On Thursday evening Richard Bacon was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to plug his book A Series of Unrelated Events, talking to chair Bob McDevitt. It wasn’t particularly well attended, with the theatre just over half full, but it was an enjoyable enough hour, as Bacon was charming, witty and self-effacing.
The book, as the title suggests, isn’t an autobiography, more a collection of newspaper columns and other stories. he kicked off by reading a whole chapter, ‘Dead Grandmas Say the Funniest Things’, about Sally Morgan, a notoriously litigious woman who makes large sums of money by claiming to be able to talk to the dead. It was fairly amusing, written to avoid overtly calling her a fraud, instead blaming his dead grandmother for giving him irrelevant and ambiguous information. Boy did it go on, though, with many variations on the same gag; a good editor could have sliced it in half and probably improved it.
And apart from pointing out that the first chapter is all about the first thing everyone asks him about — being sacked by Blue Peter after being betrayed by his best friend — to get it out of the way, there wasn’t that much about the book itself.
We got an entertaining summary of his career lowlights: “I’ve had a lot of embarrassing moments in my life … and those are my best stories.”
And there was plenty about the Big Breakfast “the most fun job I’ve ever had … that job saved my career”, including Bob the incompetent plate spinner, Kelvin MacKenzie, his lucky break into presenting and anecdotes about L!ve TV (his first documentary was Behind the Scenes of Topless Darts on Ice).
Probably the most interesting part was his candid response to a question about reality TV stars taking presenting jobs. After joking that “it makes me sick”, he reflected that unlike acting “the problem with presenting is that it is just talking. There’s no reason they shouldn’t do that. The problem with these people is that they’re usually just around for a bit, but the great challenge in this game is to be around for a long time. You don’t always have to be on the biggest show — people like Ant & Dec can do that — but what you want to do is sustain a career that you like. That is hard.
“I don’t know how you define a presenter or what makes you good at it, but to sustain it you do need some sort of intellect, a basis of knowledge, be well-read. To do it well you need more depth to you than people from The Only Way is Essex.”
On Friday, a rather more satisfying book experience was offered by Julian Cope, who hammered home the point that the reason he wrote a book was that he saw it, as he does everything else he does, as essential. The event was hosted by his editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, and focused on One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel.
Brackstone introduced Cope with one of his own lines explaining his rare public appearances.
“I’m going to become the best-known artist of my generation by staying away from the party as often as possible, that way people will remember me not because I am great but because I didn’t cause them any later embarrassment.”
After a brief bit of fuss with trying to find a mic stand (much of the audience hoping for a recreation of the World Shut Your Mouth video, I suspect), Julian launched into a reading of the scatological fun of the first chapter, having taken his gauntlets off.
“I’m delighted to be here. It’s hard to behave decently, now that I’ve become a writer, because I just stay indoors these days. A huge group of people is very exciting. I agreed with my wife that I wouldn’t wear prescription shades because then I would be able to see you faces and that would excite me even more. As it is you’re just a blur of possibilities.”
Describing the novel he said: “It starts badly but goes downhill to such a degree that it could be a springboard for something good.”
After the reading, which was read with glee, he noted: “this is very important that I say this. I only write essential stories. I wrote Krautrocksampler because we needed to get context on Germany and the war. I wrote the Japrocksampler because we needed to get an angle on why the Japanese had managed to keep themselves together after such a dreadful defeat in World War Two. Everything is a story that hasn’t been told before. The shock that registered through me was that I was going to have to write a novel to tell stories that everybody needed to hear but couldn’t be told in a non-fiction book.”
Was that harder than writing non-fiction?
“I don’t think it was harder.” A reflective, dramatic pause, of which there were many. This man knows how to work a crowd. “I think it was an absolute trip to write it.”
He then explained how realising he could blag his way into music and have people like what he was doing led to his retreat from pop culture. “Everything I should do should be essential or it just becomes a bourgeois dry wank. There are so many pieces of art that shouldn’t exist.” I won’t repeat who he picked out as examples, even though, as he pointed out to a big laugh “I don’t have colleagues.”
