Last night I went to the Lexington, Islington, for ‘Fullalove’, a celebration of the work of Gordon Burn, ten years after his death. Burn is an important writer for me – or rather, some of his books have been very important to me. The people up on stage to say the same thing, and prove it, were: Cosi Fanni Tutti, Adelle Stripe, David Keenan and Paul Pomerantsev. They were introduced by Burn’s former editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, and followed by a soundscape-and-reading by none other than Andrew Weatherall.
The simple but effective set-up was that the four writers – all of whom have either been nominated for the Gordon Burn prize, or been a judge on it – were asked to read us an extract of one of their books, and another from one of Burn’s books, of their choice. They all read well, and chose interesting selections, but my reason for wanting to write this up on the blog was to record the thoughts that occurred to me, as I watched and listened, about Burn, violence and ‘true crime’.
When I say I’ve read Burn, what I mean is that I’ve read (most of) the novels: Alma Cogan, Fullalove and Born Yesterday – plus some of the art writing, and the interview book with Damien Hirst. (For the bizarre relationship between Burn’s collaborations with Hirst and my debut novel, Randall or The Painted Grape, see here.)
What I haven’t read is the narrative non-fiction: neither the books about sport (Pocket Money and Best and Edwards) nor those about serial killers (Happy Like Murderers and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son). This is for the very simple reason that I’m not that interested in either of those subjects – and in fact I have what might call a visceral antipathy towards the ‘true crime’ genre. I hate it. It makes me squirm. The idea of it makes me sick. The idea of the people who read that shit makes me sick. I don’t want any part of it, and I certainly don’t want to be like them.
Now, I know that Burn’s writing about Sutcliffe and the Wests is different to your average ‘Free binder with Part III’ lip-smacking, faux-appalled, entirely egregious example of the form, but still I haven’t read them, though Happy Like Murderers sits on my shelf. But what struck me, last night, which seems entirely to Burn’s credit, is that, of the writers on stage, it was the two women who chose to read from these books about the very worst kind of – absolutely, specifically – misogynistic murderers.
Tutti started the evening with a reading from her memoir Art Sex Music about her abusive relationship with Genesis P-Orridge, in which he kicks her in the crotch and throttles her when she tells him she’s leaving him. She then went straight on to read from Happy Like Murderers, telling how Fred West forced Rosemary to have sex with other men, watching, controlling and beating her. The similarities are obvious, such that, a day later, I’m not entirely sure which incidents were from which book. Tutti read calmly and clearly – almost placidly. It was the first time I’d heard her read, and it wasn’t at all what I expected: nothing ‘performance art’ about it, and a far cry from punk or Dada, but devastating nonetheless. Hirst in his interview with David Peace at the start of Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, talks again and again about Burn’s economy, and that’s certainly something Tutti shares with him.
The final reading of the evening was from Adelle Stripe, who read from and talked about Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, which she described as an incredibly important book for her (especially in writing her novel about Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile) but also for the cultural history of Yorkshire. Her Burn extract described Sutcliffe’s attack on Maureen Long, in July 1977, whom he left for dead, but who survived – and who was friends with Dunbar. Stripe then read a section from her own book in which the two women discuss the Ripper attacks.
The appeal of Burn’s books, to me, is not that they so deliberately stalk the dark parts of human life, but that they do so so humanely. The tape in Alma Cogan, the attacks in Fullalove – and, presumably, huge swathes of the non-fiction books – are grim almost beyond comprehension, but they are not there to titillate. There is no love of violence buried deep in Burn’s work, as there can be when people are writing about – ‘exploring’ – the dark, vicious, horrific side of life. Of course happiness writes white, and Milton was of the Devil’s party and did not know it, and we all love a monster, and to say that depicting violence breeds violence is facile in the extreme, but there is a point when interest in this stuff becomes pathological, or fetishistic.
