Paragraph-sized sentences, building clauses into palladium sized effects; the sentences are detailed engines that drive Burn's vision and ambition. You smell the burning pyres of the Foot and Mouth disaster, you see the sheen on a pair of pearlised shoes, you almost feel the `pop' of Jackie Mabe's knee in a bout with The Aldgate Tiger.
Ray Cruddas is a `face', a comedian, a light entertainer and compere known chiefly in the North of England as a radio star, but graduating to TV for long enough to be recognised by all the old ladies when he visits his poor old Mum in her care home. Jackie Mabe is Cruddas's fixer, his gopher, an ex-boxer and their past goes back to when Ray was breaking into TV and haunting the semi-smart fringes of the 1950s London scene. Their relationship is at the heart of this marvellous novel, the narrative of which ranges from successes (Holiday Star Time with Esther Ofarim, Reg Varney and Acker Bilk), on to advice given to Margaret Thatcher that the persona to aim for was `carefully studied nonchalance', leading to the `now' of the book as compere to the celebrity-box entertainment at a Premier Football Club match. Ray's star might be waning, but his spirit is strong and it is Jackie who sustains it as the uncomplaining dogsbody, not too broken down to be a threat to an old enemy who still likes to throw his weight around.
For `northern' read Geordie, in this marvellously stringent and clear-sighted dissection of the demise of a whole time and a whole place. Northern Britain in its (still glorious) decline.
on 23 June 2004
I read an interview with Gordon Burn last year when he said that what he wanted to do with this novel was "to try and write a novel rooted not in the American idiom, which I feel my two previous novels had been, but grounded more solidly in an English tradition, and specifically the tradition of the so-called "kitchen-sink" school of the 1950s. ... I like to think a new plainness in the writing came from there."
Did it hell. Although it lacks the Amisy pyrotechnics and neologisms of Fullalove particularly, The North of England Home Service is still densely and tightly written, with long paragraphs of long sentences incorporating many parentheses and subclauses. But beautifully done:
"The style around that way now was all for the white UPVC - white nylon-framed windows and fondant-white nylon doors, some with decorative glass panels in the singing, chemical blues and yellows of alco-pops and TV-advertised detergents. The ubiquitous white doors never failed to remind Ray (three times married) of wedding-cake mouldings or (he had been trying to think of a way of working this into the act without it being interpreted as a kick in the eye by his audience) slabs of sculpted lard.
"Ray's own house was part of a Grade-II listed terrace of clear classical lines and much touted classical proportions that ran the whole length of the north side of Allotment Field. The ceilings were high, the windows elegant, the courses repointed, the fault lines pinioned, the view across the Field (always known as 'the Moor') to the Park a couple of hundred yards away unimpeded. When new bricks had been stitched in, they had been chosen from old stocks to match the existing ones and created the illusion of a seamless web."
So you see the way The North of England Home Service progresses: by finding its way around the landscape, getting a bit discursive about the history and only then closing in on the character. And all with a very careful weighing of words (that brilliant "fondant white", or the perfectly proper "disposed and ordered at their pleasure") that one can't help feel is not manifestly in the tradition of the likes of Sillitoe and Storey whom Burn cites as his main influences. He's a wordsmith at heart. He is also a proponent - a risky pastime - of tell, not show; and there is very little dialogue, though what there is of it is frequently brutally funny and relies just as much on old matey jokes as his main character, ageing comic Ray Cruddas, does.
As a result of all of which - the density, the slow pace, the blocks of paragraphs, the long chapters - The North of England Home Service will take you longer to read than most 220 pagers. But it's a journey worth undertaking: it's a nice place to be, although you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. Nor - lest I should be understating the book's lack of reader-friendliness - does anything really happen. In fact if it's true that in Ulysses, the only thing that happens is that Leopold Bloom meets Stephen Dedalus, then in Burn's slim epic the only thing that happens is that Ray Cruddas meets Jackie Mabe. Jackie is Ray's fixer and gofer, a retired boxer who looks after the comic's few professional engagements and his personal life too, more of a wife to Ray than Ray's own second wife Marzena, and more of a mother than either ("Before he started the car, Jackie reached over and straightened Ray's hair, which had gone a bit skew-whiff").
The bulk of the book then is taken up with the lives of Ray and Jackie and how they got here. More description and observation, memory and stoic reminiscence, interspersed with the odd anecdote or lurch into the present world (foot and mouth disease, text messages, the DJ son). It's the sort of book which I can imagine many people - even me if I hadn't read his earlier stuff - chucking against the wall in frustration after 50 pages. Its themes are generally clear - the psychopathology of fame (again), growing old, the nature of 'home' - but elusive in that they don't bang you over the head with a particular point of view. In that sense alone, I suppose, his desire for diffident Englishness and not brash Americana has won through in the end.