DAZED & CONFUSED, OCT 2000
Doomed youth: the story of poet Alan Burke
An epitaph, inked in teetering, high-rise capitals by the artists Gilbert and George reads very simply: “Alan Burke s a fantastic poet. His early death is a tragedy. When we met him we mugnt him lovely looking, serious. intense and clearly very talented. The publication of his poems will give us all a chance to feel his world and soul. We love his poetry very much.”
Poetry came almost as a postscript for Alan Burke. Were he ever to attract the attentions of the historians, his literary output would undoubtedly be dwarfed by the incredible archive generated by his first passion: letter writing A reclusive, softly-spoken teenager who dreamed of fame and fleeing the suffocating vacuum of his home town, for four years he assailed the mailboxes of the famous and infamous like a latter day Henry Root, driven by a restlessly inquisitive mind and a humour as black as ink, and in so doing, he systematically created for himself a bizarre world of correspondence that encompassed poets, politicians, celebrities and serial killers. At time the time of his death – on August 17. 1999, aged lust 20 – he’d been writing poetry for scarcely a year. Yet his rough-hewn, dizzyingly ambitious verse had already attracted the attention of several major writers, artists and critics.
He was nothing if not prolific. At the age of 16, he was on ‘Dear Des’ terms with Dennis Nilsen and, seemingly, half the World Premier League of serial killers – achieving fleeting chip-paper stardom when his exploits were splashed over the pages of a Sunday tabloid. By 17. he’d turned his attentions to celebrity, firing off twisted missives to all manner of national figures, using the familiar ploy of posing as a terminally ill child. By 18, a consuming passion for poetry saw him etch his way into the address books of some of Britain’s most garlanded literati. Hooked on autographs, antiquities and arcana, he set about stockpiling a treasure trove of strange ephemera. His stash, purchased with the proceeds of a stamp Collection inherited from his grandfather, included (his hero) Samuel Beckett’s hat.
Burke was born on Elswick, a disconsolate estate on Newcastle’s West side, in 1979. The district is synonymous in the city with poverty, come and deprivation. Its uneasy streets are to Newcastle what Moss Site is to Manchester, Toxteth is to Liverpool, and St Paul’s is to Bristol. Neighbouring Benwell, where he went to school, saw riots in the early ’90s. It was the kind of place where, according to one former friend “you couldn’t go out at night without being ‘jumped on by someone.”
He’s described by those who knew him as a quiet, withdrawn figure. Raised by his mother on a slender income (his father was a remote figure who spent much of his son’s life in prison) he excelled at the local Catholic school and won a place to study theology at Durham University. He wasn’t religious. It was in his first year at Durham that – in a stroke of irony that could have been taken from the pages of Greek fable – the one-time hoaxer was diagnosed with a cluster of inoperable brain tumours. Battling against the illness that eventually took his life, he began to record its progress, along with other depictions of his life in Newcastle – in a series of remarkable. painfully introspective poems. His single published work, Hooligan Trees, was submitted for publication at the behest of two of his correspondents, Gilbert and George. Their epitaph was to form the preface to a book he didn’t live to see in print.
The notions of poetry and doomed youth have, of course, long been entwined. From Thomas Chatterton choking on arsenic in his Bristol garret to Keats coughing up his last beside Rome’s Spanish steps, poetic death has long beguiled what Sylvia Plath famously dubbed “the peanut-crunching crowd”, just as it has entranced the muses of poets themselves. When, in May this year, fellow Tyneside poet Barry/ MacSweeney succumbed to the alcoholism that had wrecked his life, the obituarists were quick to seize on his 1997 hymn-to-the-bottle The Book Of Demons (Bloodaxe) – unsurprising, as within its pages MacSweeney had himself dwelled on, and correctly predicted, the manner of his own demise (One day choke on it, tongue/ jammed backwards down/ throat’s clogged highway). It would be improper to suggest that Burke ever had the opportunity to reline his output to the level os such alumni. But to some, the precocious imagery and raw intensity of expression suggests a startling, unrealised talent.
“I’ve little doubt that, had he lived, he could have gone on to do something truly great,” affirms publisher Rob Cochrane. “Perhaps what we’re left with is more of a mission statement, and nothing more. When Gilbert and George rang me I wasn’t really sure what to think. Of course, it was very sad, but that didn’t mean that the poetry would be any good. But when I began to read the poems I had no doubt. Alan was writing in hospital, and he’d send me stuff. He was obviously very ill, the handwriting was almost illegible. Some of them were clearly naive, but others just blew me away.”
Cochrane, a persistent champion of romantic, left-field writers, had collaborated with Gilbert and George before, publishing several volumes of poetry by the late artist David Robilliard under his Manchester-based Bad Press imprint. Hooligan Trees, he insists, was published on merit rather than sentiment. In fact the first Cochrane knew of Burke’s curious backstory was when a former school friend of the poet’s rang to order a copy of the book.
