Only Connect: Gordon Burn
Gordon Burn wrote evocatively about serial killers, snooker players and modern artists. As his final book is published, Brian Donaldson pays tribute to the late author and journalist
When Gordon Burn died in July, he left behind a shocked and saddened literary community. In the obituaries, Val McDermid wrote of his work as ‘a masterclass in engagement with society’; Richard T Kelly dubbed him one of the country’s ‘foremost prose stylists’; Faber’s editorial director Lee Brackstone mourned the fact that ‘we have lost one of the great literary innovators of these times’. On the cover of Burn’s books, David Peace describes him as ‘the best British writer there is’. All of them are correct.
In this prize-frenetic world, it seems almost perverse that his debut, Alma Cogan, was the only book to be garnished with a trophy, the Whitbread First Novel. Not that Burn would have cared a jot about such fripperies; he even joked about how he would have loved it had the Booker judges longlisted Born Yesterday, his compelling ‘News as a Novel’. There, the Blairs, the McCanns, Margaret Thatcher and Burn himself appear in his fictionalised analysis of our 24-hour rolling news culture where odd and unexpected connections and parallels rise up from behind the summer headlines of 2007.
While he wrote about the early 80s snooker boom (Pocket Money), Manchester United’s wayward sons (Best and Edwards) and visual art (collaborating with Damien Hirst for the lavish On the Way to Work), many will remember him most vividly for his writing about serial killers. Myra Hindley appears in Alma Cogan while Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son was a measured study of Peter Sutcliffe’s upbringing. Arguably, Burn’s masterpiece is Happy Like Murderers, his explosive 1998 book about Fred and Rose West which sought to get inside the emotions of the victims amid painful and repetitive descriptions of torture and death. It’s an epic and bleak work which drags you into the heart of darkness, never losing its grip until the final brutal page is done. Not everyone went for it, with Tony Parsons wondering whether the author spent too much time ‘with his nose stuck in a body bag’. For Burn himself, the rigorous process of constructing the book left its own mark and he vowed never to write ‘true crime’ again.
Born in 1948 and raised as an only child in Newcastle, the young Burn spent his free time autograph-hunting outside St James’ Park or hanging out with an uncle and his pigeons. His regular haunt was Newcastle Central Library where he boned up on Enid Blyton and DH Lawrence, while at home he read ‘beatnicky literature’ and listened to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. His big writing break came when he wrote a ‘weird, New Journalistic’ piece about Vera Lynn and work with the Radio Times (including a drunken adventure with Gilbert and George), Rolling Stone and The Sunday Times came his way before he eventually channelled his talents into book form.
And now his final one is here with Sex & Violence, Death & Silence featuring over three decades of writing on the art world, focussing on the pop art of Hockney and his contemporaries and the 1990s YBA crew. It’s difficult to accept that there will now be no more but Gordon Burn leaves behind a legacy of masterful chronicles and vivid evocations of modern British history and society that few of his peers will come close to emulating.
Sex & Violence, Death & Silence is published by Faber on Thu 5 Nov.