Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (anagrammaticus maximus)

Saloon Bran makes Banal Roons with Nasal Boron – there’s a Solar Ban On

There are a lot of odd books in the world. There are a lot of mad books in the world. And the world also contains very many funny books. But the very oddest, very maddest and very funniest books in the world have all been written by Robert Rankin. He’s coined a name for his writing style – he calls it far-fetched fiction and he claims it’s a new genre, and that he is the only person writing it. The point, of course, is so that he can have a whole labelled section devoted to the genre in every book store in the land where all his novels can be shelved in splendid isolation. And he’s been prolific enough over the years to almost be able to pull that notion off.

How do I know all this? I know it because I’ve just read his autobiography which is, of course, titled I Robert. It’s only been published in a limited edition of 5000 copies. Mine is copy number 4923, so if you want to buy a copy for yourself, you’ll need to be quick about it!

We are of an age, Robert Rankin and I. Actually he’s about six months older than me, but what difference does that make in the grand scheme of things? Consequently we share a lot of growing up experiences. Unfortunately, he did his growing up as a soft, effete southerner whereas the hardships of my northern upbringing almost qualify me for a part in the famous Four Yorkshireman sketch. As a result of both our different youthful travails and of our geographical separation I can state quite categorically that I have not met as many famous people as he has. The upside of this unfortunate state of affairs is that I have not injured as many famous people as he has either.

The very first famous person he injured was Freddie Bulsara, though Freddie wasn’t famous on the day that Rankin spilled a cup of hot coffee in his lap. He only became famous later on, when he changed his name to Freddie Mercury. At the time of the coffee spillage, Freddie was looking for a name for the band he’d just joined. Rankin suggested that he call it The Flying Starfish From Uranus. Freddie thought about this for a moment and then turned the suggestion down. So Rankin used the name for one of his own bands instead and it did him no good at all, completely failing to bring him either fortune or fame, thus proving Freddie’s perspicacity. That’s how fame and fortune work.

But the scalding of Freddie set a trend in motion and Robert Rankin quickly developed a taste for injuring the famous (and the not yet famous). He tells us all about each incident. Everybody has to have a hobby and all writers need something to occupy their time when they are away from their manuscripts.

I Robert is a book of two halves.

The first half is a typical Rankin stream of consciousness ramble though events both mundane (buying clothes) and completely weird (buying clothes). There is no real connecting thread, other than Rankin himself and he follows thought trains as they occur to him and as they steam out of the station in many random directions. So his admiration for the ideas of Aleister Crowley sits cheek by jowl with his own experiments with lucid dreaming and the reasons for his refusal to read any fiction other than his own for more than thirty years. He’s completely honest about his struggles with his mental health, with his alcoholism, with his suicide attempt, and with his inability to form meaningful relationships with other people. You might think that all these things would make this a sad book, but it isn’t sad at all. It’s a glorious and very joyful  celebration of an extremely odd life. It’s full of terrible jokes and surprisingly deep insights. And it all ends happily with his marriage to Raygun, who is clearly the love of his life. This isn’t his first marriage, but he insists that it will be his last marriage and that it is for ever.

The second half of I Robert is rather more focussed (as far as Rankin can actually focus on anything, which isn’t very far at all). He talks about the writing of each of his novels, one after the other, and he rambles on about what was going on in his life while he was writing that particular book. If you’ve read all of the novels (which I have) this is absolutely fascinating stuff both for its insights into the creative process and for the way that real life so often intrudes into the fiction that reflects it.

Robert Rankin is still alive, so he must have found it hard to know how to stop writing his autobiography. After all, life goes on and therefore, surely, so must Robert Rankin and so must the book. But he started it with a title that was a play on words, so why not end the book with a play on words as well? This is how he chose to finish the story of his life:

Let me end on a joke that my old friend Terry Pratchett told to me. He was laughing so much when he told it, he could hardly get it out.
A distraught mother walks into a bookshop. "Do you have anything suitable for my fourteen year old son?" she asks the sales assistant.
"Has he tried Rankin?" this person replies.
"He hardly does anything else!" says the distraught mother. "Which is why I am trying to get him to read a book."

And that, I think, tells you everything you need to know about Robert Rankin.

