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Fine writing and theme – but is it quite a novel? And, perhaps more pertinently, is it quite ethical?

Gordon_Burn_-_Alma_CoganI read this first quite a long time ago, when it was first published, 1991, and it stayed on my shelves as I thought at some point it might be a re-read. A recent book club choice, its time came, and I found myself not quite so sure the second time around.

Burn was certainly a writer of intelligence, provoking unease in the reader, in part to do with his often unsettling subject matter, but I suspect he is more of a sociologist, a philosopher exploring themes, and, of course, an insightful, incisive journalist (he was) more than a writer of novels.

Alma Cogan was, in the 50s and early 60s, very much a star, in a kind of wholesome family entertainment way which hardly seems to exist anymore. Known as ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’, she was 4 times the winner of The New Musical Express’s Female Vocalist of the Year competition. Born in Whitechapel in 1932 to a fiercely ambitious Romanian Jewish stage mother, Alma was quickly winning contests, and famous for her glamour. By the early 60’s, with the rise of The Beatles, R+B and teen culture, she was falling out of mainstream favour, though once she had been at the epicentre of popular culture high society. She died young of ovarian cancer in 1966. Quite quickly, a fan culture grew up around her, and she was seen as iconic of a time and place – a little search online reveals her fan industry is still active.

Burn’s book assumes she did not die, and is, in the late 1980s, living a fading, out of the limelight life. The Alma of Burn’s book looks back on her own life, examining a Britain which has gone, where the glamour of the limelight hides the darker side of celebrity and the voracious, obsessive world of fandom. What has gone is not the darker side of celebrity – that has, of course, grown, it is the innocence that believes the shiny face of glamour is real. This Alma is a more intelligent, self-aware and even self-mocking voice than the ‘real Alma’ image presented at the time.

The book disturbed me for a couple of reasons, despite Burn’s brilliance as a writer analysing the spirit of the times through a cleverly structured invention. The book won the Whitbread Prize in the year of its publication. Although he doesn’t play fast and loose with the real Alma’s life, and although it is absolutely made clear at the start of the book that she died in 1966 so all else is invention, the less than flattering making fast and loose with Alma and her relationship with her mother, may well have been highly disturbing to surviving family members.

The second reason, is that as part of Burn’s examination of the darker side of celebrity itself – not so much the darker side of the celebrities, more the dark nature of us, our obsession with it, and our obsession with the seamy and the sordid – obsession with those who become famous for their misdeeds, rather than their talents – he weaves in The Moors Murders of 1966, and particularly the murder of one of the children, Lesley Ann Downey, with a song of Alma’s. The use of a real event – and even the transcript of the tape of her killing which Hindley and Brady made, within the book, seems distasteful, somehow a further abuse of a life cut terribly and violently short, used as a novelist’s device

This book is a very pertinent examination of the whole industry of fame, celebrity culture and how it has changed and developed, and a microscopic dissection of the shadow side of celebrity, the vicarious and slightly sinister quality of fandom. It certainly fulfils one purpose of art – to shock out of complacency, and to force those who encounter it to think, reflect, ponder, and become discomfited, uncomfortable. It does not, at all achieve another purpose which is found in some art – that is, to raise, inspire and aspire to something finer in our nature.

3 ½ rounded to 4 – it is a much more superior novel than ‘okay’ but ‘like’ is not really an appropriate response!

Addendum to review published on the Amazons

It took me an age from reading the book, firstly, to review it at all, because I needed some time to disentangle myself from the reading and reflecting experience enough to assess it. And then it took longer to decide whether it would make this blog or not.

Regular readers know I only review here what I recommend and say ‘read/listen to/watch this’ about, and that I don’t post reviews on here for what I’m personally neutral or negative about – though that indeed may happen on the Amazons.

The problem with the Burn book is that though there is much I admire about it, the reading experience raised a lot of discomfort, distaste and often painful reflection and analysis, which has continued to disturb and perplex me. It is that, the undeniable potency of the book, what Burn is saying, and how he says it, that in the end earns a guarded place here.

I’ve spend days wrestling with that old chestnut which I’m sure we all do to death in our heads not to mention in the cups discussions, essays, dissertations and the like ‘What Is Art FOR, what Is Its Purpose’

There are of course a multiplicity of answers, but one, for me, IS that it makes me look, think, feel, reflect, experience anew.Sometimes that experience may be uplifting, life-enhancing, about growth, development and possibility – and sometimes it may be absolutely the reverse, a kind of diminishment, a kind of distaste, despair – but also a daring to stare into the face of a teeming darkness which is also part of our complex humanity; perhaps a place too terrible to visit often.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living from www.damienhirst.com

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
Damien Hirst website

Unsurprisingly, Burn was a friend of that artist who has never been afraid to shock (is he charlatan, is he some kind of truth teller?) Damien Hirst

Burn was a lacerating writer whose work is always dark. He was notable for writing not only fiction (which he used to explore cultural and ethical themes, reflections on the times, the role of the media, spin, fake and deception, as here) but true-crime investigative journalism books. He focused on those whose psyche was indelibly dark and steeped in psychopathology, such as the Wests, the Yorkshire Ripper. These are places I have no desire to go, a darkness too far for anything which might be personally necessary to know.

I am much more interested in the nuances of crossing the line, rather than the extremes which I can’t, or don’t want to, in any way, examine. That is why crime novel about psychopaths and extreme aberrant violence does not interest me. And crime novels about how those who are cut from recognisably the same cloth as I am, do. That, I find fascinating, in a kind of more day-to-day exploration of shadow.

Extreme pathology presented as entertainment is not for me – but Burn is not really doing that. So he throws me back on that old chestnut – why did the writer write this, and does a better purpose excuse unspeakable horrors in art. Pass. Pass, Pass on that one, caught on the fence of don’t know

King Lear has the power to shock because the blinding of Gloucester is meant to provoke our pity and our horror, not just fill us with half revulsed half indulged delight in the gruesome. Plus, I suppose also, the safety of knowing this is unreal, and the blinded one and the blinder are actors, after all. But, what about the newsreel and selfie pictures of horrors as they unfold? We need to know what happens, and the knowledge may shake out out of innocence, may wake us to positive response and action – but how quickly do we end up crossing a line where we are viewing the horror of real agony and suffering for some sort of titillation, some sort of over indulgence of our feelings of revulsion, some kind of version of sentimentality, even?

Maybe we are only the thinnest of whiskers away from the crowds who filled the Coliseum to watch gladiators fight to the death for our entertainment, from those who gathered on Tyburn Hill and at the foot of the Guillotine to watch public execution.

So, I do believe this book should be here, for the days and days it has snarled at me, Gordon Burnsnagged me, needled me, and continues to do so still to produce something half book review and part unresolved rant

Alma Cogan Amazon UK
Alma Cogan Amazon USA