Daniel Marc Janes | Sequins in the Muck
it was in 1991. Alma Cogan, forgotten then and now more so, was the most successful British female pop singer of the Fifties. Known for her extravagant gowns and the ‘giggle’ in her voice, she was the first British female singer to have her own weekly TV show. She brushed shoulders with the great and the good – wild parties at her Kensington flat, a secret lover of John Lennon – but her career faded amid the British Invasion and, in October 1966, she died of cancer at the age of 34. Burn’s outrageous premise is that Cogan did not die in 1966 but retired to a remote village where she lives ‘the applauseless life’, roaming spectrally through England and sifting through the detritus of her fame.
It is a high-wire act of literary ventriloquism. ‘Gordon Burn becomes Alma Cogan!’ ran the blurb, like an end-of-the-pier marquee. Except it isn’t, really. The voice is Burn’s: detailed, nouny, gelatinous with similes. He makes no real attempt at impersonation: it is a springboard, mounted to Cogan’s image. Some contemporaries, including Salman Rushdie, criticised him for this. Others, including Hilary Mantel who called Alma Cogan the novel she wished she had written, defended him. Rightly so: Alma Cogan is a thesis, not a pastiche, and is far preferable to the insistent faux-cockney of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, another rhapsody on showbiz and performance published that year.
Burn’s Cogan, fluttering between past and present, finds herself doomed to immortality. Output she thought had been ‘bonfired, Oxfam-ed, used for landfill’ is ‘tidied away in sound archives, stills libraries, image banks, memorabilia mausoleums, tat troves, mug morgues’:
It’s an odd experience to find yourself catalogued, card-indexed, museumised, a speck of data for the information professionals to bounce around. It seems that as long as you’re in print or on film or a name on a buff envelope in an archive somewhere, you’re never truly dead now. You can be reactivated or re-embodied; simulated and hologrammed... The spare-parts that make this possible are housed in a proliferating number of noninvasive environments in London, where there may be viewed (fingered, sniffed, listened to) by appointment.
Cogan, drawn into the orbit of archive directories and obsessive hoarders,