Robert Rankin spins some whoppers for David J Howe, and leaves him to try and sort out the fact from the fiction.
Robert Rankin’s office is incredible. Every wall, every surface is covered with exotic and fascinating paraphernalia. There are stuffed animals: dogs, rabbits, tortoises, crocodiles, birds … carved wooden skulls and skeletons of all sizes, photographs of incredible inventions, paintings of acts of derring do (with hand-written captions explaining that all are the adventures of one Robert Rankin), there are a trio of flying saucers ascending the wall in formation, numerous defaced postcards and photographs covering another wall and even a life-size disembodied head with its brains blown out resting on a large urn by the door!
Other wooden cabinets are covered with the amazing and surreal sculptures created by Robert as covers to his latest books: here’s the leather bondage teapot of Snuff Fiction, there, the eerie skull-covered handbag of The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag, and lurking at the back, the giant sprout from Sprout Mask Replica.
‘Come though,’ gestures Robert, and leads the way by clambering through a three-foot square hole cut in the middle of the wall, some two feet from the ground. I step through after him and, once settled, start talking about his life and work. I begin by asking how Robert describes his own books …
‘Far fetched fiction is the way I describe them. Tall stories. My father was a tall story teller and that’s what I do for a living. I tell tall tales which get written up in books.
‘If I wasn’t writing, I’d be what I always wanted to be: an artist. I went to art school, and I wanted to be an illustrator. I worked in black and white … in biro mainly … and I did illustrations for childrens’ books. I also did a lot of stuff for Forum magazine as they kept paying me. I love the creative side. That’s kind of how the new book covers came about. I hated my covers because they looked like sub-Josh Kirby pastiches: all little men and women running about. They were awful, and I wasn’t happy. Then, when I was writing The Dance Of The Voodoo Handbag I asked the publishers if I could do the cover and if they hated it, then we could go back to artwork.
‘They rashly agreed and so I made this plaster handbag covered with skulls and presented it for them to photograph. They were very pleased and that was how it started. They said I could do the next one as well, and I also asked if I could do some roughs for the old books so that when they came up for reprinting, they could use my covers. They agreed to this too! Which shows a supreme act of good taste.
‘I made the mould for the handbag in salt dough, and then cast it out of plaster. Transworld thoughtfully kept this sculpture in a warm cupboard for a few weeks but some of the salt dough had been transferred to it and the handbag grew this green, evil fur which stunk like hell and they thought this was some practical joke that I was playing on them. It wasn’t, but it amused me none the less.’
After leaving art school, Robert found himself working in an office. ‘I was 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.
‘I wanted to be a serious writer,’ explains Robert, ‘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 a 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 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!
‘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 a part of this is providing apparently rational explanations to seemingly inexplicable events. There is a vein of social comment running through Robert’s books, which is often obscured by the surreal nature of the events that unfold for his protagonists.
‘When I left school, I had this distrust of working. I also had this suspicion of big corporate enterprise, governments, newspapers, media … everyone in the sixties had the same basic reaction to these things. We wanted an alternative. Don’t believe anything you’re being told in the newspapers, 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 completely 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 …’
It all sounds so convincing. With such tall tales at his disposal, I wondered how Robert approached the act of writing. Was there some master-plan at work?
‘There’s never a plan. The secret, if any such secret exists, is to try and come up with an idea, hope nobody’s used it before, and build everything around it. I like my books to be spontaneous so I have to either write in this great big flow that goes day after day after day for as long as it takes to write the book, or not write at all. It’s entirely dependent on the idea and what I can fit around that.
‘For example, I was in Ireland and I was talking with a friend about what the worst thing you could think of that could happen out of advances in the 20th century. The worst thing we could come up with was to clone Christ from the Turin shroud. We thought this was a dreadful idea. But it was so good that I realised I could do a book around it, and the only place that I could set such a work was in Brentford: thus The Brentford Chainstore Massacre was born.
‘During the time I’m writing a book, I simply cram in everything. Every bit of information that comes to me at that time. I use up all my ideas in each book, which leaves me completely dry for the next one. The most difficult thing is to channel all this material down into a single idea and not to go off at too many tangents. You’ve got to have a story in there somewhere, but to this day I still don’t know how you write a book. I sit here and a book comes out … it’s like some kind of magic.’
Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls is the latest hardback from Robert, and forms a further entry in his ever-growing Brentford trilogy.
‘It includes all the guys from Brentford,’ smiles Robert. ‘It’s dedicated to a friend of mine, John Crawford, who’s into two things: rock and roll, and books about time travel. I told him I’d dedicate a book to him and then wondered how to combine rock and roll and time travel.
‘Eventually there will come a time when mankind has invented everything that it can conceivably invent and there will be nothing left for it to do. We’ve got the drugs and medical knowledge to keep people alive who would otherwise die and so there’s no more natural selection. We are as far as the human race is going to develop. Everyone will become so bored that time travel becomes the only way of entertaining the masses. In this book, a group of time travelling young music fans travel back to see all the great gigs. They want to see Woodstock, they want to see the Stones play Hyde Park and so on. One of them has this bright idea that while he’s there he could do a bit of good: maybe stop John Lennon getting shot, help Hendrix with his drug problem and possibly tell Elvis to lay off the hamburgers; only by doing this he totally changes everything, but the people on Earth can’t see the difference. Happily there’s one guy who notices immediately because he’s been down in the centre of the Earth on an expedition, and when he comes back he wants to know why Richard Branson is on the notes and coins … everyone thinks he’s mad of course.
‘It gave me a chance to write about all the things I enjoy writing about: sex, drugs and sausage rolls mainly, but also to have another nice outing in Brentford with some folk that I know and love, and generally enjoy myself.’
So what’s next from Robert Rankin: Teller of Tall Tales? What does he have in the pipeline for those fans of tall tales to enjoy: ‘The book I’m writing at the moment was called Flying Saucers From Hell which, I thought, was a great title. I recently heard that Transworld decided that this wasn’t such a great title and now it’s apparently called Waiting For Godolming. Now I do not necessarily believe that Waiting For Godolming is the finest title around, but we’ll see. It’ll have a great cover though!’
©1999 David J Howe