I thought about writing something here when the journalist and novelist Gordon Burn died, quite young, earlier this summer, but realised that I had nothing to add to the encomia that littered the obituaries pages. “One of the greatest – and arguably underrated – British writers of his age*, said one, and I don’t really disagree with that. His journalism – for me a former journalist – was exceptional. In a world where there is plainly too much journalism I’d seek his pieces out.
But looking through an old notebook I found recently – which read a bit like a longhand blog – there was a piece on an article by Burn from 2005 that was worth sharing, a meditative reflection on a return home to Newcastle after the death of his father, even if his memory, perhaps appropriately for such a genre, is playing tricks. The whole thing is worth reading, even if you know nothing of Newcastle and care even less, but there’s a striking quote and a striking image.
The image is of some elderly Tynesiders singing songs in a pub in the late afternoon. It turns out that they are tourists, living in Greece now, come back for a nostalgic visit. “They were voluntary exiles, travelling in the opposite direction to the economic migrants from the former eastern bloc and elsewhere for whom they had made space; ex-pats come back to revisit not what was actually there, but what they wanted to see.”
The quote is from the American writer Toni Morrison:
“They straightened up the Mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.”
Towards the end of the article Burn acknowledges that he has only recently “admitted” the claim of Newcastle on him.
“It is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go “home” was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of “community” and everybody belonged to one.”