Feeling inspired and somewhat weak at the knees by my reading of Robert Rankin’s autobiography, I deemed it necessary, for the sake of symmetry, to re-read one of his novels as well. Since the title of his autobiography is a pun on a famous SF book title, I decided to re-read Sprout Mask Replica because that title is a pun on a famous music album by one of Robert Rankin’s favourite bands.

Unlike I Robert which is a real autobiography (whatever that might mean), Sprout Mask Replica is the fictional (auto)biography of Robert Rankin’s entire family tree. It all starts with his great-great-grandfather who died at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He didn’t actually fight in the battle – he was in the next field hosting a sprout bake and he went over to the battlefield to complain about the noise. And the rest, as they say, is history. Fortunately his sporran survived. Sporrans are notoriously difficult to kill. It all sounds very plausible to me.

In his "explanation" of this novel in the second half of I Robert, Rankin reveals that one of the characters and one of the plot threads is taken directly from Real Life (TM). His brother Andy really did once have the brilliant idea of setting up and managing a mobile nightclub. Andy was also very fond of the number 300 because when you turn it on its side with the 3 at the top it looks like a bum doing two poos. Put these ideas together and what do you get? A chapter or two in the plot of Sprout Mask Replica is what you get, assuming, of course, that Sprout Mask Replica actually has a plot. That isn’t always entirely clear…

But very soon the book leaves Real Life (TM) far behind and implausibility sets in. I doubt if any of Rankin’s actual uncles ever ate a motorbike, so that part is probably fiction. And by the time that Barry the Brussel Sprout arrives on the page it is clear that everything is being made up. Of course the mascara and lipstick required for the make up are optional, so optional in fact that Rankin never mentions them at all.  

Barry the Brussel Sprout is a character who appears in quite a lot of Rankin’s novels. In one of them he is a time traveller who goes back to the early 1950s and  takes up residence in the brain of Elvis Presley. If you think about it, that explains an awful lot about Elvis Presley. Anyway, in this novel, Barry is the narrator’s Guardian Sprout. The narrator himself, it seems, is a manifestation of the chaos butterfly and by performing inconsequential actions he can cause great things to happen in other parts of the world. Barry’s advice as to what actions need to be performed is always very valuable.

In between times, when the needful chaos corrections are few and far between, the narrator goes down to Fangio’s pub to chew the fat with his friends. He always goes to Fangio’s pub because that’s where they serve the very best fat he’s ever chewed. The proper preparation of chewing fat is a subtle skill that few save Fangio have ever completely mastered.

A major character in what I am becoming increasingly reluctant to refer to as a story is a lady called Litany. She is the woman who is always to be seen at rock concerts, perched on the shoulders of a handsome man, swaying in time to the music, getting a great view of the band and having a wonderful time. It seems that her first ever appearance in the world was when she was observed perched upon the shoulders of a Roman Centurion in order to get an incredible view of the crucifixion of Christ. Because of her over-enthusiasm for viewing spectacular events she has been cursed by God to spend eternity wandering the earth upon the shoulders of men, constantly searching for things to watch. Only when Jesus comes again will she finally be allowed to get down off her carrier’s shoulders and go to the toilet.

Litany is there to counter balance Colon the super-dense proto-hippy. Colon came into the world when a van grossly overcrowded with proto-hippies finally reached critical mass and imploded. The implosion sucked the van’s sides into the shape of the great pyramid and extruded the combined proto-hippies out into one solid and quite impermeable being.

If you actually manage to get to the end of the book you will find that, to a certain extent at least, Rankin does mostly manage to tie all this preposterous nonsense together into an (in)coherent whole. I won’t claim that it makes sense (I’m not sure that Rankin believes in sense and I’m absolutely certain that he has no time whatsoever for sensibility) but it does become mildly less arbitrary than it seems to be at first glance. If you care, Sprout Mask Replica has spawned two sequels, each of which is just as odd as all the others...

I absolutely loved it!

Talking of autobiographies, Charles Platt has now decided to come clean about his life. His autobiography currently consists of four volumes which take us all the way from 1944 up to what he refers to as his farewell to science fiction in 1990. Since we are in the year 2022 as I write these words, I presume that there are more volumes still to come. He must have done something between 1990 and 2022.

