WE are a little early for our meeting with John Burnside. A week too early, according to his diary. “I’ve got you down for next Friday,” he says as Gordon the photographer and I crowd into his office in Kennedy Hall at St Andrews University and try to find seats amongst all the books.

Better early than too late, I suppose. And that was a possibility not so very long ago. In 2020, after all, Burnside’s heart stopped whilst he was in a Covid ward in Dundee. The doctors and nurses didn’t expect him to survive.

But here we are four years later on a bitter cold March afternoon and the poet, author, essayist, academic, multiple prizewinner, husband (to Sarah), father of two and grandfather, is looking well. He turns 69 the week after we meet and it’s hard to imagine his absence given his presence. 

He is so solid. Burnside is sitting behind his desk, seven-tenths beard, three-tenths hair and glasses. A head Rodin could have sculpted. 

The ostensible reason for our meeting is his new collection of poetry, Ruin, Blossom. A reminder that he is one of our greatest poets. 

His last book of poetry, Learning to Sleep, was, he admits himself, somewhat dark and troubled. But as the title suggests, the new book has a measure of hope in it. “This idea of blossoming in the ruins,” Burnside points out. “There’s a dark side in accepting that in one way or another it’s ruins. But even in the ruin, new life blossoms and the future surprises us. It isn’t going to be as dark and dismal as we think.

“Something surprising is going to happen.”

That seems as good a summary of his own recent experience as any, you might say. 

In April 2020 Burnside was taken to hospital because he was struggling to breathe. It was at the beginning of the pandemic and he thought he had Covid. 

He was met at the hospital by nurses and doctors all covered up in PPE. “I remember them there with all their masks and their gear on,” he recalls. “It was like giant alien insects swarming around me and I heard them talking: ‘It’s his heart.’ 

“I had heart failure. And I don’t remember what happened after that.”

In 2022 he made a riveting Radio 4 documentary, John Burnside: From the Other Side, about it all. You can still hear it on BBC Sounds. 

In it he describes what sounds like an out of body experience in the hospital, seeing himself as a slab of meat on the hospital table and thinking, “this piece of meat is dying.”

Today, though, he retells the story almost as a comic sketch. The cardiologist, he recalls, told him that they had put a Do Not Resuscitate order on him.

“You weren’t worth trying to save because of the comorbidities,” the doctor told him. 

“I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ He was quite surprised that I wasn’t more annoyed. ‘And we had to tell your wife that she should prepare for the worst.’ 

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“I said, ‘Oh, she wouldn’t like that much.’”

Burnside smiles. “She’d be checking the insurance.

"He said, 'Everybody is really amazed because you came through. We didn’t do much. You came through more or less on your own."  

“So I was gone for a small period of time,” he concludes. “Nothing dramatic like some of these near-death experiences.”

Indeed. In the radio documentary Dr Penny Sartori, an expert on near-death experiences, explained that some people who had gone through the same ordeal as Burnside had later said they felt they were being dragged into hell.

Not him, thankfully.

“No, I just had this light. It’s really hard to explain. I’d say it’s like going into the light, but it isn’t. You aren’t going into it. You are it. It’s you. It’s hard to say which is which.

“I remember the one thing that was really poignant was, I wasn’t thinking ‘I am dying.’ But there was a feeling of ‘I am going.’ 

“And I thought about the kids, the boys. I thought, ‘What will they do without me?’ And then this little thought went through my head, ‘That’s his problem now.’ Him. Me as I was then. Because somehow you were going somewhere else. 

“I’m not saying you are reborn or something. But the closest I can do is …” he pauses as he tries to find the right words. “It’s the very beginning of something dissolving, like not changing its nature, just simply becoming part of something else.”

It doesn’t sound like there is much fear there, I suggest.

“No. Immense calm. Really an amazing feeling of detachment. Just total calm. I wasn’t dragged into hell, thank God. I probably deserve to be.”

The last time I met John Burnside was in 2006. He came to the door of his Fife home with his youngest son Gil in his arms.

“He’s 19 now,” Burnside tells me today. His older son Lucas is 23. "So, if you’d come to the house this time I would have a grandson in my arms."