He explained the background to the book, which is one (as someone who doesn’t follow football) I’d never heard before. During Italia 1990, the Italian authorities discovered that the Netherlands, England, Egypt and Ireland were in the same group, decided to put the group on Sardinia, so it “wouldn’t offend mainland Italians”.
One of the central concerns of the book is represented by its villain’s obsession with the fact that his national team is referred to as Holland, when Holland is only a small part of his country. “That’s something I pick at. It’s a sore. An open wound that goes throughout Europe.” The issue of Scots independence was skirted around a little, possibly because it’s only one of many he’s seen in Europe and around the world, stretching even to the way the Thatcher government effectively made Liverpool an enclave to blame for all society’s ills. “There are enclaves all around the world that are bullied or prodded and mistreated, and that’s what One Three One is about.”
Of course, this is a Julian Cope novel. Prehistory and drugs were never going to be far away, and the story often pops back to a society in Derbyshire in 10,000BC and a society that feeds on ephedra. What, asked Brackstone was the significance of that part?
“It’s that the world didn’t change a lot. The people who have got it still hold on to it and hide it and covet it.” He borrowed a Mario Puzo quote: “The rich laugh at money that the poor should not yearn for it.”
“There’s a tremendous fight going on for control of the ephedra supplies. These ephedra societies are terrified of newcomers who believe that you can exist on food and water alone.”
The book was written to show that society “is in flux”: “In order to be rich in our culture, we’ve got to understand that we live in flux, we’re always becoming, it’s never a finished thing. there’s a current belief in America that history is over. It’s a very dangerous thing to believe because I’m sure that’s what the Romano-British felt as the Saxons wandered into England. ‘Yeah, we’re doing alright.’ We are doing alright, and there are parts of the world where people are not doing alright.
“Let’s not be smug, but we’re very lucky where live. If we are generous to outside people we will continue and maintain a great society.”
He’s very proud of the fact that everything in the book was researched, that everything in the book happened to him or to someone he knows. “To an extent, I’m a method actor as a novelist.” Not only did he create backstories for the bands in the book, he also wanted to know “what happened during the difficult second and third albums”.
“Even if you say ‘what a pile of cack that book is!’ you’ll always think ‘at least he means it, you can trust this bastard!’ How many people can we trust now?”
There then followed a very convoluted story and a reading about how in his alternate history Jim Morrison is still alive and Van Morrison is dead.
It’s fair to say that a lot of the discussion sounded a lot like the sort of thing people who quote David Icke might deliver with red eyes at 3am, with mentions of how “privilege” comes from “liege” which is French for “Lord” so he spells “my Lord” as “my lawed”. You know the sort of thing. But it was all delivered with self-deprecation: “You know that however much I look like a cartoon, there’s some depth behind it. My role is to be shamanically moved and motivated at all points, to go into the mountain, bring back the story and tell you all. So long as I keep doing that, you’ll allow me to by buying my wares. But the wares have to be sacred, and humour is at the heart of that sacred flame.”
Will he write another novel? There chances are good, and the subject, he said, is likely to be about “Christ Burraway. You could probably Google him.” To save you the bother, here it is. Sounds ideal.
The audience questions and answers were involved and complex, taking in CS Lewis, hooliganism, Half Man Half Biscuit (“The I Hate Nerys Hughes affair was shameful”) and Tango … but I’m going to treat this as the encore of material you wouldn’t get on the album. I paid for my ticket, you should too, should you ever get another chance to see this wonderful, clever, lovely and very, very odd man.
I also joined the signing queue and it shows the dedication of his fans that some people were still waiting at about 2am. Everyone got a conversation about something. I got my copy of Fire Escape in the Sky signed and an anecdote about Sunn O))). I didn’t mind waiting at all and walked home very tired but with Peggy Suicide loud on the iPod.
By the way, there’s a great interview over at The Quietus with Julian by Stewart Lee. Go read it, if only for this immortal paragraph.
If Cope ever sounds immodest, remember these self-aggrandising proclamations arrive from the mouth of a balloon-pantalooned biker Messerschmitt pilot standing in a sheep field. Context is not a myth. And Cope, the shaman-clown, has certainly stage managed set and setting this morning. He can be as arrogant as he likes, and he knows it, as long as he’s surrounded by sheep and dressed like a Black Metal Worzel.