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Jude Cook - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 24 / 3 / 2013

Jude Cook - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to former Flamingoes co-singer and guitarist Jude Cook about his debut novel, ‘Byron Easy’

Jude Cook was the guitarist and sung co-vocals with his twin brother James in Flamingoes, an indie trio which recorded two albums twelve years apart, 1995’s ‘Plastic Jewels’ and 2007’s ‘Street Noise Invades the House’. The brothers were brought up in Hitchin, a market town in Hertfordshire, but moved to London in their late teens with the specific purpose of forming a band. ‘Plastic Jewels’, which the twins co-wrote, is a surging guitar pop album, while ‘Street Noise Invades the House’, which was largely written by James, in contrast is a brooding, introspective record for the early hours. In recent years, 44-year old Jude, who has a degree in English Literature, has focused his talents on other forms of writing than song craft, and has just published through William Heinemann his debut novel, ‘Byron Easy’. ‘Byron Easy’ shares parallels with and takes much of its influence from eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, but is very much a contemporary novel, chronicling London from an outsider’s viewpoint in the last years of the twentieth century. A monumentally-sized tragicomedy of 500 pages, it is set on the cusp of the Millennium on Christmas Eve 1999, and begins with its eponymous narrator, who is a failed poet and drunken and suicidal, setting out on a rail journey from King’s Cross station in London to Leeds. As the train progresses through the night, Byron, who has recently turned thirty, reflects on his hapless past, and the circumstances that have lead to his downfall. He looks back on his unhappy, dull childhood in the imaginary satellite town of Hamford (through which the train unexpectedly goes), and his parents’ divorce after his intelligent, but bored teacher mother falls for her school’s caretaker, the boorish Delph Tongue. The story goes on to give account of Byron’s escape to London, and his hastily-conceived, inflammatory marriage there to the beautiful, but explosive half-Spanish Mandy, for whom he dumps his previous girlfriend, the safe and sensible Bea. Byron first meets Mandy, who fronts an all female band, the appalling Fellatrix, when she comes in to use one of the recording booths at the rundown instrument shop he works in as an assistant. ‘Byron Easy’ is also in part a satire of the music industry at the time of Britpop. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Jude Cook about ‘Byron Easy’ and its main themes. PB: ‘Byron Easy’ first came to public notice when an extract of it won the Writers and Artists Yearbook Award in 2007. How long had you been working on it before then? JC: It took five years to write and another five years after that to get an agent and a publisher. That was my thirties taken care of (Laughs). I started writing it in early 2001 and it took me until 2006 to finish it. PB: Why did it take you so long after that, and after you had won this quite prestigious award, to get it published? JC: It was all down to connections and knowing people. You can hammer away at the publishing industry for a long time and get nowhere. The person who judged the Writers and Artists competition was someone called Rebecca Swift, who runs the Literary Consultancy. She knows loads of people and was able to introduce me to an agent. That is what got the ball rolling. It can be very difficult finding a publisher. A lot of them go by the creative writing workshops and courses, and that is what informs their list. PB: There seems to be a lot of correlations between getting a book published and finding a label to release an album. JC: Yes, having gone through the whole process back in the 1990s, I can see that there are many similarities. With a record deal though, you end up with so many more people around you. You have got the manager, you have got the tour manager, you have got the plugger, you have the record company itself. It is much more of a team effort. PB: Have you always written from an early age? Obviously you have written song lyrics, but had you written short stories or attempted other novels before ‘Byron Easy’? JC: Absolutely. I always say that I wrote my first novel when I was thirteen. Fiction came before music and my first songs, and it is something I was always doing during the group as well. I was coming home from gigs and writing short stories. There is more continuity between writing songs and writing fiction than people sometimes think. People think that if you are a journalist you are qualified to write novels, but with songs you concentrate a lot on the emotions and are probably equally qualified. PB: If you look back at some of the songs on ‘Plastic Jewels’ – and numbers like ‘Disappointed’, ‘Suicide Bridge’ and ‘Absent Fathers, Violent Sons’ - a lot of them tackle very similar themes to ‘Byron Easy’. JC: I think that is true. Much of ‘Plastic Jewels’ is about growing up in a small town and feeling trapped by