July 30, 2009

Gordon Burn: Pocket Money

Posted in Burn Gordon at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

Gordon Burn: Pocket Money

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.

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21 Comments »

  1. steve said,

    A century break there John. But why are you assiduously avoiding the work on Tony & Ch … I mean Fred and Rosemary West?

  2. John Self said,

    Pure squeamishness I’m afraid, Steve. I probably will read it at some point but I’ve never felt the time is right to settle down with its catalogue of depravity (that description from a friend who has read it: indeed, for whom I bought it as a birthday present…). This is not the same thing as your inability to read “crime or horror novels; books which bring great suffering into being for no other reason than generic necessity.” (An inability which I share.) I have no doubt that Happy Like Murderers is one of the best works by a very fine writer. Yet it is a world which I cannot bring myself to enter into voluntarily.

  3. Adr. said,

    I, too, was shocked when I learned about Gordon Burn’s death. He was a writer I’d always meant to read. I did try to read Happy Like Murderers once but had to put it down. It was brilliantly written but very very difficult to stomach. I will get around to it again some day, and maybe Gordon’s untimely demise will inspire me.

    Pocket Money, on the other hand, sounds fascinating. I grew up with the surge in popularity of snooker and recognise all the characters that you mention in your review. It sounds like it’s a good place for me to start reading Burn.

  4. John Self said,

    crime or horror novels; books which bring great suffering into being for no other reason than generic necessity

    Speaking of this, I have just abandoned such a book halfway through. Stuart Neville’s The Twelve (US title: The Ghosts of Belfast) has been highly praised in the press and by writers such as James Ellroy. I bought it because of my recent unexpected enjoyment of books about Northern Ireland’s Troubles (a subject I’d previously avoided).

    It has an interesting thriller premise: a former IRA man is literally haunted by the ghosts of his twelve victims, and must ‘avenge’ their deaths by killing the people who were complicit with him in their murders. In doing so he threatens to destabilise the ever-fledgling peace process, and there is a variety in the types of ‘conspirators’ he must kill, which blends things nicely into shades of grey. It is also quite well-written, though as with Child 44, I found myself maddened by the lack of narrative integrity: characters were forever reflecting on things they already knew (down to trivialities such as locations of streets: “[Eglantine] Avenue ran between Lisburn and Malone Roads”) just to give Neville a way of explaining them to the reader (not that the location of streets will be of any relevance to readers outside Belfast). Is it fussy for me to consider this sort of POV-blindness and over-explanation to be clumsy and wrong? Or is it considered acceptable – or even de rigueur – because a book is ‘just’ a thriller?

    The book also has an admirably bold pessimism about Northern Ireland, something akin to Simon Hoggart’s old saying that the people of NI will do anything for peace except vote for it. Unfortunately the bleakness is tempered by a sort of sentimentality, and I groaned inwardly when (spoiler alert) a romantic entanglement seemed not far off, and even more when it became clear that the object of said entanglement was one of the people the main character had to kill.

    I gave up on it partly because it was ultimately not doing much for me other than keeping me turning the pages (not a bad achievement in itself) and because I felt there was something slightly repellent or exploitative about the premise. Neville uses real incidents in the Troubles, such as the Shankill Road fish shop bombing (here thinly veiled to become a butcher’s shop), to further the cause of what is, ultimately, a piece of entertainment. I also found it hard to stomach that we were supposed at least in part to empathise with the main character, a ‘vicious bastard’, just because he feels remorse for his murders. Yet we never get the chance to discover whether some of his new victims felt remorse for their involvement before he bops them. We know that we’re supposed to empathise with him a little because there’s a scene where he reminisces about making guitars in prison with an old loyalist lag, whereupon the object of his romantic entanglement says (“her face glimmering”), “It’s the first time I’ve seen you really smile.”

    The Twelve seems to be doing well for Neville and is probably a superior example of its genre, but it proved to me again that this isn’t really my sort of thing.

  5. Sam said,

    Is it fussy for me to consider this sort of POV-blindness and over-explanation to be clumsy and wrong? Or is it considered acceptable – or even de rigueur – because a book is ‘just’ a thriller?

    This is just one of the narrative conventions of the genre, and even of genre-fiction as a whole. It’s equivalent to those scenes in TV sitcoms when a character on the phone repeats everything the person on the other end is saying for the benefit of the viewer.

