Authors: Gordon Burn
For Carol Gorner
Until the day when, your endurance gone,
in this world for you without arms,
you catch up in yours the first mangy cur you meet,
carry it the time needed for it to love you
and you it, then throw it away
As a hack, a scribbler, a fully benefited and BUPA-ed pen performer (note the absence of ironising inverted commas: I use the language of self-loathing that characterises this wall-shinning, nose-poking, leg-in-the-door end of the trade knowingly and deliberately, without any ironic intent), it has to occur to me whether I am an actual carrier, a cross-pollinator of misery and annihilating despair and doorstep human anguish, and not merely its privileged witness. There it is, and, quick as you can say ‘The coffin was so tiny that it took your breath away’, there I am – breast-pocket tape recorder freshly batteried, notebook fatted with quotes for dead stories, cancelled with strokes of wristy finality; biro primed. Although I couldn’t claim it was the way I saw the last working years of my life turning out, I seem to have become, all against expectation and any natural inclination, the miseried’s, the disastered’s, the lifelorn’s, the victims’ (most of all the victims’) friend.
Copy filed with an implied catch in the voice, a muffled sob in the throat, sentimental as a lollypop. A terrible command of the fine gradations in the purple spectrum, from lavender mist to damson dipso blush. These are my apparent strengths. You migh thave read my stuff. It might even be your turn to talk to me,tragic mum, grief-stricken dad, when the runaway pantechnicon crashes your tidy terrace or City’s south stand collapses or the police are on the trail of the next evil sex fiend. (Think of it: the poignant details of your life, your plain statements coleslawed into something weightless, sizeless, and travelling at the speed of light within information networks depending not on dirty wheels, gears, pistons, rivets or hot engines, but on minute components, invisible processes, intangible – incomprehensible – technologies.)
One certain thing. Life keeps coming. It keeps coming and coming. Celebrities, money, babies, violence, messy death … What else? Animals. Sex. Perm two from seven for a result; perm three from seven for a real marmalade dropper. The news as a production line with no beginning and no end. Life in the perpetual present. Nothing’s new. Not a lot is new. Things that happened two days ago – things I witnessed first-hand, that I reported on; the town I visited, the stunts I connived in setting up, the quotes that filled my book – are already foggy for me.
I feel a kind of numbness in my short-term memory, although I have long regarded this as my natural condition and probably a condition for going into this line of work. When I grew up as a boy in the north of England, there wasn’t much, so when I arrived in London I had nothing, and I forgot what little I had up there. The hospital where I was born is now the Happy Dragon Chinese restaurant. The school that I attended is now a discount mall developed by a boy who went to school there with me, one of the great local boom-boom 1980s success stories. (We ran a picture of him in a recent business section, as it happens: he was posed sweatily with a group of shelf-stackers and peroxided checkout girls in a chilled storeroom area: ‘A boss is like a diaper – always on your ass and usually full of shit,’ a ‘novelty’ poster said, tacked to a fridge slightly to the left of where the photographer had placed him.) Nodes, the undertakers from where I buried both my parents, is now a branch of Perfect Pizza. I am in the present, I came from nowhere, I can’t go back.
You probably think from what you’ve heard already that you certainly wouldn’t talk to me. Well, would you talk to me? Would you tell me your private thoughts and memories, spill your guts? Would you vouchsafe me your keepsakes and mementoes – the ethereally lit studio portrait that leaves a pale space where it was hanging, a light line in the dust where it was standing; the vignetted picture from your wallet? Would you trust me with the home video of the last time you were all together – X removing something from the oven, X red-faced, giggling, shaking a curtain of hair in front of her pretty face to
shield it from the camera – before the bombers struck, before the stranger lurched from the shadows? Of course you would. I’m not wrong. Believe me. As I say, this is my area of operation; my specialised subject; my purlieu; my arena. Beats writing about chocolate bunnies at Easter, I always say. I always say (and when I say it there
some irony intended, although it is an irony I fancy is lost on the editor and his near-identically-dressed team of executive brown-nosers, ever alert for new targets of opportunity) – looking them straight in the tie, I always say: Wind me up, chief, and point me at it.
