Alma Cogan – ‘The girl with a giggle in her voice’- was a 1950s pop star who died, aged 34, in 1966.
Except, in Gordon Burn’s first novel Cogan is ironically resurrected having not died but simply faded from view, disenchanted with the trappings of fame, fed up with the creature fame created. Cogan casts her beady eye over the nature of fame and what it means in the modern world, a creeping undertow taking her on a journey to the dark, dark heart of fame and her close sibling, infamy: Just as Alma has disappeared in order to escape the image of ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’, what is it that links her to one other, more notorious but equally as frozen in time by an image from long ago?
In Cogan, Burn has created a wonderful world weary voice, jaded with the nicotine drafts of working men’s clubs and the shabby grot of boarding houses, a clear eyed witness for the modern world while casting a cynical eye over the past.
‘What I couldn’t handle and, as I’ve said, eventually came to dread, were those shivering, shaking bodies hanging around waiting to put themselves next to mine out in the dark every night. I was terrorised by the instant access that being well-known seemed to give me to the complex, mysterious interior lives of complete strangers – people whose settled, unrippled surfaces, their bodies told me, concealed echoing chasms, recesses , sumps, and unpredictable underwater currents; a whole uncharted subaqueous existence.’
‘Alma Cogan’ thunders through our nostalgia for a lost world and reveals not another country but a netherworld which we, as a nation, have traditionally shied away from, studiously ignoring the fact that it will always be there, at a mere six degrees of separation.
With ‘Alma Cogan’ and ‘Born Yesterday (The News as a Novel)’ Gordon Burn created a unique style of storytelling which fused fiction and fact to produce riveting, thought provoking pieces. Unlike other examples of this genre – Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ being the most famous – Burn doesn’t use fictional scenes to flash out the skeleton of known facts, bolstering the ‘true’ narrative, rather he strings fact and fiction together into a new confection, giving us a whole new narrative and a fresh perspective on the world as we know it.
‘Alma Cogan’, published in 1991, now appears like a stark warning about the dark heart of British celebrity culture, a warning which we chose to ignore and which, as we all now know, was worse than we could possibly have imagined. It is also one of the earliest warnings about the regurgitating nature of fame, how nothing ever truly vanishes: a warning which now, in 2016, seems almost quaint:
‘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, enhanced, coaxed towards some state of virtual reality.
You can be reactivated or reembodied; simulated and hologrammed, In the just the last two years my voice has been artificially reprocessed for stereo effect and reincarnated in half-speed remasterings and on digital compact disc
The spare parts that make this possible are housed in a proliferating number of noninvasive environments in London, where they may be viewed (fingered, sniffed, listened to) by appointment.’
‘Alma Cogan’ is thought provoking, witty, funny and chilling. It is, simply, one of the best British novels of the 1990s.