In case you haven’t heard of Charles Platt (I’d be the first to admit that he isn’t a household name) let me take a brief digression to try and pin him down. Platt was quite well known in the UK science fiction scene of the 1960s and 1970s. He was responsible for the design and layout of the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock and he even edited a few issues of the magazine himself. He was a common sight at British SF conventions in the 1970s and was often to be found in the dealer’s room selling back issues of New Worlds.

He has a short temper and a prickly personality. He is very good at rubbing people up the wrong way. I was not personally present at the convention where Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison got so fed up with him that they locked him in a wardrobe and refused to let him out. However I know several people who claim to have been there when it happened and by the time I started going to conventions that anecdote was definitely part of the folklore. In his autobiography, Platt explains that Aldiss was simply getting revenge because he (Platt) had written a very uncomplimentary review of one of Aldiss’ novels. However, having met both Platt and Aldiss, I think there was probably a lot more than just that going on. Aldiss was not that thin-skinned, and Platt was well known to be a dickhead, particularly when drunk. I suspect that they just lost patience with his antics.

Whatever truth lies behind Aldiss and Harrison’s abortive attempt to exile Platt to Narnia, there is at least one well documented case of a novelist taking umbrage at one of Platt’s reviews. In a review of Hammer's Slammers by David Drake, Platt asserted that Drake wouldn't write such "queasy voyeurism" if he had really fought in a war. Drake, who is a Vietnam veteran, naturally found this remark annoying and now he often includes despicable characters called Platt in his novels. As one does.

As well as reviewing stories by other people, Platt has also put his money where his mouth is and he has written some perfectly competent SF novels of his own – nothing award winning or even award worthy, but in my opinion all of them are a perfectly pleasant way of passing a few hours, if you happen to have a few hours that you need to pass.

If Charles Platt will be remembered for anything in the world of science fiction it will not be for his abrasive personality or for his work on New Worlds, neither will it be for his reviews, nor will it be for his novels – he will be remembered for publishing Dream Makers, two volumes of searching, in-depth interviews that he conducted in the early 1980s with almost every significant SF writer who was still alive at that time. These are immensely valuable historical and scholarly documents and I cannot praise them highly enough. They were nominated for a Hugo Award and they did actually win a Locus Award. Without a shadow of a doubt, they are Platt’s magnum opus.

Unless, that is, you consider his novel The Gas to be his finest achievement…

The Gas is the single most obscene book that has ever been written or that ever will be written. I’m not indulging in hyperbole here. Search high or search low you will never, ever, find any other novel that even begins to approach the levels of obscenity that this novel revels in. Go on, start looking. I’ll wait…

Some time in 1996 I stumbled upon Platt’s email address, so I contacted him and asked if he had a copy of The Gas that he would be willing to let me have. Although I’d heard lots about it, I’d never actually seen a copy of it in the wild, which is hardly surprising, given its nature. He sent me an autographed copy which sits proudly on my shelves even as we speak. When he sent it, he explained that he no longer had any copies of the first edition. This, he said, was the second edition which he actually thought was a much better book because not only had he taken the opportunity to smooth off the rough edges of the prose, he had also added several new scenes dealing with perversions that he hadn’t known existed when he originally wrote the novel.

He wouldn’t let me pay him for my copy of The Gas. Instead, he asked me to send him a New Zealand novel in exchange. Knowing Platt, and having some idea of his tastes, I sent him a copy of Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff. He was absolutely thrilled with it and he seemed to think he’d got the best side of the bargain!

So far I’ve only read the first two volumes of Platt’s autobiography. They begin with the details of his conception in July 1944 and then there is a brief digression into the backgrounds of his father and mother following which we learn of his birth in April 1945. The books then discuss how he lived his life from that point on up to 1970. I hugely enjoyed both the books. Platt is five years older than me and so his memories of growing up in Britain in the 1950s are five years clearer than mine. I was not quite old enough for the 1950s and the decade remains a little vague and disconnected in my head, particularly in its earlier years..

