ROBERT RANKIN HALLUCINATED
An interview, of sorts, partly conducted and partly invented by David J Howe
‘There’s not much interesting on this tape for you, is there … you’re going to be hard pressed to get an interview here. My advice to you is what I always advise people, make it up…’ so speaks Robert Rankin, author of nearly 20 novels of pathos, literacy, insanity and surreal humour set in locations as far afield as Brentford, Mars and the occasional parallel universe.
We are speaking in the confines of what appears to be an abandoned British Rail ticket office, but which is in fact a small bunker situated beneath London’s Centre Point building on the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street. Piles of papers and folders teeter precariously on one side, while books, posters and other paraphernalia are piled on the other. Somewhere buried in the gloomy depths of the room are two green filing cabinets, and elsewhere is a chipped table, groaning under the weight of sundry arcane books and files and illuminated by light from a dirty and cracked street-level window. It’s a friendly clutter, however, typical of offices world wide.
‘I worked in offices like this,’ reveals Robert, gesturing expansively around him. ‘I ended up working in a place in Brentford where I spent eight years of my life. My job was this: I was given these invoices and I had to check them and put them into a pile. I then discovered that another woman took my pile of checked invoices, checked them again, and put them into another pile. I reasoned that if I just moved my invoices from there to there without checking them, then I’d have the rest of the day free. This worked and so I spent all my new found free time writing short stories.
‘The writing was basically out of a desire to live out of my head rather than work for someone else. When I left school at 17 I could see a lifetime of 9 to 5 jobs stretching away in front of me. I thought I can’t do that. That’s no good at all. This was still the 1960s when we believed things were going to happen. Nothing ever did, of course, and it wasn’t until 1980 that I got my first book published, so I kind of wasted the time up to then.
‘I finally had a job in another office somewhere, and I would go out with a friend of mine, drinking, and he’d read through all my short stories and if he fell about laughing we’d keep them, and if he didn’t do that then we’d put them in the bin. I’m terrified now at the thought that we used to do that because I still use some of this stuff for inspiration. When I think of how much went in the bin because we were drunk …
‘I wanted to be a serious writer …’ begins Robert, but is interrupted by howls of laughter from whoever is listening at the door. There is a muted thud, the sound of someone being smacked round the head, and then silence. Robert continues: ‘… but I also wanted to write well. My heroes were science fiction authors like Jack Vance, and also the authors we were set at college, like John Steinbeck, Orwell and all those sort of people. Steinbeck particularly, and I used to think that if I could write the way that that man used to write … But I can’t. No Nobel prizes for me…
‘So anyway, there I was, sitting in this office, getting paid to move a pile of invoices and to write short stories (well I was only paid for the first bit, but I liked to think it was for the second bit as well), and I thought that this was OK, but I still had to go and sit in an office all day. Then another friend suggested that maybe I could get these stories published. So I put them all together … and did nothing with them. One job later I met someone who knew Alan Aldridge the 1960s illustrator – he was the guy who first made the airbrush fashionable in the middle sixties, he did a lot of stuff about the Beatles and such like – and so I met up with him and he said to forget the short stories but that if I could write a novel, then he was sure he could find a publisher. I trusted this guy implicitly. If he said he could get me a publisher, then who was I to doubt. So I went away and wrote The Antipope over nine months or so, and I gave it to him and he said he’d take it to a publisher.
‘Two weeks later I got a phone call from Mike Petty at Pan, saying they’d like to publish my novel. I said to my lady at the time that they were going to publish my novel and she nearly fell on the floor. I was very cool about it, after all, Alan had told me that this was what would happen. It was about two days later that it really hit me that I was going to get published. Whooo!! I’m made! I think I was paid the princely sum of one thousand pounds for it and at that time I was working for a prop house and earning one hundred pounds a week, so this wasn’t quite a fortune to me.
