Authors: Gordon Burn
You couldn’t fail. How were you going to fail? It was a circulation manager’s wet-dream. It was a no-brainer. Callous, premeditated, icy-fingered death, with the cliff-hanger of a last-minute reprieve. Areyewshaw! It was counting down the days. With me: seven–six–five–four … The last meal. The last wish. The condemned man’s last on-the-lip-of-death letters, all malformed capitals and coloured inks, off-loaded in a Dutch auction at the pub around the corner as soon as the prison doctor had pronounced …
Since the night McGovern was kyboshed with his Emmy or his Larry, his Tony or his Bafta, we have been adding up the days. (Piling on the readers.) Here we are at Day 19, and counting.
More or less all the pops have settled on this as a simple graphic device, a way of signposting the
coverage. In our case, the count-up is twinned with a second element depicting two inch-high, blacked-in male figures joined at the elbow and the head and instantly recognisable as the logo-fied version of the moment Scott McGovern walked off the concourse at Victoria with the man thought to be his attacker.
The police released the single frame extracted from the
surveillance footage three days after McGovern’s body was found. It was reproduced and repeated and analysed so exhaustively in the first twenty-four hours – reoriented, cloned, sharpened, blurred – that it was stripped of its primal shock power almost immediately. Within a further twenty-four hours, it had evolved into an icon, a badge, an emblem for a story that hadn’t sunk into the mulch with the other stories, but had already become established as a moment in the life of the culture/as a piece of folk memory.
The strange thing, as nobody has failed to point out, is that the picture of Scott McGovern arriving at his fate instantly seemed as familiar as the smell of their own farts to many of the millions who saw it. McGovern gripping another man’s right hand and elbow with both his hands and leaning in close to the body as if to whisper something rib-tickling, scurrilous, confidential – this was something that could have been taken from any edition of Scott McGovern’s popular Saturday-night talk show in the last three years. His signature way of welcoming his ‘guests’ was to get down from the carpeted platform where sofa and armchairs were arranged in the ritual chat-show formation and do this little bit of business with them as they walked out of the wings.
Exactly what got said in these few seconds of schmoozing was never the point: the point was that it symbolised the celebrity transaction, from which civilians were necessarily excluded. But, as you certainly don’t need me to remind you, the subject of what transpired between McGovern and whoever he happened to be glad-handing on the edge of that circle of light has remained one of endless, and fruitless, speculation. It was his ‘Rosebud’. ‘It’s my “Rosebud”,’ he would tell interviewers archly. Only the people who had been on his show could say for sure, and they weren’t telling, because they knew that if they did tell the invitation to appear again would not be coming. The comparisons with the rules of etiquette observed in royal circles (to which he was no stranger) were ones that McGovern made no attempts to discourage. He was as big, if not more famous, than most of the people he was interviewing. It confirmed his standing as one of the three
people in British television consistently able to deliver an across-the-board, demographically shredded, fifteen-million-plus, late-night audience.
The surveillance picture put out by the police is monochromatic and typically sooted, soft-edged, indistinct: small objects have disappeared or their shapes have become seriously distorted; the two men are as insubstantial as charred or whittled wood – shades, after-images, an aggregation of information fragments about to dematerialise completely. And yet Scott McGovern’s every tic and blink and glance is so ingrained that he seems easily identifiable within the dark mosaic blur that we have to believe is him. It is as if he has been expelled from the world of high-resolution and clamant colour, from television’s clean rooms, and cast back into pre-history, to the days of shadow-gazing, of ghosting and smudging and pictures that rolled and boiled and intermittently dissolved into crazy static. The world of drawn curtains and firelit rooms and glowing lines turning into moving pictures on moonmobile grey-green thick glass screens.
