Daniel Marc Janes
Sequins in the muck
Alma Cogan (pp.208, £8.99), Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (pp.354, £9.99), Born Yesterday (pp.224, £8.99), Happy Like Murderers (pp.480, £10.99), Gordon Burn, Faber & Faber, 2019
Hamilton Street, in the west end of Newcastle, was a classic strip of two-up two-down terraces: the visual shorthand of the northern working class, of the kind immortalised in the credits of Coronation Street. In 1973, Newcastle Council announced the Hamilton Street Compulsory Purchase Order after finding it ‘unfit for human habitation’; estate agents suggested a ‘piecemeal’ redevelopment in line with the recommendations of the Heath government’s White Paper, ‘Better Homes: The Next Priorities’. A low-rise housing complex occupies the site today. When Gordon Burn first described his childhood in this street in the Fifties – seven relatives to a house, no running water, an outside lavatory with copies of the Daily Herald, torn up into squares, as toilet paper – he was accused of making it up, so ludicrously Dickensian did the conditions seem. The boundary between fact and fiction was to become the theme of his writing life.
Gordon Burn never wrote a memoir. He was too self-effacing for that. But if he wrote about himself the way he wrote about his subjects, it would probably start something like this. The precise geographical setting; the instant link to mass culture (Coronation Street); the historical context, with the local a product of broader national trends; the tactile detail (the toilet paper); the speculative wider conclusion. The only thing missing is a serial killer, or the suggestion of horrors lurking beneath. So let’s add another sentence. On 25 May 1968, three miles away in a boarded-up house on St Margaret’s Road in Scotswood, Mary Bell, a day short of her eleventh birthday, strangled the four-year-old Martin Brown to death. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Death and celebrity. Celebrity and death. These were Burn’s big preoccupations. He was a journalist – eight years on the Sunday Times features desk – but this doesn’t describe him. He never trained as one. He didn’t have the All the President’s Men complex, the swollen-headed dash for leads. Instead, he was fascinated by the mass media as construct. The fusion of public and private memory. The random flow of the round-the-clock news. He was closer to a sociologist than a journalist, but he wasn’t that either. He was a writer. And submerged underneath it all, like in the narrow shafts of Fred and Rosemary West’s cellar, was that essential rottenness, ‘stinkingness’, corruption. People wondered what this gentle, softly-spoken man was doing writing such dark material. ‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,’ said John Updike. Burn’s subjects are horribly disfigured.
Burn died of bowel cancer in 2009. He was 61. His memory has been kept alive by the Gordon Burn Trust, set up by his long-time partner, artist Carol Gorner, and the prize it runs, the Gordon Burn Prize, which since 2012 has awarded £5,000 each year to fiction or non-fiction that best honours ‘the spirit and sensibility of Gordon’s literary methods’. (Past winners include David Keenan, David Szalay and Dan Davies for his biography of Jimmy Savile.) Now, to mark ten years since his death, Faber & Faber are republishing his most seminal works. These are his freewheeling novels, Alma Cogan (1991) and Born Yesterday (2008), and his true crime classics Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), about the Yorkshire Ripper, and Happy Like Murderers (1998), about Fred and Rosemary West. His novel Fullalove (1995) and fly-on-the-wall snooker chronicle Pocket Money (1986) will follow in spring.
The picture that emerges from these books is of a deranged genius with no obvious analogue in English letters. There is J.G. Ballard, with his themes of celebrity obsession and media spectacle, but Burn is less clinical: he wields a notebook, not a scalpel. Iain Sinclair is closer, with his interest in topography and the dusty ephemera of the past; Burn even bears a slight resemblance. But Burn’s prose is less ragged, nor does he do the motorway-mystic Blake routine. It is more profitable to look to the US, in particular the New Journalists and their fellow travellers: Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote. He travelled cheaply there in the Sixties, working for Rolling Stone and spending a memorable summer on tour with his cousin, Eric Burdon of the Animals.
Burn’s true crime works are remarkable, but it is the novels that best distil what Gordon Burn is about. The high-water mark is Alma Cogan, his Whitbread Prize-winning debut, as audacious and extraordinary as it was in 1991. Alma Cogan, forgotten then and now more so, was the most successful British female pop singer of the Fifties. Known for her extravagant gowns and the ‘giggle’ in her voice, she was the first British female singer to have her own weekly TV show. She brushed shoulders with the great and the good – wild parties at her Kensington flat, a secret lover of John Lennon – but her career faded amid the British Invasion and, in October 1966, she died of cancer at the age of 34. Burn’s outrageous premise is that Cogan did not die in 1966 but retired to a remote village where she lives ‘the applauseless life’, roaming spectrally through England and sifting through the detritus of her fame.
