Born Yesterday

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Gordon Burn

Still on the subject of non-fiction narrative, a more daring example than Zeitoun can be found in Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday, subtitled ‘the news as a novel’. Published in early 2008, it centred on the major news events of 2007 and was apparently written in a very short period at the end of that year. The events are connected by the ‘character’ of the narrator, who is eventually revealed as Burn through discussion of his novel Fullalove. While this narrator is portrayed in various settings, there is no story as such – the most narrative friendly moment is when he attempts to visit Gordon Brown’s house in North Queensferry, when the novel does become briefly more akin to journalism. For the large part, however, it is a rumination on news, media and celebrity, drawing connections across its cast of real-life characters.

Burn’s work has always lived on the border between fact and fiction. His first novel, Alma Cogan, featured not only the singer living an imagined life beyond 1966, but the Moors murderer Myra Hindley. He has also written a number of non –fiction books, including one about the Yorkshire ripper, and another on Fred and Rosemary West. Throughout there has been a fascination with celebrity:

“Almost everything I have written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.”

Born Yesterday, too, is concerned by how celebrity is created and the effect it has on the individuals who experience it. It focuses on Kate and Gerry McCann, Tony Blair as he leaves office, and Gordon Brown as he succeeds him, John Smeaton, hero of the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, and Kate Middleton attempting to escape the attentions of photographers (the one area where the novel has become more topical). He begins, however, with Margaret Thatcher, post-celebrity, walking in a park:

“Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons.”

This in contrast to the “famous picture of her standing in the gun turret of a Saracen tank.” Throughout Burn juxtaposes the celebrity identity with the other. When Blair leaves London having tendered his resignation to the Queen, he carries his own case:

“The bag was open bulging, a brown woollen sleeve trailing, the buckle of a strap bouncing along in the dirt.”

For Thatcher and Blair it is the beginning of life after celebrity; for the others it is life before that provides the contrast. So we learn about the rugby accident that almost blinds Brown, Gerry and Kate’s working class upbringings, John Smeaton’s dead-end job as a baggage handler before he landed that punch. Burns has a knack of sketching these moments both on and off camera, and drawing connections. At times they imply the tiny celebrity world: Smeato on the Richard and Judy sofa; Brown on the GMTV sofa; Smeato at Number 10; Gerry McCann at the Edinburgh Television Festival; Smeato at the Edinburgh Fringe…

At other times Burn over-reaches himself in his search for connections, for example in the pages devoted to Madeleine’s eyes, “stylised into media emblems”, through suspect Robert Murat’s similar defect, to Blair’s “bonkers eye” as depicted by cartoonist Steve Bell, to Gordon Brown “lying immobile in a darkened room to save the sight of what is now considered his ‘good’ right eye”, and, finally, to Damien Hirst. It’s not that this aspect of the novel isn’t interesting, it’s simply isn’t all that meaningful, unless we are to take it symbolic of the media’s narrow vision.

The novel, however, is a fascinating picture of Britain at a particular moment, both from behind the lens of the media and from one step further back. Burn was always a sharp-eyed observer of fame, and this novel is no exception. Born Yesterday -like all news of course, and a reference perhaps to gullibility, but also to the Philip Larkin poem (Burn quotes Larkin in the novel), a warning against being special:

“In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.”

Danger rating: ironically, the novel feeds off the very fascination with celebrity that it examines. While not quite tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, the more time passes, and the news stories it echoes fade from view, the less interesting it may become.

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