The other figure, the man whose hand McGovern is gripping (the hand that soon will hold the object that will kill him – there is no suspense: he will die, we hope before the story rots on the branch, before the inevitable public indifference, and then hostility, sets in); the man whose ear his head is inclining towards in his signature manner (to utter what inducement, what come-on, to which latitude of kinked, expensive sex? … ‘Rosebud! Rosebud!’) – the second figure has been regenerated, retrieved and enhanced, pushed to the point of bitplane breakdown, pixel decay. But it remains a blot, a blank, a nebulous, nagging presence, a composite image of every man who walked onto the set of honey shag and oatmeal tweed to talk up his latest mini-series or true-life hostage drama, his just-out novel or album or turnaround single featuring some proud-nostrilled diva or half-forgotten French film actress of the fifties. It is a reminder that every day is filled with unsuspected and ingenious ways in which destruction and disaster can happen, and that these death stories
become the only stories that we tell ourselves. Following the plot of other people’s misfortunes gives us the only sense of community we know. Hey. Shit happens.
Wet or dry?
Ice and a slice?
A whisky and splash.
Bass in a thing with a handle – I need something to hang on to at my time of life.
‘Miss KP’ emerging out of the slippery back-of-the-bar duvet of bagged peanuts.
Guest ploughman’s. Guest sandwich. Guest sausage.
Okay. We have: Kung Po chive. Piccalilli enchilada. Deep-pan Bombay duck. Egg-fry guacamole. Fried-egg nan. Peshwari scruncheons with gerkin. Sweet-and-sour bap.
The sneaky guy at the bar keeping an eye on the bandit to see if it has dropped.
Pubworld. Publife. Lifeworld. The felt-fact of aliveness (with a chaser, a stiffener, a lager-top). I had been adrift from it for three, perhaps four hours. I was feeling the pangs when Myc Doohan piped up. ‘There was a little chicken lived down on the farm. Do you think another drink would do us any harm?’ Myc Doohan no longer drinks himself, as it happens. But since he has been on the wagon his best friend has been Mary Warner. It suffuses the fabric of his clothes, announces him, clings to him like a miasma. Sitting next to Doohan you can get stoned on the smell of his jacket. I knew it was going to be him and I guessed what he was going to say. I inhaled him before he spoke.
Myc Doohan and I climbed the greasy pole together, working for rival papers – and came skidding down at about the same time, to bite the dust. But whereas my difficulties have been mainly in the head department, he has had to make himself available for major invasive procedures (liver, spleen, lung).
Two things I know about Myc Doohan: he wears a surgical corset, and cowboy boots with scuffed buckles on the side. The corset is because of the purple scar that starts at his sternum and does a sharp right at his navel; the boots are for the added inches. Myc isn’t small – he’s average height – but he believes he is, which is the same thing. The dope keeps his face an unhealthy underbelly green, so the broken veins and busted capillaries swirl in it like the red ripples in ice cream. There is a glowing nimbus of pale hairs fringing his slightly out-turned ears. Most nights will find him dry crawling the pubs along the river (his system speeding from the caffeine and artificial sweeteners in the chain-drunk Cokes, sugar-shocked), skimming stones across the dim water at Chiswick Mall.
When we detached ourselves from the pack some of the McGovern faithful called us by name, and whistled and jeered. I felt cocooned from them in Doohan’s musty, barny, wolf-like scent, and as we walked I listed for him some of the odorous qualities associated with various well-known diseases: diphtheria emanates a sweetish smell; yellow fever’s scent is reminiscent of a butcher shop; scrofula (which I have a touch of behind the ears and knees, most painfully between the fingers) has – appropriately – the aroma of stale beer; typhoid fever smells like fresh-baked brown bread; diabetic coma is acid-fruity.
The walking teased out another few threads in the frayed bottoms of Doohan’s trousers. It is a fine June night, sappy and benign, and we kept on walking past The Run Rabbit and The Captain Murderer, and came in here, to The Cherry and Fair Star, where we knew we wouldn’t be left finger-painting patterns in the glass rings on the Formica and glumly staring at one another during the gaps in our flabby, fitful conversational work-out. We parked ourselves gratefully at the table where young Ashley Cann and old Walter Brand (once ‘The man with a passport to the world’ in the
former deputy editor of the
were chewing over new type fonts and the dear old, dead old days.
