Gordon Burn Trust

Living memories: He grew up in the shadow of the football stadium and the brewery, but at 16 Gordon Burn discovered another side of Newcastle at Mordern Tower's literary 'happenings'. Today the city is transformed, but its past still resonates in this memoir of his father and a bookish adolescence: ' The entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid'

11 June 2005, The Guardian

We all know how it ends: your parents die, and then you follow them. Nothing new there. "Age, and then the only end of age", in that fearful, self-grieving line of Philip Larkin's. You look at the face against the pillow, hazed glasses still in place above the sharp nose, the tip of the nose already growing pale as the fingernails whiten, the tips of the fingers turn chill and blue, and you see your own face as it is and will be and wonder in what circumstances you will meet your own death and who, if anybody, you yourself being childless and an only child, will be sitting vigil when the time finally comes.

My father could always be pretty sure where he was going to die. He was going to leave the world from almost exactly the spot he had come into it more than 80 years earlier, in a close neighbourhood in the poor-but-respectable, rough-and-ready, raggy-arsed west end of Newcastle.

Hamilton Street, the narrow terrace where he started his life (and I began mine), was 100 yards from both St James's Park, the home of Newcastle United, and the pungent factory-village of Newcastle Breweries. Queen's Court, the council flats where he spent a largely contented last 40 years, is near enough to St James's to have the hot-dog vendors and programme sellers setting up outside his door on match days. The deep yeasty aromas belching out of the brewery, and the rising roars and dying groans of succeeding generations of the Toon Army. These were the constants in a life that spanned 82 years.

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead." The sentence is from WG Sebald's memoir cum meditation cum travel diary Vertigo, but it encapsulates the primary concern of all Sebald's work, which is the enduring resonance of people and events from the past in the lives of those who come after.

In my father's case these people would include Geordie Ellison, the butcher; Dickie James, the cheery Norman Wisdom-like barber, who topped himself; Jack Gair who would hold back six bottles of sterilised Puroh milk (no fridges in those days) every Friday; little Dougie, Auntie Dot's fancy man, who ran the place where you took the heavy, black wet batteries when they needed juice in them. All of these, and scores of others, were as vividly alive for my dad on the day he died two months ago as when they were familiar - sometimes neighbourly, sometimes rebarbative - flesh and bones people. Similarly, the streets where their shops and businesses had once stood were part of a shadow landscape whose particular shape was always rising through the plainer, blander, fast-build grid of Courts and Crescents and high-rises that the post-war planners had laid down.

During one of my dad's last stays in hospital, he had in the next bed to him a profoundly deaf man of around his own age with the flattened nose of a fighter and the springy bow-legged walk of a jockey. Jackie, it turned out, had done well for himself; he had a house in Majorca where he should have been then instead of being sounded and probed for what he knew (it was apparent in his exaggerated demonstrations of vigour and spryness, his booming protestations of health) was soon to kill him.

He talked often of the house in the sun, with its pool and its view over the golf course. And yet it seemed less real to him, who had never known a day's illness in his life but was now suddenly, inexplicably faltering, fatigued, than the back-to-backs where he had grown up and the sounds and smells of the horses of his uncle, Mr Veitch the coalman, when they were stabled after a hard day's giddy-up round the busy streets and steep back lanes that dipped down to the river Tyne. The horses (I can remember this myself) were led one after another up a wooden ramp when their shift was over and they had been let loose from their carts and my father's ward-mate talked of the archaic smell of the long-ago city stable "as if time put an edge round the shape of things / to show them there", to quote Larkin again, inevitable when the subject is loss and existential dread and "something nearly at an end".

