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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage