Authors: Gordon Burn
I was often cranking out pieces for the home editor, the features editor and the op-ed page editor at the same time. In addition I was saying ‘yes’ when I should have been saying ‘no’ to freelance commissions from one of the colour supplements and a number of monthly magazines. Then, because independent commercial radio had just been launched, and the people who ran the stations were finding twenty-four hours a lot of dead air to fill, I started providing opinions-by-the-yard on two-o’clock-in-the-morning phone-ins and round-the-table blah-blah shows, all for the price of the bus-fare home.
I went on well tanked-up and mouthed off about … oh who knows. This was the seventies. The Tate ‘bricks’ controversy. The Cambridge Rapist. The white wine explosion. Glam Rock. Stagflation. Were they the seventies? And then in addition there were the latenight, phonefreak old reliables. When does a foetus have the right to life? When can the plug be pulled? When can life be taken? Where does life exist outside our galaxy? How close to creating life dare we come? The modern Fagins who prey on homeless youngsters. The dangers of ‘kit car’ assembly packs – stuff I’d get up from a table – even my own table, even if there
people round, and even if Even
spent all day preparing the layered vegetable terrine in aspic and the Crème Senegale Roast Ribs of Beef we were eating, in a road-test for
– and go round to the pub to get away from.
For thirty-five years I had never known what it was like to be depressed or anxious. I cottoned on at an early age that ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is dreary. I also knew that the place to be to combat that dreariness, to get the best view of the mess that happens when the orderly arrangements of everyday life collapse, was at a newspaper. I knew that on newspapers the universal motto, although nobody might ever admit it, was: The worse it gets, the better I like it.
And for years I did like it – was cheerfully addicted to the charge of adrenalin once every twenty-four hours, the rumble of the presses throbbing through the building, the ink still wet on my name above a story, the scamulator blazing with all its lights on. But I was running on the rims by about 1977. Sometimes it seemed as if my head would burst – literally blow open, spraying all the opinions and punditry and Jack Daniels wisdom and sliced and diced philosophy, all the facts and data and life histories and geographies I spent all my time going around hoovering up from other people – kersplat! – up and down the walls.
There were warning signs, small things at first, that I chose to ignore. I boarded wrong trains – trains going somewhere other than I was supposed to be travelling – twice in the same week. I found myself penniless in a strange town, standing in front of a cash dispenser transfixed by the four-letter acronym LISA, which stood for Locally Integrated Software Architecture, but unable to remember my Personal Identification Number – four digits I had tapped out perhaps a thousand times in a sequence that I had assumed my body would always remember even when my mind couldn’t. It was like forgetting how to dance or swim, or how to beckon to somebody or wave goodbye. My fingers fumbled out the wrong code twice, and the card was gobbled into the machine – the white-light hologram of a swan-in-flight fluttering bleakly through a spectrum of kingfisher blue to orange cadmium as it disappeared.
Increasingly I found myself with a single finger dreamily stroking the granularity of the number ‘5’ on a touch-dial phone, that hard-locating nipple, while my memory refused to come up with numbers I had been dialling half my life. Going to a typewriter had always been an ordeal, but now it became an ordeal of a different order. I had known where to find the letters on a typewriter the way I knew where to find my limbs. But I’d have these fleeting memory seizures and I’d be aphasic, dyslexic. I’d feel the climbing panic, and then it became difficult to breathe. I couldn’t have pecked out ‘John sees Janet. Janet sees John’ in those circumstances if my life depended on it. It
was as if something in my motor memory was slipping or being worn down, or shorting out at increasing intervals, with no advance warning given. For some time they were eventless emergencies I was able to contain; there was no visible slide into melancholy, no crescendo of excitability. I was fine – until I wasn’t. When it was over, nothing had happened.
I had always been a notorious stonecutter and deadline surfer – getting things in only minutes before they were due to go to press – but now I started missing deadlines for the first time. The transcription service hadn’t got through the interview tape when they were supposed to, or had lost or mislaid the tape. Or I had been hanging around for hours waiting for the motorbike messenger to collect the copy (these were the days of slow-motion, terrestrial communication), and he hadn’t shown up. Or the interviewee had failed to turn up at the restaurant/bar/other as arranged (shome mishtake). Or Even had given me a deadline for the wrong day when she took the message. I remember even trying to convince somebody that I’d left an article he had been expecting on his desk while he was away at lunch, and a gust must have flushed it through a window. Other people, the elements, something was always to blame.