A few months ago, as my dad was entering the terminal phase of his leukaemia, I received an email from an organisation I'd never heard of before, called Culture North East (CNE), inviting me to take part in one of a series of seminars they were planning. CNE is one of eight cultural consortiums established in 1999 by the then culture secretary, Chris Smith, to ensure that culture and creativity have a strong voice in the regions. The Sage, the new Norman Foster-designed home of the Northern Sinfonia, had just opened; the Baltic had established itself, if shakily, as a mini-me Tate Modern, and the seminar subjects were interesting: Distinctiveness ("Is there an essential north-east character and culture? Does it matter?"), Looking Outward ("Parochial? Insular? Set in our ways?"), the re-branding of Newcastle-Gateshead as an international cultural destination, all things I was having plenty of time to mull over between hospital visits and the days spent mooching around my father's empty flat.

But it was the coincidence of an acronym, "gone", which made up part of CNE's electronic address, and the postal address of the organisation's headquarters on a site close to the city centre, which hit me with particular force and triggered a chain of associations. "Gone", I eventually worked out, stands for Government of the North East. Gone's offices stand on a piece of ground which, up to about 18 months ago, used to be the coach station that marked my point of entry to and departure from Newcastle for very many years.

My original reasons for travelling by coach were, of course, economic: you could bus it to Newcastle for the cost of a couple of miniatures in the buffet of a super soaraway Intercity 125. But long after I could afford to take the train (and often even when somebody else was paying) I liked to go between London and Newcastle on the bus. There was a sentimental association: it's how the three of us used to travel down to London as a family on holiday when I was little, leaving Gallowgate after dark and driving for 12 hours through the night, pulling into Victoria coach station around dawn. The small hotels and rooming-houses of Pimlico and Victoria - the Astor, the Eaton House, the Sir Gar and the Alison - had a fly-blow n glamour that, although I didn't know it at the time, Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, Dorothy Richardson and others had located in their work. I still prefer Victoria's seedy aspect to the corporate culture represented by the major London railway terminals, with their Bagel Boutiques and Spandex activewear concessions, and the noise of all the spruced-up, cheapjack "retail and refreshment units" banging their drums.

Gallowgate bus station had been built in the 1930s, a single-storey, circular Art Deco ticket office with an acre of oily tarmac attached, half a mile from where we lived. I could be off the bus and in the house in about five minutes. When the time came to go back to London, my dad used to insist on carrying my bag down Barrack Road. Then, as the first signs of his hip trouble became apparent, we started to take a handle apiece. Soon he was claiming a three-minute start, carrying only the lighter bag, the one containing the tin of pop and the foil-wrapped "bait" he'd made up. About four years ago, he started staying on the doorstep, waving with my mother; in the last two years, it was only him, waving alone. And then he couldn't get up any more and stopped in bed while I got myself off and made my own tea, a last shout up the stairs before I shut the door.

"Gone". There's a pretty irony, not lost on its executive officers, in the fact that an organisation set up "to sustain, develop and celebrate the cultural distinctiveness of the North East" is housed in a steel-and-plexiglass building in the shiny, new, Lottery-munificent style whose "fractured geometry" is meant to symbolise plugged-in modernity and post-industrial regeneration but is already recognisable as a global cliche.

Two notable reverses - the no-vote to a devolved North East Assembly, and Liverpool narrowly beating Newcastle to the title European City of Culture 2008 - seem to have done nothing to harm the area's tourism, cultural and creative industries. Alan Plater has written a play about the fact that there are now more art galleries than shipyards on the Tyne. In March, Radio 3's World Music Awards were broadcast from the Sage, featuring performers from India, Algeria, southern Sahara, Argentina, Cuba. It's heartening to see the same kind of diversity becoming apparent in a city that, in spite of being dubbed "the New Orleans of the North" on account of what was variously euphemised as its "commitment to convivial congregation" and the booming "economy of urban sociability" on the Quayside, for too long gave the impression of being mono-cultural, anglophone, and white. The feminist writer, Beatrix Campbell, a sometime resident, has indicted "a region notorious for its incontinent, marauding masculinities - the football, the drinking . . . Andy Capp, the Toon Army and Viz magazine, the signifiers that infused Geordie identity with misogyny".

