The News as a Novel

Gordon Burn and the ability to "disclose that which exists"

The writer and novelist Gordon Burn died last week at the age of 61. Few English writers have taken as seriously as Burn did Philip Roth's famous observations about what the "culture" does to the novel. Contemplating "American reality" in 1960, Roth wrote that the novelist has "his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make [it] credible ... It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist."

Burn understood that this was the predicament of any novelist trying to anatomise English reality in the early twenty-first century. His solution was to turn the novel into news. In an interview given a little over a year ago, Burn described his last book Born Yesterday, in which he uses the two salient news stories of the summer of 2007 (the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the resignation of Tony Blair) as foils to his imagination, as a kind of "found object":

[T]he narrative was largely given, as were all of the main 'characters' - Blair, Brown, the McCanns, Kate Middleton, John Smeaton - other than the narrator. The imaginative challenge - and therefore what in my view makes Born Yesterday a novel - came in making connections that hadn't previously been apparent. John Berger once said something that struck me very forcibly, and that I recalled continually in the writing of this book: 'Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists.' So it was about looking; about sifting, and sitting still and thinking.

The judgement of his editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, that this ability to "disclose that which exists" made Burn "as crucial to our understanding of ourselves as De Lillo is to American culture" doesn't seem in the least hyperbolic.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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