it. Suicide is another big theme of the book, as are violent families. I think that there is a big continuity between ‘Byron Easy’ and particularly the first album. PB: The original title of the book was going to be called ‘Station to Station’. Why did you decide to change your title of that of your main character? ‘Byron Easy’ draws comparisons with novels such as ‘David Copperfield’, ‘ Tom Jones’ and ‘Silas Marner’ in that it is similarly epic and they also tell of their characters entire lives. Was it a nod to that era of fiction? JC: Yes. It is more than that though. Those novels are not just about their protagonists’ life, but also the society of the time. The book is set in 1999, and I was trying to capture that too and what life was like then. ‘Station to Station’ was rejected very early on as being too second hand. PB: That name, ‘Byron Easy’, is symbolic as well. His real name is Brian, but he has chosen the name ‘Byron’ for himself because it implies a poetic grandeur. Why did you decide to give him the surname of ‘Easy’? Were you trying to imply that this is someone that is easily taken a loan and advantage of? JC: Yes. It goes back to the meaningful names that you used to get in eighteenth century fiction. Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ is a bit sharp. It is an obvious sting. Byron Easy is a real name. It is not made up. A friend of mine went to school with someone called Byron Easy (Laughs), and I thought that was a tremendous name. Probably a number of people have that name. PB: Have you ever met him? JC: I have never met him. I would love to meet him though (Laughs). Bryon is an anti-Byron in some ways. He is not successful with women. He is not brilliant-looking. He is going bald. PB: He seems to be a mixture of being both a victim of circumstance and also a victim of himself. Would you agree with that? JC: I guess so. He is in the tradition of the suffering hero. He badly needs to face up to various things about himself and he hasn’t so far, but he is forcibly made to go through this process of reviewing his life and remembering everything that has happened to him as the novel progresses. He is trying to weigh up, I suppose, how much he has brought on himself. PB: He rejects his first girlfriend, Bea, for Mandy because he is bored. Do you think as well, to pick up on your point about ‘Plastic Jewels’, that there is an element in him because he has come originally from this boring satellite town that would rather face up to a life of penury and putting up with Mandy, but which at least is unpredictable, than the pleasant but dull life that he would have had with Bea? JC: Yeah, I don’t think that Bea and Byron ever had a future. He has problems with women, and he is trying to work through in the book why he has ended up with the wrong woman. He has split up with the one that could have been good for him. In that sense he is his own worst enemy. We have all though thrown away things that are our best chance for survival. It is like the line in ‘Wonderwall’-“Maybe you are going to be the one that saves me.” I can see why that resonated with a lot of people. PB: But again near the end of the book he has a chance to meet up with Bea through his half sister and he turns it down. JC: Absolutely. He is still stupid until the end. PB: At one level he is very much his parents’ child, His mother does something equally stupid and she rejects his father for Delph Tongue, who is an absolute Neanderthal. His father is also similarly gets double-crossed by his wife. Is it a case of history simply repeating itself with Byron? JC: I think so. It is like a genetic inheritance. I think that he sees by the end that he is doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. He has observed his mother make the wrong choice as well, because she has also rejected what was perhaps good for her for superficial values. PB: Mandy is absolutely horrendous. She is violent. She is physically and verbally abusive and she is unfaithful to him, but she lost her mother tragically in a car crash when she was in her teens and her father is cold and indifferent towards her. Her band is going nowhere, and she also seems incapable of making long-term attachments. Is she at one level as much of a victim as Byron is? JC: Definitely. I wanted to kind of calibrate it so that we didn’t just hate her and despise her. Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ was something of a role model for Mandy in that she is an orphan and she does terrible things. She cheats on her husband and she behaves appallingly really, but why would you spend 800 pages with Becky Sharp? There has to be a reason. Hopefully likewise with Mandy you can see that she has also been a victim herself, and there are reasons for her behaving in the way she does. PB: Mandy and Byron start off in a pleasant flat in Archway when he moves in with her, but then through a chain of circumstances they lose that and have to flee into the night, and end up living in a flat in East London which has cockroaches. Then eventually they end up in an even grimmer place in Finsbury Park. What was the idea behind