July 30, 2009
Gordon Burn: Pocket Money
I was shocked to learn this month of the death of Gordon Burn at the age of 61, and disappointed (but not that shocked) by the lack of coverage in the news media. I’d read most of his books (assiduously avoiding his work on Fred and Rosemary West) but had always assumed that Pocket Money, his second book, was an apprentice work. I bought it when it was reissued by Faber last year, but felt no urge to read it despite the appealing, to me, combination of snooker (good) and Burn (even better). Feeling that the best tribute we can pay to a dead author is to read the books, I belatedly dived in.
Pocket Money: Britain’s Boom-Time Snooker was published in 1986, and has the excesses of its decade running through it. Snooker, driven by the private enterprise of sports promoter Barry Hearn, in the previous few years had grown from an unregarded working-class pastime to “Coronation Street with balls”, or rather became a combination of the two: a world, in the words of the The Star newspaper, where “beer and fags meet glossy soap-style living.” Its apogee was the final of the world championships in 1985, where 18.5 million people set viewing records by staying up until after midnight to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black ball. This was some improvement from the years 1957-64, when the world championships weren’t contested because there wasn’t enough support to make it worthwhile; or on 1976, when the promoter made off with the money.
Barry Hearn’s crusade to render it a ‘socially hygienic’ game by representing the cleanest stars such as Davis and Taylor was forever under threat by the wilder – one might say more interesting – characters. Alex Higgins “at one point was dossing in a row of derelict houses in Blackburn where, he claims, he kept just ahead of the bulldozer, with five addresses in one week: 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 Ebony Street.” Another troubled player was represented by an agent whose “father had to place a small ad in the Sporting Life when he needed to get hold of him in a hurry to let him know that his mother was dying.” Hearn’s response was to raise his players’ prices, exert a stranglehold on the game’s governing body, and maximise his (and his players’) returns. “You want it tasteful but you want it volume” was a guiding principle for him, leading to decisions such as the launch of the ‘Matchroom’ fragrance (“For Men Who Play to Win”). (Or as Ray Reardon, a ‘gentleman player’ of the old school, put it, “If going round chemist shops autographing boxes of aftershave is what you want to do, then fine. You should sign with Barry Hearn.”)
Pocket Money is a story of the past versus the future. The past appears as the game’s governing body, the WPBSA, initially a sort of gentlemen’s club presided over by prewar champion Joe Davis, maligned by Hearn but held in affection by those like commentator ‘whispering’ Ted Lowe, whose views (“the world’s upside down”) were reflected in his personal involvement in the banning of Alex Higgins from the TV show Pot Black: “He had three girls in his dressing room, black as the ace of spades, straight off the streets of Birmingham.”
If the tawdry underbelly of snooker is ‘very Gordon Burn’ (the book is peopled by men in “deep-vented dude-suits” or who have had shotguns fired through their windows: “It blew the chandelier off the ceiling”), then so too is the approach to fame. “Almost everything I have written,” Burn said last year, “has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” We can see the beginning of his interest in the subject when he writes of Terry Griffiths, the snooker success of the late 70s and early 80s, who found homesickness and a kind of vertigo to be the penalties of fame. He couldn’t visit his old snooker club. “They all just changed towards me in a day.” It was the same for Joe Johnson, who in 1986 came from nowhere to beat Steve Davis in the final, just as Dennis Taylor had the year before (the book spans the period in between).
Johnson … said ‘no’ to most of the commercial enticements which flooded in. Privately, he was known to believe that becoming world champion was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to Dennis Taylor. ‘Even in the first week,’ Johnson said, ‘my wife, my friends and my family were treating me different. I don’t want to be treated different.’
Barry Hearn, to whom success was measured by the number of zeros on a cheque, put it another way. “Joe had his chance to have it off, and he fucked up.” Burn’s presentation of voice is as impeccable as in a good novel, with Hearn’s wide-boy locutions a particular highlight. “Are you sure? Are-yew-shaw? Are-yew-really-shaw?” Others are presented in memorable one-line depictions which seem to define their place in the tableau: fighters, also-rans, bottlers.
At 3-0 down in his quarter-final against Cliff Thorburn, Willie [Thorne] would race round the players’ room borrowing the £1,000 or so in cash to place on himself in the Corals office in the foyer, in an effort to give his game some edge.
Reading the book from two decades’ distance reminds us that the if the past was bad, the future did not turn out as many in the game hoped. The mid-80s turned out to be the peak of snooker’s popular success. Clive Everton, in an eloquent afterword, bemoans the opportunities squandered by the WPBSA. Pocket Money describes the time “when snooker was on honeymoon with the world.” It is as much social document as sporting chronicle, a vital and engrossing read, and a perfect introduction to Burn’s beady eye.