Burnside and Sarah are helping look after their grandson who has the splendid name of Apollo. How is that going?

“It’s great. I love it. It’s clashing with everything else. It wasn’t what I had envisaged for my retirement.”

He says, sitting in his university office, I remind him.

“I officially retired last summer. I’m now working another couple of years.”

And you’re still enjoying it?

“I still love working here, but I love writing novels and poems. I love teaching. I love having time with my grandson. And there are just not enough hours in the day for all of it.”

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Burnside is, he admits, a very doting father and now grandfather. The opposite of his own father, in other words.

At our previous meeting we talked a lot about his dad, the subject of a bruising memoir Burnside had written at the time entitled A Lie About My Father, which followed their lives in Fife and then Corby.

Tommy Burnside was a drinker and a violent man. As a teenager Burnside fantasised about killing him. When Tommy died Burnside felt nothing but a sense of relief. 

The rage he felt for his father - “because it was a murderous rage,” he says now - eventually settled into a “sullen, lumpy, anger.” But even that’s gone.

“I feel more compassion for him, which I should have done when I learned his circumstances [his father was himself a foundling]. That book helped to start a process of healing, I suppose.

“I think more about my mother now. I don’t want to idealise her. I think for a while because I hated him so much I thought she was a little angel. She got ripped out of a very loving family and taken to Corby and she had nobody and she built their relationships and friendships. Some of her friends met my dad and said, ‘No, I’m not coming back.’”
His mother died when she was just 47. Burnside was losing himself in drink and drugs at the time. His father’s son, you might say.

I wonder how far away that angry, lost young man he was feels now?

“Far away,” Burnside suggests. “Thirtysomething is far away. Fiftysomething is far away in some ways. I think for me what happened in 2020 is a kind of line in my personal history as it were. There’s almost a BC/AD thing about it. 

“But the 20-year-old is certainly very far away. I am mystified by how stupid he was. I guess we all feel like that.”

The younger Burnside had his own issues. His mental health wasn’t great. Presumably, I suggest, the drugs didn’t help with that.

“I would argue otherwise in the case of LSD and mescaline,” he says. “I felt if I didn’t have them in my teens I might have got much worse. And I know for sure psychotropic drugs are helpful in dealing with mental health problems. "Obviously," he adds, "in a more disciplined, more controlled way than I did them.

“It was a shortcut for me to what religious practices or meditations bring you to. It brings you to an awareness of the continuity of everything and you are part of it.”

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He draws back for a moment. “I hate using this language. It sounds like mystical stuff, but you are part of the cosmos. You’re part of a greater whole and you can’t avoid thinking that way when you have LSD. It bangs the doors of perception. It rips the scales off your eyes. That was important.

“The other drugs were pretty disruptive, yes. And alcohol, of course.”

Burnside has said in the past that gambling was as big an addiction as anything else, I remind him.

“For a short time it was. I had to get out of town in one situation when I lived in Brighton. It was either get out of town or get damaged in some way. 

“I got into a lot of debt. I was also doing cocaine at the time. Not a good mixture and drinking a lot as well. So yeah, a very destructive period for quite a long time.”

Was writing his escape from that destruction? Burnside shakes his head.

“I didn’t do any serious writing during that period of my life. I didn’t really start writing until my late twenties, early thirties. And, actually, that became a serious activity, a disciplined activity when I ended up trying to live a suburban life in Surrey.”

He did so thanks to a job in computing.

“When my mother died I had just left college and I just got lost. I was about 22. I was 28 when I started doing the computing job. In between it’s mostly just a haze. I did menial jobs, did a lot of things to do with drugs to get money, gambled, did a lot of drugs, drank a lot, wandered around, moved from place to place. When you think you’re immortal you think you can do that forever and then suddenly it catches up with you.

“I had to get out of Brighton and I went to Cambridge. I needed to get out of there for further reasons. I really was losing it, so I decided the only way to get out of this is to settle down. 

“And I had an aptitude for computing for some reason. The first job was in civil service computing and then I went into commercial computing and made reasonable money, enough to pay off debts and eventually buy a house, so there was that sense of stability.”

