‘One Hand Clapping’ by Anthony Burgess – Used Car Salesman to Quiz Show Champion


‘One Hand Clapping’ by Anthony Burgess (1961) – 218 pages

My reason for reading ‘One Hand Clapping’ is fairly subtle. I saw that it had been turned into a failed play in 2017, and I figured if someone would go to all the trouble of turning a 1961 novel into a play 56 years later, that novel must be pretty good. I was looking for an excuse to read Anthony Burgess again anyhow. It turned out that I was correct in my reasoning.

‘One Hand Clapping’, written in 1961, gets the 1960s off to an uproarious and provocative start.

‘One Hand Clapping’ takes place in 1961, back in the Dark Ages when you could only see TV shows in black-and-white and all TV programming came to your home over the air through the antenna on top of your house. This was the era of the quiz shows Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question, both of which we later found out were rigged.

In ‘One Hand Clapping’, out 23 year-old narrator Janet works shelving and price marking goods in a grocery store. Her 27 year-old husband Howard is a used-car salesman. They are a quite ordinary couple who live in Bradcaster (Manchester, England) until one day Howard is selected to appear on the TV quiz show ‘Over and Over’. Howard does have one skill that is useful for a quiz show contestant, a photographic memory.

A scene from the play ‘One Hand Clapping’

Janet is a down-to-earth young woman with a lot of practical and intuitive sense. Howard is a far bit impulsive. On his first night after his resounding victory on the quiz show, he has an accident with one of his boss’s cars, a Bentley, from the used car lot. Of course his boss is angry with him, and Howard tells him off and gets fired.

With his quiz show winnings, Howard has grand pretensions and becomes a patron of the arts by funding aspiring poet Redvers Glass. When Howard asks the poet to recite a few of his poetic lines, Glass replies with some lines that Howard, with his photographic memory, immediately recognizes are from the classic poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell.

Here are a few lines the poet writes for Howard:

But we saw England delivered over to the hands of

the sneerers and sniggerers, the thugs and grinners,

England became a feeble-lighted moon of America“

The Americanization of England was feared by the English in the early 1960s. But of course the British Invasion a few years later led by the music of the Beatles as well as many other groups flipped everything around, and the United States teenagers were imitating everything English.

‘One Hand Clapping’ takes some sharp, crazy turns, some of them gruesome, but all in good fun. It takes an adept writer to pull this off, and Anthony Burgess does.


Grade:    A



4 responses to this post.

  1. one of the books by him i am yet to read i have it in my shelves so will be reading it as some point as i intend to read all his books

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi winstonsdad,
      Anthony Burgess was one of the few writers before or since who could combine the comic and the serious effortlessly, as he did in ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘One Hand Clapping’, and others of his novels. It’s time for an Anthony Burgess revival.

      Liked by 1 person


      • long said he was due a revival there has been the recent reissued books and vintage brought out a number years ago but shame he is remembered for clockwork rather than other books like earthly powers

        Liked by 1 person


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