Sprawled across the sofa in his living room John Burnside looks anything but comfortable, as if he was a patient enduring a particularly irritating session with his shrink. The conversation has taken a difficult turn, and the poet and novelist finds himself explaining why he embarked on the love affair with a 15-year-old schoolgirl so vividly realised in Waking Up in Toytown, his new memoir.
This obsession, this “amour fou” as Burnside calls it, blew up 16 years ago when he was 38, and, yes, he says, it was entirely chaste. One morning, as he stared out alone cross the sands at Lytham St Annes, in Lancashire, Burnside heard a voice behind him say: “The people round here used to eat wading birds.” He turned to see a girl leaning against the promenade railings, her eyes “so bright they suggested a perpetual, amused curiosity”. He was hooked, he writes: “in a single uncalled-for moment, everything changed forever — though to be fair that wasn’t her fault”.
The romance as it is written in black and white is a beautifully told tale, right down to its tearful conclusion, when, in confusion, Burnside utterly rejects the girl’s first pleas for sexual intimacy. It is, however, much harder to express in conversation, even in the secure surroundings of his home in rural Fife.
In response to each question, a rising note of irritation registers in Burnside’s voice, a curious hybrid of Cowdenbeath and Corby, the two places in which he grew up. Sure, it was risky to tell the story, he concedes, and — “it’s quite right” — he should have walked away from the relationship before it had even begun. But it was important to tell his readers why he nurtured this doomed flirtation — and imperative to be truthful about the girl’s age.
“If I had made her one year older it would have been more acceptable,” he growls. “But this isn’t a May-September story, or a paedophile story. This is a tale about someone who was so disconnected from the human world that when he formed a connection with another person, he could completely overlook all the other stuff. How old she was, the fact that she found me attractive, it just didn’t matter, because there was a possibility of talking to a person in a meaningful conversation.”
To emphasise the girl’s allure and the confusion she provoked, he renames her Esmé in his book, after the teenager whose beauty and assurance utterly overwhelms the soldier she briefly meets in J. D. Salinger’s famous story For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.
“When I think about it,” he says, “Esmé for me isn’t a kind of Lolita figure, she’s more like Salinger’s character, or maybe the angel in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, who is also a beautiful girl in her mid to late teens,” he says. That angel is “a messenger, come to speak for grace and for a larger narrative than what we want, or think we want”. Or to put it another, simpler, way, he adds: “This was a story about love, and love changes all the rules. But I can see it is problematic to read.”
Since his first book of verse in 1988, Burnside’s writing has been published to huge critical acclaim and a rich sprinkling of literary awards, but his poetry and prose mark him out as a man of extremes. For the writer Candia McWilliam, his poems catch “the dark of unhappiness in the light of his writing”. For another reviewer, “a livid streak of psychopathy” runs through his seven fictional works, beginning with The Dumb House, in which a deeply disturbed narrator recounts the horrible experiments he carried out on his twin babies.
When he finally turned to autobiography, Burnside dragged his own damaged past into view. In A Lie About My Father, with his poet’s eye he portrayed a catastrophic relationship with his drunken and violent parent, and his own descent into LSD, barbiturates, alcohol and mental illness. The reviewers were ecstatic.
This second volume is just as painfully intimate as it takes the story on, tracing Burnside’s ten-year struggle to realign himself to the world. It more or less begins in the early 1980s as he is undergoing cold turkey in the spare bedroom of a friend’s house. There and then he decides to quit his drug-happy haunts in Cambridge, where he had once scraped a degree from the local college of arts and technology. He sets his sights instead on the perceived safety of suburban England.
“Physical pain is nothing compared to the mental pain of being in that bedroom. I thought: How do I stop myself sliding back to where I was before? Answer: I live as a completely normal person.” Burnside snorts at the notion. “I had no idea what normal was. I thought ‘A completely normal person is someone who works in an office and lives in Surbiton. He watches telly, walks the dog and goes in to work each day’. I’d never had that, so I thought, ‘If I do that, it will save me’.”
Friends helped him out with the costs of the move and the offer of a flat-share in Guildford. There he managed to enrol himself on to a programme to deal with his addictions, but it didn’t last long. “Jolly red devil on one shoulder, anaemic white angel on the other,” he was doomed to fail. After little more than a year he could be found sloshing from bar to bar, inevitably passing through a series of disastrous and painful encounters with his fellow casualties.
Burnside kept no diary in those years but instead builds his fictionalised account on memories. “I remember quite a lot of it in pictures, bits of things and then you construct a narrative from that. How reliable is it? It’s reliable to the extent that it rings true to me. I can’t estimate how much of it is coloured, or is partisan. Hopefully, I don’t try to make myself look better than I was.”