From one of the many overstuffed bookcases crammed into his South Manchester home, he flips out a copy of Damien Hirst’s exhaustively-titled Brit-art memoir I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now (Booth-Clibborn). At the back, in an appendix of letters received by the artist, is one seemingly written by a child, scrawled in crude biro and littered with infant-school spelling. The text reads DEAR DAMIAN, I HOPE YOU DO NOT MIND ME RITING TO YOU BECOS I NO YOU MUST BE VERY BUSY. WHEN I AM OLDAR I WOOD LIKE TO BE GREAT ARTIST LIKE YOU. WOT ADFICE CAN YOU GIVE ME TO BE GOOD ARTIST? IS BEING ARTIST AN INTERESTING JOB? IT HAS BEEN LOVILY RITING TO YOW DAMIAN. LOTS OF LOVE. At the foot of the page is a stick man with an arrow pointing to it and the words DAMIAN HIRST inscribed in thick Crayola. It’s dated January 12, 1996 and signed ‘Alan Burke’.
“Now you’ve got to admit that’s pretty weird,” says Cochrane. “Hirst seems to have reprinted it thinking it was genuine, but clearly it’s the work of a wind-up merchant.”
Wind-up or not, Burke’s maladjusted mailshots were to land him in trouble on more than one occasion. By his mid-teens, the boy whose father had spent so long away in prison had resolved to become a criminologist. Whereas other aspiring thief-takers might browse the local library, nag the school’s career officer or catch the odd episode of Cracker, this evidently wasn’t good enough for Burke, who decided to go straight to source, embarking on a do-it-yourself correspondence course with some of the world’s most infamous killers: Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen, Rose West, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ian Brady, the Kray twins, John Gacy, Michael Sams. As the ink dried on a school GCSE project completed on the basis of a personal correspondence that ran to thirty-eight exhaustively frank letters – and included a classroom performance of Nilsen’s “musical composition” – The News of the World descended on his doorstep. Burke dutifully led the hacks up to his room and allowed them to photograph his stash. “When the postman delivers to schoolboy Alan Burke he carries a mailbag from hell…” ran the byline in June, 1996, before reeling off a slew of “revelations” gleaned from the contents of Burke’s archive.
School-friend Martin Conroy recalls another misadventure concerning a letter Burke wrote to Phil Collins in which he claimed to be dying of leukemia. “‘Someone in Collins’s office sent him some goodies – CD’s, videos, and cheque for a lot of money – which Alan didn’t cash. Anyway, Alan was so scatter-brained he forgot all about it and wrote back a couple of years later citing a different chronic disease. ” This time, however, Collins’s secretary wised up to to the ruse: “She wrote back saying, ‘Well Alan, that’s two different terminal diseases. You must be set to make the front cover of The Lancet.'” Guiltily. Burke returned the cheque and the goodies and apologised. Ironically, this time the retraction elicited a direct response from the But Seriously social conscience-meister himself. Collins administered a stern ticking off before thanking him for his honesty, enclosing a few more goodies as a reward.
Conroy describes Burke as a private person, lightly spoken, quite effeminate. A committed learner who would get up at 7am just to read; who made notes constantly, even where speaking to you. He was a familiar figure around Elswick in his brown ‘ 70s style blazer, the pockets of which housed a copy of Waiting For Godot and a photograph of Samuel Beckett, which Burke would produce with great pride. “He used to walk everywhere,” laughs Conroy. “He never look the bus. You’d see him soaking wet, having trudged through the rain.” The pair would meet in the City Library, or at a tea shop in the central Grainger Market, where they’d swap notes on their respective heroes: Burke, the man of letters, enthusing about Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust; Conroy, an art student, turning his friend onto Brit art and jazz records. “For while, I tried writing to people too,” says Conroy. “But I could never get replies. Alan used to strike up relationships with the most amazing people.”
As poets eclipsed killers at the centre of Burke’s universe, Burke’s epistolary output changed accordingly. He established correspondences with Ted Hughes and Martin Amis, wrote to fellow Tynesider Tony Harrison, who would send him books by taxi, and contacted leading lights of the local Bloodaxe clique, Jo Shapcott and (poet and Sunday Times critic) Sean O’Brien, who encouraged his work and published one of his poems shortly before he died. His passion for memorabilia undimmed, he scoured the catalogues of London antiquarians Frasers for literary curios: fascinated by politics, he corresponded with members of the then Tory cabinet, declining an invitation to meet Margaret Thatcher. Prompted by Conroy, Burke also cultivated a friendship with Gilbert and George, whom the two visited in London.
“Alan was very nervous.” recalls Conroy, who did most of the talking. They asked him a lot about theology. Then we went to a restaurant. As the world began to open open up for him, Conroy began to notice a growing sense of purpose about his friend.
“We used to go for walks around the posh areas such as Jesmond, where all the rich people live. The Catharine Cooksons, the football players. For a laugh, we’d go into the pubs and try to mingle in. I’d be going: ‘I like this!’ This is what I want when I’m older!’ Alan wanted none of it. He wanted to live in a garret. He showed me a letter once, from Ted Hughes, in which Hughes scolded him for being so whimsical. It was like: ‘How are you going to support yourself? What are you going to live on?’ But Alan was sure he was going to make his mark in history. By that time. he knew he was going to be a writer.”
