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.
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.