Campbell was writing in a tradition: Orwell criticised northerners for being unduly proud of their alleged virility. For the young Charles Dickens, the north was a kingdom of filth and toil. For Matthew Arnold, similarly, it was represented by gloom, smoke and cold; it was a place where people had hideous names - Higginbottom, Stiggins, Wragg.

Pockets of the old culture, of course, persist. I was recently in a Newcastle city-centre pub called the Adelphi. It was the quiet period of mid-afternoon, the lull between lunchtime and the early-evening rush. There was a party of elderly drinkers in a corner; three men, two women, well-dressed, surrounded by shopping. Suddenly, without preliminaries, one of the men threw his arms wide and burst into song. "My Prayer", "On the Street Where You Live", "Heart of My Heart" ("We were rough and ready guys, but oh how we could harmonise"). Songs from 60 years ago, and older. On and on he went, with the rest of the company smiling wistfully and nodding approval and occasionally joining in. He sang in the club style parodied by Vic Reeves on Shooting Stars and memorably described by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy as the "big-dipper" style of singing - there is a pause as each emotional phrase is completed, before the great rise to the next and over the top.

"Like the old days, isn't it?" the pub singer said after a while to the woman behind the bar, in a heavy Geordie accent. "Like the old days when we were skint . . . I'm just here on holiday, like."

"Where d'you live now?" She was feigning interest. "Greece."

So that was it: they were voluntary exiles, travelling in the opposite direction to the economic migrants from the former eastern bloc and elsewhere for whom they had made space; ex-pats come back to revisit not what was actually there, but what they wanted to see. Not the cutting-edge art at the Baltic or Portuguese fado at the Sage; not even the Metro centre or the chance to browse among many similar things in distractingly various shapes and colours in the malls of a city described in that weekend's travel pages as "a metrosexual mecca", "a cafe-society studded with designer shops". As - unbelievably - bein g "just gay enough". They reminded me of a line in an early VS Naipaul novel I had just read: "I thought of escape, and it was escape to what I had so recently sought to escape from." They were tourists to their own past; a past of the old labourist landscapes and the rich associational life of the pubs and clubs; the rough, densely meshed social life of the inner city not illuminated by the bright light of Mykonos or Patmos.

It was a past symbolised by the black-and-white picture hanging just above the pub-singer's head. It was of the former Newcastle United captain Joe Harvey. He was holding the FA Cup aloft, which made it at least 50 years old. The pub was full of framed, faded pictures and Magpie memorabilia - posters, scarves, shirts signed by players both alive and dead.

"OK, anything else you want?" I would ask my dad last thing at night.

"Aye," he'd say rotely, on automatic pilot, already nearly asleep, "Newcastle to win the Cup."

He didn't mean it, of course; it was a saying, like his other sayings, such as "Get your beer while you're here" and "You're bloody lovely, but I wouldn't tell you", this usually to women of his acquaintance after a few drinks. On his doorstep it might have been, but he hadn't been to a match at St James's in possibly 50 years. And yet . . . The team is crucial to the fabric and self-image of the city; and the city - its local detail; the particularity of place - was central to who he was. He belonged.

I didn't think coming from Newcastle had anything to do with who I was for many years. The aromas rising from the brewery; the roar of the crowd. Being a reader - "He's a big reader" wasn't necessarily a compliment where I was growing up - I ignored them both and scuttled between school and home, home and the library. I'd "passed the scholarship", as the saying was then. I was a grammar-school boy, one of only two from my year at junior school to pass the 11-plus. And an essay in a school exercise book that I came across while closing up my parents' flat the other week gives a clue to the kind of pill I must have been (that I know I was).