‘Pan published The Antipope and also the next two: The Brentford Triangle and East of Ealing, and after that … complete obscurity. They didn’t want to publish any more. Then my editor moved to another company and my writing career came to a dead stop until 1988. Sphere books picked up and re-printed the first three novels in one volume, and I added another: The Sprouts of Wrath. Then it all stopped again. I was getting used to this by now. Luckily in 1990 Transworld came along, and things have been great ever since.’
Robert is a keen observer of life, situations and people, and it is no surprise to discover that almost all the colourful characters in his novels are drawn from real life. ‘Apart from the Armageddon trilogy …’ he clarifies, as those books feature a time-travelling Elvis Presley and Robert is not admitting to having met the King. ‘All the people in my books are people I know. Jim Pooley was me, of course. John Omally was a chap I went to school with, Norman was another friend. I didn’t even change the names (except mine) because they all wanted to be in the books. They’d all plead with me to give them parts and so I’d allocate them something in the next book: you can run a shop … you’ve always wanted to run a shop … Neville the part time barman was really a chap called Nigel … they’re all based on real people.
‘The books are also set in real streets, in real pubs, and, I discovered, people actually go on pilgrimages to these places. Someone tracked down The Flying Swan pub in Brentford and went in and asked if Neville was on that night …
‘Brentford’s different, you know,’ Robert suddenly comments darkly. ‘Because it’s a long time ago now when I wrote the books, and Brentford … well it hasn’t actually changed, but boy I wouldn’t want to live there now …’ He quickly glances to the grimy window where someone hurriedly moves off out of sight. ‘Don’t let the people who live there know that,’ he whispers. ‘It’s a wonderful place, really wonderful!’
A part of the observance of life is in providing apparently rational explanations to seemingly inexplicable events. There is a vein of social comment running through Robert’s books, which is often hidden by the surreal nature of the events that unfold for his protagonists.
‘When I left school, I had this distrust of working, as I explained. I also had this distrust of big corporate enterprise, governments – this was common to everyone in the sixties. Newspapers, media …we all had the same basic distrust of all these things. I came from a generation of people who were just like myself and who wanted an alternative. Through my writing, my alternative was to come up with my own theories. Don’t believe anything you’re being told in the newspapers, find out other reasons for what’s going on. Discover what’s really going on …? And sometimes you can find that what’s really going on is just another ten-a-penny conspiracy, so forget about that. Let’s have a complete alternative explanation.
‘For example: there are certain cosmic truths. If you consider a thermos flask, there’s a quarter of an inch of vacuum between two bits of glass and heat cannot get through. How therefore does heat travel 198 million miles from the Sun to the Earth through a vacuum? Can’t be done. So logic will tell you that space is in fact full of air and therefore you can go in open ships and travel about in space. The vacuum myth is put about by the people who live on the world above us. You know the hollow Earth theory? Well, we’re living on the inner core and there is in fact another world ten miles above us. It’s got a system worked by clockwork with a pretend Sun, and pretend stars which move around and the two holes in the atmosphere at the poles which we know exist, well that’s where the air comes in and out. Unfortunately all the pollution we produce is going out through these holes and the people in the top planet are not happy, and so are filling the holes up to stop it. This will cause havoc down here as all the air will run out, so someone’s got to investigate and sort out the problems …
‘I work with alternative ideas. Take the asteroid belt. According to mathematical principal, there should be a planet there, but there isn’t enough matter, there’s enough for a planet the size of the Isle of Wight or something, but there is a basic imbalance in the fact and the theory. Sometimes it’s pure facts. For example, if Elvis Presley hadn’t taken the draft then an entire generation of kids would have refused to go to Vietnam. It’s true and it was known at the time, which was why Presley was encouraged to join up. You could therefore change the whole of World history by travelling back in time and making him not join up. All these things are there, and are alternatives to reality.’
