Authors: Gordon Burn
Good material, I suggested to Mailer, who in ten days I hadn’t
seen take a note. ‘Material?’ he said, evacuating a Santa-size ho-ho. ‘Tell you. I wouldn’t recognise material these days if it smacked me in the mouth.’
I didn’t know spit about boxing. But then, knowing nothing about painting hadn’t stopped me banging out 1,500 words on the references to Indian totems, Graeco-Roman legends and animal sexuality in the early works of Jackson Pollock, any more than being innumerate had inhibited me from banging a piece together on Tunku Abdul Rahman’s financial restructuring of the Malaysian economy. The first article I wrote for my first London paper was an obituary of the American dancer Ruth St Denis, whose name I read for the first time when the file folder containing her taped-together, ash-like clippings dropped on my desk.
I kept hearing names in Kinshasa, and having people – mainly waddy, vending-machine-sized black men with broken boot heels and deep scratches on their wraparound glasses – pointed out to me excitedly across plastic palatial rooms frantic with electrostatic that did unpredictable things to all the hairpieces present. Barney Ross, Willie Pep, Ezzard Charles, Benny Paret … Who were these people? Bob Clemo, the paper’s star boxing writer, could have told me. But, for complicated domestic reasons – was this the time his wife hurled herself into the canal near where they lived in Maida Vale wearing only a poncho and self-suspend stockings? Or the time their son, radged that his ounce of Lebanese red had disappeared from the toe of a pair of school sneakers, arsoned the same house? Or maybe Clemo had simply been shipped off to Champneys again for drying out on the paper’s account? – whatever the reason, Bob Clemo wasn’t flying in until forty-eight hours before fight-time.
When he finally did, within a few hours of deplaning he was circling the dining-table like a paso-doble dancer without a partner, in preparation for his world-renowned whip-the-cloth-off act. (He insisted that all the plates and bottles and everything were
to end up in a dribbling, pooling heap in the middle. He earned a cheer anyway for giving his expenses such a
heroic first hiding.) By 4 a.m., Clemo and his opposite number on one of the American papers were battling it out with chairs in the bar – one chair each, wielded at head-height and crashed around until only a couple of staves were remaining, the two of them coming at each other, red dirt and matchwood and glass shards clinging to their clothes, while the Zairois bar boys speculated (I wouldn’t be surprised) on the weird possession cults and crazy customs of this roving white tribe.
I should probably say here that all this was in the days when I was working for a ‘quality’ broadsheet paper; in the days, that is, before I was bumped onto the company’s breezier, ‘faster format’ tabloid title (where I still am), and in a time when even the man from Del Monte would have been able to tell the two apart. The paper which employed me hadn’t yet gone to colour – still had men working for it, in fact, who would shake their head sadly over the introduction of pictures onto the front page (and who’s to say they weren’t right?). The news editor was a man who insisted that his male reporters wear suits and that the few hackettes turn up for work in below-the-knee-length skirts and blouses that, as he euphemised it, colouring to purple, they might wear to a funeral without having to change.
This is all by way of explaining their reactions to the material I started to send back from Zaire.
I had travelled to Africa prepared. Ancestor reverence, secular dance, religious masquerade, rules governing the legal status of strangers, spirit mediumship and spirit possession. I had mugged up on all this. Kinshasa was going to be my shining hour. I had a smart new bush jacket from Abercrombie and Fitch. Oh I was keen. I got even more of an edge when I read in an interview with Mailer on the plane going over that he regarded Africa as being Hemingway’s territory (I was carrying a copy of
in my luggage), and so intended to be particularly on his mettle. That was it then: I was going to go
with my namesake, my nemesis, with my ‘sharer’ self – an idea that was crazy-arsed then, pathological now. I was going to stop him hoovering up the material and making it his own.
