Gordon Burn was without a doubt one of the greatest – and arguably underrated – British writers of his age.
He wasn't just someone who could spin a good yarn. He was a writer who applied years of journalistic experience to the fictional process and in turn applied the techniques of creating fictional narratives to his factual reporting. Along the way he helped create and shape a new form: fiction as reportage.
Grand narratives were what Gordon specialised in. The interwoven stories of time, place and – most importantly, people. Internal and external dialogues. Modern mythologies. Life itself.
Whether studying celebrities or serial killers, jaded fictional stand-ups or real life sport stars, he had an uncanny ability to burrow deep into the heart of the human condition. Burn inhabits his characters and his characters inhabit him.
Such an approach may not be a rarity today, but one only has to consider the extensive lengths to which he went to in researching the story of The Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe back in 1984 for Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. His background as a journalist for publications such as Esquire and The Guardian furnished Burn with the skills that allowed him to go the extra yard. Understanding that total immersion in the subject guaranteed a more credible perspective, three years spent living in Sutcliffe’s home town of Bingley ensured Gordon created a modern crime classic. And remember: this was long before True Crime warranted its own section in bookshops.
Surrounding himself with the horror of Sutcliffe's life enabled Burn to tease out the complexities of a man reduced by the tabloid media to a B-movie monster; in doing so he influenced a generation of younger writers for whom northern England suddenly became a place full of simmering tensions and dark secrets, every bit as foreboding and evocative a backdrop as Ellroy's Los Angeles or Rankin's Edinburgh. Of the terse and often staccato narrative style deployed in the book Norman Mailer remarked “It’s as if Thomas Hardy were also present at the writing of this account .”
Consider also the voices that Gordon gave to the otherwise silenced victims of Fred and Rose West in 1998’s Happy Like Murderers, a masterwork in which he was able to find humanity amongst a catalogue of atrocious depravities. Lesser writers would have concentrated wholly on the perpetrators yet Gordon valued the innocent as well as the guilty. This was writing at its most involved, enough to test the psychological mettle of anyone.
Gordon wasn’t the first writer to use real-life crimes as the basis for novels – Norman Mailer and Truman Capote got there first – but he was by far the best practitioner in contemporary Britain. His influence can be seen in David Peace's dark-hearted Red Riding novels and the blurring of fact and fiction in The Damned United – and indeed in a new generation of hard-hitting writers who have unearthed stories on their own doorsteps.
Gordon Burn came from The North – those capital letters are there for a reason – and it is against this backdrop that many of his dramas take place. In his work it suddenly becomes a foreboding and evocative backdrop full of simmering tensions and dark secrets. But even when set elsewhere, it is if the tumultuous skies, industrious toil and socialist politics of The North cast a shadow across his prose. It was in him. It’s there, bleeding across the page.
It is difficult to differentiate between the factual and fictional output of Gordon Burn’s work as the two are involved in a symbiotic relationship. Each feeds the other, none more so than in his first novel Alma Cogan, which dared to recalibrate the life of an faded icon. It is an occultist - that which is hidden from view - imagining and is as daring as it is believable.
Writing for website The Quietus in 2011, producer and writer Austin Collings described Alma Cogan as a novel “which re-imagines Britain’s best-selling vocalist of the 1950’s, and re-casts her in ordinarily disturbing afterlife, or alternative ever-life, populated by the likes of John Lennon, Doris Day, Sammy Davis JR and the vile spectre of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. The question he’s asking is how does it feel to never die? The question is partly-answered in the final pages which form the foundations of Burn’s belief that celebrity equates a death in itself; all ways; and always.” In a review at the time the TLS called it “a Tristram Shandy of the entertainment business”.
It is the troubled underdog, the alienated, the idolised and the marginalised who take centre stage in Burn’s work. He may have chosen to consider two football heroes in his “psychopathology of fame" Best And Edwards, but his subjects were both blighted and ultimately killed by that fame: innocent Duncan Edwards cursed by circumstance and corrupted George Best by expectation – and appetite.
Published at a time when the sporting memoir was going through something of a purple patch, Best And Edwards (2006) saw Burn burrowing under the skin of the ultimate 21st century curse word: celebrity, what he describes as “an indicator of how far fame has come adrift from real achievement.”
“Celebrity,” Burn continues , “is a thin, weightless thing and mostly exists as a series of electronically generated pulses and pixels. Often it is literally without foundation or substance...it is an inevitable fallout of the galloping and still ongoing process which has seen the electronic society of the image - the daily bath we all take in the media - replace the real community of the crowd.” This is Burn at his best, presenting psychologist reportage from the frontline of modern societies’ psyche. Here were celebrities’ lonely fallen soldiers opened up and dissected on the slab. And it is a description that is even more prescient today.
Sport, music, crime, fame, art, politics and media all fed into Gordon Burn’s work. His second novel 1995’s Fullalove and 2003’s The North of England Home Service both presented a very British type of male - jaded and burnt out but still alive and fighting, living what Thoreau called our “lives of quiet desperation”. The former was about a seen-it-all hack and the latter, about light-entertainer Ray Cruddas was, Burn claimed, partly inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the great English writer David Storey.
Art stimulated and informed his work too. With his friend Damien Hirst, Burn wrote On The Way To Work (2001), a series of twelve collated conversations between the two and which spanned Hirst’s output and a took in a wider view of art – inspiration, stimulation, motivation, success, death - and indeed life itself.
Gordon Burn’s final published work, 2008’s Born Yesterday: The News As A Novel saw him re-creating the role of journalist as modern myth-maker. Centred around news events of summer 2007 - the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a change of prime minister, endless non-stories about Prince William's then-girlfriend Kate Middleton - Burn's prose replicated the effect of a rolling news report written from an as-it-happens perspective. In an era when migraine-inducing split-screen news reports deliver three stories simultaneously and real people seems to take on the life of flat-screen fictional creations, a book like this was long overdue. It raises a key question: when managed by editorializing human beings, can the news media ever remain impartial. And what is ‘truth’ anyway?
Over a lifetime's work, Gordon Burn created a grand narrative – not just for the real or the imagined, the vile or heroic, or indeed The North – but for the United Kingdom in the late-20th century. Through his journalism, in his biographies and throughout his fiction. Collectively, it is a body of body that has yet to be equalled by any of contemporaries. His literary influence spreads far and wide - and will continue to do so.