Saturday, 12 October 2013
Gordon Burn - Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son
Gordon Burn (16 January 1948 - 17 July 2009) was an English writer born in Newcastle upon Tyne and the author of four novels and several works of non-fiction.
Burn's novels deal with issues of modern fame and faded celebrity as lived through the media spotlight. His first book Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son was a study of Peter Sutcliffe, 'the Yorkshire Ripper' and his 1998 book Happy Like Murderers: The Story of Fred and Rosemary West, dealt in similar detail with one of Britain's most notorious serial killers.
Many people over the years have published books about the 'Yorkshire Ripper' but this must have been the first, and maybe the last, to be written about Peter Sutcliffe. The distinction? the 'Yorkshire Ripper' is largely a media phenomenon, a tabloid bogeyman, an inhuman monster, but in this book Burn shows us that Peter Sutcliffe, despite his crimes, was very much in many ways your average Joe. He was and is: somebody's husband and somebody's son.
One might imagine that such a portrayal would therefore tend towards a liberal 'bleeding heart' style representation of someone who is still, to this day, an extremely controversial and newsworthy figure. That is where you would be wrong. The opposite in fact is true. Like Hannah Arendt's famous depiction of Adolf Eichman, what Burn's discovers is that it is the banality of Sutcliffe's evil that lends it it's most sinister aspect.
We do not read the words 'Yorkshire Ripper' untill 150 pages into the book and up till that point the significant figure in the book is not Peter Sutcliffe but John Sutcliffe, Peter's dad. Burn takes us deep into the heart of the world in which Peter Sutcliffe grew up, replete with the poverty, working class chauvinistic culture and the individual family members with their respective idiosyncracies.
Burn spent 3yrs living in Bingley and speaking with the people who knew Sutcliffe, not least his immediate family, and it shows. What emerges is a Sutcliffe who is human, all too human. His shyness, social awkwardness, devotion to his mother and love of motors are all here alongside the murder and gore.
Influenced by the sophisticated simplicity of Norman Mailer’s ‘true crime’ epic The Executioner’s Song, Burn spent three years living in Sutcliffe’s hometown of Bingley, researching the story of a man who murdered thirteen women and haunted the North of England throughout the 70s like some (all too real) fairytale giant.
Published in 1984 - the year of Live Aid, heavy recession in America and the insidious rise of Apple Mac (a year not too dissimilar to the one we’re failing to define now) - you can only imagine its power upon first reading. We’re talking a good few years before ‘true crime’ had successfully entered the lexicon of British literature; back then it was seen as a cheap, sensationalist sub-genre read exclusively by bizarre housewives or male loners with suspect odours (some may say it still is).
In Burn’s dependably insightful hands, the form was elevated. Throughout, he never flinches; neither does he wallow. His sentences are neat and informative. He understands the weight of keeping it simple, of racking up the facts. But then there’s another voice that infects the page. Norman Mailer described it as follows: ‘It’s as if Thomas Hardy were also present at the writing of this account of the Yorkshire Ripper.’ By that he means the rot had already set in. As with Hardy’s Victorian novels of inherent doom and stagnation, it’s as if it was meant to happen: Sutcliffe as some kind of (un)natural result of a multitude of menacing factors: the end product. Geared up on animal indifference, he owned the night. The seeds had been sown a long time ago: It was Yorkshire that made me do it.
George Shaw - Landscape with stick that looks like a snake, 2008
Gordon Burn gives us no comment of his own on the story he has to tell – just the facts: no speculation as to why Peter Sutcliffe behaved as he did, just the events, the family life, anecdotes that may or may not be pertinent, the pubs and their atmosphere. And we go back, or rather from the beginning of the book we go forward – from Sutcliffe’s grandparents on both sides. How else is he to explain, or attempt to explain, this odd man who spread 13 murders over six years, and fooled even those closest to him until almost the last moment? That Sutcliffe was insane in some way is an inevitable conclusion after reading all the facts about him. All the facts? At once one has to start hedging: we know nothing of Sutcliffe’s relations with his wife Sonia, to whom he was devoted: to know something about these might have clarified a little the puzzling defence he put up in saying that God had spoken to him, and told him to kill prostitutes. If God spoke to him as far back as when he was 20, and employed as a gravedigger in a church cemetery (where he claims to have first heard the voice), then Sutcliffe never mentioned it to his brothers Mick and Carl, nor to pub pals like Trevor Birdsall, which leads one to suspect that Sutcliffe might have thought there was something rather wrong or unpopular about such a message, assuming he ever received it. He was not known for faithful church attendance.
His murders were sexually-based and motivated, so it is important to know the attitude toward women of Peter and his family and of the society in which he grew up. ‘Women are for fryin’ bacon and for screwin’ ’ was a comment sometimes heard and always hanging in the atmosphere like the smell of bacon grease itself. One’s mother was of course different, almost holy, one simply didn’t think about one’s mother ever having had sexual relations with one’s father, or at worst she’d had them only with one’s father; she was somehow virginal, just as Mary the mother of Jesus has to be a virgin, because it makes her so much cleaner. A lack of realism in regard to women is at the core of Peter Sutcliffe’s strange deeds. It is significant that Peter, the firstborn of six children (the second, a boy, died in infancy), clung literally to his mother’s skirts until he was eight or nine or so, was easily bullied at school, and as a child was a disappointment to his extrovert and sports-loving father, John. Yet his father was to say later that if the family had ever got into straits, it would have been Peter who’d have helped them out, not Mick or Carl, because Peter really cared.