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Alma Cogan Paperback – 4 Jul 2019
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Alma Cogan is Gordon Burn's classic début novel, a breathtaking act of appropriation and reinvention of the popular culture of the post-war years. With a new introduction by Adelle Stripe.
About the Author
Gordon Burn is the author of four novels, Alma Cogan (winner of the Whitbread First Novel Prize), Fullalove, The North of England Home Service and Born Yesterday. He is also the author of the non-fiction titles Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, Pocket Money, Happy Like Murderers, On The Way to Work (with Damien Hirst) and Best and Edwards.
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Burn was certainly a writer of intelligence, provoking unease in the reader, in part to do with his often unsettling subject matter, but I suspect he is more of a sociologist, a philosopher exploring themes, and, of course, an insightful, incisive journalist (he was) more than a writer of novels.
Alma Cogan was, in the 50s and early 60s, very much a star, in a kind of wholesome family entertainment way which hardly seems to exist anymore. Known as `the girl with the giggle in her voice', she was 4 times the winner of The New Musical Express's Female Vocalist of the Year competition. Born in Whitechapel in 1932 to a fiercely ambitious Romanian Jewish stage mother, Alma was quickly winning contests, and famous for her glamour. By the early 60's, with the rise of The Beatles, R+B and teen culture, she was falling out of mainstream favour, though once she had been at the epicentre of popular culture high society. She died young of ovarian cancer in 1966. Quite quickly, a fan culture grew up around her, and she was seen as iconic of a time and place - a little search online reveals her fan industry is still active.
Burn's book assumes she did not die, and is, in the late 1980s, living a fading, out of the limelight life. The Alma of Burn's book looks back on her own life, examining a Britain which has gone, where the glamour of the limelight hides the darker side of celebrity and the voracious, obsessive world of fandom. What has gone is not the darker side of celebrity - that has, of course, grown, it is the innocence that believes the shiny face of glamour is real. This Alma is a more intelligent, self-aware and even self-mocking voice than the `real Alma' image presented at the time.
The book disturbed me for a couple of reasons, despite Burn's brilliance as a writer analysing the spirit of the times through a cleverly structured invention. The book won the Whitbread Prize in the year of its publication. Although he doesn't play fast and loose with the real Alma's life, and although it is absolutely made clear at the start of the book that she died in 1966 so all else is invention, the less than flattering making fast and loose with Alma and her relationship with her mother, may well have been highly disturbing to surviving family members.
The second reason, is that as part of Burn's examination of the darker side of celebrity itself - not so much the darker side of the celebrities, more the dark nature of us, our obsession with it, and our obsession with the seamy and the sordid - obsession with those who become famous for their misdeeds, rather than their talents - he weaves in The Moors Murders of 1966, and particularly the murder of one of the children, Lesley Ann Downey, with a song of Alma's. The use of a real event - and even the transcript of the tape of her killing which Hindley and Brady made, within the book, seems distasteful, somehow a further abuse of a life cut terribly and violently short, used as a novelist's device
This book is a very pertinent examination of the whole industry of fame, celebrity culture and how it has changed and developed, and a microscopic dissection of the shadow side of celebrity, the vicarious and slightly sinister quality of fandom. It certainly fulfils one purpose of art - to shock out of complacency, and to force those who encounter it to think, reflect, ponder, and become discomfited, uncomfortable. It does not, at all achieve another purpose which is found in some art - that is, to raise, inspire and aspire to something finer in our nature.
3 ½ rounded to 4 - it is a much more superior novel than `okay' but `like' is not really an appropriate response!
The author refers to mobile phones and pixels , neither of which even existed in 1986 , a year imprinted on my own memory as the year my second son was born - the book itself does not deserve to exist and much less so when fundamental errors like referring to pixels on a video tape ( it cannot happen) are made .
Why ? The nonsensical and fictitious ramblings of the author whilst putting himself into the mind and body of a woman who died ( in real life) in 1966 but in " this version of Alma Cogan" , actually didn't die prematurely of cancer but continued to live another twenty years or so , just have no right to exist in this form , never mind the continuous allusions to the Moors Murders and Myra Hindley . It's not big, it's not clever , it's not even interesting to read .
Endless, jumbled , irrelevant ramblings of someone who has clearly no understanding of the female psyche , much less the experience of " being famous" and the subsequent fall of that particular star from the firmament .
It's a terrible book , I've read thousands and thousands of books and this ranks as perhaps one of the very worst to have ever made it into print . Meaningless words put down for posterity just for the hell of it - if zero stars were available , this would be a minus five .
I'm delighted that I've finally got round to Gordon Burn. Despite the lack of a plot, 'Alma Cogan' is wonderfully compelling and an extraordinary work of fiction. I say fiction, whilst it's described as a novel it draws very heavily on real people and real events. It imagines how Alma Cogan's life might have played out had she not died in the 1960s.
Gordon Burn reminds me a lot of (the equally wonderful) David Peace (if you haven't read any of his work you should put that right ASAP). Both play with events to create a hybrid world which tells us more about real events and people than any non-fiction.
'Alma Cogan' covers many modern obsessions (celebrity, fame, sex, violence, death, crime etc) and, given it was published in 1991, was well ahead of the curve. Gordon Burn shines an unapologetic and unflinching light upon much that lies hidden in the dark. 'Alma Cogan' is a bravura novel and convinces me I must work though the rest of the late, great Gordon Burn's bibliography.
I often whip through books however, I consciously took my time with 'Alma Cogan' to savour the extraordinary writing. Absolutely brilliant.