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On the Edge

Alma

by Gordon Burn
Houghton Mifflin, 210 pp., $19.95

This is a novel that operates at the interface of reality and dream. Its subjects are show-biz stardom and serial killing. In real life—whatever that may be—its central character died in 1966, but in Gordon Burn’s narrative she lives on into the present day. Yet Alma Cogan was a “personality,” a creation of the media: in a sense she never really existed at all, except as a construct, a confabulation, “a work of conscious and total artifice.”

Alma Cogan was a singer, and an object, in Fifties Britain, of a certain sweaty proletarian desire. Encased in “gowns” of a formidable wide-skirted stiffness, spangled and swagged and surreal, Alma sparkled on stage and screen; live audiences loved her, and television made her a household name. For these were the days when television was treated with reverence, like a VIP visitor in the sitting rooms of the chosen few; friends and neighbors clustered around the set, attentive in the half-dark.

Alma was not just an entertainer, but a famous party girl; she knew everybody, buzzed about in a ritzy transatlantic crowd, and at one of her famous soirées introduced Noel Coward to the Beatles. The gossip columnists homed in on her string of “escorts”—who were mostly gay, though this was never mentioned at the time. Chubby, beaming, possessed of a peppy glamour but also a reassuring girl-next-door quality, Alma gave every impression of enjoying her life, unlike the dead-eyed anorexics who followed her in popular esteem.

She flourished at a time when the whole nation was in thrall to American style, and she projected the infectious energy that was associated with America. Because of a certain vocaltic, she was known as “the girl with the laugh in her voice,” though the laugh was more like a yelp or an attenuated yodel. Alma was no siren, she did not smolder. Her most famous songs were upbeat “novelty numbers.” “Where Will The Baby’s Dimple Be,” “Just Couldn’t Resist Her With Her Pocket Transistor,” “Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo.” Just to rehearse their names transports the reader, squirming with embarrassment, to a postwar world that could not bear too much reality. Alma had a shelf-like bosom, a grinding vivacity. She was an object who created her own fetishes and pressed them on her worshipers. Her hair was a great brunette puffball. The gowns, when she got out of them, stood up by themselves. Beneath this carapace, somewhere, was the shrinking flesh. She died at the age of thirty-four, of stomach cancer.

Writing in the first person, Burn describes Alma’s progress, allowing her to reminisce, from retirement, about her early life. Her father’s family, the Kogins, arrived in England from Russia, having disembarked believing they were in America. Her mother’s family were refugees from Rumania. Her parents were stage-struck, and Alma had to make up for her mother’s missed opportunities. Shirley Temple, “toxic in her winsomeness,” was the role model; in the cinema dark, above Alma’s head, the parents exchanged knowing looks. Alma had her apprenticeship in small-town theaters and end-of-pier summer shows, performing with tumblers and clowns, roller-skating acts, and “Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals.” The summer of 1954 came, and Alma hit the big time, driving up to London between shows to record the songs that would make her name. Her hobby in adolescence had been practicing her autograph; what she had not reckoned on was that you could not, in her day, become a darling of the masses without finding the masses in stomach-churning proximity.

The women pressed close smelling of dandruff, candlewick, camphor and powdered milk…. The men gave off stomach-heaving waves of dog and diesel, boot dubbin, battery fluid, pigeon-feed…. They were odours that I unwillingly but instinctively associated with scenes of domestic mayhem—children scalded, wives abused, small dogs dropped from high windows…

Alma’s fame lasts until the advent of the new breed of pop star, called “Jet or Rock or Deke or Ricky.” For a time she goes on tour with the new breed: “There was the usual delinquent mooning and synchronised pissing and hurling half-pound bags of flour at passing traffic.” From this she withdraws, with some dignity intact, to a rented cottage on the south coast. Bundled into a coat and headscarf, walking her dog on the beach, she does a convincing impersonation of one of those middle-aged women the world hardly accords a second glance. However, though she resists attempts to revive her career, she is allowed no time to potter; she is not the pottering type.

Alma’s voice is not what you might predict. You might expect giggles and girl talk, an overriding concern with home perms and sequins. But it is evident at once that Gordon Burn is not a literary transvestite. What we are offered is a wary, sardonic voice, neither English nor American, more male than female; this “Alma” is formidably intelligent and analytical. The voice is sometimes that of a cultural commentator, of a pop sociologist or a style journalist. Is it Gordon Burn we are hearing? Probably. Some British reviewers have taken Burn to task for sounding so perversely unlike their notion of a Fifties chanteuse, but not all novelists set out to be puppet-masters or ventriloquists. The impersonation of the voices of the dead is an interesting enterprise, no doubt, but some would feel it is outmoded and essentially dishonest. Nor is Burn concerned to draw us into Alma’s world, alternating as it does between coziness and glitz. He evokes it through familiar referents, but the hard-edged, flippant style has the effect of holding it at arm’s length, for us to observe. There is nothing nostalgic in the exercise.