We’re a tabloid outfit, positioned in the middle-market, some distance upwind of the cro-magnon Fun-Puzzlers and lip-movers. But – although this was truer in the past than it has become recently – I’m not a leg man. A dawn raider. Bish-bash-bosh. Who, what, when and where. What ‘Tosser’ Dosson, my editor, a Streeter of the old school, likes to call the ‘geography’ of a story. I’m a colour man. That is: I colour it up; give it a bit of ginger. I help keep the heat under a story by providing a tarty next-day take on what everybody already knows.
I go in with the second-wave. Which these days means that my days are dogged by flowers. My path is strewn with them. Flowers mark the spot.
The flowers come wrapped in all the surfaces of cheap living – klaxon colours, slippery prophylactic textures. As soon as the tape markers are removed, women begin steering children forward clutching thin, apologetic bunches of pinks and gyp and grade-two tulips in flattened cones that imitate laminated wood-grain and fake marble, beaten copper and satin-aluminium fire surrounds, duvet-and ironingboard-covers, silver-frosted ceiling sconces, the technologised waffle-treads of trainers, glancing football shirt shadow-patterns, blistery thermoplastics, the foam-backed leather-like finish of wedding albums.
The effect aimed for in the impromptu pavement shrines marking the site of the latest nail-bomb or child-snatch or brutal sex-death is peaceful, pastoral, consolatory – the evocation of some dappled bluebell wood or country churchyard or Dairylea
buttercup meadow, a world away from the 144-point hurts of the raw modern city.
In reality, though, the flower-heaped memorials are just another variety of urban utterance. In the first hours, the railway embankments, playing-field perimeters, tower-block entrances and shopping-precinct seating islands are transformed as if by flooded lighting or a freak fall of snow. What was concrete and familiar suddenly seems defamiliarised,
the backdrop to a dream.
People crowd at the edge of the oddly regular weave of the blankets of flowers, stunned by the scale of what they have made. (I’ve noticed – but naturally haven’t written: it wouldn’t get in if I did write it – that an element of civic competitiveness has started creeping in, as if compassion was quantifiable and could be measured in square-footage and drift-thickness and overall depth of cover.)
But soon (very soon when there has been some weather – a bitter north-easterly clawing at the filmy wrappings, scattering them in shop doorways and bus shelters, pasting them round bollards and railings, throwing them to the wind; persistent rain pounding them into a sodden pulp) they turn into just one more example of urban blight; of city sadness. By the time the story has moved down the page or been buried inside the paper, the memorials start to look like flocks of tick-infested pigeons, or the water-logged communal bedding in some cardboard city. The poor colours bleed and fade. The soft toys that have been put there – the Snoopys and velveteen bunnies and bag-eyed Pound Puppies – moult and burst along the seams and spill their no longer loveable or huggable wetted kapok guts.
I know I have squeezed a story until its pips are squeaking when the smell of rotted vegetation starts to lift off the bank or trench of remembrances and the mechanical shovels and power-hoses of the refuse departments start preparing to move in. ‘Under the wide and starry sky’, ‘Love’s last gift – remembrance’, ‘Bitterness serves no purpose and corrodes the soul’, ‘A little angel lost in flight’ is the sort of thing it says on the smashed
condolence cards they leave in their wake, and I have built up a small collection of these. A selection of them, bordered in butterflies and blurry miskeyed flowers and cupids, green-stained, the inks running, was posted round my office computer until a protest got up by one of the squeamier pencil pushers, and including Mahalia, the regular cleaner, who left notes telling me I was a sorryfuck who could empty his own bins, succeeded in having them removed. ‘“Life’s a shit-sandwich” is what they should say,’ I told them in retaliation, in my bloodier moments. ‘“Life’s a bucket of warm spit.’”
My name – my
when I get one these days – is Norman Miller. It used to be a picture byline in the old days, back in what to me now seems the long, long ago: a reversed-out mug shot over my name done in a distinctive, bulging type, all curves and Mickey ears, that signalled ‘soft’ features rather than the unrelenting hard-news beat I find myself pounding now.
Norman Miller. Four brick dull, plain artisanal syllables, bequeathed to me by my poor dull parents, but given an unlooked-for metropolitan sheen by their near-duplication of the name of ‘the champ of writers’, as I once heard the then heavyweight champion, George Foreman, call Mailer, to his beaming delight: he lit up like Christmas, at the same time wiping his feet in a backwards direction on the carpet, as if he had just discovered dogshit on his shoes. (I watched him repeat the performance when I expressed my own – fumbling but genuine – admiration for his work.)
