Jude Cook’s debut novel Byron Easy was published in February by William Heinemann. In this second essay Jude writes about writing about home, introducing the second exclusive extract of his novel.
Usually, by the mid-point of a novel a writer realises the root of his protagonist’s problems lie, in the Freudian sense, in his childhood. Or at least in his early home life. This is as true for the picaresque yarn as it is for the inert ‘novel of ideas’. Only the magic realist, carnivalesque, or fabulist novel can afford to have its hero burst fully-formed from a Fabergé egg. If an author hasn’t returned to his protagonist’s past by chapter two (a favourite location for the ‘back-story’ to be trotted out) he will do so by the middle. This is also the point where his energies are flagging, his loved ones have abandoned him, and the money has run out – his lunchtime beans-on-toast is served sans toast (and very soon sans beans, sans hope, sans everything). This is fortuitous, as a return to an imaginary homeland gives a novelist a great surge of energy – it certainly did in the case of Byron Easy, of which more later. As soon as an author steps into the Narnian interior, the pen flies across the page. It seems so much richer than the present.
But as with the opening lines of a novel, a return home is not without its attendant problems – for most, this centres around the problem of autobiography. A large number of writers have dispensed with making people and situations up and opted for the truth – often with startling results. Proust’s Combray; Kureishi’s Bromley; Roth’s Newark. Why invent a mythical hometown when the actual one offers so many possibilities? Why stick your imaginary toad in a synthetic garden when the real one is still so vivid? Others, however, have felt the need of a disguise. Many nineteenth-century novelists found the made-up-real-place a reliable option: Austen’s fictional Meryton (Harpenden?) in Pride and Prejudice; Hardy’s thinly-disguised Dorchester in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Byron Easy’s Hamford is a mythical town in the Hertfordshire commuter belt (a kenning of Ham, OE for home; and Ford, the suffix that denotes a town lies by water, hence: ‘home on the river’). Admittedly it does bear a resemblance to an amalgamation of real Hertfordshire satellite towns, those nowhere-villes where one’s own ‘forgotten boredom’ is played out. At this point the writer longs to have been brought up on the Gangetic plains, or among the wind-torn towers of Chicago – anywhere but a place where a Greggs bakery and an antique market provide the best leisure options on a Saturday afternoon (and it was pleasing that the name Hamford took on connotations of ‘hammy’ the more I used it).
For me, once I found my protagonist back in Metroland, he immediately had to visit his grandmother, as I discovered that it’s the places that stand behind home that give it a sense of illusory permanence. Those day-trips to the seaside, or to relatives, that extend for an aeon, after which one always returns, centrifugally. These excursions stand in opposition to the experience of adult life, where the movement so often seems entropic: a series of rented rooms, or your own house if you’re lucky. And this house is always an attempt to recreate that first home – a longing for heimat, or simple nostalgia, in the original sense of the word (from Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’ – homepain, the pain of never being able to go back).
Thus once I came to write about Byron Easy’s childhood and his visits to Grandma Chloe, I found I couldn’t stop: I wanted him to return there for the whole book. At the time, I was writing on an old PC in a back bedroom, facing the wall; necessarily, as the inward eye doesn’t need the distraction of passing ice-cream vans, or street-hassle, or the tawdry reality of one’s present day ‘home’. The usual head-scratching dilemmas of how a sentence should run evaporated as intense recollections of Byron’s past – emotional, visual, olfactory – swarmed onto the blank page. In this sense, a writer’s problem of mid-project doldrums, of what your editor will brightly refer to as ‘maintaining momentum’ (for which read sanity, bank balance, coherent syntax) can be solved by sending your characters back to the streets they once thought of as their own. You begin to take on the role of analyst, listening to your protagonist’s tales of his formative years for clues that will elucidate his present disgraceful behaviour. What’s more, he quickly finds the specific becomes weirdly universal, as every reader has a place they couldn’t wait to get away from – or return to, if only in their imagination. For Byron Easy it was a blue back door. A deserted playground, whose broken glass would puncture Chopper-bike tyres. Or a lane over-looked by sun-iced silver birches – the sun that is young once only, of course.
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