that? JC: I was trying to symbolise their whole life disintegrating together. I was also trying to get across this entropic movement from the centre outwards. Mandy and her band are initially at the centre of London, and there was this nod there to the days of Britpop and the parties where everybody could be seen in one place. Somebody said, “Why don’t you be specific about the times?” I did think about mentioning what was going on in politics, and if there was a party with all the pop stars there to maybe mention that Jarvis Cocker was there. I think though that once you go down that route you have to be specific with everyone. A lot of the reason they move out from the city centre is also to do with work. You don’t get much of that in contemporary novels, what people have to do for a living, and I think if anything there is too much of it in the book. My editor was saying, “Shouldn’t you go into more detail still?” And I was thinking, “No. There is more than you will ever need to know about Byron’s struggles with money, and his job in the music shop and Mandy’s temporary jobs.” You often read contemporary fiction and there is nothing about what they do. They just seem to exist without any support. PB: You worked for a while on low pay and in a recording studio like Bryon, and Mandy has her band. Flamingoes were doing quite well at one point. They sold 20,000 copies of ‘Plastic Jewels’ and they toured America. How much of Byron and Mandy’s experiences are modelled on your own Britpop experiences? JC: It is very much a cartoon version of the music business. It wasn’t really like that at all. With Flamingoes, we were committed to music. You have to do it 24/7, and not just flutter around London as Mandy does with Fellatrix. I have written a second novel in which one of the characters is a studio engineer. That is a lot more autobiographical about the process of recording and making music. ‘Bryon Easy’ is much more satirical in its depiction of the music industry. There was one party at Stringfellows which did indeed mirror an episode in the book, but that is the nearest it gets to a real incident. PB: The second Flamingoes album, ‘Street Noise Invades the House’, came out twelve years after ‘Plastic Jewels’ You and James shared the song writing credits on ‘Plastic Jewels’, but James has most of the writing credits on ‘Street Noise Invades the House’. Was that because your focus had shifted to writing literature and away from song writing? JC: Yes, I went to UCL after the first Flamingoes album and studied English Literature. It would have been inappropriate to go to university before then as we had both moved to London when we were nineteen with the idea of forming a band. After the first Flamingoes album and all that happened with that, I went back to college, and my brother largely wrote that second album on his own. It was written over a long period of time, and hopefully it is better for that. The songs were cherry-picked out of a large number, but we did work on them together. When James brought those songs to me, we worked on them as we used to in early Flamingoes days, and sat down with the guitar and were critical of each other about which bits worked and which of them didn’t. Even though they are credited apart from one track (‘I Wish You Would’-Ed ) as James’ compositions, they involved a lot of combined contributions. PB: James joked on some notes that he put together on ‘Street Noise Invades the House’ for the Flamingoes’ website that we can expect Flamingoes 3 sometime in 2016. Is that really likely or is Flamingoes a closed chapter for you both? JC: Funnily enough it might be likely. We recorded four tracks three or four years ago, and we have talked about making those four tracks the core of another record. We hadn’t seen the original Flamingoes drummer Kevin Matthews for about ten years, but I did a reading of ‘Byron Easy’ recently and he turned up. We had a great night, and by the end of it had all agreed to make this third LP. It was probably the drink talking more than anything, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It has to be as good as the first two though. We wouldn’t put it out otherwise. One thing that we never did was use strings and brass, and we have talked about doing that. PB: Finally you said that you had written a second novel. What is it called and what is it about? JC: It has got a couple of working titles. It deals with twins, and the strange condition of being a twin and how it impacts on identity. It is quite strange having a genetic copy of yourself going around in the world, and it goes quite deeply into that. It is actually even longer than ‘Byron Easy’(Laughs). While I was still trying to find an agent and publisher, I wrote a second book as well. Hopefully Heinemann are going to go with it. It won’t be out quickly though. The paperback of ‘Bryon Easy’ will come out until next year, and it will probably be 2016 before that is published. These things tend to move very slowly. PB: Thank you.

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Jude Cook - Interview

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