It is a high-wire act of literary ventriloquism. ‘Gordon Burn becomes Alma Cogan!’ ran the blurb, like an end-of-the-pier marquee. Except it isn’t, really. The voice is Burn’s: detailed, nouny, gelatinous with similes. He makes no real attempt at impersonation: it is a springboard, mounted to Cogan’s image. Some contemporaries, including Salman Rushdie, criticised him for this. Others, including Hilary Mantel who called Alma Cogan the novel she wished she had written, defended him. Rightly so: Alma Cogan is a thesis, not a pastiche, and is far preferable to the insistent faux-cockney of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, another rhapsody on showbiz and performance published that year.
Burn’s Cogan, fluttering between past and present, finds herself doomed to immortality. Output she thought had been ‘bonfired, Oxfam-ed, used for landfill’ is ‘tidied away in sound archives, stills libraries, image banks, memorabilia mausoleums, tat troves, mug morgues’:
It’s an odd experience to find yourself catalogued, card-indexed, museumised, a speck of data for the information professionals to bounce around. It seems that as long as you’re in print or on film or a name on a buff envelope in an archive somewhere, you’re never truly dead now. You can be reactivated or re-embodied; simulated and hologrammed . . . The spare-parts that make this possible are housed in a proliferating number of noninvasive environments in London, where there may be viewed (fingered, sniffed, listened to) by appointment.
Cogan, drawn into the orbit of archive directories and obsessive hoarders, is a phantom. Hers is a haunted quest, full of foreboding. She recalls an incident from the summer of 1954 when two men set upon a dancer on stage during a performance, ‘peel[ing] his face like an orange’ in an unexplained attack: her first brush with violence. ‘From that point on . . . it was the sort of vile craziness I would suspect everybody of having the potential for.’ She stays with a creepy fan, Francis McLaren – ‘my taxonomist, my taxidermist . . . tireless tender of the flame’ – whose house is a living museum of Cogan memorabilia: we fear for her the minute she gets in his car. In the novel’s most go-for-broke contrivance, Cogan’s story is cross-cut with that of Myra Hindley, whose iconic mugshot appeared, and still appears, on the cover, generating controversy from the book’s inception and complaints from the real Cogan’s family. Hindley becomes Cogan’s psychic B-side, the darkest extreme of the celebrity continuum. The exact nature of their yoking-together, revealed in a transcript, continues to baffle and outrage but is a potent attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Burn cared deeply about style. The hallmarks of his narrative prose are fully formed by Alma Cogan. He loves a rabbit hole, burrowing away at this idea and that; he glides across moments, splicing together like a tribute clip show. A kind of documentary bricolage. His novels are simultaneously mobile and static: ideas dart around while the story stutters and poots. They are almost prose poems.
Burn takes experimentation to extremes in 2008’s Born Yesterday. Subtitled The News as a Novel, it takes the headlines of the summer of 2007 and seeks to impose a narrative order on them. It was an unusually newsy summer: the handover from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown; the flash floods; the Glasgow Airport terror attack and London car bombs; the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Burn responds by going to town. He searches for form, pursuing ideas and coincidences: Paul McCartney’s 1968 trip to Praia da Luz, the same resort where Madeleine McCann disappeared; the collision of politics and showbiz in 1994 when EastEnders’ Susan Tully was having dinner at Granita the night Blair and Brown made their ‘deal’. He mines public figures for significance: Gordon Brown, with his ‘tombstone grin’, becomes a portent of doom, ‘something new and unwanted loosed to roam unchecked in the culture’. He reproduces chain emails, medical texts, online tributes to stabbed youths, a YouTube rap calling for Maddie’s safe return. He inserts himself into the text as he tries to make sense of it. What does it all mean? Do coincidences and correspondences hint at something deeper? What is the adequate form for our media-saturation age?
Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, Burn’s totemic debut examining the Yorkshire Ripper, is an exception to this collage-like style. It’s there, but not as refined. From the beginning, Burn knew a narrative excursion when he saw one. The most memorable is a trip to the ‘Museum of Anatomy’ in Morecambe, a macabre waxwork exhibit of sexual organs in various states of putrefaction, where Peter Sutcliffe used to linger. But it generally cleaves to linear chronology, starting with Sutcliffe’s Bingley ancestors and ending with the sensational court case and media circus. None of this is to the book’s detriment. Indeed, it has the most narrative propulsion of any of Burn’s works. Patricia Highsmith praised its storytelling. It’s more a difference of emphasis. Here, the detours are controlled diversions. Later, the detours are the headline act.
For all Burn’s New Journalism stylings, there is one way he could never emulate them. His subject was England. America barely gets a look-in. He traffics in specifics. Sutcliffe’s childhood in Bingley, he felt, may as well have been his own. He relishes the all-male choral societies, the cricket clubs, the civic tug-of-war between Leeds and Bradford. The same with Alma Cogan. It is alive to the latent menace of this weary, rickety country: the anything-goes-ness of end-of-the-road seaside towns, whose buildings smell of ‘shellfish, rancid fat, sugared rock’; the ‘country-creepy’ cottages and ominous hedgerows of her adopted village of Cleve; the barbed-wire fences and irrigation ditches of Saddleworth Moor. Burn’s conception of a pestilential island reaches its highest form of expression in Born Yesterday, when floods stalk England like a biblical plague:
The floods all translated into stories . . . the revulsion at homely things turned unhomely, the familiar turned on its owners, themes of anxiety and dread – the plug of the shower in the en suite spilling sewage . . . the airbricks oozing worms, fish, who knew the rank tonnage of human waste . . . There were polite ways to say it. Despoliation. Cloaca. ‘The primal muck of dissolution.’ And ways that were more vulgar: strangers’ turds floating in your kitchen, tampons, toilet paper.
Burn prods those turds. Eats them, to see how they taste. He wants to know how they got there.
It will have come as no small amusement to Burn that these floods took place in Gloucester, site of 25 Cromwell Street, the ‘House of Horrors’ where Fred and Rose West commit their horrendous crimes. In Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, Bingley and its environs, in spite of everything, retain a hardy air of civic respectability. In Happy Like Murderers, his book on the Wests, the whole of Gloucestershire feels compromised. Herefordshire too. The caravan parks. The rough pubs where Fred West shows pornographic photos of inside Rose to anyone who will look. The wanton incest – father-daughter, father-son, mother-son – of his home village of Much Marcle, where he buries decapitated and dismembered remains. The squalid streets between Gloucester Park and the site of the former Sir Thomas Rich’s School, teeming with addicts, runaways, deviants, the flotsam of permissiveness.
In contrast to the cool detachment of Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, a tone of moral outrage enters the text, about the couple’s ‘corruption and human cruelty almost beyond imagining’. He restates their crimes, as if shaking his head. Amid the Wests’ unutterable world of duct tape and hacksaws, you sense Burn’s attachment to the surrounding communities. The elderly West Indians in the Seventh-Day Adventists’ Church next door. The makeshift camaraderie of loud building sites with their private codes of visual signals and jokes. The rural-bred anti-authoritarian tradition – jerry-built sheds, jobs on the side, perks made from scraps on factory time – that Fred West takes to its monstrous conclusion: these perks on the side are contraptions of sexual torture; avoidance of ‘the man’ means getting away with decades of murder and child abuse. An evil parody of local ways. You feel Burn’s anger that the Wests have perverted this land, debased it. Fred West works on building sites, on the construction of the M5: he corrupts the very soil.
Burn died much too early. You wonder what he would have done, say, with Raoul Moat; with Jade Goody, who he was researching when he died; with Jimmy Savile, who pops up, eerily, in both Born Yesterday and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. You wonder how he would have engaged with social media, already making its presence felt in Born Yesterday but now many times multiplied. So consistent and durable are his themes, it is common to ventriloquise him. He’s everyone’s property. ‘If Gordon Burn was alive, he’d write a joint biography of Roy Jenkins and Mark Francois, to explain the strange decline and fall of the English politician,’ joked the poet Rishi Dastidar recently. To me, that doesn’t sound like Burn at all. But who am I to speak for the deceased? This isn’t a séance. He’s just newsprint and pixels now. Still, no one knows better than Gordon Burn what it’s like never to be allowed to die.
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