There are times, it is true, when Alma seems to echo too directly Burn’s own preoccupations; “I am sentimental about the old neighbourhoods associated with football grounds and variety theatres.” But elsewhere she seems an Everyperson, a floating consciousness among the marker buoys of an age. In her willed isolation, a few questions float up, to perplex her. When the famous become obscure, in what sense do they still exist? When an image is constantly reproduced, does it add to the real person, or extract something from his essence? Alma dwells on the unfading images that technology supplies, the endless replication, the projection of artificial images backward and forward in time. Death is everywhere around her, she feels; but even the dead don’t lie down. They sing and dance on audio- and videotape, they stare out from the screen and the printed page, “discarnate beings built up from encoded rays and glazes of numerical light.”

Her reflections are unsettling, and so is the backdrop against which she lives. Once there was a Britain of “Victorian town halls, public libraries, banks, swimming baths, corn exchanges, railway stations and squares.” But now the landscape seems in a state of becoming, not being—a sequence of flickers and dots, motes of dust spinning in the light. Burns is an acute, unsettling observer of the spaces between: of the scraps of agricultural land turned to wilderness, of the industrial parks, the car graveyards, of everything ill-defined, impermanent, and turned from its true nature. Alma’s fans cling to their mementos, their programs and signed photographs, as if to assure themselves of the solidity of what was never real. Archives hoard her voice on tape, her costumes; the Tate Gallery keeps her portrait in a temperature-controlled oblivion, shut away in a storage space below the ground.

One of the remarkable things about this book is that even its most benign page is impregnated by a kind of violent dread. Alma reflects on Kennedy’s death, on the Manson murders. Right at the beginning of the book, she sits in a nightclub, pleasantly befuddled, at an end-of-the-run celebration; a large transvestite takes the stage, to camp up a harmless song:

Electric drill groaning,
Office telephoning,
Gracie Fields funning,
The gangsters gunning,
Talk of our love…

It is the same song that Pinkie, the boy gangster of Brighton Rock, hears one night, while his victim Rose sits beside him and eats an ice, and he fingers the bottle of vitriol in his pocket. And what directly follows the song, in Alma, is a brutal attack on the singer, a horrifying act of violence. But it is an incident, just that; Alma flinches when she thinks of it, but it doesn’t get in the way of her career. Clearly, though, some even greater violence is ahead of us. Burn makes his approach to it with both calmness and power. One day on television Alma sees a face even more famous than her own: “the cruel-nosed, meaty-mouthed iconographic (yes!) mug-shot of the dog-lover, child-killer Hindley.”

In the north of England in the 1960s, Myra Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, murdered a number of children, and buried their bodies in the moorland that edges Manchester’s urban sprawl. They were convicted of the killing of two boys of twelve and seventeen, and a ten-year-old girl, Lesley Ann Downey. But there were certainly other victims; and at the time when “Alma” is brooding on her enforced immortality (at the time, that is, when Burn was writing his book) Hindley had been taken from prison back to the moors, to try to locate their graves.

It is impossible in a few words to explain the preeminence of these murderers in the demonology of postwar Britain. People who would not be able to put a name to a photograph of Mrs. Thatcher would recognize Hindley at once; because she is a woman, her crime is thought to have been graver, more unnatural than that of her co-accused, and though shut away in prison she has never been out of the news. One image is endlessly reproduced: the image of a surly and defiant bleached-blonde, staring into the hostile lens of a police camera.

There is something hideously un-compromising about the face—and yet what is terrifying about Hindley is that she was so ordinary. She was just one of those northern girls, twenty-five going on fifty, not bright but very capable; the kind of girl who wore white stiletto heels and smoked a lot and flounced and sulked in a typing pool till she caught a man to marry. Where did she find within herself the reserve of evil to stand by as her lover stripped, photographed, raped, and strangled a little girl, who begged throughout to be taken home to her mother? More to the point—for the purposes of Alma—was it Myra’s finger on the button of the tape recorder? For this particular crime is audible, recoverable; the tape of the child’s last hour was played in court.

