CHAMPAGNE AT DURHAM CASTLE
What a strange life it is, being a fiction writer. Journalism was crazy enough, but with fiction you go from high to low in a heartbeat. Or low to high.
My week started with some troll making a comment on my website's blog. The usual broad-minded stuff, accusing me of justifying the Moors Murders. 'I'm going to seek legal representation to stop you publishing the inner workings of that sick pervert, Ian Brady,' he wrote. At least it wasn't my eyeliner this time.
Things started to look up with the news that my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, had been shortlisted for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, along with four other titles. The judges' choice will be the book which 'most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods... Literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading.'
Gordon Burn was a writer of great integrity, unafraid to explore the darkest crevices of the human psyche. He wrote with a unique mixture of cynicism and lyricism and, like most of Britain's best writers, felt himself to be in the tradition of the New Journalism's holy trinity: Capote, Mailer and Wolfe. It's an honour to be associated with him.
I met him once, years ago, at a snooker tournament. It was the briefest of meetings and I was disappointed he was too busy to stop and talk as we shared many interests. After I'd finished my first book, The Cruel Game, about a year on the snooker circuit, the publisher asked me what I'd like to do next. Write a book about the Yorkshire Ripper, was my response. Peter Sutcliffe had been convicted a couple of years previously of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder a further seven and I was fascinated by his relationships with women, particularly his wife Sonia.
My publisher, Roger Houghton, was a most charming, old school English gentleman. 'Oh goodness, he said. 'It's far too early for that.'
Gordon Burn must already have been working on his Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, because it came out the following year. It focused mainly on the serial killer's relationship with other males, particularly his father and brother, so there would have been room for both books. I've always regretted being too naive to argue the case for my Sutcliffe book. Gordon Burn's was then followed by his book about snooker, Pocket Money.
So I felt there was a spooky kind of synchronicity at work when I heard my novel had been nominated. Not the sort of thought that would have occurred to the man himself. He was far too cool-headed for such mumbo-jumbo. (Apart from his enthusiasm for the work of Damien Hirst, but I suppose everyone has their Achilles heel.)
The announcement of the shortlist was one of the most enjoyable literary evenings I've attended. My novel was being rewarded, and there was no stress attached, because the winner won't be announced till October. Just five shortlisted authors: Anthony Cartwright, Duncan Hamilton, Richard Lloyd-Parry, Ben Myers and me. I have no doubt they're all as desperate to win as I am, but it was a beautiful sunny evening, there was free champagne and nibbles and we were in the courtyard of Durham Castle. 'No, there's nowhere near there to park,' an official had said incredulously when I phoned to ask. 'The castle is part of a World Heritage Site.'
Well, I could see that when I got there. Battlements, Norman towers squaring off against each other, rich green grass. The literati were out in force in their cream linen blazers and sharp little frocks, though few reached the sartorial splendour of me and my friend Pat Hagan, journalist and law lecturer and the most elegant woman there in her chocolate brown linen sheath and baroque pearl necklace. She said it was an old dress, as was mine, though unworn—I'd found it at the back of the wardrobe with the sale label still on it. Clearly I'd felt guilty at the time, splurging on something I didn't need, and had stuffed it out of sight. Now I felt virtuous, not considering a new dress for such a big event.
After champagne in the courtyard, we all went into the Great Hall for the launch of the Durham Book Festival and the prize announcement. There can be few more dramatic settings than this huge mediaeval space with its dark wood panelling, stained glass windows and portraits of assorted dignitaries, who I guessed were professors or something—the hall is part of a working university. And a wedding venue, of course.
The literary component of the evening was sublimely surreal. A lady poet had been to Australia and written a poem about an ant, and a chap had been to the Arctic and talked for at least fifteen minutes before declaiming a poem of four lines. I'm pretty sure there's more to come. Most surreal of all, perhaps, was the witty American who'd grown up playing cricket—in Texas. For a Glaswegian like myself, cricket is incomprehensibly English, a game with such labyrinthine rules you can't always be sure who's won. I've always thought they play it through the Looking Glass, so what on earth was an American doing writing about it?
David Peace read an extract from Red or Dead, his new book about Bill Shankly, its hypnotic rhythms causing Pat to whisper, 'It's beautiful.' In announcing the shortlist, Peace gave a brief description of each book, including one he said was 'a fantastic novel,' which may point to his own favourite. Mine he said was 'daring.'
I just hope the SAS motto is true and that who dares wins.