Dated 5.1.63 and headed "Westerns: Against", it begins: "The only word I can find to describe westerns is futile." It continues: "One of the main reasons people watch them is because of the dialogue . . . Long sentences or speeches are never made, and this makes the story much easier to follow for the infantile people who like to watch these 'cowboys and Indians'." ("Have you ever read any Hemingway?" the teacher, barely bottling his exasperation, has written in red pen. "Do so.")

My father, needless to say, was an avid reader of westerns, and loved watching them on television. This "infantile" activity was the cause of endless rows. Many years later, when I interviewed Raymond Carver, I learned that Carver's father was also a fan of Zane Grey's, and that pulp westerns were the only books they had in the house. But Carver's reaction was shamingly different to mine. "Now and again I'd see my dad lying on the bed of an evening and reading from Zane Grey," he said. "It seemed a very private act in a house and family that were not given to privacy. I realised that he had this private side to him, something I didn't understand or know anything about, but something that found expression through this occasional reading. I was interested in that side of him and interested in the act itself."

Westerns, like the grime and graft of the northern industrial towns, are associated with the prized qualities of toughness and masculinity. Going to see the films of the French nouvelle vague on Sunday afternoons, as I often did, was viewed as a hostile act. Viewed as one, and meant as one. I was an intolerable snob.

I was rescued from my sententiousness, I think, by the opening, when I was 16, of the Mordern Tower. The demolition of Gallowgate coach station in 2003 and the construction of the Government of the North East headquarters has exposed that stretch of the Roman wall that the bus station kept hidden for generations. Mordern Tower, a medieval turret which owed much of its allure to its dingy, dangerous-seeming, semi-secret location, is now opened to the view of "straights" and passing drivers.

The Tower was acquired by Tom Pickard and his wife Connie in 1964. Pickard was an 18-year-old self- confessed "work conchy" (conscientious objector) and "dole walla" and they launched the series of readings and "happenings", which were the first sign to me that writing could be something more than a set text to be slogged through with dutiful encirclings and underlinings and comments of "v imp" and "signif" in the margins.

The spirit of Mordern Tower was, in fact, headily unbookish, although it was filled floor-to-ceiling with books - Marcuse, Reich, the Beats, Ouspensky, The Ginger Man , The Naked Lunch , Candy , Lolita - in the dangerous green covers of the Olympia Press. Beardy-weirdy Americans came and things occasionally got riotous and dope was smoked. Writers read by gaslight and, sprawled on the cold stone floor among the long hairs and self-conscious "cosmonauts of inner space", we nervous grammar- school boys (never more than two of us) were exposed for the first time to mad riffers and homosexuals and junkies. We learned about "free verse". It was for: the expression of immediate feeling and "visible truth"; the internal logic of sounds rather than imposed sense (letting it all hang out). It was against: careful, complex, ironic and well-finished work; the anecdotal and the small-scale. The personification of the latter for me was the Geordie writer Sid Chaplin, a middle-aged man in knitted tie and tweed jacket, a former miner and noted "regional realist" novelist whom I greeted with a superior adolescent sneer every time I saw him in the central library.

Tom Pickard's first task when he took over the Mordern Tower had been to track down Basil Bunting in Wylam, outside Newcastle, and convince him there was a new young audience for his poetry; Bunting had written nothing since The Spoils in 1951, and it's probably fair to say there would have been no "Briggflatts" or any of the hard-won late poems without Pickard's friendly bullying.

Bunting was the first writer I ever saw reading his work - an old man in pebble glasses and a lumpy winter suit, a living link with with Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Zukofsky. Although he was virtually unknown in his own country, Bunting had a considerable reputation among younger American poets as an important figure in the Modernist movement. It was this, in the beginning, that drew Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Anselm Hollo, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others to the north-east.

It is impossible to overstate the impact the Mordern Tower had on me as a diligent, booksniff sixth- former. The place the Pickards made offered an alternative to official culture, to the mystique and snobbery associated with the arts. "It's not a fuckin' morgue yi na," Tom's automatic bellowed reaction to being told to keep his voice down in the civic citadels of culture, could have been its motto. It was the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi's notion of "a cultural jam-session", a "spontaneous university" made flesh.

