Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Net Curtains

Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Net Curtains

Article excerpt


by John Burnside

Cape, £15.99, pp. 262, ISBN 9780224080736

£13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655


by Paul Barker

Frances Lincoln, £25, pp.240, ISBN 9780711229785

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Finding himself in a lunatic asylum, and then at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, John Burnside has an idea. He wants a normal life. His idea is to move to the suburbs, because it is there, he feels, that he might become 'a regular, everyday sort of guy. The nextdoor neighbour whose name you can never remember, the one who keeps himself to himself, but is basically OK.'

Does he really want a normal life? I'm not so sure. In any case, he arrives in Surrey, seeking 'a Surbiton of the mind', and ends up on the edge of Guildford, in a shared flat, with an addiction counsellor and a determination to give up drinking. Pretty soon, though, he is beginning to waver. As soon as he begins to feel settled, he tells us that, 'I wasn't altogether convinced that I was ready to be normal.'

He needn't have worried. What follows is one of the best told memoirs I've read for ages. The events Burnside describes are certainly suburban, in that they took place in Worplesdon, and the Epsom Road, and various other parts of the hinterland of greater London, but they are hardly normal. And the people he encounters in suburbia are hardly normal either.

They have just chosen to live in a place where they must pretend to be.

Burnside begins to drink again. He does not, as he puts it, want to live 'like a monk.' How many suburbanites, down the years, have echoed that sentiment? In any case, he goes to a bar, and soon meets Greg, who lives in a semi with a wife he refers to as 'the Millstone'. Greg invites him home. Greg wonders if Burnside has seen the film Strangers on a Train. He also wonders whether Burnside might oblige him by killing his wife.

And Greg, who reveres the Allman Brothers and drinks vodka out of half-pint glasses, might not be joking. He invites Burnside to his semi again. Burnside accompanies him. Inside, the Millstone lies slumbering on the sofa. Is she drugged? It is afternoon. The place is a dump. Burnside invokes the scene superbly - the enclosed desperation of it all. Greg runs out of the house, to establish an alibi while Burnside does the deed. …

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