The actor
Tam Dean Burn

Friday 15th May 2020

Q1) The book most influential for you as a young person

I embarked on my life-long love affair with books around 8 or 9 years old. There's a photo of me from then with a box set of slim encyclopedias under one arm - Book of Nature, Book of Science, four in all, and a toy gun in the other pointing towards the camera, one foot on a pouffé. My dad, a joiner by trade, built a book case above my bed to accommodate these and the expected succession of similarly weighty volumes. My brother Russell was clearly considered not so minded as he got no such bookcase above his bed.

First fiction came through my academic endeavours at Drumbrae Primary school. Well, when I say 'endeavours' I should qualify that I was and am actually quite a lazy bugger who gets away with things somehow. But every year at Drumbrae, there were prizes awarded for being 'top of the class'. Linda Taylor and I were first equal every year, except the final year when I came top and Linda second. The prize each year involved a visit to Thins Bookshop up the town and an amount of money to spend on books. All that trawling shelves, checking out covers and back page blurbs opened up a mindful stimulation practice for me that remains as strong today.

I don't know whether the Just William or Jennings books series came first for me. I suspect the former, he was slightly younger I think, but the latter became a deeper closer pal due, it later became apparent, to the ulterior motives of Jennings author Anthony Buckeridge. I only discovered in his obituary that he had lifelong loves too - of theatre and socialism - which he imbued into the stories so I'd give him some credit for me following those party lines too, as I’ve no idea where else they sprang from. I just read that he was more keen on the books he wrote in the Sixties when British society was opening up socially and politically and that’s just when I was picking up on them.

That these were both ongoing series of books was perfect for me and must surely have been the main spur for me making any effort to be first in class and get back up to Thins. A mobile library did come round the Clermiston estate regularly but I can’t remember what I got out from it.

I do remember The Incredible Journey though. That helped me through yet another illness- I was often overcome by chest and throat infections and had pneumonia three years in a row that hospitalised me as an infant. Again a fresh discovery is that it was written by a Scottish author Sheila Burnford. The tale o’ twa dugs and a cat crossing the Canadian wilderness to get back home correlated perfectly with my own epic journey back to health.

But with good old hindsight clearing the path back, the writing that proved to be most influential for me as a young person was that of Mark Twain in his characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I dearly loved that pair and I think it was my first identification with being the trusty sidekick of someone with leadership qualities but also rebellious, like Tom’s relationship with Huck. I don't recall such ideas about Derbyshire, Jennings' closest chum or whoever looked up to William. He seemed to have a whole gang of followers - the Outlaws.

But it was always Huck that was right out there, living the most hardcore avant-garde life that Tom wanted to emulate but was also a bit scared of. I identified too with Tom's difficulties with girls - his relationship with Becky forever blew hot and cold whilst Huck didn't bother with such things. He was too busy having adventures with slaves and stuff and being a loner. These books exerted most influence on me when I got to secondary school in 1970 - the brand new Craigmount High. I adapted scenes featuring Tom and Huck to perform in the wonderful theatre space there. I can only remember the first two lines of dialogue but they perfectly capture the feelings of ennui and existential angst I faced for the next twenty years, until I graduated to weltschmerz...

Tom: What ye doin' Huck?

Huck: Spittin...

The buzz of creating and performing theatrical adaptations of novels grew from there and led me to adapt The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh, Venus As A Boy by Luke Sutherland, the Disco Biscuits short story collection and I’m presently working on John McPake and the Sea Beggars by Stuart Campbell.

Q2) The book that gets you through hard times

I can't say I've really treated books in such a fashion, except maybe through illness as mentioned in question 1. I suppose a lightweight answer would be how Crime and Punishment got me through working backstage on the Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime at Musselburgh's Brunton Theatre in the early 80's. I had so much hanging around in the dark through a dreary Christmas and New Year run of the show and Raskolnikov was my companion through it.

Q3) The book that most disappointed you

It's not usually my bag but I went for Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough after I met her and there’d been a lot of raving about the ending. I found the plot and characters annoyingly implausible so gave up on it about half way through.