    It probably ought to be said that literary fiction has its narrative conventions too: dialogue, for instance. If we went by literary fiction alone, you’d think that no one in the world ever makes small talk or discusses the weather or asks what happened on EastEnders the previous night.

  6. I’m with you, John, on the annoyance of POV handiness to introduce elements that the author needs to go to the reader — and in no way do I think that problem is restricted to the thriller genre. Even more annoying, for me, is the convenience of a “dream” to do exactly the same thing. You know what I think about “tilting trees” influencing my opinion of a book. Often, it is little devices like this that cause the tree to take a major lurch in the negative direction.

    I was also interested in your observation about the author’s need to draw a map, when for most readers the map has no meaning or resonance at all. Often when this happens (and again it is not restricted to the thriller genre by any means) I have wondered if for some reason the author needs to keep his own geography straight — there are certainly good examples of authors (Sheila Watson in The Double Hook most recently comes to mind, since her advisor admitted he drew a map to make sure it was consistent) who don’t need to supply the reader with that data.

    So I don’t think the POV issue is a thriller problem; rather, it is a bad writer problem.

  7. John Self said,

    Yes, good points Sam and Kevin.

    Even more annoying, for me, is the convenience of a “dream” to do exactly the same thing.

    Someone pointed out to me recently that when a book introduces a character by having him go to a bathroom mirror and look at himself – so that the author can describe him to the reader – he abandons the book. I must observe that Hugo Wilcken does this in Colony, though it’s halfway through, and at a point where the reader is wondering about the identity of the new character, so not quite so blatant.

    Another example which came to mind when I was looking today at the opening pages of a book I received a review copy of, is when the author begins by describing a photograph of some of the characters. Another lazy hook, it seems to me.

  8. Sam said,

    Agree it’s not restricted to the thriller genre (there’s a lot of it in Byatt’s Possession, albeit very cleverly disguised), but if we agree that one of the characteristics of genre fiction is that its prose primarily serves the purpose of the plot (and we may not, but that’s a different debate), then I think we can say that this kind of ‘As you know, Bob…’ writing is broadly accepted by readers of the genre i.e. it’s just following convention. And if it’s a convention then I don’t think we can call it bad-writing as such*, no more than we can call literary fiction badly written because its dialogue doesn’t mirror how we actually talk – that’s just another time-honoured convention.

    *no regular reader or reviewer of thrillers criticises the book for its lack of nuance in relation to point of view – criticisms tend to stick to points of plot (originality thereof etc.) They tend to accept that the writing just is what it is (assuming they can tell the difference between, say, a paragraph by Updike and one by Grisham – and not all readers can or care to.)

    In other words, John, maybe you’re just not quite wired to enjoy this kind of stuff.

  9. Sam said,

    Yes, dreams and looking-in-the-mirror and the like are done to death (as is the phrase ‘done to death’). I guess there’s a line somewhere between convention and cliche.

  10. It is true (referencing your Wilcken example) that I will (grudginly) grant the author the right to do things like this if I am engaged in the book. If you want, it raises a pink flag, not a red one. I don’t read thrillers so I can’t comment on that — I would say the concern that you identify exists in a lot of literary fiction.

    And it is true that I have never once looked in the mirror and seen anything but my face. No past, no future. I wonder if that makes me an empty soul. Don’t think so.

    Reviewing previous blog posts and comments, on the other hand, is sometimes a disastrous reminder, but I’ll pass on that for now. A cheap literary device if any author ever does to try it.

  11. John Self said,

    Yes, I take your point, Sam.

    I should say, as I perhaps didn’t make it clear above, that the explanatory stuff I’m talking about in The Twelve doesn’t come in the form of dialogue between characters but within a character’s free indirect speech. For example a character, a double agent, is put in a house in the ‘Holylands’ area of Belfast, and the paragraph is narrated from his point of view.

    A pity they don’t do it more often, Campbell thought as he tossed the holdall on the bed. … It was a smart move, putting him here. The area was almost entirely populated by students attending Queen’s University, the sprawling complex of Victorian and modern buildings at the bottom of the Malone Road.

    So that may seem even less reprehensible than, “As you know, Bob…” dialogue, but to me it sticks out like a sore thumb when a character’s point of view suddenly includes tourist brochure information.