Because it is in the shadow of the football ground, the stoners leaving the Tower occasionally used to mingle with the crowds streaming out of St James's Park. To get to where I was going - back home, to do homework - I'd have to go against the flow. This always seemed a reasonable direction in which to be heading. Like Lawrentian characters (Sons and Lovers was one of the set books I was "doing"), and the anti-heroes in the novels of Stan Barstow, David Storey and other working-class northern writers I had started reading, I was simultaneously wracked by, and revelling in, the realisation that I belonged nowhere; that culturally, and in class terms, I was a displaced person. (I suppose this is what I had against poor Sid Chaplin, a Coal Board officer as well as writer: that he was too rooted; he had stayed put long enough to have certainties and he was seen as a "spokesman".)

It was the 60s, the paradise everyone old had dreamed of all their lives, "everyone young going down the long slide to happiness, endlessly" (Larkin again).

I bought the donkey-jacket; I wore the beard. I carried the first Bob Dylan album to school and back for a week, without ever playing it. I left Newcastle and the utopian redevelopment schemes of T Dan Smith when I was 18, and have lived away ever since. Only in recent years, with the extended visits prompted by the failing health of, first, my mother, and then my father, have I admitted its claim on me.

No doubt it is partly what Orwell called nostalgie de la boue. But it is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go "home" was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of "community" and everybody belonged to one.

Toni Morrison once wrote the following: "They straightened up the Mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. 'Floods' is the word they use but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place."

Among the few keepsakes I brought away from the flat after we closed it up are two paperback novels I found sharing a cupboard with Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Raymond Williams's Border Crossing. Their spines are cracked and white from the many times they have been read and the titles are only just legible: The Dude Ranger and Shadow on the Trail, by Zane Grey.

 

'Have I broken your heart?': Fifty years ago Philip Roth claimed that 'the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist'. In today's media-saturated world this is more true than ever, as epitomised by the tragic story of Jade Goody.

7 March 2009 The Guardian

 

Halfway through Dave Eggers's zeitgeist-chasing, breezily postmodern memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, there's 50 pages of what purports to be the transcript of an audition tape that Eggers made for an MTV reality show, The Real World, in the early 90s.

In the course of the tape, Eggers discusses the deaths of both of his parents from cancer in the space of a month, the deaths by suicide and suspected suicide he remembers as a child growing up in a well- heeled suburb of Chicago, his masturbation habits, favourite films and TV shows, the smell of his mother on her deathbed, his young brother, Toph, whom he is bringing up alone, formative sexual experiences, and his father's clandestine and ruinous alcoholism.

"Have I given you enough?" Eggers interrupts himself at one point to inquire of the producer who is putting him through his paces. "Put me on television," he urges her. "Let me share this with millions. I will do it slowly, subtly, tastefully. Everyone must know. I deserve this. I have this coming. Am I on? Have I broken your heart? Was my story sad enough?" And then, unsettlingly for anybody who in past weeks has been following the twists and turns of the Jade Goody story, he adds: "I can do last breaths, last words. I have so many things. There is so much symbolism."

The first series of The Real World went out on MTV in 1992. It put seven young Americans in a house for 20 weeks and let the cameras record the tiffs and traumas and the riveting banality of the human lab-rats' everyday interaction. It became the template for Big Brother and its celebrity spin-off and for the Niagara of other serial fly-on-the-wall documentaries and docusoaps that have become boilerplate television, not just in this country and in America but across the world, in recent years.

It was while she was appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, known there as Big Boss, that Goody first heard that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was a private moment which of course - a contract had been signed, and there were the new invented traditions of the reality genre to observe - was broadcast live and flagged up instantly as breaking news, something to be excitedly chewed over by the blogosphere's gawkers as well as by mainstream news organisations, themselves insatiably solicitous of audience input and feedback, back home in Britain.