And it wasn’t just Mailer. Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Bud Schulberg, James Baldwin and dozens of other big-foot reporters were all rattling round Zaire. The thing was (I bleated whenever the office got me on the phone), they had access, something I didn’t have; they got to go to the places I couldn’t go: the Ali bungalow in the Mobutu compound in N’Sele, just for instance, batting the breeze with Ali’s man Bundini, and the trainer, Angelo Dundee – ‘Hey, Angie,’ they’d call across the marbled spaces of the Intercontinental, lying back largely, ‘my man Angie!’ (what, we wallflowers were constantly asking each other, were these guys
– and ride on Ali’s bus and in the limos and sit on the counterpane in the bedroom at the house while Ali brought himself a Coke from the dresser, his
playing taps on his great ebony trunk of a tufted thigh … Not to mention the breakfasts with Mobutu at Mobutu’s place by the brown silent river …
The result was that I over-reacted. I over-reached. I pushed the envelope. (Where does that come from? What does it mean?) Certainly I over-
. What they wanted was basic information about Ali’s speed or Foreman’s bad mood, with a bit of spin here, a bit of vamping-’til-ready there; the tale of the tape. What they got was twenty paragraphs on the ivory market in Kinshasa, the weird house in the centre of town where streams of pygmies constantly came and went, the landscape of the bus ride out to N’Sele (urban shanty, then dusty hot-house exotic), Mobutu’s private zoo, Joseph Conrad’s Leopoldville contrasted and compared.
But the all-time jaw-dropper was the piece I phoned through on tribal fetish objects, with special reference to the grotesque Zairian nail figure of a two-headed dog which was the first thing I saw when I woke up each morning, and which, on asking round, I discovered wasn’t corporate, in the sense of there being one in every room with the pants press, and the hair-drier and the watercolour washes of Mobutu-inspired motorway developments hanging either side of the bed.
I established that these snarling, bristling figures were called
and made particularly excited note of the fact that the ‘dried organic matter’ clearly visible between some clumps of nails was probably blood from a blood sacrifice, possibly even human blood, possibly even a child’s: in certain villages in the interior, a child reported as having disappeared was presumed to have been sacrificed to mark the death of an important local man, and his or her head interred with the chief’s body. ‘Good-night, pal,’ I would say, made maudlin by the gin rickeys and the Planters Punches and the wine, bearing down on the braille spikes of the dog with a force I now feel sure I hoped would be enough to draw a sample of my own blood, which overnight would trickle down and join up with one of the boluses of ancient encrusted African matter.
I started off with the heel of my hand and then the open palm (violet veined, soft, never exposed to a decent day’s toil in its life). Then I brought the
in contact with the pad of my bare belly – cold nails hammered in at every angle – my toes enclenched in the flame-retardant carpet – put the two-headed monster on the bed and lay on it, straddled it face-down like a – what? – a fakir? – supported only by extended fingertips and toes, two middle fingers, two big toes, and finally nothing. Kabanga! A jungle moon framed in the high window. A stomach like the take-off board at the triple jump. That new journalism weirdness (although it goes without saying I didn’t pass a word of any of this on). Then I’d turn out the light.
My adventures in ethnography went down like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl back in London. The despatches were ruthlessly pruned (as I knew they would be, having been for so long the pruner myself), and pretty soon I fell in with requirements: I rarely left the pack of reporters and filed little that couldn’t as easily have been lifted from the morning’s press handout or the stuff put over by the Press Association’s man. In this way, apart from the necessary topping and tailing, stories virtually wrote themselves.
But until that happened, the blue pencil ran riot on – made Pollocks of – my ‘screeds’. (‘Made Pollocks of his bollocks’ was
the joke, neatly combining references to my first and most recent efforts, when I returned home.) I’d get back to the Intercontinental to a stack of message slips all saying the same thing: Contact office soonest. I’d be paged in the lobby and in the coffee-shops and bars, and go to a phone only to have it reiterated that they were not
that if they’d wanted animal stories they’d have got Johnny Morris, and that, contrary to what I apparently believed, there was no ‘a’ in my last name (conspiratorial laughter in the background).
The method of paging at the Intercontinental consisted of a bellboy carrying a blackboard sign with Buddhist temple bells tinkling attention to the name of whoever was wanted at the desk or on a phone. ‘Martin Bormann’, ‘Aleister Crowley’ and ‘Kojak’ were popular. And so was ‘Norman Mailer’. Or ‘Miller’. You could never be sure. Without exception, Mailer’s was the name that got chalked up and paraded around. And so invariably, whenever we were both in the hotel, we’d both turn up at the front desk and go through an exaggeratedly formal routine: ‘You – No, no, you – No,
You.’ Like codgers getting on a train.