The flak at first was internal: rumblings were heard; back staircase confabulations took place: memos were circulated. But then one or two of the people I had gone to interview wrote or called to object to my conduct. There was the ‘alternative’ comedian whose bottle of Remy (a present from his agent – it still had the bow on) I made heavy in-roads into after his flat-mate made the mistake of asking me in to wait; and the senior politician who received a call from the novelist I’d got wrecked with one lunchtime, inviting him to join us in the bar at Langan’s rather than me going to the Department of Trade and Industry to interview him as arranged. (‘Oh anyway who gives a fuck. I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls to press your pants with,’ the novelist said, when the MP made it clear that an afternoon getting shitfaced in Mayfair couldn’t be shoe-horned into his very pressing programme.) On two other occasions around
this time I remember being on my knees bleerily wiping traces of vomit off a fancy Staffordshire china toilet bowl, and poking bits of vomit down the plug-hole of a bidet with my pen, although I believe the owner of the toilet bowl was the only one who complained.
Obviously it couldn’t go on indefinitely. Some sort of crunch-point was coming. When it happened, it happened in the garden of an English film actor whose name you would probably know, and the way it happened was this. I had driven down to the Thames-side mansion at Maidenhead with a photographer, and the photographer and the actor had gone into the house to assemble alternative outfits for the pictures. It was a hazy, overcast day, and I stayed outside to steal some nips from the quarter-bottle in my research wallet, and watch the river. I was sitting at a white antebellum table on a terrace flagged in pink-and-white chequerboard squares. There was a brightly painted Romany caravan halfway down the long lawn, and a red phone box, with a working telephone inside it (it rang once while I was sitting there, then stopped abruptly), by the swimming pool. Beyond the pool was a paddock with two ponies in it belonging to the actor’s daughters, and some rustic, pony-sized show-jumping fences painted with red and white stripes. A stand of weeping willows acted as a kind of screen between the house and the river, where the occasional glassy-hulled cruiser nosed by.
I don’t know how long I had been waiting on the terrace. I had been watching rabbits high up in a field on the other side of the river, and had lost any sense of time. When I heard the voice, I knew who I was but I wasn’t very sure of my whereabouts. My heart started racing and my mouth was very dry; only by opening my mouth and gasping did I seem able to take in any air. The voice was behind me, and I knew that what it was saying was directed at me, and required a response; but I couldn’t remember in whose garden I was sitting, or how I came to be there or – although it was a distinctive, in many ways familiar voice – whose voice it was. It was as if my brain had missed a beat, and then jammed.
A few nights earlier I had had an eerie experience in an Indian restaurant. I was sitting alone, eating a chicken curry with chapatis and dhal, when I noticed a sliver of glass in the food I was just about to put in my mouth. At the exact second of the discovery of the glass, and before I could even think about calling the waiter over, a brick was hurled through the window where I was sitting and glass rained onto everybody’s food. It was as if time had somehow been turned inside out, and a tangible fragment of experience had been allowed to come in advance of itself.
During the period of the seizure in the actor’s garden, I was neither back in the Indian restaurant nor in the garden itself but somewhere perplexingly – unpleasantly – in between. My adrenal glands were overworking, pushing my blood pressure up, and I was experiencing palpitations and rotating areas of colour in my peripheral vision. But when I could focus properly, and the nausea had stopped rising in my throat, I found myself in the middle of a polite conversation with a man wearing a sweat-shirt with the picture of a skier on it and the slogan ‘Cha-monix – Powder and Glory – Make madness a way of life’ and sharp-edged creases in his jeans who seemed to sense nothing amiss.
I sleep-walked the interview like a trouper, then went home and put myself to bed and stayed there, like a rat in its hole, a rabbit in its burrow. I huddled up to myself imagining I was living in a hut in a forest with wolves sharpening their claws on the heavy granite slab that formed the doorstep, for most of the next five months. When I re-emerged, rubbish was piled shoulder-high in the streets, looking lacustrine at night with sodium light reflecting on the knotted and twist-tied sacks, and it was winter.
