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Gordon Burn makes me want to write

Dan Davies

In his introduction to Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumously published collection of Gordon Burn’s superlative writing on art, David Peace wrote that he first met the author twice. It was much the same for me.

Like Peace, my first encounter with Burn came via Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, his 1984 book about the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe.

I first read it as a teenager and it made a lasting impact. My second meeting came many years later over lunch in the summer of 2008, ahead of a feature I was commissioning for Esquire, the magazine for which Burn had previously written an award-winning sports column. I had arranged for Gordon Burn and David Peace to do a ‘round table’ interview with the author Richard T Kelly about their acclaimed writing in the arena of crime.

I admired Gordon Burn enormously. His breadth and originality as an author of non-fiction and fiction, the piercing quality of his observation and prose, his bloody-minded commitment as a writer—such talents made lunch with him a slightly daunting prospect. He was good company although, on reflection, I think I probably tried too hard to impress him. He let me do most of the talking, sitting back and observing in the manner that served his writing so well.

We discussed Born Yesterday, which had only recently been published. It was, tragically, his last book—a novel written in real-time and one, in typical Gordon Burn fashion, that defied categorisation by blurring the boundaries between journalism, fiction and polemic.

What I really wanted to discuss with him, though, was his experience of writing Happy Like Murderers, his harrowing book about Fred and Rosemary West. When I steered the conversation towards it, I remember him stiffening slightly before telling me that he could not bring himself to talk about it. ‘It took too much out of me,’ he reasoned. Before we parted, I explained that I was planning to write a book about Jimmy Savile. His response was not particularly enthusiastic; at that time Savile was nothing more than a slightly sinister celebrity relic, quietly raging against the dying of his light.

In the feature published in Esquire that November, Gordon Burn opened up a little about his processes for writing Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son and Happy Like Murderers, two books which redefine the parameters of crime writing, and that place him alongside Norman Mailer and the other leading lights of New Journalism who, he revealed, had inspired him to set off to Bradford following Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest in January of 1981.

For a year after the arrest, the newspapers had courted the Sutcliffe family. By the time Burn finally made contact they had experienced what he described as ‘a certain dire excitement’. Unlike the reporters in the Bradford Hotel he first frequented, Burn chose to stay and was absorbed into the community to such an extent that evenings in the pub with Sutcliffe’s brothers began to feel commonplace. He chose not to regard the Sutcliffes as meat in a tabloid feeding frenzy, saying instead he ‘treated them like people’. In return, they talked about Peter Sutcliffe as a person, which led to his nuanced, complex and utterly unforgettable portrait of a man and the community that spawned him.

Happy Like Murderers came about because of the brilliance of Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son and for the way in which Gordon Burn had so adroitly woven the pyscho-histories of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady into his Whitbread Prize-winning first novel, Alma Cogan. He was an astute—very possibly, the only—choice to write about the Wests. I cannot think of any other writer who would or could have submerged himself so completely in the filth and depravity of their lives, only to emerge with an account so unflinching, so startling and so non-judgemental. ‘I wish I’d never been approached,’ Burn told Peace and Kelly in 2008. ‘I was going to say I wished I’d never done the book, but somebody had to do it and it was me. But now I probably wish it hadn’t been me.’

I feel the same about writing my book about Jimmy Savile, even if winning last year’s Gordon Burn Prize was the greatest achievement of my career. It represents some consolation for the six years I spent in Savile’s warped, kaleidoscopic world—interviewing him at length, over long days and nights in his flats in Leeds and Scarborough, and the 18 months I spent wading through the grim detail that spewed forth in the wake of his exposure.

More than two years on from the publication of ‘In Plain Sight – The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile’, I feel that I now have a better understanding of what Gordon Burn said to me over lunch. Why? Because I still find myself asking, ‘Why me?’ and, more pertinently, given the fact I felt compelled to spend so much time with Jimmy Savile, ‘Why him?’

I am also struck by what Gordon Burn said in that interview about his experience of writing about the Wests—and the parallels with my own experience: ‘I wrote the book incredibly fast,’ he revealed, ‘because I just wanted to get through that stuff—without thinking ‘Is this what I want to say?’ But the true answer is that I thought about it non-stop for two and a half years. I didn’t want to dwell on it. But having said that, I think you can be torn. On the one hand, you’re writing about horrible stuff, except that when it comes to the time to write, it’s so ingrained and internalised—you’re only thinking about the writing. So you can be appalled by the content but still exhilarated by the feeling that you’re translating into the form you hoped for and it’s making a good book.’

My book was written in four breathless months, and in that time I experienced many of those same feelings. During the extensive research period and the writing itself, my benchmark was always Gordon Burn. I kept reminding myself that if I could get somewhere close to his standards then at least I would be able to walk away from the wreckage with a sense of professional satisfaction.

After last year’s awards night in Durham, Lee Brackstone of Faber, who worked with Burn on five books, including Happy Like Murderers, wrote about the importance of the Gordon Burn Prize and paid eloquent tribute to his friend. ‘Some writers go to places so we don’t have to,’ he said. Quite. I will always be enormously proud to have won an award that bears Gordon Burn’s name.

Of course, Gordon Burn’s books did not all inhabit the darkness of true crime, even if exploring society’s shadows was what he did best, and most frequently. His writing on sport was as singular and perceptive as you would expect from a man who was named Columnist of the Year for his monthly contributions to Esquire. I reread Pocket Money, Burn’s second book, last summer and his immersion in the world of mid-1980s snooker was as total and as seamless as it was for his work on killers. More recently, I returned to Best and Edwards, his memorable study of two very different Manchester United icons from adjacent eras.

Thanks to an unexpected career turn, I now work in the art world. It is an environment in which the language of the academy, art discourse—whatever you choose to call that brand of impenetrable purple prose —appears designed to obfuscate and maintain a self-elected status quo. These are traits at odds with Burn’s writing, which always had a clarity and purpose.

After accepting the job, I was given a copy of Sex & Violence, Death & Silence. I was initially embarrassed to have been so oblivious to Gordon Burn’s prolific and penetrating essays on art, and to the fact art was so important to him. I devoured the book, which, needless to say, was a revelation, and cite it whenever I talk about the way I feel art should be written about.

Damien Hirst, Burn’s friend and collaborator, nailed it in the foreword to the collection when he told David Peace: ‘There’s so much shit, isn’t there? With art writing. So much bollocks. People who’ve swallowed dictionaries. All that crap. And I just really loved Gordon, because everything he wrote, it was with real economy. But still very poetical, very lyrical.’

Damien Hirst was right about other things, too, namely that Gordon Burn was ‘an artist in his own right.’ ‘He dragged it out of himself, almost like fucking carving it out of marble,’ Hirst said. ‘Reading anything he wrote, it was a breath of fresh air. Because he was better than anyone else.’

In that Esquire interview, Gordon Burn recalled how in 1980, before he had begun work on his first book, he was utterly engrossed in The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. ‘The whole time I was reading, it made me want to write something,’ he said. That is exactly how I feel about Gordon Burn’s books, and it is why I will keep returning to them.