Gordon Burn’s brutal follow up to Alma Cogan looks at the public out-pouring of grief following tragedies like the James Bulger murder. Eddie Gibb took down the details.
The hard-drinking anti-hero of Gordon Burn‘s second
novel has an unfortunate affliction for a journalist with stylistic pretensions — his name. ‘Norman
Miller‘.‘ runs the book-jacket blurb. 'used to be one of '
Fleet Street‘s linest.‘ Since turning left onto Skid Row. however. his colleagues have taken to calling him ‘Norrnan Mailer‘ in a mocking tribute to this hack's hero. the grizzled great of contemporary American letters.
In I’uIIuIm'e. the high point of Miller‘s career is described as the moment when he met Mailer while the two reporters were covering the legendary George Foreman/Mohammed Ali fight in Zaire. It was around then that Miller’s prose wandered away from the terse frontline despatches of a news writer and developed the stylistic hills of the features man.
This is also Burn's territory but. unlike Miller who thinned his creativity with scotch. Burn is a star journalist-turned-novelist whose lengthy features regularly appear in glossies like Esquire. As a writer who alternates between non-fiction and novels. Burn is perhaps the closest we've come to producing a British Norman Mailer. Burn admits that Mailer's book The Et'er'trlimrr'r's Song about the Cary
Gordon Burn: serial killer fascination
Gilmore trial remains an enormous influence on his work. His first book was a non-fiction account of the Yorkshire Ripper case. and Burn has already booked a press seat for the trial of Rosemary West. the alleged conspirator in the ‘Gloucester intornber' case. Add to this the subject matter of Burn's prize- winning debut novel. which brilliantly wove together the frctionalised reminiscences of 50s singer Alma Cogan (‘the girl with a chuckle in her voice‘) and the Brady/Hindley moors murders. and the author starts to look like a bit of a serial killer nut. ‘l'm interested
III the way private horror is turned into entertainment by newspapers.‘ says Burn. ‘lt becomes soap-operatic in a way and the sub-text is that "we're OK". Personal grief is a way of solacing the reader.‘
Although l’u/lulore is partly a satire on journalism‘s low-life -— at times it reads like a Home Counties version of Hunter 'l‘lrornpson's Fear and Lorri/ring in les Vegas — the starting point for Burn was the wave of public sympathy that tragedies like llillsborough aroused. While xl/mu ('ogmr was about private sorrow. I’rrllulorr' is about bigger. baser emotions.
-‘Betore mass media and television your
own memories and emotions were what
you carried with you but now more and more we share the same things.’
Burn was fascinated by the spontaneous floral memorials that spring up around the site of such tragedies. The murder ofJames Bulger occured while Burn was gathering material for the book. and convinced him that the reaction to these events said something about mid-90s Britain. ‘Bcfore mass media and television your own memories and
. emotions were what you carried with you but now
nrore and more we share the sarrre things."he says. ‘I
wanted to try to figure out what it meant for ordinary
people to be sucked into these kind of events.‘ Miller's style is doorstepping the parents of dead
' children before swiping photos of the deceased from
mantelpieces. While as a journalist Burn has covered similar stories. he argues that he writes about these tragic events as cultural phenomena in which media
coverage plays a part. Ultimately. though. isn't
writing books about serial killers (he already has a commission for the Fred West case) just another form ofentertainment? ‘I don't feel I'm cashing in on rnisery.‘ he responds. ‘I don't feel at all defensive about writing a book of that kind. It‘s important that this sttrff is dealt with in some way -- you can't pretend it's not going on.‘
I'll/ltl/(il‘r' is pub/[she'd Irv Set/(er d5 ll’ur/mrg uI £74.99.
damn- Orcadian rhythms
‘lle was a man who lived entirely in the past. He disliked all the fruits of progress that his fellow islanders were beginning to splurge in.’ With qualifications, this descrition of an old tamer in one of George Mackay Brown’s Winter Tales could be applied to the author himself. His work celebrates man’s relationship with nature and laments the lost links with our common history: as communications are becoming ever more extensive, the quality of life, he believes, is in steep decline.
Born in Stromness in 1921, this quiet, retiring poet and novelist has rarely left the Orkneys and has never been
George Mackay Brown: master storyteller
outside the British Isles, although he evinces a childlike curiosity about the world beyond his world. ‘I find all my themes in Orkney,’ he explains, ‘and I don’t need to travel.’ He regards his home as a microcosm of all human life. Can’t that be said of almost
anywhere? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but in Orkney you feel it more vividly than in the middle of a city, because you’re in touch with the elements more
All the stories in his latest collection , have a seasonal context, portraying ' the rituals imposed by the calendar, the rigours of fishing and taming in the bleak midwinter and the legacy of the islands’ occupation by a succession of rich cultures. The author hopes to refresh our collective ; memory through his affectionate : observation of Orcadian rhythms.
‘There was a great tradition of storytelling in winter, but of course that’s been lost to a great extent. People don’t tell stories so much nowadays: there’s too much television and newspapers and idle gossip,’ he s laughs. ‘The art is being lost, and it’s l been so important in the history of
Belying his claim that he is ‘not a
very deeply spiritual man’, his own art 7 displays a deceptive simplicity of expression usually associated with parable and myth. ‘I just write the way a spider spins its web, sort of instinctively,’ he says modestly. ‘Words are crude things to convey what you truly want to convey, but they’re the only instruments you’ve got and you just have to make do. You never achieve perfection this side of eternity.’
In one Yuletide tale, a shepherd meditates on a deserted crag: ‘llere the island men came together on 5 winter nights to tell their stories. The stories of that island have passed into the great silence.’ From George Mackay Brown’s wintry summaries spring echoes of those ancient i colloquies, his words falling like snowflakes gently across the centuries. (David Harris)
Winter Tales by George Mackay Brown is published by John Murray at £15. 99.