Authors: Gordon Burn
I wasn’t at Smith’s Lawn (have never been to Smith’s Lawn). I didn’t supply the verbals. I didn’t read them until I opened this morning’s paper. (They were almost certainly lifted from the first edition of the
I’m pretty sure the accompanying picture has been tweaked to bring Dan McGovern into a more intimate relationship with George Michael, whose own image has been electronically realigned – shivered, sphereised –
to make him look like somebody suffering from a bad case of the munchies. (This is his most public neurosis, and one therefore that it is always in our interest to tickle up.)
It doesn’t matter. Scott McGovern is the big-selling story of the year. ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ That’s the maxim. So when it’s celebrity blood that has been spilled – cowabunga! You’re off to the races. Every paper has put on readers since McGovern suffered ‘blunt force trauma’ – was found with his head stove in by a bronze award statuette based on a maquette by Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, one or the other (it’s not an aspect of the story we’ve been climbing over each other to firm up). But cracking copy! Blinding telly! It’s been white-knuckle city waiting to see if McGovern comes out of his coma.
Howie Dosson, my editor, doesn’t think he will. ‘He’s seriously kaputted, that guy,’ Dosson, generally known as ‘Tosser’, exulted the minute the news came over the wire. ‘Oh are you sure! He is vegetable and will stay vegetable.’
Along with every other human-interest flammer and tabloid footsoldier in the country, I have been on the story since day one. Tosser Dosson made an instant decision to clear the decks. ‘You all know what I want,’ he said in his Churchillian address, jacketless, two high pulses of colour beating powdery Gainsborough crimson in his cheeks, long metalloid legs astride a desk. ‘I want what you want. What every newspaper reader in this country not too hypocritical to admit it wants. I want the wet details on McGovern. Everyfreakingthing. Who is the stooper and who is the stabber. The name of everybody who has been up McGovern’s arse. I want the guy sliced open like a mango. And I want it first. Forget anything you might have been planning to do in the next week. The dentist, the vasectomy, the new bed from Ikea, the bunk-up with that slapper you met round the wine-bar, the cosy anniversary dinner in your local tandoori. I want it now! Like …
We’re going all-balls-out on this one.’
There was a stampede in the direction of the cashiers on the third floor with advance expenses chits – pink, carbon-triplicated, clammy. The office-bound got busy with lists and photocopies of
the relevant cuts (the McGovern file ran to four bumper packets then, probably twice that now) and maps and multicoloured charts.
Tame rent-boys, squat-heads, squealers and showbiz deep-throats were summoned by phone. Reporters were assigned to chase down McGovern’s children, his children’s friends, their friends’ friends, their teachers, his heli-chauffeur, drivers, gardeners, pool-cleaners, housekeepers, roadsweepers, the waiters at the restaurants where he kept an account, make-up girls at the BBC, BBC commissionaires, bar staff, the disc-jockeys working on the radio station he’d put together the consortium to launch, the partners in his video business. Plough the fields and scatter. The hounds were unleashed. There were posses, ambushes, false trails, cut-offs; minor deception, fraud, cat-burglary in the public interest. It was zoo-time.
I spent the first five days in a leafy suburb of Stoke-on-Trent where the streets were named for Robin Hood and His Merrie Men – Nottingham Drive, Robin Circle, Maid Marian Lane – part of the pack doorstepping Peggy Askam, the mother-in-law. She lived in Alan-A-Dale Crescent, in a neat and trim house set back a good distance from the road, with plenty of trees.
Half a street away there was a neighbourhood park with a brook flowing through it, flowers and benches, swings and other jungle gym equipment, and tennis courts for the older children and grown-ups. You have no idea how long the long suburban day can be until you have spent one in a place like this. The only break in the monotony was a neighbour arriving at the side-door of Peggy Askam’s house with food covered over by a tea-towel in case we might want to snatch a picture of that as well. Our own on-the-job food needs were taken care of by Genaro from the Appenines who sold hot-dogs and breaded drum-sticks at five pounds a pop from a trailer with tudor-timbered sides.
years earlier, while her husband was fighting the illness which finally killed him, Peggy Askam had been done for shoplifting – walking out of her village shop with a carton of Fairy Liquid and a jar of Nescafé that she hadn’t paid for – and of
course we gave all that another go around. She had a choice: talk to us about her daughter and her daughter’s life with Scott McGovern, or have her own criminal past resurrected, only used big across the front page this time. The curtains remained drawn. A melanin-mapped hand reached round the door to fumble the milk in. She kept her counsel. So we treated the shoplifting story to a retread (further investigation revealed there had been a third item, a half-pound pack of Kerry Gold) and put it back on the road again.
