A Clockwork Apple represents a stunning debut by Manchester born author Belinda Webb. Ben Granger caught up with her in the bar of Manchester’s Cornerhouse cinema for a quick chat about her inspirations; Burgess and Moss Side both…
Many people first read A Clockwork Orange when they’re very young, and fall in love with it. When did you first read it, and what was your reaction?
Actually I came to it fairly late, I read it just a few years ago, I was in my twenties. I didn’t want to read it before, I thought it was a boy’s book – a book about boys who were violent for no reason, which had nothing to say to me. Talk about judging a book by its cover! When I did finally read it, from the first page, the language just amazed me.
The book seems to take a fairly even inspiration from both Orange and Manchester itself. Which inspired you more?
Moss Side is the stronger influence. Moss Side, Hulme and Chorlton-on-Medlock, these areas around Oxford Road, not far from where we’re sitting. Poor areas right next to a massive student population. Populations which may as well come from different worlds.
The lively contempt Alex shows for the "Blytons" [her slang word for the respectably and middle-class] was presumably inspired by this.
Yes, that and the novels of Enid Blyton herself. Growing up reading books like Mallory Towers, about all these girls playing hockey in boarding school…in a way it just served to remind me this is the kind of education I would never have, it made you feel worse in a way. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them, but the contrast was so massive.
Your Alex is violent, but not nearly as violent as the Alex of Burgess, which makes for a very different dynamic to the book which inspired it.
Yes, her violence is much more just about expressing anger, justified anger. The Alex of Clockwork Orange is much more sadistic. That suited Burgess who was posing questions about the nature of choice, about choosing between two evils. My Alex comes more from my own experience. The choices she makes I see as positive.
How much of you is there in Apple’s Alex?
Well, I was a bit of a nightmare to be honest, but at the same time I was the oldest girl in a family of seven trying to keep it together. Like her, I was angry rather than rebellious, rebelling implies you’ve got something constructive to rebel against. I didn’t go around beating people up, and I wore Dr Martens rather than ballet shoes! But like her, I was an autodidact, always looking for something new.
Whereas Clockwork Orange has the fictional behaviour-control of the ludovico technique, the Bill and Bob technique of your book is a direct attack on the very real techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous and the self help industry in general.
My book isn’t a prediction, but looking at how things could go if we follow America in this way, as we do in so many other ways. The addiction “industry” is massive in America, whole communities are leaving this sober, denying life. It preaches that nothing is about social conditions, it just says you’re morally defective in some way.
Your Alex is a symbol of autonomy against this deterministic outlook?
It’s about more than autonomy. It’s been said the characters of the Scottish writers Kelman and Welsh are informed a great deal by existentialism, determining your own way no matter what the consequences, and no matter what structures are in place. That’s true of Alex certainly, she’s in tune with her inner existentialist!
The invention at work in the language is probably the books biggest achievement. Have you always been into playing with language in this way?
On one level it’s a really juvenile thing, playing with words like toys. Its like a puzzle thing, playing with puzzles. But on another, language is so vital, so important. Noam Chomsky talks about how language informs power structures, how the words you use both signify and inform your politics, where you’re coming from. It all comes together in the book.
Your language is inspired by Burgess’ “nadsat”, but at the same time is very different to it. Once again, its nothing like a pastiche.
Burgess was a very intelligent man, and a linguist, he was drawing from other languages, Russian, Spanish, Italian. I know English and that’s all I know – I think that’s enough to be getting on with! I looked at English words which we no longer use for whatever reason. Latin too, which has long been the preserve of the elite. Once again, as with her intellectual passion, I wanted Alex to reclaim these things for normal people.
The Mancunian dystopia you explore is female dominated, with males largely obsolete. Is female domination a bad thing, or is this one positive aspect of an otherwise grim future?
Not it’s not positive. The perspective of the book is I’d say humanist rather than feminist, and the fact men are on the way out is drawing on the marginalisation of men today in working class communities like Moss Side. Male lives are wasted and that’s not a good thing.
Some readers might be surprised to see a book set in Moss Side with little mention made of race, and the characters would seem to be white.
Moss Side has become synonymous with black people but there is a large white working-class population as well, which gets overlooked I think. There are other immigrant descendants, like the Irish, my ancestors, too. I was writing drawing from my own background, race wasn’t really an issue I was dealing with. Class on the other hand is.
Is there a straightforward political message in the book?
Yes, again, class. Tony Blair’s ridiculous lie that we’re all middle-class now, he clearly never visited Moss Side. That’s a message I wanted to come over clear. Alex here is a voice that is otherwise not heard.
You’ve been involved in creative writing projects with teenagers in both Moss Side and Brixton. What’s the main advice you would give to young writers?
I think the fact the way I write is not in a mainstream voice is the main thing, and I hope this encourages young people. People should write in their own voice and not be deflated. My sister went on a creative writing course and it was –you must write in this way and that way. If you’re going to write in that way you may as well be in a factory, dryly sticking different bits of formulae together. It may sound like a platitude or a cliche, but staying true to your own voice really is the most important thing in writing.
Belinda Webb’s blog is at belindawebb.blogspot.com