‘“Norman Miller,’” Mailer said the first time this happened. ‘Would I be right in thinking those are Fleet Street eyes? Should I know you?’
“‘I really think you are the best journalist in America” – “Well, Cal, there are days when I think of myself as being the best
in America,”’ I said, quoting an exchange that Mailer once had with the poet Robert Lowell. He liked that. It started us off on a good footing. But it wasn’t as impromptu as I would like to believe I made it seem. If I’m honest, I suppose I hoped it, or some reference to the Miller/Mailer thing, might sneak into the book-length account of Foreman–Ali that Mailer was in Kinshasa to write. But if I did, I was disappointed – relieved
disappointed. A year later, I picked up
with the heart-hammering, rib-racketing sense of apprehension anybody feels when they suspect they might be going to see their name in print and have no idea whether they’re going to be made to look
false or stupid or craven or worse (smaller and greater betrayals, lesser and grosser misrepresentations of which I have been habitually guilty myself in the intervening years). Even vernacular spellings such as ‘No’min’ and ‘Nawmin’ came swimming up off the page and made me feel momentarily nauseous.
Somehow – I no longer remember how – among the street jumble of socks, peanuts, toothpaste, chewing-gum, batteries, candles, tins of sardines, cigarettes and used cassette tapes in Kinshasa, I turned up a copy of
which, on the morning after the fight, both of us still swaying drunk, I got Mailer to sign (‘To Norman M. from Norman M. Well met in Kinshasa. Remember (you know this): writers are always selling somebody out. It’s been fun.’). It had a supermarket sexy cover, and carried a recommendation from
‘It races home into the station, blowing all its whistles’ – that I have always imagined appearing on a book of mine – a book of course that I have never written, and have now lost all ambition to write.
Yesterday, the twentieth of June, was Father’s Day, a fact which went unmarked of course by me, but also by my children (one boy, one girl, both more or less grown up now and effectively moonied by their mother into believing her version of what went wrong in the marriage).
But, as a way, I can only suppose, of flagging its well-known commitment to family-mindedness and ‘traditional’ family values, this morning’s paper has gone overboard with Father’s Day mentions. Somebody has run a search and got the computer to spew up a ‘topical’ add-on for every reference to ‘father’ or ‘daddy’ or ‘dad’.
So, a man has been gunned down by terrorists in Northern Ireland, ‘making a Father’s Day widow of his wife, Karen, mother of Susan, 7, and Tony, 8’. One of the England football team has run off with a woman described by his wife as being ‘all white shoes and sun-beds’, ‘leaving sons Michael, 8, and Peter, 7, to spend Father’s Day without their dad yesterday, riding their bicycles around the drive of the family’s luxury home in Coggeshall, Essex’. A boy of twelve has provided ‘the ultimate Father’s
Day present – the gift of life’ by using a tea-towel to staunch the bleeding when a fish tank shattered and sliced through his father’s throat and windpipe. I’ve counted half a dozen references in as many pages.
Even the three paragraphs carrying my puny byline have been given a Father’s Day peg. Headlined ‘The Look That Says: Live And Let Die, by Norman Miller’, they read as follows:
As Scott McGovern continued his fight for life yesterday, the shamed TV star’s son was among those attending a star-studded reception at Smith’s Lawn, Windsor. Daniel McGovern, 19, chatted with celebrities including Billy Connolly, Susan Hampshire and Anneka Rice and drank champagne costing
200 a bottle while his father lay on a life support machine in an intensive care unit at St Saviour’s Hospital, London. There his condition continued to be described as critical but stable.
It is now 18 days since
750,0000-a-year McGovern was found unconscious in his luxury flat at the Barbican. Police are continuing to examine thousands of frames of surveillance footage, including film taken outside the men’s toilet on the concourse at Victoria Station, one of the capital’s most notorious pick-up places for homosexuals, in an attempt to identify the man spotted entering McGovern’s building with him shortly before the murderous attack.
Yesterday McGovern’s loyal wife, Sheila, continued her bedside vigil. But Father’s Day brought visits from neither of the McGovern children. While Daniel lived it up with the smart set at Windsor, Sophie, 16, was said to be being comforted by family friends.