After five days, and not much to show for it, I was reeled in and put onto a tale being peddled by the mouthpiece of a security and surveillance firm in south London who claimed to be representing the owner of a set of incriminating – ‘well detrimental’ – letters written to him by McGovern. This contact wasn’t entirely without form: prison paintings by famous murderers, Bobby Moore post-mortem pictures, tapes that proved that Elvis really was working as a supermarket bagger in Biloxi or Trenton, New Jersey – ‘You’re gonna hear Elvis Himselvis’ … He had made efforts to off-load all of these in the past.
We met for lunch at the White Tower (his choice – he is a glutton for the taramasalata and the duck stuffed with cracked wheat and nuts. ‘Reckon you can spunk a ton on me for a lunch,’ he’d said. ‘Least you can do.’). We were into the second bottle of retsina, and he was beginning to give me his palaver when – it had only taken me seven days, and total, round-the-clock immersion in the McGovern story to come up with this – I remembered that once, many years ago, I had interviewed Scott McGovern at his house; that there was probably still a tape of the conversation mouldering away in a drawer among my souvenirs.
This had been in the days when I seemed to have both feet set firmly on the up escalator and was establishing a reputation for juicing slightly more out of hardened interviewees than they were planning to tell. Zaire actually hadn’t done me any harm. It had got me noticed. By about 1977 my strike-rate was among the best on the paper. I was a young family man in my thirties with
an occasional picture byline, hungry, crashing my gears, working round the clock.
Aphasia – sudden black-hole amnesia – along with dizziness, anxiousness, a tingling in the fingers of my right hand, is one of the symptoms of the
that has brought me down. But my memory of the – until then – lost afternoon spent doing the business on Scott McGovern came to me in a flash of what still feels like God-given recall. The sunny drive west out of London, the village with the ancient petrol pumps standing at its centre, the wrong turnings, the newly painted finger-posts, the winding track up to the house, the house’s yellow clay wattle-and-daub exterior walls, the hollowed herringbone-pattern brick floors, the kelims, the dried hydrangeas in the China-blue vases, the dogs, McGovern’s young friend William (not a T-shirt adonis or muscled love-boy, but a wire-glasses-wearing, pudgy, film-buff, Proms-going type) snipping flowers in the garden with a secateur.
There was tea made by McGovern himself. Then wine. Then a bit of pot. Then some nose candy in a poppy field at the back of the house with Murray, a harlequin Great Dane, crashing carelessly around, raising butterflies like dead cells beaten out of a mattress, flattening paths through the heavy-headed flowers. It was at this point that McGovern, sitting samurai-fashion opposite me on his knees, started crying big, perfectly tear-shaped, viscid, slow-rolling tears. It was something I promised not to mention and, until a week ago, had remained something I’d kept the lid on for fourteen years. With dusk there was more wine, and a leaving kiss full on the mouth which seemed natural at the time and doesn’t feel at all unnatural now.
After transcribing it, omitting the part he had asked – pleaded with me, really – to keep to myself, I put the Scott McGovern tape in a desk drawer along with all the others and, as with the others, forgot about it.
For many years I saved the tapes, thinking that one day I might offer them to an archive or centre of national resource or, depending on how I was fixed financially, use them to cushion
me in my lonely, sclerotic old age. Just recently, though, I have started to systematically over-record; have started, that is, to lay one gloomy ghostly presence over another, wiping the past. I am aware that this also represents an act of self-erasure, and that that is preferable in almost all ways to the self-effacement that turns out now to have been my interviewing manner – the punctuating phoney laugh, the conscientiously faked-up attitude of care and concern. I have been actively engaged in the eradication of this younger self adrift in another life, entombed in the dull lubricated brown ribbons of tape.
