The Importance of the Gordon Burn Prize

Article by Lee Brackstone, Creative Director, Faber Social

Some writers go to places so we don’t have to. The Gordon Burn Prize was set up in the wake of the premature death of one of the most original and fearless British authors of his generation, a writer who was at home chronicling the heady days of snooker in the mid-80s and sitting through the trial, and recording, the horrors of, Fred and Rose West. The prize rewards innovative work across fiction and non-fiction which best represents the spirit of Gordon’s work. In 2015 it went to Paul Kingsnorth’s stylistically radical novel, The Wake.

Last night the Gordon Burn Prize was awarded in Durham Town Hall to Dan Davies for his portrait of a man who will surely haunt generations to come, Jimmy Savile. My first encounter with this book in embryonic form came as an editor at Faber, where I was fortunate enough to have worked with Gordon over the course of five books: Happy Like Murderers, The North of England Home Service, Best & Edwards, Born Yesterday, and his posthumous collection of essays on art, Sex and Violence, Death and Silence, which in itself would have made a chillingly appropriate title for Davies’ unfettered study of a monster who now outscores Shipman, West and Sutcliffe in the nation’s Top Trumps of Bogeymen.

I remember taking the book proposal forward for editorial discussion in 2009 when Gordon was still alive, and there being some incredulity amongst certain colleagues that these insinuations about a celebrated public figure with his be-jewelled fist deep in every charity pie could be creditable. Even then, I had thought everyone knew these rumours were the shadow of a truth that had been (for some reason then, and still now, to a point) concealed, or hidden In Plain Sight, as Davies book has it. In 1996 while interning at Jonathan Cape I had read Irvine Welsh’s story, ‘Lorraine Goes to Livingston’, which features a tv presenter, paedophile and necrophile (‘There was nothing like the sight of a Stiff to give Freddy a stiffy’ is vintage Welsh) called Freddy Royle. I may be projecting, but I’m pretty sure in the first draft of this manuscript Royle was identified as Savile, ie explicitly, by name. The proposal wasn’t taken on until after Savile’s death. There’s a part of me thinks this is a subject Gordon himself would have embraced with courage. He was never afraid of going to the dark places in our collective psyche, because I think he knew he would return with truths about the culture and human nature.

Savile was, as Joan Bakewell said, ‘famous for being famous’ and in this respect (and many others), Davies’ book is a just and worthy winner of a prize that was set-up by Gordon’s widow, Faber and New Writing North to keep the legacy of Burn’s writing alive. Like a bargain basement Andy Warhol, Savile understood the entertainment business in the twentieth century was an acceleration towards image. And if the image is grotesquely compelling enough it will hide a multitude of sins and failings. Davies’ endeavour and bravery in producing this portrait have been applauded and readers who are courageous enough to accompany him on this curious journey will be rewarded. It is a fitting winner of a prize which attempts to identify contemporary fiction and non-fiction that best represent the unique nature of Gordon Burn’s engagement with the world. His writing on art, music, celebrity, sport, true crime, to say nothing of his fiction and his final masterpiece, Born Yesterday (a book which, he told me in The Princess Louise pub in Holborn, he would write in ‘real time’ reflecting ‘real events’ over the increasingly desperate and occult-seeming summer of 2007), become more relevant to our understanding of the culture by the day. Gordon Burn was a visionary literary figure with an intuitive understanding of our hidden dreams and nightmares. His respect for ambiguity in perspective and style make him the British Don De Lillo. Our best writers and their purpose should always remain slightly unknowable. After all, if we understood he true singularity of their journey, we would be brave enough to go to these places ourselves.