Burn Gordon

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.

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.

Gordon Burn: Born Yesterday

The cover of Born Yesterday quotes novelist David Peace calling Burn “the best British writer there is.” Peace and Burn have a certain sensibility in common so we might expect some bias, but even so, at times I would agree with him. Burn’s relentless pursuit of the centre of “the psychopathology of fame” over the last couple of decades has given us some wonderful, overlooked books. His debut novel Alma Cogan (1991) took a subtle look at the tabloid iconography of Myra Hindley while Rupert Thomson was still in short trousers. His last book Best and Edwards was my favourite read of 2006, bringing an exceptional literary intelligence to twin tragic tales of the other end of celebrity: a book about football which even a soccerphobe like me could love. So when I heard that he was going to be taking the major news events of 2007 and making a novel out of them, I was hyperventilating with anticipation. My usual trawls of eBay, publisher’s publicists and elsewhere at the start of the year for an advance copy proved fruitless; no wonder, as it turns out Burn only started writing it at Christmas, and finished just six weeks before publication, in mid-February. A novel in six weeks? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Iain Banks. Oh dear.

Born Yesterday

Here’s the news: it’s not a novel. There is no overall storyline, and no invention at all so far as I could tell (even the joining character, ‘he’, turns out to be Burn himself, researching the book). Stylistically it’s indistinguishable from Best and Edwards, which means it has a ruminative air, circling its subject matter with facts and implications, and always returning to Burn’s bête noire: the public appetite for pointless fame, the media happy to feed it, and the effect it has on consumer and consumed.

Also like Best and Edwards, Born Yesterday is not ashamed to admit when someone else has said something better than Burn could – or before he could – and the book is rich with aphorisms from reliable sources:

There are really two kinds of life, notes the American writer James Salter. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.

Salter joins J.G. Ballard, Philip Larkin, George Steiner, John McGahern, and names new to me, all with something to say on this psychopathology which so fascinates Burn (and me, otherwise why would I be writing this?). Howard Singerman: “The collective memory of any recent generation has now become the individual memory of each of its members, for the things that carry the memory are marked not by the privacy, the specificity and insignificance of Proust’s madeleine, but precisely by their publicness and their claim to significance.”

But where does this leave the meat of Burn’s book, the news stories and people we think we know from the current affairs of the past summer, as we wait patiently for him to transform their base stuff into art? It doesn’t happen, quite. The main players are Tony Blair as he hands over his premiership to Gordon Brown (with his “folded Shar Pei features”), the bombers of Glasgow airport and instantaneous media hero John Smeaton, and Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of Madeleine McCann “who vanished into folklore and common fame” on holiday in Portugal.

Burn treads carefully with the last, justifying their inclusion in the book on the basis that their media story is one of manipulation at both ends – and I bet he wishes he’d held the deadline back a few weeks to cover the McCanns’ libel victory against Express newspapers – for reasons fair and foul. It’s also clear he couldn’t resist it because of the parallels of the McCann story to some of the content of his 1995 novel Fullalove, which he explicitly reminds us of (to be fair, most of us probably needed reminding), as well as some inconsequential connections with other elements of the book (Proust/madeleine, defective eye/Gordon Brown).

There’s the odd bit of flashy prose which is even more reminiscent of Fullalove, when Burn engages with the garish elements of urban modernity (“…on the top of the number 19, gazing out of the tagged, hazed window, catching the effervescent blue of the digitised sign on the side of the bus occasionally bubbling up against shop window displays and stretches of marble curtain-walling…”), and the fiction comes really only when he extrapolates into the lives of people he sees, such as the woman in the supermarket buying “a slippery stack of New!, Now, Star and other junk magazines” and an addict’s supply of chocolate bars:

this innocent but potentially sordid transaction – the basement living room, the gorging, the trips to the bathroom, back to New! and EastEnders; a woman scoring her drug of choice at the local Tesco.

Again the most succinct summing up of the problem with the sort of fame we are now exposed to, comes from another writer, this time Thomas de Zengotita. It could equally apply to the benighted state of our bookstores, where actress-slash-model-turned-author gets more shelf space and print coverage than fine writers like Burn.

Real heroes today must become stars if they are to exist in public culture at all. That is, they must perform. But as soon as they do that, they can’t compete with real stars – who are performers.