According to a mid-nineteenth century gazetteer, Cowdenbeath contained exactly 127 inhabitants. Its compiler could not find much more to say about it beyond that. Lying to the south-east of Beath, it had a station from where you could catch trains to Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. South of the village was a bleachfield. And that’s about it. Almost a century and a half later nothing much had changed. In their entry to the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, John and Julia Keay drolly note that at some point in the intervening period ‘industrial optimists billed Cowdenbeath “The Chicago of Fife”.’ In the sixty or so years from 1850 to the onset of World War One the town doubled in size every decade thanks to the rich seams of coal which lay deep beneath Fife’s fecund surface. But, as the Keays go on to say, Cowdenbeath’s fall was as precipitous as its rise, and when the collieries closed it had lost its raison d’etre and many of its population took whatever opportunity they had to leave.
Among them were John Burnside’s mother and father, who removed their son and his sister to Corby in Northamptonshire. Corby was supposed to be everything that Cowdenbeath wasn’t. In 1950, five years before Burnside was born, it became a New Town, though signs of human settlement there have been traced to the eighth century. It was championed as ‘car-friendly’, verdant and open-spaced and, more importantly, there were jobs aplenty, especially in steel-making. Such was the influx of Scots to this employment nirvana that it was dubbed ‘Little Scotland’. Of late, however, Corby has notfared so well. As Cowdenbeath lost coal so, too, did it lose steel. It has since become a byword for regeneration; a couple of years ago Stephen Fry was engaged to do the voiceover for a video which hoped to entice people in the congested south-east to decamp north. How successful this was one is ill-placed to say.
Cowdenbeath and Corby are to Burnside what Auteil and Illiers – the models for the fictional Combray – were to Proust, an association that is at once pertinent and ridiculous. Burnside is certainly no Proust and the towns that meant so much to both men could not be more different. Burnside’s lodestars are places that existed as dormitories for workers; Proust’s where the bourgoeisie frittered away empty hours. Yet it is time past that hangs most heavily over the two writers, time that is gone and irretrievable but through memory and words on a page. Proust’s narrator is an onlooker, a witness to events and sensations and conversations he is trying in hindsight to make sense of. As time marches remorselessly forward, he is locked in the past, Narcissus gazing forever at his own fresh-faced reflection. Likewise, Burnside is condemned to revisit his childhood in places that are only magical because for him they were formative. The difference between the two writers, however, is that when one reads Proust, especially the first volume of the roman fleuve, one can’t help but sensethat his narrator would take the first train back to those years, to ‘Combray’; whether Burnside feels the same about Cowdenbeath and Corby is less certain.
I Put a Spell on You is his third memoir, following A Lie About My Father, published in 2006, and Waking Up in Toytown, which appeared four years later. A Lie About My Father, Burnside insisted, is ‘best treated as a work of fiction’, adding ‘I’m sure that it’s as true to say I never had a father as it is to say that he never had a son.’ Like that landmark in autobiography, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), Burnside’s book may be read as ‘the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs.’ His father, like his son, was a myth-maker, a teller of tales, which he had been telling for so long and so often theyhad come to wear the veneer of fact. In Waking Up in Toytown, Burnside’s focus was predominantly on himself as a young and directionless man finding solace (and suffering) in drink, drugs and sex. It has an air of desperation about it, its author being well aware of how close to the edge he is creeping. He is a dangling man, more a danger to himself than anyone else. Moreover, he is haunted by a childhood that was both dream and nightmare, innocent and hellish, who could have ended up in a very different place to that which he now occupies as one of the country’s pre-eminent writers and a professor at St Andrews University.
This new book is freighted with an arguably unnecessary sub-title, Several Digressions on Love and Glamour. It comprises twenty-four essays, all of which could stand alone. Together, however, they provide a coda to their two predecessors and, to a degree, Burnside’s ever-expanding body of poetry and fiction. It is a wilfully and unapologetically digressive work, at the core of which is memory. Towards its end, Burnside writes, in one of many Proustian passages: ‘No memory happens in the past. To say this in so many words is, no doubt, to state the obvious – our memories happen now, in the madeleine– and tisane-tinctured present – but it strikes me as peculiar, still, that my recollections have so little to do with historical time. When I recall a golden or terrifying afternoon from my childhood, when the name of an old friend suddenly crops up in one of those private conversations I have with myself while driving or soaking in the bathtub, I rarely have a specific day, or a specific year, in mind. All the summers of childhood are distilled to one afternoon and everything that ever happened in sunlight or June rain happened on that one day. All the Christmases of my blithe teens take place in the space of one snow-lit and vaguely clandestine winter…’
Like Proust, like Updike or Kafka, Burnside is more interested in himself than anyone else. In some cases – Compton Mackenzie, author of a ten-volume autobiography, springs to mind – such solipsism, such self-absorption, borders on self-love and soon palls. That is not the case with Burnside. He writes about himself with brutal and beguiling honesty. He seems genuinely puzzled by who he was and how he came to be who he is. As he grows older, he changes, one consequence of which is that the anger he felt toward his father has mellowed and he feels more sympathetic towards that damaged man who, previously, he appeared to loathe.
Seven of his chapters are labelled ‘digresssions’, in between which he describes incidents from his life and animadverts on music, classical literature, movies, the photographer Diane Arbus and Mel Lyman, the American folk musician and film-maker who provided a link between Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.
The book’s title is taken from the much-covered song written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, another maker of his own myths. The version Burnside first heard as a nine-year-old was by Nina Simone and whenever he hears her or anyone else sing it he is transported back to Cowdenbeath. There, as a teenage barfly, he heard a girl called Annie sing it in a cafe, not long after which she was murdered, stabbed six times by the ex-girlfriend of the boy Annie was with.
Burnside’s life is not short of such incidents, the stuff of which regularly feature in Scottish news bulletins between the heavy duty stories and the sporting fluff. Simultaneously, he is attracted to and repelled by violence of the sort which flares up out of nowhere and without premeditation and dies down just as quickly. Often women are involved. In the seventh of his digressions Burnside recalls his admission to a mental hospital in Cambridge where he was being treated – successfully, it seems – for ‘psychosis of a paranoid nature’. There he met Cathy, a fellow patient, a schizophrenic. One night the two of them sneaked out and went to a nearby pub where Cathy threw a wobbly. Burnside relates how he helped manoeuvre her out the door without too much fuss but in doing so the pact that he and she had forged in the hospital was broken. Thereafter they lost touch and he learned some time later that she had killed herself.
The old Scots word ‘glamourie’, meaning to ‘bewitch’ or ‘dazzle’ is at the core of I Put a Spell on You. Indeed, it would havemade a more intriguing, if less recognisable and sellable title. ‘Glamourie,’ writes Burnside, ‘is a different way of being in the world, a sudden and frightening opennness, the soul like a door ajar, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the physical and intimate and erotic, invested with new energy and light and, at the same time, beautifully perilous.’ He suspects that we all ‘have a glamourie hidden away somewhere.’ He thinks in terms of corpses in cupboards, girls buried below floorboards, angels in the rafters. We have returned to Cowdenbeath, to the condemned house in which his parents lived when they were first married and where they had a child, a girl, who died before John Burnside was born. Thus he was aware of death before he began truly to live, his mother and father affected differently by their loss, one saying nothing, the other raging in his cups. It was as if a spell had been put on him and them, haunted as they all were by ghosts, wakened by phantom phone calls, pursued by demons, driven to distraction by memory, telling lies in order to survive.
I Put a Spell on You: General Digressions on Love and Glamour
Jonathan Cape, £16.99, ISBN 24681097531, 272PP