Goody was called to the diary room and effectively given a death sentence by a doctor many thousands of miles away in London, while her fellow housemates, quarantined on the other side of a sheet of plateglass, were left to speculate about what infringement of which rule - the one pertaining to the wearing of fright-wigs and maids' uniforms? The one about forbidden access to the hair-straightener? - had given rise to her heaving shoulders and hot tears.

In the olden days of eight or nine years ago, in the analogue years when celebrity images were routinely burnished with glamour lighting and clever editing and the big stars rarely ventured forth in public without a full retinue of press agents and retouchers and life coaches in tow, such an image - what used to be known as a "candid", the famous figure snapped as they least wanted the world to see them, bleared and smeary, intimate and all defences down - would have been seized on as maybe revealing some essential truth about human nature.

The film historian Richard Dyer has written that, once, if we suspected a disconnect between the public image of a star and the private individual, then we could always "go and get photos of her doing the chores at home and cuddling baby. . . And if we think these activities are a put-up job, then we might get a candid camera shot of her without make-up, or uncover a snapshot of her scowling at [baby]. And so on in an infinite regress by means of which one more authentic image replaces another."

In these days of junk news, junk food, junk money and the junk self, authenticity in the realm of reality TV means adhering to Saul Bellow's dictum of following a character not just into the bedroom but also the bathroom (and into rehab, the penis-enlargement clinic, the assisted-suicide facility, the dungeonous punishment pit). It was at this basement level that reality television stars of Jade Goody's vintage (she was selected for series three of Big Brother in 2002 at the age of 20) first made their appearance in the public arena. And Goody's gift from the beginning - her only talent, as she was the first to acknowledge (the girl who thought "East Angular" was a foreign country and that "pistachio" was a famous painter) - was to appear devoid of self-consciousness: to have an innate ability to appear to be unwatched when being spied on by millions; to seem to be heroically unconcerned about how she came across. In this way she found herself occupying the position of the most visible representative of the white underclass in British popular culture: a true avatar of the time. Motto: to think is to regret. Hobbies: getting and spending.

Norman Mailer once claimed that he would not bother to think about a TV show until he was on it: he had early on decided that "television was one of those hostesses who were most impressed if you were somewhat unimpressed to find yourself in her home". Like the biggest vote-winners of reality TV, he had learned over the years that the inner condition for projecting a firm and agreeable presence for television was to be bored: "Ideally, it is best to feel no more desire than a prostitute toward the 10th client of the night."

Mailer, writing in the 1970s, regarded TV as a modern contaminant, as toxic to his system as "the faces of digital watches, . . . the touch of polyester shirts, the wet wax-paper of McDonald's hamburgers, the air of summer when traffic jams, and shrieks of stereo as the volume is mislaid, the little nausea that plastic highball glasses will give to the resonance of booze". The title of his essay "Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots" encapsulated his attitude to television and all he felt it had come to represent.

For David Foster Wallace, by contrast, a writer of the next generation whose sensibility had been largely formed by the outpourings of Mailer's "multimillion-celled nausea-machine", television offered voyeuristic, round-the-clock access to "persons who are often the most colourful, attractive, animated, alive people in our daily experience". For 50 years, Mailer had been a regular, if (as he maintained) reluctant, chat-show performer, ever conscious of the abyss between the "luminosity of the outer appearance" of the TV participant "and the void of the inner dark". Wallace, on the other hand, was of the generation who liked to watch. "The world that I live in consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably entertaining options, most of which are subsidised by corporations that want to sell me things", Wallace, who killed himself last year, once told an interviewer. "The whole way that the world acts on my nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the guys with leather patches on their elbows would consider pop or trivial or ephemeral. I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water 100 years ago. It's just the texture of the world I live in. I've always thought of myself as a realist".

