Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 30-31

Text: At the age of six a social function was imposed upon me that had everything to do with entertainment, though not necessarily of the comic kind. On Queen’s Road there were two cinemas – the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent your going to the other on a Tuesday and Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer’s criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon. Because I lived at the Golden Eagle I was called Jackie Eagle, and ten or twelve boys would, after midday dinner, cry out for Jackie Eagle from the verge of the public bar the law forbade them to enter. They would hold on to me in their redolent jerseys all the way down Lodge Street and left and over on Queen’s Road. I was the only one of them who could read.

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening’s two houses. So I began a lifetime’s devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed. In those old silent days the art was almost an aspect of literature. I hear my little treble voice crying the text aloud for the benefit of even big louts whom the reading mystery had passed by. ‘Kiss me, my fool’, mouths the Spanish gipsy siren, and the cabellero who proposed knifing her trembles so that his knife silently clatters to the floor, ‘Came the dawn’, a regular cliché. We saw Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and Ben Turpin in The Shriek. There was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (‘What’s that mean, kid?’), with artistic camera-masks that varied the shape of the frame. There was a Chester Conklin comedy which began with lovers kissing on a doorstep. ‘The end’, the legend said. There were roars of kids cheated. ‘Of a perfect day.’ That was all right, then, but the humour was too adult for relief: the buggers were clearly not to be trusted. There was one frightful shock for me. A character with a dirty beard and gabardine spoke, and then the black screen filled with unintelligible letters. I know now it was Hebrew; I even remember a beth and a ghimel. To my illiterates it was all one, and there was bafflement and then anger at my failure to twang it off. ‘Thought you said the bugger could read.’ So I improvised a flight of suitable invective. No piano played in the pit: we were too cheap for music.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. His memoir is of particular interest for providing evidence of silent films in some places being shown without music into the 1920s. It was common practice in some cinemas of the 1910s and 20s to cram three children onto two seats; three per seat sounds improbable. The films mentioned include The Sheik (USA 1921), The Shriek of Araby (USA 1923) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921).

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