Gordon Burn: Writer whose work ranged from highly original novels to accounts of the lives of serial killers
Tuesday 21 July 2009
A bit more than a year ago, Gordon Burn was still winding down, having recently completed an extraordinary intellectual feat. He had written, in just six weeks, a unique and subtly brilliant meta-narrative called Born Yesterday: The News As A Novel. Obviously, it had to be written quickly, because the point was for the reader to see these people – Blair, Brown, The McCanns, Reg Keys, Kate Middleton, the stars of the news of the summer of 2007 – freshly transformed into a single tale, having been churned around in the mind of a writer and dog-walker called Gordon.
Burn was the perfect man to have undertaken such a task, because he understood, forensically and profoundly, better than anyone I've ever met, the way journalism worked, the way the media worked, the way it permeated and dictated the wider culture, the way that the people in the headlines, for good or ill, got packaged, and turned into stories. He saw it all coming, did Gordon, the 24-hour-gossip-as-news cycle. He was genuinely prescient, like J.G. Ballard, whose work he admired.
Finding the words, the rhythms and the structures to express his insights with seemingly effortless clarity and elegant precision came easily to Burn. Very good writers could have laboured for years on the prose that formed Born Yesterday and found nothing that they could improve. The project, experimental and risky, satisfied Burn's voracious appetite for intellectual pursuit, always undertaken on his own peculiar terms. I think he had always been like that, from when he was little.
Newly graduated from Aston University, via the local grammar in Newcastle upon Tyne, Burn had been sure he wanted to write professionally (Jim Crace and Patrick McGrath had been in his year, so there was clearly something in the water). To that end Burn interviewed a self-taught artist on his own initiative. He sold his article to the local newspaper, from which it was picked up by the Guardian. Thus he had got his break into the nationals. Burn was from a modest background, and had no media contacts, no older hands telling him what to do and how to do it. He just saw precisely how his aim could be accomplished, from the very start.
Burn understood his lack of early privilege as central to his identity and his originality as a writer and thinker. Once, when interviewed, he stressed this fact by indulging in a little inverted snobbery about how his mother had been a cleaner. Reading it, she felt upset and humiliated, and Burn was heartsick at his thoughtlessness. Generally, though not always, however, the people he felt closest to – and Burn tended to form intense and exacting friendships – were people who, like him, had grafted their way out of mundane childhoods, in which early expectations had been circumscribed.
He became frustrated quite early on in his career by the limitations of the shortish newspaper and magazine pieces that British editors tended to commission, and took his inspiration from the US, where he had travelled alone and cheaply every summer while he was a student. He embarked on his first book, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, with ambitions for it to be a definitive, meticulously researched, literary account of the life of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, in the mould of Norman Mailer. The finished manuscript was acclaimed as being exactly this, and it remains a classic text.
Way back when they were still known as VIPs, Burn had been fascinated by the notion of "celebrities", and what happened in the minds of the people who courted or stumbled upon fame or notoriety. Almost all of his work, one way or another, is about this stuff, even a lot of his sports writing, especially his terrific two-handed biography, Best and Edwards. His first novel, Alma Cogan, which won the Whitbread prize, imagined how the life of the singer and TV personality, who died in 1966, might have progressed had she lived. It was shot through with meditations on the baleful cultural significance of the Moors Murderers. (At that time, serial killers were so much the in-thing that Marshall Cavendish had published a part-work on them so that readers could collect the whole series into two handsome bound volumes.) Burn believed that celebrity itself was always a kind of death, and he was deeply interested in death as well as fame.
Not this interested though. Not interested enough to be dead himself at 61, the passive subject of obituarists and the sudden focus of startled column-inches written by living contemporaries, about the meaning of his life and his work. Would Gordon see the black irony in what his friend is doing now, at her keyboard? Died Yesterday: The Novelist As News? Would he laugh that sidelong snarl he reserved for the most dark, or ugly or contemptible or crazy things – which was something that he did a lot, because he was wickedly sardonic and funny? I suppose so. He would have when he was alive. Nothing ever changed Gordon, because he was so complete in himself, so secure about what he needed and wanted.
The first time I ever spoke to Gordon, it was on the phone. I'd called and asked him if he'd do a piece about Modigliani for the magazine I edited, because I knew he had a passion for art. He acted like I'd just enquired as to whether he'd mind if I popped round and plucked his eyeballs out. But he did the piece anyway, and later, when we were introduced face-to-face at a literary party, we found that contrary to the indications of our telephone conversation, we got on like the burning dwelling. "If you like parties," he said, "you should go to artists' parties. They have the best ones. I'll take you to some."
He called the next day, with a party that weekend in mind. I was vain enough to think: "He's keen. Is this a date?" But Burn had a different agenda. If he ever came across anyone or anything he liked, Gordon always wanted to find out what Carol thought of her, or him or it, as soon as possible. Carol Gorner. Formidable Carol, the artist uninterested in exhibiting. Gordon-and-Carol. When people die it's hard at first to grasp that they aren't here any more. But as long as Carol is here, then Gordon is too, because they are such a tight, indivisible, united, impregnable brace of sensibilities.
Anyway. Gordon-and-Carol. Arty parties. This was all in the early 1990s and few of the partying artists were that well-known. But Burn and Gorner had marked their cards, and were at that time involved in particularly intense friendships with Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. As time went on, and the group became a huge cultural phenomenon, famous, celebrated, much written about, I couldn't help marvelling at how clever old Gordon had got himself pole position at this glistering pageant that crystallised all of his interests. His sure instinct, about people, about culture, about what was important, what needed to be understood, about what connected, about how to get it all across, it never failed him.
Burn wrote a lot about the people who quickly coalesced into a movement, dubbed the Young British Artists. His most significant alliance was with Hirst, though. They loved each other's company and insights, had similar views and obsessions, and they worked collaboratively as much as they could, most fully in the long series of interviews they published jointly as On The Way To Work.
While he had been conducting these interviews, the centrepiece of his shrewd insider's analysis of the Brit-art milieu, Burn was also engaged in studying the case of Fred and Rosemary West. His novel Fullalove, about a repugnant tabloid reporter and his breakdown, was written while he attended the trial. The book about the Wests that he eventually published, Happy Like Murderers, was considered meat too strong for many critics, as if an account of such a subject could possibly be anything else.
The Sutcliffe and West books, however, are fascinating companions, each detailing the descent into psychosis of raw, rural survivors as the urban sprawled out to meet them. There was always something about Burn's anthropological stare that was unsettling. He gazed without compromise, always in pursuit of the truth, which he never found unbearable, however terrible and horrific it might have been.
At the beginning of one of his earliest essays about Hirst, Burn quoted from the Van Morrison song, Slim Slow Slider: "I know you're dying baby. And I know you know it too." He did love an epigram. The essay was largely a critical analysis of Hirst's seminal work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. I haven't read it for something like 15 years. I can't bear the thought of reading it now.
Gordon Burn, writer: born Newcastle upon Tyne 16 January 1948; died 17 July 2009.
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