Best remembered for his non-fiction, the late British writer's novels also took on fame, crime, Thatcher and New Labourby Tim Martin / December 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
Towards the end of Happy Like Murderers, his patient and terrifying account of the lives of Fred and Rosemary West, Gordon Burn relates how Gloucester city council planned to dispose of 25 Cromwell Street, the house where the Wests sexually abused, tortured, murdered and buried children and young women for 30 years. The decision was taken to disappear the West house entirely: raze it to the ground, fill in its mass grave of a cellar and turn the space into a cut-through connecting its quiet residential street to the city centre. Other alternatives were considered, Burn continued: “a commemorative plaque at the site, a memorial garden. But nobody wanted to keep those memories. A permanent reminder.”
Nobody wanted to keep those memories: what a strangely-angled phrase that is, as though memory itself were optional or erasable. But probing questions about the memories people want to keep, and the steps they take to quieten the ones they don’t, are everywhere in Burn’s work. They are particularly pressing in the four books republished by Faber to mark the 10th anniversary of his death in 2009.
Prolific as a writer, journalist and art critic, these days Burn is best known for his two non-fiction books on serial killers. This is both understandable—because the books are works of unforgettable darkness and insight, among the best crime reporting of the 20th century—and undesirable, because Burn’s unique talent extended far beyond a single genre. Deeply attuned to the undercurrents of desire and aversion in human affairs, each of his books anatomises a pocket universe of its own, a shadow-space in the collective British mind.
Fact ran through Burn’s fiction, while his factual books were wrapped in fictional technique. His model was Norman Mailer, whose 1979 book The Executioner’s Song, about the trial and execution of the killer Gary Gilmore, inspired Burn to write the first of his books. This was Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), an investigation into the life and social climate of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper.
Keen to move beyond the gruesome shallows of most true crime, Burn went about his research for the book in an unusual way, renting a place in Sutcliffe’s hometown of Bingley and approaching his family directly. Brought up poor himself in a crowded neighbourhood in Newcastle, he found, as one early interviewer observed, that “the Sutcliffe family’s homes, habits and hobbies were exactly the same as the Burn family’s. He was at home. He knew it and they knew it.” Night after night, he would drop in on -Sutcliffe’s father after the evening meal to listen to his stories, or attend to Sutcliffe’s brother as he remembered life with “our lad,” the star driver of the local haulage firm.
The result is an extraordinary work, deeply immersed not just in the biographical facts of Sutcliffe’s life but in the social milieu he inhabited. If Sutcliffe’s actions remain inexplicable, the lives of his friends and family appear in startling high resolution, contextualising and complicating easy judgments. Like all good crime writing, Somebody’s Husband is less about the killer himself than about the social landscape he inhabits, and Burn’s evocation of the vicious misogyny, machismo and emotional repression of Sutcliffe’s upbringing is all the more powerful for being offered without moral comment.
This dark nexus, in which egregious crimes intersect with the banal fabric of everyday British life, was at the centre of Burn’s next project, a novel based on true events. “I can’t read fantasy fiction,” Burn once remarked. “I’m asleep in four minutes. Fiction has to have its roots in the real thing or I don’t believe it. If you don’t believe it, what’s the point in writing it?”
Apart perhaps from a couple of books by Hilary Mantel, it’s hard to think of a modern novel as soaked in mortality as Burn’s first venture into fiction. Alma Cogan is narrated by the character of the title, in reality a British singer of the 1950s and 1960s whose covers of traditional pop standards were abruptly dislodged from popularity with the rise of rock and roll. The real Alma Cogan died of cancer aged 34 in 1966, the year of the Beatles’ Revolver. In Burn’s novel, however, she lived to watch her star fall all the way down, and is discovered, when the novel opens in the mid-1980s, inhabiting a fan’s borrowed holiday cottage in the west of England. “Now I enjoy living in this temporary way,” Alma writes, “unanchored; unburdened, often not even able to call the clothes I stand up in my own.” If that sounds rather like something a self-justifying ghost might have to say for itself, the assumption may not be far off.
