• Dispatch from Durham - the spirit of Gordon Burn

    The spirit of Gordon Burn haunted this year's Durham Book Festival - in the thought-provoking special event News as a Novel which I chaired with Alexei Sayle and Lionel Shriver. It had at its heart the idea that, as Ezra Pound said, "Literature is news that stays news". Ten years ago the late, great Gordon Burn took the events of 2007 and during that year wrote and published BORN YESTERDAY: THE NEWS AS A NOVEL, an ambitious and experimental novel about the way news is made, and the way the media creates and manipulates the stories we see before us. In the spirit of this fine literary experiment with fact and fiction, Durham Book Festival commissioned 4 writers to produce a piece of work in response to the extraordinary unfolding news cycle of this year two of whom appeared on stage at the festival. Sayle produced an entertaining and probing piece called "Great Railway Fatwas of the Year" while Shriver's piece, "You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone" or "The Mandibles: A Coda" extended upon themes explored in her dystopian novel The Mandibles in which one of the characters says: "Novels set in the future are always about what we fear in the present" - both writers explored contemporary fears and how they can be harnessed as a fuel for fine fiction.

    I also attended the Gordon Burn Prize for Fiction and was thrilled to see Denise Mina (a fellow Judge of this year's David Cohen Prize for Literature) win. I caught up with her for a chat at the ceremony. "I'm such a fan of Gordon Burn and how shockingly innovative he was and I feel very honoured as well as surprised. The other writers on the shortlist are so amazing. I'm just so chuffed. Gordon Burn is a writer who rocked my world". When did she first discover Gordon Burn? "It was Happy Like Murderers. My friend said it's too hardcore and I said that sounds fucking great. It's about Fred West and there's a kind of refrain in it about how Fred West objectified people and personalised objects". Mina is driven by "the idea of writing about forbidden subjects from a feminist perspective. Women are always absent from stories unless they're dead or waiting at home. So I wanted to write a true crime story set in a very macho time but with the women present. And also it's a story about two men getting incredibly drunk - you don't see a drunken night portrayed often. The whole thing is also about the stories we tell about ourselves and how much of it is a lie. And the stories rapists tell about themselves, and how they construct a web of lies - like Harvey Weinstein". So stories can harm or heal? "Yes, and they can facilitate or expose". She speaks more about how "women are usually just props in noir novels" - but in her novels, they are brought centre-stage; her prize-winning novel is a must-read.

    All in all, an excellent festival.




  The National Travel section
  April 2012

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