Friday, 28 April 2000
Dead Young Men
Sunday the 30th of April 2000
Thanks for sending me a copy of the works of the late Alan Burke. (Hooligan Trees)
Some years ago I received from him, out of the blue, a first letter of invitation to assist him in his school project, the subject of which was myself. (Or so he said.)
I was slightly un nerved that a schoolboy of I4/I5 should want to ‘study’ someone who had been convicted of multiple murder. Eventually I put his interest down to a wan morbidity which comes from any young man experiencing the pains of puberty aggrevated by the added emotional component of personal alienation and isolation.
Yes, he was ‘different’ and I felt in sympathy with the ‘difference’ I felt in myself at his age.
Well, I committed myself to an exchange of letters on the strength of helping him with his ‘project’. I was struck by his intelligence but less sure about the maturity of his conservative politics. (He WAS a Tory who lauded John Major and other ‘icons’ in the Tory Cabinet.)
I suspected that he was Gay but there was no direct, explicite admission of his orientation to me in his letters. (If there was I must have missed it.)
I gained the impression that he was solitary and bookish in his pursuits. (These are recollections purely from memory because all his letters to me, written in blue penned longhand, are now stored with all my other received correspondence, in Mark Austin’s attic. Mark Austin is a good friend. These will, perhaps, prove useful to future biographers.)
He sent me his photo and I must confess that I found him physically attractive. However, given the wisdom of long experience, I held my control and did not go overboard with any kind of unrealistic emotional prosepcts.
I was not sure what aspects of me attracted him.
I did not want him to bond with “the convicted murderer version of Nilsen” as any kind of role model.
Also I wondered what his parents thought of our correspondence.
He told me that it was the subject of hostile parental disapproval which he rejected. There was a certain hostility expressed by him for his ‘stepfather’. He named another man as his ‘real’ father.
From the photos he sent of himself and his siblings it seemed clear that his family were materially comfortable.
As I write this I have a small “Pillow Book” entitled “The Art of Gay Love” lying on the bed beside me. It was a kind gift he sent me. Strange to get such a thing from a I5 year old boy. It’s a beautiful little book and one wonders on the emotional subtext of this clandestine liaison between boy and man which has so much gay love and emotional commitment in the text, not to mention imagery. (“Boy About to Take a Shower” by David Hockney etc.)
“You are beautiful,” Rolf said very softly. “Come”. He patted the bed. “Do you mind if I turn out the light” Paul asked. Rolf shrugged. “I don’t mind. But I would love to be able to watch you.” Paul gazed at Rolf. “I’d feel better in the dark,” he said. “Very well”, Rolf nodded. Paul padded on his bare feet across the room, acutely aware that Rolf was observing every portion of his naked body. Robin Maugham ‘Enemy’ I98I
Alan’s approach to expression of his own sexual orientation was oblique and hesitant. I knew where he was coming from but less sure about where he was going.
He presented me with all his school reports and his autograph book. I felt like an alternative father figure and I gave constant encouragement and approval of his academic efforts. I suppose I was one of the few adult figures in his life who showed no disapproval of homosexuality. In this measure I could understand him and his feelings.
I was, however troubled by his apparent disdain for working class people and his fellow pupils at school.
Although I was troubled by it I empathised with his situation.
All romantically inclined, artistic, boys suffer the fate of peer group ostracization in a pressing climate of teenage conformity; football, pop music etc. Tough guys don’t dance, write poetry or seek artistic or academic advancement.
All such people are outcasts from the fold and I remember that it was the same for me…..added to by the nervous stigma of my hidden homosexual feelings and longings.
Boys like this and in this situation are driven into the abstract alternatives of artistic expression.
Obstructed love has to achieve some means of expression.
I signed his autograph book and posted it back to him ‘scolding’ him for being so careless with it. That is, I told him of the dangers of sending such things, with its ‘litany’ of famous signatures, through the normal, unregistered post.
I hope he did not interprete this as some kind of rebuff or rejection. It was unclear whether or not he had wished me to keep the book.
I was protective of him, ensuring as best I could that nothing of our correspondence ever leaked to the sensation hungry press.