As Alma relates her story and the reader presses further into the strangely evocative world of this novel, its sense of uncanny discomfort grows. Alma goes to the National Portrait Gallery to visit the portrait of her that Peter Blake once painted, but is told that “Alma Cogan is currently on-loan to the VIP Lounge at Heathrow.” Her elderly mother, once the co-host of London-shaking parties, has, Alma says, “only the haziest notion of who I am or what I might be doing here,” and is dementedly convinced that she herself had the showbiz career that belonged to her daughter.
Throughout the novel, Alma is haunted by another media afterlife: that of the child-killer Myra Hindley, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966 (the year of the real Cogan’s death) and emerged briefly in 1986, the year the novel is set, to visit the moors where she and Ian Brady buried their victims.
Hindley, whose “cruel-nosed, meaty-mouthed, iconographic” mugshot is periodically glimpsed on TV throughout the book, provides the grim negative counterpoint to Burn’s imaginary Alma. At one point, Alma observes that “as usual, Hindley looks like a composite, an identikit, a media emanation, a hypothetical who never existed in the flesh,” a comment that might do as well as a description of the construct narrating the novel. Towards the end, Alma visits the creepy collector who has hoarded all the ephemera of her life, and discovers, amid the shrink-wrapped dresses, frocks, wigs, hairpieces and childhood possessions, that her “taxidermist, Sammler, embalmer, stasher and storer” has got hold of a tape of Hindley and her lover Brady murdering a child, while one of her songs is playing on the radio in the background.
“Almost everything I have written,” Burn once observed, “has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” Alma Cogan is the dark heart of that equivalence, a book stalked by death-fetishes and prurient encroachments. But it’s also a sleek machine of prose that predicted a literary future of its own. In Alma Cogan, as in the books on West and Sutcliffe, it is possible to observe the seeds of the hidden Britain that Burn helped to unearth for his successors: northern-noir writers such as David Peace, Ben Myers—who introduces the West book for Faber here—and countless others as well. It’s a place where occult obsessions are coiled behind tousled urban vistas and patches of scrapland, violent memories flicker like ghosts amid spilt beer and pub muzak, and horrors beyond imagining are carried out in plain daylight by friendly and presentable neighbours.
As Burn worked on his next novel Fullalove, an unsettlingly prescient story about surveillance, celebrity and an ambulance-chasing journalist in crisis which came out in 1995, he was also following the arrest of the Wests and the excavations at their home in Gloucester. The 30-year time span of Happy Like Murderers (West had been a child rapist since 1961 and a killer since at least the end of that -decade) might, Burn imagined, allow him to mix an account of these crimes with “a social history of the British underclass.” But although outwardly stoic—“Gordon,” his editor Lee Brackstone later recalled, “was unconvinced by my attempts to impress upon him the horror and the nightmares I had suffered in reading his account”—Burn soon found that the West case was getting inside his head. “I would come back from Gloucester, fall asleep in front of the television and wake up screaming,” he later said.
Although much of the fuss that surrounded Happy Like Murderers has now faded—the cover of the first edition notoriously featured a smiley-face badge on a pile of turned earth designed by Burn’s friend Damien Hirst, which was thought, and still seems, a piece of ironic shockery too far—it is a book for fortified souls and unturnable stomachs, whose measured, circling narrative can induce a near-traumatic state in the reader.
“Your only obligation, I think, is not to become a mouthpiece for the people you’re writing about,” Burn said later. “Beyond that, you simply have to tell the story.” But the way Burn tells this particular story is extremely striking, deploying much of the subtle literary craft he had already developed in a strange new form. As his story of the Wests moves back and forth from the abusive, incestuous childhoods of both Fred and Rosemary in Herefordshire and Devon to the sorrowful lives of their abused children, from bald accounts of the lives of the Wests’ victims to troubling investigations of their own psychosexual inner landscapes, the prose takes on the colours of the things it touches. Sometimes the book seems to speak in the rambling West-Country tones of Fred West and his colleagues, sometimes it borrows the chill tone of philosophy or law, but it is always next to impossible to identify what we might call a consistent authorial tone. It’s like a post-mortem on a nightmare: dispassionately told, remorseless and emotionally devastating.