The thing that separates most US fiction writers born after about 1950 from the generation that preceded them, Wallace believed, is their ingrained attitude to television: the feeling that television is something to be lived with instead of just looked at: "For younger writers, TV's as much a part of reality as Toyotas and gridlock. We literally cannot imagine life without it. We're not different from our fathers in that television presents and defines our contemporary world. Where we are different is that we have no memory of a world without such electric definition. This is why the derision so many older fictionists heap on a 'Brat Pack' generation they see as insufficiently critical of mass culture is at once understandable and misguided."

Wallace wrote this in a long, characteristically dense and digressive 1990 essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction", which has been as influential on the writers who came after him as have his novels and stories. It is unlikely, to take just one example, that it would have occurred to Eggers to frame the biographical particulars of his backstory in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as an audition tape for MTV if Wallace hadn't first opened up the territory. "The 'voyees' behind the screen's glass are only pretending ignorance. They know perfectly well we're out there," Wallace noted. "And that we're there is also very much on the minds of those behind the second layer of glass, viz the lenses and monitors via which technicians and arrangers apply enormous ingenuity to hurl the visible images at us."

In his interview with the "arranger" for The Real World , Eggers goes to lengths to impress on her the smartness and irony-suffused knowingness he will be able to bring to the screen if only she has the sense to cast him. "So, let's work this out. First, you'll get a black person, maybe two - they'll be hip-hop singers or rappers or whatever," he tells her at one point. "And then you'll get a couple of really great- looking people, who will be nice to look at but completely ignorant and prone to terrible faux pas of taste and ignorance, their presence serving two purposes: they a) look wonderful on screen, and b) also serve as foils to the black person or people, who will be much sharper and savvier, but also easily offended, and will delight in raking the dumb people over the coals week after week. So that's three or four people."

When Jade Goody, pilloried in the press for her gluttony and ignorance the first time she was on, entered the Big Brother house for the second time in winter 2007, her life had changed, and was about to change again, for the worse, in light of her racist bullying of the Bollywood actor and fellow "celebrity" contestant, Shilpa Shetty. But at the moment the limousine, part of a long shining line of limousines, delivered her to the house and she spilled out on to the red carpet, she was red-top royalty. In the five years since she had lost Big Brother - lost but won, loser but still champion - Jade had put her name t o two autobiographies, a mass-market fragrance, a workout video and a cable-channel docusoap, The Salon . And the figure that emerged to the crash of camera shutters and the plaudits was sleek and cloaked in a tangible aura, a mediatised version of her original, shambolic, mouthy self. It is now nearly 50 years since Philip Roth made a statement that had a tremendous impact on other young writers. We now live in an age, he said, in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper. "The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist." Of the reality of American life, Roth observed that "it stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination". Out of this realisation sprang a new kind of "non-fiction novel" in which the real has dominion over the invented, pre-eminently Truman Capote's In Cold Blood , Don DeLillo's Libra and Mailer's The Executioner's Song . These books are endowed with a power of suggestiveness we associate only with fiction.

It is only in the last few years, however, that reality has become indistinguishable from representation in a qualitatively new way and what Henry James in The Reverberator , his novella of journalistic betrayal, called "the devouring publicity of life, the extinction of all sense between public and private" has become absolute. The Queen and other members of the royal family; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Mrs Thatcher, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams, David Frost and Richard Nixon are among public figures who have been portrayed by actors in fictive versions of recent events. Fiction and biography have in some ways traded places, and the boundary between fact and faction in memoir and biography is only becoming more porous, as numerous reviewers have pointed out.

In the digital age, when it is a given that anything digital will be copied, and anything copied once will fill the universe, it can be argued - as I did in my book Born Yesterday last year - that the news itself is a novel: it's a bunch of novels instantaneously, as soon as the first reports of the latest breaking story start tickertaping across the foot of the screen. Peter Mandelson once said that "creating the truth" was his main duty as the government's spin-doctor-in-chief, an acknowledgment that "news" is increasingly an accretion of rumour, surmise, spin and speculation, gathered around a tiny nucleus of verifiable fact.

