What Gordon Burn taught me: Write, write write, day and night

The week before the first winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize is announced, novelist Ben Myers remembers the pilgrimage he made to Burn's remote home in the Scottish borders.

Haunted is one word I would use to describe Gordon Burn’s writing. Forensic is another. Across a substantial body of work that spans journalism, criticism, biography and fiction – often simultaneously - characters real and imaged drift and merge through a landscape we recognise but don’t always like to acknowledge that we inhabit.

Because Burn’s writing is not concerned with anything as ethereal as the spirit world but rather something far more disturbing: contemporary Britain, and all of its – all of our - obsessions. Crime, celebrity, corruption, sport, the media, modern art – all provide inspiration for Burn’s unique approach to storytelling. And all of it feels haunted: haunted by man’s potential, for good and unbelievably bad, and all observed in forensic detail.

Though Burn died in 2009 I can only ever use the present tense to describe his work. Whether considering the big themes of life, death and all the cruelties and disappointment inbetween or cataloguing the shimmering surfaces and minutiae of modernity his writing is so full of life that it lives on way beyond the past tense. Transcends it, in fact.

Even when digging deep into the darkest recesses of the human psyche - as he did in his 1984 portrait of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, which reached beyond the tabloid perceptions of evil to offer a poignant, studied and - yes - forensic portrait - or in Happy Like Murderers, the diabolical account of Fred and Rose West, two of life’s losers who made the leap from abused to abuser, Burn found life. His posthumously published collection of writing on modern art’s finest – Gilbert and George and Damien and Tracey - Sex & Violence, Death & Silence is the work of a man in love with life; in love with art’s ability to go beyond words.

Burn’s particular fascination with the alienating tendencies of celebrity and, perhaps more intriguingly, what comes after celebrity, was ahead of its time and his ability to transpose real people into imagined settings an influence on a new generation of writers, most notably David Peace who recently described Burn’s work as an on-going “argument between reality and imagination”. Certainly reading Burn’s debut novel Alma Cogan gave me the courage to write my first novel Richard, a novelisation of the disappearance of musician Richey Edwards.

As a shortlisted author for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, which recognises fiction or non-fiction which “most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods ... literature which challenges perceived notions of genre”, I recently spent time in Burn’s remote holiday home in the Scottish borders completing a novel of my own - a book set in the rural north, about murder, vice and corruption.

Six miles from the nearest shop with the River Dye running by the window and the nearby dark woods oscillating with the cooing of thousands of wood pigeons, it was an inspiring but also daunting experience. The remoteness was not a problem (I live in the windswept Pennines and generally feel like Crocodile Dundee in cities) but there was no getting around the fact: occupying the space left behind by a towering figure whose work casts a long shadow across your own is both strangely exhilarating and intimidating.

Here I was surrounded by the personal effects of a man whose work inspired me to write in the first place: the notes in the margins of other books (“Ray’s memory?” penned on a page in JB Priestley’s An English Journey, was clearly the club singer Ray Cruddas from 2003 novel The North of England Home Service taking shape before my very eyes); scribbles in his own books explaining to future readers his intentions; his DVDs of kitchen sink realist films; original art by the likes of Peter Blake and Michael Landy, and his collection of Jade Goody biographies.

How not to feel overawed – but inspired too? Where Burn’s writing so often zooms in on the fine detail – the possessions, trinkets, and totems that comprise the ephemera of all our lives - in time I found myself cataloguing those possessions which fed into his work. And when that was done and the dog was walked there was nothing else to do but write. Write, write, write. Day and night.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do know that spaces can hold memories and I know that as creatures with finely tuned senses we react to our surroundings. Observing the life of Gordon Burn through his work and his home without ever having met him felt like rare privilege – a glimpse into the world of a true talent whose literary influence, one suspects, is only going to grow over the coming years.

Gordon Burn presented a "haunted" vision of Britain. Photograph: Sarah Lee.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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