I wondered how the theory of stopping Elvis Presley from joining the army squared with the idea of a time-travelling talking brussels sprout called Barry …
‘Okay. I had an old Frank Zappa album, the fourth one, ‘Lumpy Gravy’, and it starts off with the spoken words: “The way I see it, Barry, this could be a dynamite show.” And I always wanted to use that line in something, and also to have a character called Barry. I don’t know how he appeared. I think it was something to do with the fact that I was writing about a planet where everything grew: televisions, tables, people … and everything was vegetable-orientated. If you’re going to travel back through time as a talking vegetable, then it’s got to be a brussels sprout, hasn’t it. It just has.
‘All this on top of the fact that I can’t stand brussels sprouts. I just have to see one to make me feel sick because they were forced down me as a kid. When Transworld promoted the book, they sent out brussels sprouts as a gimmick. When I got mine I thought it was a present from my publisher … imagine my face when I opened the box … They sent out cabbages for another book. Kind of like giant brussels sprouts. My publishers are great like that … sending vegetables to torment journalists.’
According to Robert’s author information, he is a 12th Dan Master of the noble art of Dimac. A form of self defence known only to the select few. This, according to the author, has its origins in an unexpected place.
‘Go and get yourself some old Marvel Comics and fish through the 1960s ones and in there you’ll find Count Dante, the deadliest man on Earth. Hands and feet registered as deadly weapons with the United Nations. He can kill with fingertip pressure. Advertised in the back of these magazines were some of the most wonderful things. I always wanted to send off for membership of the Black Dragon Fighting Society, but if you did send off, you knew it would never arrive. Do you remember the foot locker full of soldiers, the sea monkeys … have your own family of friendly sea monkeys. They were about a centimetre high, apparently. It said in the adverts for this Count Dante thing that you could only ever use it in self defence because your hands and feet would be deadly weapons. I never did join, unfortunately, and so I was self taught in Dimac, and got an honorary degree from the Count bestowed on me. You have to take it seriously because self defence is a serious subject.’
Another serious subject is that people will insist on drawing comparisons between Robert Rankin and other writers of humorous fantasy. Although he dislikes being compared to anyone – except possibly John Steinbeck – Robert believes he knows why. ‘The point is that Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and myself are all of a similar age. We all grew up with the same television, the same books, the same influences … If a guy at 20 was writing the same sort of stuff as I was, then he’d take a completely different slant. A lot of the stuff I write about is terribly nostalgic. I’ve never read any of these other people, anyway, so how would I know if the stuff’s similar or not. I don’t read books generally, but who reads my books? I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know how old they are, where they live … I don’t know why they read my books. One presumes that you’re filling some need, but what that need is, is a great big mystery. You’re here talking to me, but no-one ever interviews the readers. It happens when you go into someone’s house and you look around and think they’re terribly upper class, but then you see a row of Terry Pratchett books and you’re amazed. You would never have picked these people out as reading Pratchett. I suppose our stuff crosses all the boundaries,’ he muses thoughtfully.
Footsteps echo from outside our hiding place. Our time together is nearly up, and in a final attempt to wring some sense from Robert before the inevitable happens, I raise the subject of Hugo Rune’s Book of Ultimate Truths, the subject of more than one novel, and which might just exist.
‘A long time ago,’ he explains, ‘about 1988, or ’89, I almost did a deal with Hutchinson to produce the Book of Ultimate Truths as an encyclopaedia. However I suddenly realised the scope of what it was going to be. I was going to have to come up with the answers to everything, and I’d be using up the equivalent of 20 or 30 novels in doing it. Because you could pick up any one of these truths and write an entire novel around it. That’s an awful lot of ideas to use up … so I decided to keep on writing the novels instead.’
With that, the door is smashed from its hinges as some friendly thought police arrive to frog-march Robert off to face whatever dread horror awaits him – probably a nice hot sprout supper. As for me, well, I dusted myself down, and quietly left by another route. All that remained was to salvage whatever I could from our conversation, and to take to heart Robert’s initial advice …
©1999 David J Howe