But he was also “bored as hell,” he says. He took up serious writing to use the other side of his brain.

He continued to work for money. The writing he treated as a hobby. Or he did until he was offered an attractive and lucrative role in a new computing venture.

“My partner at the time was very excited. She thought we could move up to a more expensive house in Surrey.

“I had a lovely lunch with these guys and she came to pick me up and took me to this big house. I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ She said, ‘It’s for sale.’ I said, ‘I’m not living here.’ It was like a bloody mansion. ‘How much is this?’ 

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“She said, ‘If you take this job we can afford it.’ 

"A couple of days later, not only did I not take the job, I thought, ‘I want to write. I’m not going to if I keep on doing this stuff.’ And I walked into my boss’s office and said, ‘That’s it. I’m out.’

“He thought I was having a midlife crisis. He said, ‘You’re going off to write a novel or something aren’t you?’ I said, ‘That’s probably what I am going to do.’ He said, ‘six months and you’ll be back.’

“But I left and I wrote the first novel and it did OK. I couldn't make a living out of it, but I freelanced.”

Burnside was around 40 then. Given the model of masculinity he was offered by his father, how did he find fatherhood when it came?

“When I met you last time Lucas was six years old and Gil was not quite two. So, obviously, I was at the beginning of the process. I’m towards the end of the process in a sense. I can see the mistakes I made with my sons.”
Principally, he says, he tried to do the opposite of what his father had done to him. “I was too laissez faire, I think. 

“I wanted them to be free and have their own independence. But what children need, I think, is a little bit of guidance.

“And now we’ve got Apollo. And Sarah gives me a little look sometimes to say, ‘You’re doing the same again.’ I’m totally doting. But I was totally doting on the boys as well, especially Gil. He could wrap me around his little finger.”

Ruin, Blossom. The ruin in the title of his new book takes in the danger of climate change and species loss. But it is also, Burnside admits, “the ruins of me. I was in a pretty bad way. Healthwise, I’ll never be the same again. The heart is ruined as it were and I’ve also got bad arthritis. So I was kind of thinking of myself as ruined.”

How soon after he nearly died did he start to think about writing about the experience?

“It’s really amazingly stupid how difficult it is to turn the poet part off. While this was all happening words were forming in my head. I couldn't write it down, but Sarah had put a little bag into the ambulance and she threw in my mobile phone.” 

And so he recorded those words in his head in Notes mode with the help of a nurse. 

That said, there was a time after he was released from hospital when he was happy to just sit in his overgrown garden and do nothing.

“I sat there for weeks and just marinated really. And a lot of ideas came and a lot of ideas left. 

“There’s this phenomenon that I believe is understood. My name for it I thought was original. I call it Lazarus Syndrome. You get brought back from that - that amazing calm and that sense of peace - and you come back to this.

“And that period of time was really lovely. It was just me and the family and sunshine. It was quite a nice summer. Wild flowers and no pressure from work.

“And then gradually you try to ease back into the usual routines. And I’d get this feeling of, ‘What is the point of all this? Did I come back for this? I wish I’d gone.’ 

“You don’t really, but part of you wishes you had gone. It was a very strange feeling. Very annoyed kind of feeling. You feel as if so much trivial stuff is happening. ‘Why am I wasting my time?’ 

“There’s still a little of that going on, but I’m back to more or less normal. It takes a long time.”

We’re fortunate he’s had that time. He is already working on his next book of poems. “It’s possibly the final one,” he says. The future belongs to the next generation, he says. Is he hopeful? 

“In the end all you can do is hope. There is nothing more boring than despair.”

Has your near-death experience marked you, John?

“It changes you forever, I think. I’ve never been afraid of death. I’ve always accepted that death is part of life but now I know where I’m going to be for real. I know where it is and I don’t mind it. I don’t know what happens after that dissolving process happens, but I feel as though it’s not a bad thing. 

“I don’t expect myself to survive, but I feel it’s part of an ongoing story.”

To be continued, then.


Ruin, Blossom by John Burnside, £13, is published by Jonathan Cape