There are reasons to suspect that the reverse is true — he could have made himself seem far worse than he appeared to his contemporaries. Autobiography inevitably involves choices and Burnside admits that he could have given a very different account of himself. After slopping around in temporary jobs for a year, he passed a Civil Service exam in 1985 and took a job in IT with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Two years later he joined a commercial software company and quickly made a name for himself as a consultant, working in knowledge-based systems. (His consultancy role explains his presence in Lytham in 1993, where he had been hired in by a local company.) As his professional life apparently flourished, his literary reputation grew. His third book of poetry, Feast Days, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1994. A turning point came two years later. Dangled the carrot of a directorship at a computer company, he chose instead to write and teach. The following year, in 1995, when he was working as a tutor at Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat near Loch Ness, he met his wife-to-be, Sarah. All of that would add up to the appearance of normality, Burnside concedes, had it not been for his utter failure to engage with the world of work, and the social life around it.
He remained a phantom while, against all his expectations, most of the inhabitants of suburbia had, he says, quoting Don DeLillo, “a thick-lived tenor” to their lives. “I spent all those years trying to be normal, but not for one moment was I ever decent,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to be, I now realise, not normal but decent. Normal isn’t possible for someone like me. It wasn’t authentic, it wasn’t me. There were times when I ran five miles in the morning, had a shower and went to the office, times I went swimming — then I’d fall back into my old ways. I really didn’t give a f*** about anything or anyone during those spells. I didn’t like me during that time.”
Something else set him apart, he adds: the long shadow of mental illness. He recently self-diagnosed his former apophenia — an obsessive tendency to see connections where none exist — and he has a piece of paper from long ago on which some medical authority has defined his “psychosis and paranoia”. In other words, he could seem “high-functioning for 90 per cent of the time” but there were times when his life “just fell away”. On those occasions everything was managed by Prochlorperazine, a powerful drug used to control excessive anxiety, delusions, agitation and confusion.
He itemises how life arranged itself in those circumstances. “I went to work, I held up my end of conversations. I sat in the bar. I drove around. I went to antique fairs. I did my garden. But some of that time, all sorts of stuff was going on in my head. I have never known many people who had the weird mental life I knew then. I would walk along the street doing calculations with numbers. And I was having hallucinations — hallucinations that were as vivid as you sitting there. I don’t think I ever believed it would ever get that bad. I had an hallucination of St Augustine, in a cardigan, making tea. My God, that’s not normal.”
It is probably significant that he keeps in touch with only one workmate from that suburban era. Other companions fell by the wayside. One, a charming young drunk in a suit, died alone when his pancreas exploded. Another seemed a harmless bar-room nerd, until he lured Burnside back to his house and implored his guest to murder the wife who was lying in a vodka-induced stupor on the couch. For the record, Burnside declined.
Long before Esmé came along, Burnside mortified himself most of all around women, who came and went in a succession of worthless encounters. Even when he managed to rekindle a beautiful relationship with Adele, a former lover, the story is tainted by the fact that she had already married another man. His liaison with Gina (like all the names in the book, it’s invented), a single mum, he describes as an altogether more “tawdry” business. He enjoyed visiting her at weekends, but it was not long before he was watching in horror as she doped her three kids with Valium to keep them quiet while she went partying. To his shame, he barely protested.
While he was writing his memoir, Burnside asked himself why he had conjured up such a bleak tale. The answer, he says, was his deep regard for Gina’s kids. For the first time, he had a sense of family around him, and he loved it. “In the end, I look back and tell myself that they really had a good life. That was really true, you know, she gave them Valium to make them sleep, so we could go out on Saturday night — but most of the time she was a really good mother.”
Near its conclusion, Waking Up in Toytown advances to the present and to this house, where, with Sarah and the couple’s two young sons, Burnside has created a proper happy family life at last. “It’s winter,” he writes, “the cold as hard as a knife, the snow perfect and unmarked on the fields around this house where I now live, almost perfectly sane, with a road into the afterlife running right past my front door.”
The language suggests that he might be a religious man. “That’s an interesting question,” he snorts. “I find that much harder to answer than ‘are you a quasi-paedophile?’” He mulls the religious matter over. “Yes and no. I am philosophically religious, but not attached. I have no sense of having a personal God or a personal soul.”
So is there an afterlife? This time there is no hesitation. “There is an afterlife all the time,” he retorts. “I don’t believe the person I am will survive, but I believe that life will continue, because we are all part of that greater life.
“Imagine being John Burnside for all eternity. I’ve hardly been able to stand it for 54 years. Who could possibly wish for that?”
Waking Up in Toytown is published by Jonathan Cape on January 7 at £16.99. To buy it for £15.29 call 0845 2712134 or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
This article appeared on page 3 of the Times Weekend Review (its book pages) but can be found here online, filed under "women - celebrity", Burnside.