Lynn Taylor wipes a stray strand of hair from out of her eyes as she contemplates how well she understood her son
“We took a taxi from the hospital once and I got talking to the taxi driver. When I mentioned we were from Elswick, Alan just got this look, as if I’d said something wrong. When we got out. he just stopped and said, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone I come from Elswick again!’ I said. ‘Well that’s where you’re from, there’s nothing you can do about it!” But he was adamant. I think he’d rather have come from anywhere except Elswick.”
We’re sitting in her kitchen drinking tea and poring over a huge sheaf of documents…letters, autographs, photographs, ticket stubs, newspaper cuttings. Outside, front doors on the Elswick estate are open, mothers waiting on doorsteps for their children to return from school. It’s the very scene Alan described in one of his poems.
Children, lungs of the day
Licking air rake a lolly
Bouncing on the hour’s inflatable pulse
The house is not the one Alan lived and died in. After his death, Lynne says, she couldn’t bear to stay in same place and moved to a house nearby. She tells me she can’t listen to music anymore. “Alan used to listen to it all the time. It upsets me too much.”
Her account his illness is grim. The initial diagnosis of a growth in his arm and the operation to remove it was followed by a brief period of remission. Months later a tumour was found in his lungs. A spate of headaches lead to the discovery of a cluster of tumours in his brain. He sat his second year exams in hospital, passing with flying colours. In between times. and until he was unable to lift a pen, he worked on the poetry.
What burns through the poems collected in Hooligan Trees is Burke’s extraordinary ambition. Mind-blown on Eliot, Hughes and Plath, he restlessly flexes and reflexes the lens of his mind’s eye in the effort to marshal imagery every bit as cosmic as that of his heroes. Though the relentless self-pathologising suggests an obvious link to Plath, the work betrays no influence so much as that of Hughes, both in form and in the audacious marshalling of natural imagery, revealing a youthful naivety shot through with flashes of spectacular lucidity. Every mouth chews my silence he writes starkly in “The Headache”, while in “The Tumour Cloud” he likens the looming suffocation of his condition to a swelling rain-cloud commandeering the atmosphere’s megaphones on a radtant summer’s day.
Elsewhere. he draws on theoiogy and even serial killers. In “Cancer Slide” he memorably describes the journey from cancer ward to lab as My Veronicaless Via Dolorossa. It’s a poem that particularly struck Rob Cochrane. “There’s an image that poem where he likens the tumescent cells on the cancer slide to a girl he remembers from nursery school – who was ostracised because of her outlandish height – and wonders if she’ll ever do a Charles Whitman? If you read up on Whitman (’60s psycho killer who mounted a campus tower and shot dead several students) you find that at his post-mortem it was discovered he had a brain tumour. That’s pretty mind-blowing stuff.”
Picking through the remnants of Burke’s archive, laid out on Lynn Taylor’s kitchen table, affords a glimpse into his world. Much of the colIection is missing. There’s no Samuel Beckett hat. Lynn has no idea where it is. Alan continually sold things in order to fund other purchases; much was given away before he died. What remains is a museum in itself: a letter written by TS Eliot in his own hand, dated 1922. A Parisian theatre programme from the turn of the century, inscribed by Marcel Proust. A 1950’s French edition of Waiting For Godot,signed by the author.
Several items betray traces of Burkes mischievous iconoclasm – which he freely directed even towards those he clearly admired. A letter from the playwright Edward Bond thanks Alan for his kind words, and in particular the drawing of him. It goes on. “About your letter. Your spelling is very intriguing. You can’t spell ‘lovely ‘ (L-O-V-I-L-Y) or ‘what” (W-O-T) but you can spell ‘dramatist’ which is quite a difficult word. My publisher says that good winters always have very individual ways of spelling. Your spelling suggests to me that you are talented and very nice.” Another, from the architect Sir Norman Foster, thanks him similarly and confirms that yes, in order to become a successful architect it is advisable to keep in good physical shape.
“He had a black sense of humour” smiles Lynne. “Dry as sticks. He was really hard to get to know, you’d think that he had no sense of humour at all, but he did, he’d have us all in tears and he’d just sit there ” She is suddenly quiet. “Wouldn’t even put a smile on his face.”
His is buried in Elswick cemetery beneath a twisted elm which in the winter months eerily resembles the looming Gilbert ard George illustration adorning the cover of Hooligan Trees. He never quite managed to shake off the city that spawned him. In his poetry, though, and in the letters that preceded it, he found for himself an alternative to the usual means of escape – crime, academia, sporting prowess – a way to establish a connection with the world he wanted to get to. Just prior to an age where the internet can make faceless correspondents 0 us all, put us in contact with almost anyone, he chose to reach out by letter. But then, it’s difficult to imagine him achieving similar results with a Hotmail account. To Burke, one imagines, the iniquities of Elswick weren’t primarily the deprivation, or the lack of opportunity, but the sheer anonymity.