I had moved out of the house by mutual agreement a few weeks earlier and into my own place, where I still am all these many years on. It was a lucky arrangement, as it turned out: the family was a few streets away and, although for a while the children were afraid to be in the company of their shaggy and dead-eyed daddy, Even had a key so that, in the darkest days of my sadness
of the spirit, she could come round and minister. She arrived and departed silently, leaving bread, milk, butter, eggs; and occasionally I’d hear her lifting objects to dust them as I lay in the next room doped, diasopan-ed, chemically coshed out.
The company quack rated me as no more than a heavy social drinker and put my malaise down to ‘overstimulation’ and overwork. The paper kept me on half-pay. During the day I mooched about, masturbated – masturbated compulsively for a time: standing up, sitting down, on the toilet, in the shower, probably a classic symptom of self-estrangement and dread. Mostly though I lay on the sofa and watched the play of light from the television on the ceiling and walls – the flashing electric tints; the numinous sheen; the monochrome shadows like residues or traces, like racing clouds.
I came to look forward to a programme which repackaged old Pathé and Movietone newsreels and was shown in the tired housewife’s slot in mid-afternoon. Crowned heads, bathing belles, railway smashes, fashion parades, dance marathons, boat launchings, hangings, the glossier phases of war – a poignant record of a vanished world; the world before information started to overwhelm experience. ‘There is an excess of information, making us prisoners of the news.’ This is the first thing young Ashley Cann ever said to me. ‘It is as if history had caught up with us in the form of news. Don’t you see? Yesterday’s news becomes history, already just barely perceptible. It ages even more rapidly than fashion, of which it is an accelerated form.’
Just before Christmas I was summoned to an audience with the editor, a decent, shy, ferociously blushing Old Etonian, determined to play the white man. Due to my recent … ah … unfortunate history, and my … ah … how shall we …
from which he was assured I was well on my way to making a full and lasting recovery, I could no longer be risked on his … that is to say, the group’s … flagship paper. However I was far too good a man to be let go. He had moved personally to ensure that I be given a berth on the sister, tabloid title. Which, after all, as he pointed out, was only the difference
between taking the lift to the second floor rather than to the fourth. Saying which, he shook my hand, blushed a deeper crimson, and turned his attentions to a pot plant on his desk while his secretary showed me out.
They didn’t exactly deck the halls with boughs of holly when I showed up at my new job on the first day. I was saddled with the household chores as I knew I would be, subbing letters and puzzles on the games page, checking facts, chasing down sources on the phone. But then I was saved by the General Election, which was called for May. At least it got me out into the world again, as a C-team sketch writer on the campaign trail.
It was like being back in Sunday school, taking charabanc trips and away-days around the country, with lucky-bags and fizzy drinks, being herded and coralled and counted on and off the bus to make sure that nobody was missing. And, barring an assassination attempt on the candidate or a major gaffe, there was nothing to file but bits of filler, waffling on the issues. (The editors didn’t want scoops from us. All they wanted was to make sure that nobody else had got something that they didn’t have. Sending them something nobody else had would have only thrown them for a loop and convinced them I was having a relapse.) It was the perfect convalescence, with no compunction to go round looking as if your dog has just run under a bus the way you have to when you’re staking out the wife of a man who has been discovered keeping the body parts of children in a Wendy House in a lock-up garage, or when you’re sitting round taking bets on what time on what day of the week a famous TV personality is going to die.
I have had relapses – panic flashbacks full of brain-jams and lacerating glass, followed by blackouts, numbness in the fingers of my right hand, palpitations, hallucinations; symptoms shared with the survivors of car-crashes, assaults, rapes, plane smashes, natural disasters and war. But by and large I keep my boat afloat with sleeping pills, sedatives, sputtering newsreels and films shot in black-and-white, and Meryl Streep’s governessy tones. I feel simultaneously tangled up in and remote from events. There
is a discrepancy between what I see and what I read about it the next morning, even when it is a report that carries my name. The more I do this, the more I wonder whether the things I’ve seen really are the things I’ve seen, or whether they are things I have merely read about or seen on television, and projected myself into later. I keep waiting for the night to descend the way it does in computer games – the sky goes out; it just suddenly goes dark.