In his letters to me it was always questions, questions, question,, on every subject imaginable. I understood and complied, bearing in mind that he WAS doing a project on me.
I supplemented his stated project with a tape of narrative and a short piece of a performance of my musical composition.
He wrote and told me that he did a complete presentation of his project to his class at school. Apparently it was a great success. He did, however, pay me a backhanded compliment when he said that his teacher, a Mr Anderson, has said that the music sounded as if it had not been produced by someone like me, a prisoner in one of Her Majesty’s prisons.
(Mine is of the neo classical ‘gothic’ style.)
Well, Alan’s interest in further correspondence declined with the passing of the project. He was developing and preparing, mentally, for the future and a stab at University.
The gaps between out letters lengthened and the correspondence was definitely on the back burner from his end.
My memory is sparse of details, having no reviewing access to all the letters he sent me then.
I knew that he would ‘grow out of me’ which is not a bad thing when you consider that a young man needs to set his own agenda for the future, uncluttered by past insecurities.
As the weeks passed he faded from the front of my consciousness. Then the smooth waters exploded in the splash of his decision to give the Daily Mirror his ‘exclusive’.
He gave them a story and the picture I had sent him of me, taken here in Whitemoor. No doubt he received a fat fee for his efforts. The Mirror’s line ran on the theme that this youing entrepreneurial spirit had conned some of the most evil men in Britain into corresponding with him. He was now determined to sell his collect of letters for £I0,000 to finance his further education etc.
I was betrayed but I never felt betrayed because it was always in the back of my mind that this could happen.
I was not surprised that someone who continually trumpeted the ‘virtues’ of the freemarket, profit ethic should not, at some future stage, put it into practise.
Alan did not con me, he conned himself; because if he had told me of his plans to sell the letters in order to help him go on to University, I would have approved and supported him in his goal. When the shit hit the tabloid fan I did not respond with any angry letter to him.
The subject and our ‘relationship’ dried and evaporated into the air as something shallow and insubstantial. Just another young Tory on the make…I thought. He reminded me a bit, of William Hague….parochial, smug and very smart-arsed.
I did not hate him for his deception. I put it down to moral immaturity and his acquisitorial, grass-root, Tory beliefs.
Being an optimist, I believed that he was a sad young man who would learn his good values with time and experience.
He was wrong headed but never wicked.
Then, near the end of August last year I heard from Paul Hartnett, on the phone that Alan had died of a brain tumour. I was numbed into disbelief as I knew nothing of his illness.
A couple of years before it seemed that he had more going for him than anyone I knew…..now he had just evaporated into the ether.
When I received Hooligan Trees from you I slumped, visibly, on learning that he had opted for “Theology”. Theology is as relevant to the 2Ist Century as Phrenology was to the 20th.
My Humanism takes no account of the dead fairy in the sky.
The prospect of ones impending death will consentrate the mind wonderfully, and Hooligan Trees explodes from this concentration. His expressions are entirely worthy of him, giving voice to all his strengths and human weaknesses.
He cannot speak of a rounded world which he never knew but he aptly modulates his own experiences of the world in screams and whispers. We are never sad for the dead…only for ourselves, and for something lost, something denied.
I would have given up a year of life just to have hugged him once.
That would have said everything that was necessary to say between us. Its ‘always’ too late because we do not live yesterday or tomorrow, but “now”. We are all guilty of not having tried hard enough to be open and genuine in expressing our passions.
We create irrational distances between each other.
Too fucking late come eulogy time…man hopeless against his mortality.
I guess we manoeuvre each other as reflections of our own longings and predicament of inadequacy. Listen to Walt Whitman.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it
to one with full hands
How could I answer the child? I do not
know what it is any more than he.
I do not know what Alan Burke was any more than I know what I am. The clues to these mysteries all lie undiscovered within us.
Therefore HOOLIGAN TREES expresses the immortality of the idea of Alan Burke. That is as near as you will ever come to understanding who and what he was (and is).
Dennis Andrew Nilsen
Whitemoor Prison B62006
Longhill Road March
Cambridgeshire PE15 0PR
PS When you publish your piece can you send me a photocopy of the published article. Thanks.