When people are fascinated by violence, and serial killers, it’s hard not to wonder how much love is mixed up in the horror. If anything, what Burn is most interested in is the point where ones tips into the other. He is not interested in what is on the tape in Alma Cogan. He is interested in the man who collects it. He’s not interested in Myra Hindley, but in why we’re interested in her. He’s not interested in the darkness, but in our seeming need for the darkness, as a corollary to the bright light of celebrity, etc.
The third reader of the night was David Keenan, who read brilliantly from Pocket Money, then read equally brilliantly from his second novel, For the Good Times, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was a passage in which the narrator witnesses a brutal, callous sectarian murder. It was well written and, as I say, well read, and while there are aspects of Keenan’s other novel (This is Memorial Device) that seem to me genuinely in the spirit of Burn, I don’t think this was. A quick online search on Keenan brings up an interview in which he says, “This is not a book specifically about the IRA and the Troubles. In a way that’s the backdrop. One of the big things I wanted to talk about is masculinity and violence, and how these cycles are perpetuated through fathers and sons.” Which is admirable, but the passage he read came across as at least as fascinated with the violence on display as with the sociology behind it.
I’m not quite sure what I’ve tried to reach for in this brief post. It was mostly that: that Tutti and Stripe read from Burn’s books about serial killers, and Keenan read a passage about a psychotic killer, and I’m pretty damn sure that Burn would never have written a scene like that.
A week ago I was travelling to the University of Sussex to give a conference paper on Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist when I got a message I didn’t understand from Mark Blacklock, author of I’m Jack (which I haven’t read), talking about ekphrasis and artists’ jokes. I replied with one of those odd, polite Twitter queries that have you worrying that someone, either you or them, is going to end up looking silly in (sort of) public. He replied:
I’m thinking here of Randall’s shit smear paintings and Damo goofing off about that idea in Sex and Violence
Me: ah – but (shit!) does Hirst preempt me, the bastard – where in Sex & Violence? (I have it but haven’t read it – too scared to)
Mark: I’ll dig it out when I get home – I had assumed an ingenious ekphrastic extrapolation – even better if it’s coincidental!
Hi Jonathan: so the line is p.327. discussing his film Hanging Around. Burn asks: “So how autobiographical is it? ‘It’s only autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.'” As I say, I assumed this was a seed of an idea. Coincidence only makes it better.
If this means nothing to you, then Mark was talking about my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, which is a sort of alternative history of the YBAs. The titular artist takes the lead, Hirst-like role, and has his first success with a series of large, colourful Warhol-esque screenprints based on his and his friends’ shit-smeared toilet paper squares – works he styles as ‘portraits’, and which then grows into a cultural phenomenon: everyone wants a Randall…
Nevertheless Randall insisted that everyone – all the great and good and rich and famous that queued up to ‘have a Randall done’ – produce a ‘holograph’, as he called it, in situ, in the studio. You wanted a Randall portrait, you had to sit for it.
Now, in writing this book, I took great pride in the idea that I had ‘invented’ all the artworks myself – it was part of my sell to myself of the novel that, Randall aside, this wasn’t a roman a clef. So it was a shock to realise that Damien Hirst had, in fact, pre-empted me. Or was it more than this? Had I stolen from him?
The quote comes from Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writing on art. It’s on my shelf. I bought it, but didn’t read it, a few years ago, and most definitely long after I came up with the idea of Randall’s Sunshines paintings.
I had read Burn’s book of interviews with Hirst, On The Way to Work, and it’s not in there; I have just now reread the 1996 interview to be sure. I didn’t read Sex & Violence because I was scared – scared that I might find stuff so good I’d want to rip it off; scared I’d find stuff I’d already invented, or thought I’d invented; scared of the amount of stuff Burn knew about all this art, all these artists, when I actually knew very little, and was relying on the quality of my imaginative invention to stand for the quantity of work and opinion the YBAs produced.
I was scared, basically, of Burn’s insight and facility as a writer. I knew that, if he’d written a novel about the YBAs, he’d have made mine look like a piece of flimsy trash. Continue reading