Q4) Name a book with either a brilliant opening or a brilliant ending

For me, a novel with a brilliant beginning and ending is Filth by Irvine Welsh. The grotesque behaviour of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson from the first page sets you up for one hell of a trip through a very black Christmas as he unravels and plunges into the darkest of revelations. They're piled up relentlessly towards the end by his tapeworm conscience onto a slag heap of self-loathing and I’II spoiler no more in case anyone's not read it. It’s bleak, bludgeons like a pig’s baton, is an ulcered gutful of belly laugh black humour and Bruce Robertson is the ultimate anti-hero.

That’s probably as much an answer to Question 8 but as Bruce says constantly - SAME RULES APPLY.

Q5) Your favourite character from a novel

I've mentioned a few already but I'd have to say Sal Paradise in On The Road as I identified so strongly with him as the poetic sidekick to a legendary figure in Dean Moriarty. The fact that the fiction was based on fact blew me away - his ability to mythologise such lush life. The rush of drugs and jazz as aids towards enlightenment so enthralled the group of us arty Edinburgh punks around the Fire Engines band. We saw ourselves as creators of our own holy family like the Beats and sat up gabbing for nights on end on speed. I have an unedited straight from-the-benzedrinal-reel-of-paper version of On the Road from the local Oxfam bookshop that I've planned to give my comrade-in-arms Davy Henderson for a birthday (don't tell him) but I must read it first. I should make it next-but-one to read as...

Q6) Next on your 'to read' pile is...

I have to say this don't I but only because it's true. I got a lovely slim book in the post recently entitled Good Listeners by Alan Warner and Brian Hamill and it sounds great. I've loved everything of Alan's that I've read and I'm indebted to Brian for giving me this opportunity to delve into my bookish past so that’s next up.

Q7) Your favourite poem

At the moment I'm exploring Edwin Morgan's work with plans for his epic Gilgamesh poem and I've set myself the task of weekly video postings online of the fifty favourite Eddie poems in the Aye Write publication From Saturn to Glasgow. His 'Boethius' which comes up next week is an amazing piece of work. Its prison writing prism just reminded me of another show I performed at Tramway in 1992 -that of a poem trilogy that was and still is my favourite poem...

I could have chosen from Robert Burns whose work has been mined by the Burnsian band I'm in-The Bum-Clocks and made into mashups with Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and most recently Joseph Malik on vinyl last year with his extraordinary Out of the Ordinary Edinburgh soul collective...

I could have gone for my guardian angel William Blake whose entire writings I read over a two-year period on the London art-radio station Resonance FM...

I was going to go for the poem I first learnt by heart and still so love spouting forth- the fantastic sprung rhythms of Gerald Manley Hopkins The Windhover. I recently posted a rendition of it on my Vimeo page.

But no, it's got to be the poem produced under the most arduous conditions imaginable- written in the margins of his bible and smuggled out of his prison cell over time. It's a reworking of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, made possible by his incredible photographic memory, and I'd argue that it even surpasses Wilde in form and content. The reason you will most likely know none of this is because it was written by an arch-enemy of the British state who took them on all the way to his death which so happened to be 39 years ago yesterday as I write - May 5, 1981 and that favourite poem of mine is Trilogy by Bobby Sands... it begins...

I scratched my name but not for fame.

Upon the whitened wall,

"Bobby Sands was here," I wrote with fear

In awful shaky scrawl.

I wrote it low where eyes don't go

'Twas but to testify,

That I was sane and not to blame

Should here I come to die.

Q8) The greatest book you've ever read

One of the very greatest jobs I've had in my forty years as an actor has been to record the audiobooks of Irvine Welsh's novels. I've done ten of them now and especially since it became possible to do unabridged versions, it's been an incredible experience. Am I the only person ever to speak all these words aloud? I truly feel blessed on this and I dearly love every single one of them. I also love the ones I haven't done like Maribou Stork Nightmares...maybe one day...

The world that Irvine has created, based above all in our shared birthplace of Leith and teeming with fantastic characters that he's returned to again and again is right up there with Dickens or whoever. Maybe it's because I got so close to it with the one man show version I did around twenty years ago, another absolute career highlight, but I do come back to Filth as my favourite novel of all time... so far! ●

Tam has been a professional actor on stage and screen for forty years. He is singer in the Burnsian punk band The Bum-Clocks, baritone horn player with Brass Aye and vocalist in Ferlie Leed, presenting Edwin Morgan’s translations.
Examples of Tam’s video work can be found on Vimeo
t: @tamdeanburn


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