection and died in a few hours.
Growing up without a mother, he always knew that the world
was a dangerous and uncertain place. And there was a lot of violence, suffering
and poverty in Manchester between the wars. There was a lot of humour too and
Burgess saw how people used jokes as a way to overcome their fear of death and
other disturbing things. He heard lots of stories about death, like the one
about the woman who has her husband’s ashes put into an egg-timer after he
passes away. “Bugger never did a stroke of work while he was alive,” she says.
“He can work now he’s dead.”
When he had grown up, Burgess put black humour like that
into his books. He never stopped mourning the loss of his mother and sister, so
he knew that death is a serious thing, but he also knew that we don’t have to
let it overshadow our lives. His upbringing in tough times in a tough city
showed him how to laugh in the face of death. The same is true of another great
Mancunian: the comedian Les Dawson.
Like Burgess, Dawson delighted in word-play and linguistic
invention. He also delighted in black humour, like this joke: “Granddad died
last month. He fell into a vat of whiskey. They tried to rescue him three
times, but he managed to fight them off. I don’t know how much he swallowed,
but when they cremated him the fire lasted nine days.”
Dawson told many jokes like that, bringing laughter and entertainment
to people who knew, just as he did, that death, illness and pain are serious
things. But jokes help us to face what might otherwise overwhelm or terrify us.
You could say that he was having the last laugh, finding the humour in the
stark fact that faces everyone. One day we will leave the living and pass away.
Comedians like Les Dawson and writers like Anthony Burgess
help us face it and see in it in proper perspective. If we fear dying too much,
we won’t enjoy life while it lasts. And when our time comes, we should meet our
fate calmly and without regrets. That’s how Dawson and Burgess passed away,
because their message was aimed at themselves too.