‘Beckett on a bender’: Julian Cope’s debut novel has landed
Cope’s book is a treasure trove of weird. And he hasn’t given up music: he is writing Irish drinking songs as well
Julian Cope: ‘The TV licence people can’t believe we don’t have a television. I’m a bolshy git; I shout at them, “I don’t need TV, I’m an intellectual” ’
So which Julian Cope do you remember? The pop star Cope of Teardrop Explodes, the Liverpool post-punk band that enlivened Top of the Pops with reassuringly left-of-centre gems such as Treason and Reward? The solo Cope wrapped around a gravity-defying mic stand-cum-lectern as he crooned his solo hits, World Shut your Mouth and Trampolene? Or, latterly, the erudite Cope, the modern chronicler of Japanese rock music, krautrock and prog rock? To these add yet another: debut novelist.
But first, knowing that he’s speaking to someone from The Irish Times, Cope wants to know where I live. I tell him that I live a few miles from Tara and Newgrange in Co Meath. Not for nothing has Cope been termed the modern antiquarian (one of his thoroughly researched works of non-fiction is The Megalithic European, an acclaimed travelogue documenting more than 300 prehistoric sites in mainland Europe). He becomes noticeably giddy. “That’s my middle world, man. In that case, may I say” – and this is intoned as if I’m on the receiving end of a knighthood from King Arthur himself – “greetings from Avebury.”
Julian Cope is a bona fide maverick, and his appearance (heavy-duty biker chic, very long hair and a full bird-hosting beard) belies his considerable charm and intelligence.
He lives in what he describes as “quite a posh house” a short distance from Stonehenge, with his “ladies” – wife Dorian and daughters Albany and Avalon. Adorning the walls are books, books and more books. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Cope family is not in possession of a television.
“The TV licence people just can’t believe we don’t have a television. I’m a bolshy git; I shout at them things like, ‘I don’t need TV, I’m an intellectual.’ ”
Cope’s debut novel, One Three One, is subtitled “a time-shifting Gnostic hooligan road novel”. Think Beckett on a bender with bursts of surrealism thrown in for good measure. Stuffed with incidents, accidents and downright brilliance, it is a treasure trove of weird. Following decades of writing non-fiction, was a work of fiction inevitable?
“My wife thinks it was because of the worldview foisted on someone like me who travels so much. It didn’t really occur to me to write a work of fiction, but as time passed I had so many stories gathered that I wanted to tell.”
Were the stories fictionalised in order to protect the innocent or the guilty? Cope barks out a laugh. “Very much the latter, although I’m not sure how much concealer I’ve put on.”
‘This pseudo-posh voice’
Cope was born in Wales 56 years ago to parents “who were working-class people that desperately wanted to be middle class”. Lumbered with “this flowery name and this pseudo-posh voice”, Cope moved to Liverpool for teacher-training school in the late 1970s, but abandoned it for a spell as a self-confessed drug-addled pop star.
He has long since left his pop-star days behind, and only occasionally partakes in drug-taking, most recently when he imbibed the psychoactive plant salvia in order to assist his understanding of the time-travelling aspects of One Three One.
What about the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction: did he determine any obvious challenges between one and the other? He mentions his staggering obscure music review work of a couple of years ago, Copependium.
“That book was written over 10 years, and because it was written without any commercial restraints whatsoever, it meant that some of the reviews in the book are beyond borderline fictitious. In the review, say, of Comets on Fire’s second album, Field Recordings from the Sun, I write at the end of the review that the band’s lead singer dies, as well as the guitarist. So really, I was probably on the way there to smearing the truth.
“Luckily, however, I’ve created trust in my readers with works such as Megalithic European and Modern Antiquarian. People need to know that if I say ‘turn left’ then I mean that; if I say that the stonework is 17ft tall, then I mean that. It’s that Robert Graves thing – there’s a poetic truth to certain things – so as long as I’ve fulfilled my obligation not to send people to the wrong hillside then I’m good. Once I got into the edginess of record reviews, then I knew I could stumble into fiction.
“I’ve a very peculiar literary agent,” says Cope, apropos of not much. “My old publisher, Harper Collins, directed him my way, because I was such a pain in the arse for them. So my guy works only with singular people – the likes of Michael Palin, Clive James, Ray Mears, myself – and what I loved was that when he read One Three One, he said it was a good job he had also read Dante and Cervantes. He also noted that, whether I was doing it on purpose or not, I had a disdain for literary heritage.”
Disdain or not (it seems more a necessity to gleefully play with the form), Cope reckons that with One Three One he will be serving – at the age of 56, no less – a new and different kind of apprenticeship. “I think it’s good for an artist to renew their vows, so to speak.”
And there’s still music to contend with, as Cope reveals he is writing a drinking song cycle. One of the songs, he reveals, takes place in Liverpool; another is located in the Outer Hebrides. Three, he says, are Irish-related.
“One of the Irish songs is called Clonakilty as Charged. Based on my recently upgraded visionary drinking habits, it’s a righteously singalong tune. Mind you, they’re all very catchy.”
One Three One, by Julian Cope, is published by Faber & Faber, £14.99
LYRIC SHEET: CLONAKILTY AS CHARGED
So, abandoned at Bandon,
I made for Seven Heads,
On the road to Rosscarbery,
Wanting only my bed,
I was drunken and stupid,
Till I saw with a smile
That the arrow of Cupid
Said: ‘Clonakilty 1 mile’
Never ask a policeman,
Where the locals brew best,
For he’ll only detain you,
And hand to you a breath test,
If you tell them it’s butter,
They’ll insist that it’s marge,
If you backsass policemen,
You’re Clonakilty as charged.
Clonakilty as charged, m’Lud,
Clonakilty as charged.