‘Degenerate, Manson, Exocet, Dead History Bold, Skelter,
Arbitrary,’ Walter was saying. ‘The Wellington, the Wig and Pen, Poppins, The Stab in the Back, The Top of the Tip, the back bar of the Harrow, Rhona’s killer fry-ups at the Albion, the long bar at The Feathers, Auntie’s where Rene the sexy landlady made sure the barmaids always had bosoms of great splendour, Little Alfie distributing the enemies after ten o’clock,’ Ashley said, as usual off on his own trip.
It was like a harbourside tableau from the hand of some journeyman Victorian dauber: Walter in his cavalry twills, suede chukkas and lumpy Arran sweater, whiskery, grandfatherly wise; Ashley in his Converse All-Stars and baseball cap with the ‘I
Cops’ slogan, gangling, prone to facial skin eruption. ‘The London Apprentice’ or The Search For Knowledge’.
Ashley is twenty-two and in the grip of something he calls topophilia – the capacity for devotion to a place. He is an habitué of the rat-runs, warrens, courts, snack bars, public houses, drinking clubs and trysting places of what used to be Fleet Street. Like an elephant that knows where to go to die, led there by the memory of something that hasn’t happened yet, Ashley is drawn compulsively to the building that Sir Edwin Lutyens designed for the Press Association and Reuters, to the black vitrolite and glass façade of the old
headquarters, to Whitefriars Street and Bouverie Street and Wine Office Court, to the blackened shell of Northcliffe’s Carmelite House.
Nobody knows where this fixation comes from. His father is a professor of music at Aberystwyth, and from an early age tried to steer Ashley towards playing drums in an experimental noise rock band. All the time he was filling the house with the sounds of Varese and Ives, John Cage, John Adams, and Terry Riley, though, Ashley was carrying out comparative analysis of typefaces and headline densities on the
assessing the influence of graphic scanners and laser letterpress platemaking, and what their failure to penetrate the page signified vis à vis the emotional payload of a story and reader reification; inhaling the inks from enhanced and traditional rag newsprints and logging the results; annotating and cross-referencing the most
common sites of victimage (the shabby alley thick with nettles and tall weeds for public assault; the neat front room in the quiet street for domestics).
He ran away from home for the first time at the age of twelve. He was found tucking into a steak and stout pie at the Cheshire Cheese, with a biography of ‘the muckraker for God’, W. T. Stead, open on the scub-top table in front of him. They brought him home and bombarded him with Webern, Sun Ra, MC5, but Ashley’s destiny was set.
‘Lee Howard,’ Ashley will suddenly announce. ‘Editor of the
under Cudlipp, had a bottle of whisky on his desk from the moment he arrived, called everybody darling, grew alarmingly larger and larger until he could no longer get into a suit and wore a kaftan instead.’ Or, ‘Duncan “Tommy” Webb, the great investigator, somewhat dramatically protected at his desk by bullet-proof glass.’ Or, in connection with some casual remark, ‘A good page one, right-hand second lead, 24-point Century Bold across single column.’
‘Tell me again,’ Ashley said to Walter across the table in The Cherry and Fair Star, ‘about the time you were interviewing the King of Greece.’ It is a story that has attained folkloric status. Walter was interviewing the King; the King, alerted by something in his manner, asked to see his notes; Walter handed over a single page containing the drawing of a big black cat.
‘Not that old chestnut,’ Walter said. ‘It’s got whiskers on it by now.’
‘But I’m trying to keep alive an oral tradition,’ Ashley protested. ‘I feel like Alan Lomax with his old Uer immortalising country blues and field hollers, the plangent picking of turbaned mammies and blind old black men in Mississippi and the Carolinas, Fletcher Henderson’s seasick piano.’
We were joined just then by Annie (real name Honoraria) Jeffers, who had been changing in the lavatory. She was wearing ribbed black tights and heavy workboots with a denim jacket tied by the sleeves around her middle. Her hair was cropped and the stubble dyed white-blonde, with just the roots left dark. Her
on-the-job-hackette’s clothes were stuffed in a Schipol Duty Free bag, one of a collection she keeps in a clapped-out Nissan filled to the sun-roof with rubbish for recycling that she has been carrying round for months, the dark glass and the white glass, the newspapers and cans, sorted into bin-liner bags.