Somebody’s Husband had portrayed Sutcliffe in the context of a city, Bradford, where he committed his vicious and degrading murders of women on the way to and from other ordinary engagements (housewarming party, moving furniture with his dad) and existed, Burn wrote later, in a social climate where “going out after prostitutes, armed with half a brick in a sock, was a more or less socially sanctioned weekend pastime.” In Happy Like Murderers, he offers a similarly lethal assessment of just how many of these “monstrous” crimes were committed in plain sight. Fred West was obsessed with showing people around his house and demonstrating his catalogue of jerry-built home improvements. The Wests offered their own children’s bodies out for prostitution to friends and relatives. Colleagues, neighbours and authorities dismissed or forgot what now seem extraordinarily flagrant signs of abuse. No wonder nobody wanted to keep those memories.
Several of Burn’s works haven’t made the cut for this bunch of republications: perhaps Faber is saving Best and Edwards and Pocket Money, his books on football and snooker, for some future sporting retrospective. Absent, too, is his book written with (and about) Damien Hirst, On the Way to Work, as well as Fullalove and The North of England Home Service, an unusually gentle novel about an aging comic that, in the absence of the thanato–consciousness that animated Alma Cogan and Fullalove, was not entirely successful as fiction. There’s surely room in any future publisher’s slate, too, for a book of Burn’s essays on art and the arts, many of which offered a unique insider’s view of the Young British Artists movement of the 1990s.
Burn’s final work, Born Yesterday, drew together many of the strands that were most troubling and exciting in his approach to writing and the world. Conceived in response to his sense that a 24-hour news cycle was generating a new form of narrative—those endless plotlines, those repeating characters, that battery of subsidiary comment and self-revising commentary—it took the form of a book, written in six weeks, that treated the major news stories in summer 2007 as parts of a single narrative. “The idea was to find a story, and the moment the news explosion happened to go there and write about it,” Burn said. And then “turn it into a novel in the way that happens all the time through rolling news, newspapers, blogging.”
For a while, as his editor Brackstone recalls in his new introduction to Born Yesterday, it looked as though Burn’s tireless search for a big enough story might bear no fruit, or fruit of the most dispiriting kind: he suggested at one point that it might be sensible to structure the book around the Sedgefield by-election that took place when Tony Blair stepped down from office. Then the toddler Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ villa in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz, and the matter of the book was no longer in doubt.
Despite its subtitle, “the news as a novel,” Born Yesterday feels more like an art installation or an experimental documentary than a work of fiction. Really, perhaps, it’s a collage—always a form that appealed to Burn, a collector of impressions and fragments whose work is perpetually studded with fragments from the lives, works and observations of others. This method works powerfully on the material, creating a troubling textual space into which characters flit and are metaphorically recombined: Blair grinning, Brown with his “paint-stripper grin,” the omnipresent McCanns, a valiant Glaswegian baggage-handler groin-kicking a terrorist.
A figure resembling the author keeps bumping into the increasingly senile Margaret Thatcher in the Chelsea park where he walks his dog. A New Labour MP drinks herself to death. Richard & Judy flashes back and forth across the narrative. Britain, with the floodwaters bubbling into its English summer, is “brought face to face with the fact that the isle is full of beastie-weasties and creepy-crawlies, things that gorge on shite and lead slimy, hidden existences in the dung and the dark underwater, reaching out, those turbid germ-infected waters, trying to draw them down, to suck them under, the bastard indifference of nature to us and all our arrangements.” If you were looking for a phrase to describe what keeps Burn’s writing so relevant and so troubling today, you could do far worse than that.
Born Yesterday, to distort an Ezra Pound phrase that its author was fond of, is news that has stayed news. Reading it, you find yourself wondering what Burn, who died at the unripe age of 61, would have done with the past decade: not just the high-profile horrors of Jimmy Savile, Anders Breivik and Jeffrey Epstein, but the shift from truth to truthiness, the assault on journalism, the rise of social media, the expansion of celebrity and self-surveillance into people’s lives. Born Yesterday closes with a recital of the farewell phrase from an old children’s TV programme, in which the puppet Sooty waves and his handler Harry Corbett repeats “Bye-bye, everybody. Bye-bye.” Asked in an interview what the book was saying goodbye to, Burn replied: “Maybe an unmediated reality. Maybe a world where not everybody has an opinion and not everybody wants that opinion to be heard.” Yes, well. Here we are, without him.