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One Hand Clapping

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Corgi, London, 1963
(price: 2/6; 128 pages)
first published in Great Britain by Peter Davies 1961

dedication: To Hazel

The blurb on the back:

This is a curious novel.
It's all about a married couple, just ordinary decent people like you and me. The husband has the kind of brain that wins money on quiz programmes - which is just what he does. Then he thinks he might as well double it, so he backs a few horses ... and all of a sudden he's a rich man!
He and his wife then have the best of everything, like a mink for her, travelling to America, staying at posh hotels, and so on. But all the time, there is something niggling at him about the world being a rotten place, and what's the use of carrying on? So he suggests to his wife one day, quite seriously, that they do themselves in.
Which is when the story takes a different turn.
You'd better read it.

opening lines:
I was Janet Shirley,
née Barnes, and my husband was Howard Shirley, and in this story he was nearly twenty-seven and I was just gone twenty-three.

'This is a curious novel,' claims the back of the book, and indeed it is. Our narrator is a young woman from a Northern town who marries a man with three characteristics: he's obsessively in love with her, he has a fierce sense of morality (an unfortunate trait for someone entering the second-hand car business), and he has a photographic memory. It is this latter that enables him to enter a TV quiz Over and Over (loosely based on The $64,000 Question) and emerge a couple of weeks later with the top prize, 1000. He proceeds to make a series of bets on the horses that brings the total to just under 80,000, and then sets about using the money to demonstrate that - in the words of Mr Damon Albarn - modern life is rubbish.

It's an interesting proposition, with plenty of scope for the Tales of the Unexpected-type twists that follow, but there's something that doesn't quite gel. The denunciation of modern society, and particularly the mind-numbing apathy induced by mass-market television, is just a bit too forced coming from the mouth of our narrator, an almost caricatured first-generation product of a Secondary Modern school. This is particularly the case when she breaks off from time to time to tell us about the limited scope of her schooling experience:

We'd not done any Shakespeare at the secondary mod, because the teachers said we wouldn't like it and we'd get bored. They never gave us the chance to see whether we'd get bored or not. (pp.29-30)

In fact, the book's obsessed with literature and sees its degradation as symbolic of the decline of social standards. Our hero's specialist subject on the TV quiz is books - typical questions include him identifying Glossin as a character in Scott's Guy Mannering and naming Robert Henryson as the author of The Testament of Cresseid - but he feels desperately guilty that he's making money from dead authors without fully appreciating what they've done. Answering questions about them and their works on a simple-minded TV show is, he argues, an insult to the artistic contribution they've made to civilization, and he therefore feels obliged to donate money to a starving poet in a garret in an attempt to put something back. (As a professional writer of trivia questions, may I just say how much I deplore this attitude and stress that I have no intention of following his example.)

So, what kind of author would write about an existential angst-ridden outsider living in a Northern industrial town and combine it with a satire on the modern media and a fierce defence of the eternal values of literature? Well, Anthony Burgess, of course, writing under an assumed name. And once you discover the identity of the author, it all becomes a whole lot clearer. I don't know a great deal about Burgess, but if you're interested in his work, this is quite a nice little sidelight on to some of his concerns. And I suspect that in its disposable depiction of an intellectual recoiling at the triviality of modern Britain, it has a degree of honesty that would have been difficult in a more considered, weighty work. (Apparently Burgess reviewed the novel under his real name for the Yorkshire Post, gave it a fairly bad review, but still got sacked when the 'paper found out that he was reviewing his own work.)

The title of the book incidentally, refers to a play titled One Hand Clapping that the couple see while staying in London: 'What the play was about was about everybody being very unhappy because they'd got their education paid for by the government, or something, and there was no war on for anybody to fight in, or something like that.' (p.81)


More on TV quizzes...

The Big Question
More on early British TV...

The One-Eyed Monster

some books recommended by Mr Burgess...

The Aerodrome

The Body

An Error of Judgement