Many voices on the tapes belong to people who have passed on, passed over, have become dead parrots. Scott McGovern is dying of an acute haematoma and lacerations of the skull – an unstill package, ventilated, evacuated, fibrillated, palpated, catheterised in his polyurethane plastic tent. Lidded eyes scanning the ceiling in coma vigil; muttering delirium; hot, flaccid fingers picking incessantly at the top-sheet; the degradation of tissue; the vital centres irretrievably shutting down. (Entering the darkness; seeing the light; entering the light.) A modern death in a tiled hospital room.
And yet I was in a position to rewind McGovern to a place in his life – a balmy evening of acapulco gold and sangria, the dogs curled up asleep half on top of one another, William making gazpacho, and then his earnest, comfortable presence in Scott’s canopied Jacobean four-poster – when he seemed inured to unconsciousness and coma and death. Would there be anything in his voice to suggest he could have suspected that blunt-force trauma might be one of life’s surprises waiting further down the road? Any intimation that, deep down, at some hidden level, he suspected that violent death – shards of skull penetrating the brain’s blancmange-like mass, like party wafers; blood vessels contused beyond recognition – was the card he was going to draw?
Each interview encounter is prefaced by a few inches of test tape, an acknowledgement of the operator’s – my – constant tape-recorder angst. Often the space is filled by the sound of my
own voice counting one-two-three-four-blah-blah-blah. Or, if a little drunk (in recent years my usual interviewing condition, no matter how early the hour), a few bars of a bearded old singer-songwriter favourite – something by James Taylor possibly, or ‘Blue’-period Joni Mitchell (‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, ‘This Flight Tonight’, more often ‘Blue’, songs heavily featured on my marriage’s melancholic soundtrack).
On many occasions I have made sure the thing is working by recording a snatch of something from a hotel-room television or radio, the juke box in a pub, the air gusting into a taxi, clotted conversational hubbub, the rumble of a train.
Why is it, I wonder, that these noises, and the accidental, everyday background noises intruding on it once the interview is underway – a door opening or closing, a child calling, a clock striking, an ice-cream van’s chimes, footsteps on a loose floorboard, the clink of cups or glasses, a telephone starting to ring and then being picked up in another room, a window blind unexpectedly snapping up – seem to be a truer record, to hold more of the moment, seem mysterious and powerfully charged, while the words sliding by in the foreground are without exception now as interesting as a wall of wet paint?
I found the tape with Scott McGovern’s name on it and slipped it into the machine. I heard country sounds – birds singing, the rustle of trees – followed by the pages of a road-map being turned. I fast-forwarded and let the tape run for a couple of minutes until, ignoring the conversation, I recognised the rattle of sangria being poured from the Scandinavian glass jug. I turned the tape over and from the weak halo of echo around the sound could tell the interview was still taking place indoors. I FF-ed again, and when I pressed ‘Play’ knew that by now we were out in the field: Murray, long ago boiled down into fish-glue, could be heard barking in the distance. ‘There were times when I got frightened. Things weren’t going right, so I just went out and got shit-faced. That’s me,’ Scott McGovern was saying. ‘Something goes wrong, I find a bottle. I don’t like it about myself but I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.’ There was the sound of him
drawing cocaine up into his nose through a strip of magazine page rolled into a narrow tube, and then a protracted silence. And then it started, low at first. The choking sounds. The dry heaves. The wracked sobbing.
I picked up the phone and, after some stonewalling at his end by Betty Cooper, doing her usual impeccable job of running interference for him, made an urgent appointment to come in and see Howie Dosson with my unburied treasure in the morning.
A year ago, the paper joined the exodus from Fleet Street and moved into a speculative office-retail development south of the river into which has been crammed all the apparatus of a post-Wapping world where everything runs faster, does more, has a longer battery life and costs less. Air that hums and 7-Eleven lighting; trees that arrived in vans, delivered horizontally; escalators that glide noiselessly towards sylvan snacking areas where cashless payment systems wait to disgorge chicken-tikka-mayo-mint, Twix, Bio yoghurt (contains Simplesse), Filtafresh coffee. Elevated pedways. Perspex modules rising like bubbles. Water pleating down treated walls. Laminate signs with subsurface graphics. Pro-Tekt travertine floors.