First Degree Burn


More books today. Gordon Burn was a Newcastle writer whose four postwar novels deal with issues of modern fame and faded celebrity as lived through the media spotlight. There was a fashion after 1950 for writing in a clean, spare style, partly because publishers were looking for shorter works that wouldn’t require so much paper in a time of great shortage. Burn’s novels and non-fiction are terse, gritty and succinct.

They also come as a sharp shock to anyone from the South. When Bryan Forbes filmed Robert Nicolson’s novel ‘The Whisperers’, which is set in Oldham, a once-prosperous town that benefitted from Manchester’s textile manufacture, he was angry about the plight of many trapped by circumstance in impoverished areas. Scenes in the film were shot in 1967 but could have been from a century earlier. Burn’s stories feel like part of this world.

For many life slowly improved, but as David Peace shows in his downbeat quartet, the Red Riding books, the brutality that forced women into prostitution continued. Gordon Burn explored the lives of murderers, his non-fiction focussing on Fred and Rosemary West and Peter Sutcliffe in ‘Happy as Murderers’ and ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’. Emlyn Williams had written about the Moors Murderers in ‘Beyond Belief’, establishing a highly wrought style far removed from Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. Burns reverted it to something crisper and darker and sometimes almost too painful to read.

His fiction is just as pungent and interesting. ‘The North of England Home Service’ is about two also-rans, a comedian and a boxer, about life’s expectations and what it actually delivers. There’s also a glimmer of humour here. But his masterpiece was ‘Alma Cogan’, his first novel.

‘Alma Cogan’ is unprecedented, and deservedly won the Whitbread Best First Novel of the Year. It was described as brilliant and highly original, but deeply disturbing. Cogan was a real-life Jewish singer from North London, hugely celebrated, who died at 34. But what if she had lived? And what if, somehow, she had a tenuous connection with one of the most shocking British crime duos of the 20th century, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley?

The leap of logic is brave and bizarre, but a stroke of genius. The novel was universally acclaimed on its first publication in 1991. Now Faber is republishing the Burn books, although their edition of ‘Alma Cogan’ is not up to the quality of the first paperback version, which had a colour foldout inside it.


One comment on “First Degree Burn”

  1. John Griffin says:

    Apropos Oldham (my once home town), it is still slightly out-of-time, and one of the poorest places in the UK. I escaped it when 18, though may mind was made up as an 11-year-old being forced to go to school in short pants when the drifted snow was black with soot.

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