The demands of rolling news and the convulsive buzz and blather of online forums and chatrooms mean an update every hour, on the hour, and the teasing-out of storylines and development of "characters", along the lines of a soap. After the mother of Shannon Matthews, the nine-year-old who was abducted walking home from school and later discovered secreted in the base of a bed, had been arrested and charged with faking her daughter's kidnap, it was suggested that she had been copying an episode of the popular Channel 4 comedy drama Shameless by Paul Abbott, which was broadcast in the month before Shannon was reported missing. In the show, about a large, dysfunctional family living on an impoverished council estate in the north of England, a mock abduction of the youngest member of the family, Liam, is staged by his elder sister, who uses an intermediary to demand pounds 500,000 for his safe return.

An intermediary representing Shannon Matthews's family at one point approached the fund that has been set up to finance the search for four-year- old Madeleine McCann, requesting money. The conflation of a TV soap and a real news narrative was something terrestrial media and the denizens of hyperspace conspired in encouraging through the whole of the summer of 2007, when the hunt for Madeleine McCann, led by her parents, Kate and Gerry, dominated front pages and led every bulletin. It was the refusal of the McCanns to conform to their pre-ordained roles as grieving parent-victims that resulted in a maelstrom of gossip, most of it malicious, and a resentment, which still persists, prompted by their skilled (read: "cold-blooded") manipulation of the media in their campaign to keep the search for their daughter alive. Within days of her going missing, Madeleine's eyes had been stylised into media emblems, the defect in her right eye simplified into an easily recognisable and, for a while, ubiquitous logo, reminiscent of the enormous eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg ("dimmed a little by many paintless days") that brood from a billboard over the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby

One of the conceits of Born Yesterday was that the peculiarity, even eeriness of barely comprehended reported events (the new prime minister had one sightless eye, for example, as did the first police suspect in Madeleine McCann's disappearance) can seep into the system and work on the inner life of an individual as powerfully as a first-order art such as fiction. The imaginative challenge in writing Born Yesterday lay in making connections that hadn't previously been apparent. John Berger once said something that struck me very forcibly, and that I recalled continually in the writing of the book: "Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists." As its subtitle - "The news as a novel" - suggests, the book sets out to restore some ambiguity and complexity to stories that have been stripped of those things in their broad-brush retelling on TV, online and in the press. My intention was to re-complicate reality and, in doing that - in making connections between the visible and invisible worlds - to show that it can have the poetry and some of the mysterious resonance of fiction.

Death stalking through the centre of life. This is the sublimated message of much of the news, which was once defined as "something bad happening to somebody else somewhere you're lucky enough not to be". It explains the intense interest in Jade Goody, one of television's "colourful, attractive, animated, alive" personalities referred to by David Foster Wallace, faded to a wintering, chemotherapy version of her former supercharged self. "By transforming death into a product which is eagerly consumed, the media enormously reinforce and heighten the illusion that death happens only to others." According to the American cultural critic Michael Valdez Moses, this is what Don DeLillo's darkest and funniest novel, White Noise , is largely about. For DeLillo's characters, contemporary American "reality" has become completely mediated and artificial; theirs is a culture of comprehensive and seemingly total representation. Even the technology of the hospital functions as an extension of the technology of television. "You are said to be dying and yet are separate from the dying, can ponder it at your leisure, literally see on the X-ray photograph or computer screen the horrible alien logic of it all," the narrator of White Noise , Jack Gladney, says. "It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying."

Jade Goody was reported as needing a sleep between her two-hour photo session for OK! magazine and her wedding reception in the evening. It seems appropriate that her "best friend" and chief bridesmaid was also the producer of the series that, since it was confirmed that her cancer was terminal, has been monitoring her death for the Living channel.