The novel is set in Bristol, England during the 1980s. During this time period, Bristol was suffering from an economic depression. Its heyday as a manufacturing town had declined. Many businesses failed, and as people lost their jobs, they had to give up their homes. Those economic circumstances underlie the actions of Richard in the novel. As an anarchist he views his behavior as political action. He lives on the fringes of society, opening squats (abandoned houses) so that runaways and other street people will have a place to live. He also creates "lock-outs"—in the middle of the night Richard and his friends dress in costumes and squirt superglue in the locks of bank doors.

Eventually British authorities stiffened the laws about "squatting" and the practice was abandoned in the middle of the 1980s. However, at the time in which the novel is set, squatting was tolerated without too much interference from the authorities. In the novel, as long as the characters are not caught breaking into the house, the authorities are willing to tolerate their presence in the house.

Burgess convincingly describes the life of runaways on the street. When Tar first runs away to Bristol, before Gemma has joined him, he is living very badly. He tries to sleep outside in his sleeping bag but gets so cold he ends up wandering around most of the night. He then discovers that people wrap themselves in cardboard boxes to stay warm. While the boxes are an improvement,...

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