Alma thinks about Myra’s image:

The features are individually too familiar by now to be read as an integrated, blood-warmed face. As usual, Hindley looks like a composite, an identikit, a media emanation, a hypothetical who never existed in the flesh.

And so the link is made, in the reader’s mind; they are both media emanations, these beefy girls with challenging eyes, and it has not escaped Burn’s notice that when Myra was about her work she sometimes wore a big, black nylon wig. But there is a link Alma must make for herself, which ties her to the murders in a bizarre and sickening fashion.

Hot on the trail of her own past life, she visits the Manchester home of a superfan, a dim, obsessed little creature called Francis McLaren. After a long evening of records and videotapes, her fan leaves her alone; he retires to bed—no doubt to masturbate over the image of the woman she once was, for this seems to be his habit. Alma stays awake, rummaging through the detritus of her life. In a shoebox she finds a tape, dated December 26, 1964, which “resonates with the acoustics of a particular room at a particular but, as it has proved, infinitely reclaimable moment in time.”

At that reclaimable moment, Radio Luxembourg’s “Christmas Special” was on the air. It was switched on in a certain death-filled room, in a huge public-housing development that Manchester’s city planners had dumped in a virgin tract of North Cheshire countryside—in one of the spaces between, where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady cohabited in a chilling simulation of a respectable working couple. A tape recorder was switched on, too, picking up not only the song on the radio, but the voice of a ten-year-old child pleading, “Can I just tell you summat? Please take your hands off me a minute, please.” The killing of Lesley Ann Downey took place to music, to the backing of a treacly Christmas number called “The Little Drummer Boy.” The sweetness of the song did not disguise the busy clicking of the killers’ footsteps, or the sound of the child retching as a gag was forced into her mouth. Twenty-five years on, in the silence of McLaren’s house, Alma listens to the tape and hears her own voice, chirruping to posterity while the violated child is strangled with a piece of string.

It would be easy to accuse Burn of a cheap, sensational trick, of pulling a bloodied rabbit out of his hat. But the accusation would not be justified. There is no safe way to address such disturbing material, but it must be addressed. It is like trying to write about the Holocaust; the scale is different, but if we could understand Myra, perhaps we could understand a concentration camp guard. Yet we have nothing that conduces to understanding: there is only the cheap pathos of Alma’s Christmas song, and the voice of the child saying, “Don’t undress me, will you?”

What does the superfan say? How does he justify his possession of this obscenity? His excuses take us to the malign heart of an obsession. “A few years ago anybody could buy a copy in Manchester. If you went to the right pub. You could buy pictures of the girl if you knew the right channels. The people into this area. Distributors. Dealers. Collectors. One of the police from the case was done for selling pictures, for Godsake. My only interest was you,” he tells Alma. “The unavailability of those tracks anywhere else.”

Gordon Burn has not come at his material unprepared; he has previously written a book called Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, about Peter Sutcliffe, the murderer known as the “Yorkshire Ripper.” In the closing pages of the book there is no flavor of the willfully macabre, but rather of a steady, meditative intent to close a chapter, bring down a curtain. Alma takes a cab, drives from Manchester to Saddleworth Moor, passing the pub where Hindley, disguised in her black wig, waited for Brady on the night they buried the twelve-year-old John Kilbride. The road ascends to the moor:

There are terraced gardens on the left for a while, with people pottering; and then fog-coloured sheep with their coats hanging off them in ice-ball clumps; and then—nothing.

She pays off the driver, and begins to walk in the graying mist. She is carrying with her a kitsch artifact taken from the superfan’s house: a strip of cheap varnished wood, on one side of it, “the transfer of a figure in a blue crinoline dress and, in painted letters to the right of it, the words: Alma’s Room.” For this door plaque she means to “cut a small grave”:

I will pack the peat around it with my fingers and close the lid of turf and make certain before I leave that the Moor has been put back to its original state.

The power of a good novel is astonishing; this reader, at least, felt that a necessary interment had taken place. It is easy to see why this book has already attracted passionate adherents. The temperature of English fiction is running low, and the former masters of outrage have softened, or fallen back on a repetition of their effects. Gordon Burn is an original; in flashes, he reminds you of Don DeLillo, but his material, and his way of working it, are his own. He is a journalist; he was born in 1948 and this assured and exciting book is his first novel. His achievement suggests that there is an argument for refraining from the practice of fiction until you have something to say. Every so often, the obdurate material meets the resolute artist; when the artist wins, fiction takes on a stronger shape.

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