Norman Miller/Norman Mailer. It has been a lucky consonance, and one used consciously and entirely shamelessly by me to get the ear of the subliterate, the disliterate, the pain crazed, the grief engulfed, the halt, and the lazy of hearing. ‘Norman Miller’. Crooned in that face-in-the-phone creepy-confidential manner perfected, when in pursuit of a story, by all the members of my profession.
The disappointment on the faces of taxi drivers, hotel managers, PR representatives, fast-fodder interviewees and others
when they come face to face not with the celebrity scribe, suited by Jones, Chalk and Dawson of Sackville Street, shod by John Lobb of St James’s (a lasting legacy of his marriage to Lady Jeanne, daughter of the Duke of Argyll), twinkly and burly and with a head of hair, though snowy white, still testosterone-rich in early old age, coming forward with his chipper old bandy-legged sailor walk – ‘Gangway for all this talent!’ … their sense of let-down, of being on the end of some mild confidence trickery when confronted not by Mailer but by Miller, who, for all his presentability and plausibility bears the unmistakable, authentic whiff of Fleet Street (five parts Stolly to three parts Youngs Special bitter to two parts YSL ‘Jazz’, plus an aura of something that comics call ‘flop sweat’, something they give off when they’re dying on their feet – hear me: I’m dying on my feet) – this sense of let-down is something I long ago accepted as a saddening but not all-undermining fact of life.
My path and Mailer’s have crossed, as you will by now have gathered; but they have crossed only once. This I think was in – if I had a cuttings book, a graveyard of my deathless, which I haven’t, I could look it up – 1974. I would be thirty-two then and, after a number of years spent hosing vomit off other people’s copy, just starting to rise above the grind as a writer. (I was also only four years away from personal meltdown in 1974, from the ‘spiritual emergency’ (thank you, doctor) that’s put me here, spinning my wheels, dosed up the wazoo, but of course I couldn’t know that then.)
By the time
was thirty-two, Mailer already had three novels (and two wives) (and a spell in Bellevue, the local cuckoo-nest, the result of skewering wife number two with a Swiss Army knife) under his belt, and, after Hemingway, was probably the most instantly recognisable writer in the world.
As might be expected, I have taken a keener-than-usual interest in Mailer’s career. It was his side-step into journalism – a kind of journalism – towards the end of the sixties that gave me part of the push that I needed to give up my haemorrhoid-hatching inside job to see what it was like knocking stories together ‘in the
field’ – meaning, on car bonnets, in piss-stinking telephone booths, and in roaring hostile cafés and bars. Not, I realised, that this was Mailer’s chosen MO. And, if I hadn’t realised, he patiently spelled it out to me one night after a steady intake of gin rickeys under a reed-thatch umbrella at the outside bar of the Intercontinental hotel in what had once been Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo but which, by that time, was Kinshasa, in Zaire. We were there to see if Muhammad Ali could regain the heavy-weight championship by beating George Foreman, in a Don King–President Mobutu promotion.
‘Reporters,’ Mailer said, shoulders rolling in an old pug manner even while seated, ‘have the middle-class penchant’ (he pronounced this the American way, stressing the ‘e’, sounding the ‘t’) ‘for collecting tales, stories, legends, accounts of practical jokes, details of negotiation, bits of memoir. There is nobody more practical than a reporter. He exhibits the same avidity for news which a businessman will show for money.’ His eyebrows made a triangle with the line of his eyes, and he barrelled in with his fists on his knees, as he tends to do when he’s got off one good line and already has a topper coming. ‘No bourgeois will hesitate to pick up a dollar, even if he is not fond of the man with whom he is dealing. So, a reporter will do a nice story about a type he dislikes, or a bad story about a figure he is fond of. I always had some dim intuitive feeling that what was wrong with all journalism was that the reporter tended to be objective and that that was one of the great lies of all time. Now it is more
to write that way …’ I didn’t know if I was being personally got at, but that’s how I felt. I felt the rims of my ears hurting red in the cooling night. But it had already become difficult to converse by then because of the nightly, eleven-on-the-button ‘Soirée Africaine’: seven topless, melon-breasted girls dancing to the sound of drums in La Cascade, the garden restaurant beside the swimming pool. Three of them were performing to loud rhythmic applause with glasses of beer balanced impassively on their heads.