    ‘Sticks out like a sore thumb.’ Hm yes, these clichés are hard to avoid, aren’t they? In a review I wrote yesterday, which will go up later this week, I found myself committing a few real clangers and after I removed them, sat there staring at the computer for quite a while trying to work out how to say the same thing without resorting to a cliché. We write so often in clichés that we have even come to think in them.

  12. Sam said,

    We write so often in clichés that we have even come to think in them.

    There should be a war against them.

  13. Mrinal Bose said,

    John, with the Man Booker longlist announced, I’m hoping you would begin the round of your reviews of the listed books as you did last year. You must have noticed that there are three first-time authors this time. I would appreciate if you cover them first. Thanks.

  14. John Self said,

    Hi Mrinal. I’ve already written about Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (click on their names in the author list on the sidebar) but I don’t plan to read the Booker longlist this year, at least not all of it systematically. I found the experience mostly tiresome last year and the presence on the longlist this year of many ‘safe’ choices doesn’t suggest that I will be pleasantly surprised this time around.

    I suggest you visit KevinfromCanada’s blog, as he will be doing the longlist, I believe. I often, though not always, agree with his views. You’ll see there that from the three debuts on the list, he hated both Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin, and The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (his review of the latter goes up later this week). I must admit that such dispraise makes me more likely to want to read them, so watch this space anyway. (The third debut novel, Me Cheeta, is described by its author as ‘not a good book’ and was written to commission, though I believe it’s highly entertaining.) And I will certainly be covering the likes of the William Trevor and J.M. Coetzee novels, when I can get my hands on them.

    I might cover the shortlist, depending on how many 600-page novels are on it.

    (If anyone else is covering the longlist in its entirety, leave a comment below with a link to your blog.)

  15. Tom Cunliffe said,

    Gordon Burn was a totally professional writer who explored the most painful topics without flinching. I have never read the Fred and Rosemary book for the same reason as you, but his latest book, Born Yesterday, was a very fine piece of work. It is hard to get inside the head of a writer and discover his motivations, but I think Burn just had a questing eye which just wanted to get behind the news and understand what was really going on.

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks Tom, for dragging the discussion back to Burn! And thanks, too, to Peter Robins of the Guardian website for linking to this review. The fact that there still has not been much interest in the book here, however, indicates that Burn still has some way to go to break through to the recognition he deserves (and that the subject matter of a book, if not thought to be of interest, can be offputting even when the author’s name is a guarantor of quality). For some writers, such as Richard Yates, death was (eventually) a good career move. No sign of that yet with Burn.

  17. amner said,

    Excellent debate, guys. As someone who has read Happy Like Murderers (twice!), I’d just pop in a belated recommendation for it. A tough and uncomfortable trawl through inhumanity it may be, but it’s Burn at the top of his game, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

  18. Lee Monks said,

    Well, having read a spate of grim crime-scene encapsulations re: Fred and Rose, I certainly have no need or inclination to do so again, as superb a writer as Burn was. I sorely wish I could have an excerpted version that sticks to the ‘questing eye’ aforementioned minus yet more soul-suffocating retreads through the lists of systematic, dead-eyed savagery that went on, but knowing Burn and his unflinching disposition I’d imagine it’d be pointless. I will, though, definitely read Pocket Money as soon as I get hold of it.

  19. Hi John,

    Thanks for the Burn recommendations, I ordered Alma Cogan yesterday. I was tempted by Best and Edwards but noted you thought it possibly his best, and I’d rather not start with the best.

    As an aside, I see an interesting discussion here on infodumps/PoV blindness in genre novels. As I do read some genre, I can confirm it’s seen as bad writing there too and not simply as a narrative convention. I would admit though that genre fans are sometimes more tolerant of bad writing provided the plot or other elements are well served.

    Thankfully I’ve read few novels with explanatory dream sequences, I’ve seen the mirror thing often enough though and both are tiresome.

    Re Pocket Money, if I take to Alma Cogan (and I expect to) then this will be on the list. I grew up in the 1980s and my stepfather watched all this stuff, it will be interesting to see the analysis.

  20. John Self said,

    I hope you like Alma, Max, and I think you will. The psychopathology of fame is an evergreen subject, and even more relevant today than in 1991 when Burn wrote the book.

  21. [...] • John Self on the merits – greater than expected – of Gordon Burn’s snooker book. [...]


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