Alma Cogan, by Gordon Burn
John Self of The Asylum blog put me on to Gordon Burn. Before that I was barely aware of him. The little I had heard had put me off ever reading him. My impression was of an obsession with celebrity and true crime stories. Neither is a topic I have any appetite for.
My impression was right, but what I didn’t know is that Gordon Burn could write. He had talent. Talent makes all the difference.
Alma Cogan is Burn’s first novel (he wrote a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and blurred the lines between the two). It tells the story of 1950’s British pop superstar Alma Cogan written from her perspective in the 1980s, years after her fame has faded. Here’s the thing though, Alma Cogan really existed. The difference is that in real life she died in 1966. In Burn’s novel she didn’t, not physically anyway. She just stopped being famous.
Alma Cogan then is partly a novel about the post-World War Two English showbiz scene. The last traces of music hall can can still be seen, but it’s fading and its performers with it. Alma is part of a new breed of entertainer. She and those like her are erstatz Americans. The public is eager for escapism, and Alma “the girl with the chuckle in her voice” Cogan provides it with her extraordinary dresses, novelty songs and bubblegum pop.
All that is actually true. Alma Cogan was one of the most successful artists in British pop history. Prior to this novel I’d never heard of her. I don’t think that would have surprised Burn. I think it’s part of his point.
Backstage, Alma is drawn to the murky intersection of crime and showbiz, and in postwar London she doesn’t have to work hard to find it. Her world is one of drag clubs, East End villains, casual promiscuity and violence. She’s innocent herself, a virgin unaware of what “jazz woodbines” might be or a “meat injection” – but she likes the ambience and hint of danger. She likes bars.
Slipping into a room where the buzz was on and gorillas were mock-menacingly twirling worry-beads at the door (I knew most of them by name) to me was like being lifted out of a rough sea by helicopter. The noise, the smoke, the fracturedness, the social treachery and superficiality … all the things that so many people of my acquaintance would cross continents to avoid, were what drew me and started my juices flowing.
Decades later in the 1980s she’s long forgotten. She lives now in Kiln Cottage – a small house in a picturesque town where she’s just one more middle-aged woman who dresses in all weather gear to keep her from the wind while out walking her dog. The cottage is a pretty one and easy to admire from a distance:
From halfway up the hill, Kiln Cottage on the other side of the valley looks like a picture-postcard or sampler of itself, ‘quaint’ in a way it never feels from the inside.
Celebrity is a large part of what this novel is about. Kiln Cottage is of course a metaphor for Alma herself and for all her long list of showbiz friends (she’s a terrible namedropper). From the other side of the stage lights she’s a glamorous figure in self-made ballgowns delivering faultless performances. From her side she’s sick before every appearance and hates facing her fans afterwards as they press in on her with their sweat and demands for autographs.
Burn is expert at evoking the sorry allure of celebrity. In the 1950s fans leave joints of meat wrapped in newspaper as gifts outside her gigs and she spends her holidays with Cary Grant and has Noel Coward to dinner. In the 1980s she’s rarely recognised and avoids the eye of other once-famous people she runs into – each of them trying not to see how the other has aged. Even the person she buys her pet dogs from no longer home delivers the puppies…
It’s unoriginal to speak of fame as a drug and Burn doesn’t quite. He shows it though, both in the high of Alma’s days lived in applause and the down that follows as she carries on in the half-light of people who used to be somebody.
As the 1980s part of the novel continues, Alma starts to look into the remnants of her own celebrity visiting the National Gallery to look at a portrait of her from the 1960s (now in storage), a digital archive where her recordings are preserved and the home of her biggest fan – a collector with a disturbingly comprehensive array of Alma Cogan memorabilia.
Burn is doing more here than just looking at one woman’s life or how fame impacts the famous. He uses celebrity culture as a lens through which to examine British life more generally. This book was written back in 1991, but how true today does this passage seem in which he describes the “deindustrialised dreamlike dead-zones that the railway stations have become”:
They are places where you can buy life assurance, compact discs and twenty varieties of croissant at midnight and hop aboard a train almost as an afterthought, secure in the knowledge that there will not only be more of the same, but identical climate-modulated concourses and graphic accents, foreign-exchange franchises and spandex activewear concessions, discposed in an approximately identical layout, at the other end.
As an aside, that quote reminds me heavily of this line from JG Ballard’s Kingdom Come about a shopping mall: “‘This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity”.
This is a book steeped in vacuity. Alma’s songs are essentially contentless. Her fame is fleeting. The people she knew end mostly forgotten, and that mostly within their own lifetimes. The culture Alma is part of creating has little in it that lasts or is even meant to last. It is disposable by design.
Underneath the veneer of glossy commerciality there remains brutality, violence and sheer human unreason. Early on Alma is shocked by an appallingly violent attack she witnesses in an underground gay bar. The façade, for a moment, is torn apart and the savagery underneath is revealed.
Decades later Alma’s neighbours include a couple who seem to be going not-so-slowly mad. They are rarely seen, but have become obsessed with dog-owners letting their dogs foul a nearby beach and they start to leave increasingly disturbed messages the fury of which is entirely out of proportion to the actual offence.
Meanwhile, when Alma turns on the television she sees lines of police and volunteers combing the moors looking for the 20 year buried bodies of the child victims of the Moors’ Murderers. Those murders then become a backdrop to the later stages of the novel.
Alma Cogan is a difficult novel to write about. It’s a short novel – less than 200 pages long. Despite that it’s rich with material. There’s an unusually accurate blurb on the back by Michael Herr who talks about it being a “dark meditation on fame and its undertow”, and about it being “a ruthless antidote to nostalgia”. All that is true. It’s hard though to pin it down to just those things and for me it was also about marketing, the packaging of experience and the way people people are sold dreams of lives they’ll never live.
Alma is Jewish and as a child short and dumpy. None of this remains true as she’s remoulded in dresses so sculpted they stand up on their own. What here is real? The structure of the novel undermines reality, because Alma really did live but she almost certainly wasn’t the fictional woman on these pages. Alma’s voice is dry and sharp, but is it her voice or is it simply Burn’s? The novel repackages Alma’s life as entertainment, and within it Alma does the same to herself.
There isn’t really a plot to Alma Cogan. Things happen, but the links are more thematic than causal. It’s an eel of a novel, muscular but hard to take hold of. As it draws to a close it becomes steadily darker and more disturbing until finishing it I felt chilled and had to wind down with something else for a while. As I said at the beginning, Burn can write.
I’m going to indulge myself with a last couple of quotes. Here Alma/Burn describes night time London:
We couldn’t see the view of the night time city from where we were sitting; but we knew it well and felt it like a breath on the neck – the lemon-bleary winter light, the oily sliver of silver river, the broken grid of cranes, the illuminated contractors’ signs swaying hypnotically in the wind.
And here Alma/Burn reminds us that while the person may die, the product remains all too viable:
It seems that as long as you’re in print or on film or a name on a buff envelope in an archive somewhere, you’re never truly dead now. You can be electronically colourised, emulsified, embellished, coaxed towards some state of virtual reality.
Quite. But as Burn is telling us, the thing with virtual reality is that ultimately it’s not actually real.