LOSING WITH STYLE
I've been a loser at award ceremonies before and it's always difficult. They can say what they like about taking part and everyone on the shortlist being a winner, but you can bet every nominee is as desperate to win as I always am. My previous losses have been at journalism events, where the drill is that you all get drunk and behave badly (including the winners.) But the Gordon Burn Prize, in conjunction with the Durham Book Festival and Faber & Faber, offered a more graceful experience, the chance to lose with style.
The announcement of the shortlist had been in the mediaeval grandeur of Durham Castle; the finale was in the equally splendid Town Hall, whose hammer beam oak roof, richly coloured wooden wall plaques, and magnificent stained glass windows provided a dramatic backdrop for the shortlisted writers to talk about their books and read from them. This in itself was unlike journalistic events, where it's considered too dangerous to let the writers actually speak. The newspaper industry's attitude to writers can be summed up by the Christmas party I once attended at a national magazine. It was held in a trendy warehouse, thronging with double-barrelled Camillas in little black frocks. 'We nearly didn't invite the writers,' said one editor. 'All they do is stand in the corner, getting drunk and talking to each other.'
Writers do tend to talk to each other, having a mutual belief in the importance of words. I was proud to be on the shortlist with such amazing authors—Anthony Cartwright, as gentle in person as his moving novel about growing up in the 80s, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, is powerful; Ben Myers, dark and saturnine, with a reserved demeanour unlike the linguistic fireworks display of his novel Pig Iron, about generations of violence in a travelling family; Duncan Hamilton, whose formal suit made him look like the sports journalist he once was, though his The Footballer Who Could Fly goes beyond mere football writing, using the beautiful game and its characters to illuminate his relationship with his father. I'd have loved to meet Richard Lloyd Parry, author of the brilliantly forensic study of the death of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darkness, but unfortunately he was back in Japan, where he's Asia editor of The Times.
We sat together, sipping wine at one of the cabaret style tables arranged round the main hall. (The more appropriate word at journalistic events is guzzling.) For me, the most wonderful part of the evening was that each writer had incidental music specially composed in honour of their book by Dave Brewis of Field Music. Mine was strange and unsettling, beautiful in spite of the fact that it evoked Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, my novel which takes the premise that Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, didn't die when the authorities said but was released to a secret life and identity. Afterwards Dave told me he'd done the music three times, unsatisfied till he realised that the Myra Hindley of the book was blank. It was exciting to realise that he had so sensitively related to what I'd written. I look forward to more literary events, entering to my own theme music like Rocky coming into the ring.
I know some of my fellow authors hated having to perform, but I was relieved to be there for a purpose. My reading had some elemental help. I was reading a chapter where Myra and her lover, upper class Sophie, are together while Sophie's cat is dying. Myra tries to persuade her lover into a mercy killing. Just as it got to the point where people were realising, Myra wants to kill the cat, a storm started up behind me, thunder and lightning suffusing the stained glass windows with electric white. I may not have won but I had the best lighting effects.
The announcement of the winner, Ben Myers for Pig Iron, was made without ceremony. I couldn't raise even a smidgen of Vidalish venom—Gore Vidal famously said, Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little—as Ben's book was brilliant and I could only be happy for him. Claire Malcolm of New Writing North said all of the judges had shortlisted the same five books, and that each one had been ahead at some point. While I'd have liked the clock to stop on the day I was winning, I thought Pig Iron was extraordinary, as indeed were the other books.
I don't know what the others felt, but I had a sense of us all being in it together and of representing something different from the usual literary shortlist. Gordon Burn was an unusual writer in that he managed to survive while casting a cold intelligence and unflinching eye on human behaviour. This makes editors of all kinds uneasy. While none of the writers on the list were quite like him, we all had a determination to follow our own path. and I know a number of us, including Ben, had a difficult road to publication—I'm personally indebted to Rod Glenn and everyone at Wild Wolf Publishing, a small independent in the north east, for bringing Myra, Beyond Saddleworth to fruition. As Ben himself said, it's not a competition between competitions, but the Gordon Burn prize shortlist was just as interesting and accomplished as the Booker. It was also braver, spikier and more challenging, in keeping with the writer in whose honour it has been set up.
The day after the ceremony, a party of us went up to Gordon Burn's cottage in Longformacus in the Scottish Borders, where his partner, the artist Carol Gorner, hosted a riotous and joyful lunch. Gordon Burn apparently said the best parties were given by artists and it turned out to be true. Cassoulet that had been lovingly prepared all week by Richard and Chantal, a cauldron of flames permeating the garden with woodsmoke, delicious crumble made by nine year old Esme, and the busy sound of water from the river running like song underneath all our conversation. Best of all was the company. It was worth the white knuckle ride back to Berwick at ninety miles an hour on winding roads with the deliciously crazy Richard to be with people so full of life and fun. Thank you to Carol, Phoebe and Dan, Martin and Zoe, Ben and Adele, David and Jane, the above mentioned cooks and drivers, and the delightful eccentrics from neighbouring cottages for making losing so much fun.