For example, until Platt reminded me of it, I’d completely forgotten about the joys of Jeyes’ Toilet Paper. This came as a set of interleaved sheets in a box. Pull out one piece and another popped up in its place place, rather like a modern day box of tissues. Jeyes' toilet paper was completely non-absorbent. One side was smooth and glossy and the other side was rough and sandpaper-like, giving the user a diabolical choice of torments. The things we had to put up with…

Platt also waxes lyrical about the joys of 1950s radio of which I do actually have very clear memories. Although television did exist, it was not the main source of news and entertainment. Radio (or "the wireless" as we called it) was always the first choice. Platt’s favourite programme, and mine as well, was Listen With Mother in which a delightful woman would read a children’s story. The programme always began the same way. "Are you sitting comfortably?" she would ask her audience. This would be followed by a brief pause before she would continue, "Then I’ll begin." Those two sentences are indelibly engraved upon the cerebral cortex of every British person of a certain age.

Platt freely admits that he has always had difficulty fitting in. He has little or no empathy and he can be very manipulative. He is impulsive and he seldom thinks things through. Short term gains are more important to him than the making of long term plans or the setting of goals. The consequences of his actions sometimes take him by surprise. He has a short temper and he quickly loses patience with people. He confesses to all these shortcomings in his book – I am not putting words into his mouth and neither am I interpolating or inferring anything. At one point he describes himself as a sociopath and he seems to take a certain delight in being that way inclined. He’s mellowed a bit over the years (my brief email correspondence with him was perfectly cordial) but every so often one hears stories... Given his candour in these first two volumes, I suspect that one motive he might have had for writing his autobiography was that he wanted to try explaining himself to himself. I hope he has been successful.

The first volume is subtitled How I Failed at Almost Everything  and by the end of it, Platt has indeed made a mess of everything he’s tried to do with his life. He’s dropped out of university, he’s been arrested for shoplifting, and he can’t get a girlfriend. But, on the plus side, he has made contact with SF fandom and the world is starting to open up for him.

Volume 2, subtitled The New Worlds Years, is utterly fascinating because it’s the inside story of the new wave revolution in British SF. I was quite surprised to find that Platt was actually not that great a fan of the new wave. He worked hard on the design and layout of New Worlds because it was important to Michael Moorcock, and Moorcock was one of the few people who he admired (and also one of the few people prepared to tolerate his dickish behaviour) but he remained largely indifferent to the stories the magazine published. Probably this was because Platt’s education had been heavily biased towards scientific and technical subjects – his father was an engineer and Platt himself had studied maths and physics at school. He was good at those subjects and somewhat less good (and less interested in) most others. Consequently he found the new wave’s anti-science bias rather annoying. Furthermore (at that time anyway – things changed a bit later on) he didn’t have the literary background to fully appreciate the artistic points they were trying to make, and he couldn’t really come to grips with the literary devices that they employed to present their stories. Once he sat down with one of the New Worlds writers and forced him to explain what was going on in his story paragraph by paragraph. When the explanation was complete, Platt, exasperated, asked, "Well why didn’t you say that then?".

As was the case with Platt’s earlier Dream Makers, this description of the New Worlds years is a valuable scholarly and historical document. I don’t think that the story of the new wave has ever been properly told before. Fragments have filtered through here and there in forewords and afterwords in this or that anthology, but Platt puts the whole thing very neatly in perspective and context, and his anecdotes about the people involved in developing the ideas that drove it are quite fascinating. Most of these people were never really part of the mainstream of SF (even though their ideas were very influential on that mainstream, at least in the UK) and they seldom, if ever, appeared at conventions. So for most of us, they remained rather shadowy figures who we admired from afar. I enjoyed meeting them in person at last in Platt’s pages of reminiscences.

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown is one of the best novels I’ve read in ages. I’m not quite sure how to characterise it – it’s a kind of a mystery novel, and it’s a kind of a thriller but it sits uneasily between those two stools. And that’s probably its greatest strength.

Nina is a con artist, grifter and thief. She’s very good at it – she learned all her skills from her mother, a hustler par excellence. As the novel opens, Nina and her boyfriend Lachlan are stealing from spoiled rich kids in Los Angeles. This immediately puts the reader firmly on their side, of course.

Then, for complex reasons, Lachlan and Nina decide to target Vanessa, an Instagram influencer who travels the world, posing for pictures in exotic locales where she shows off the free products she has received from her sponsors. Clearly Vanessa is a shallow, spoiled rich girl – a perfect target – and so we really want Nina and Lachlan to succeed in taking her to the cleaners as they start to put their elaborate scam in place. At first it seems they are being successful, but Vanessa is not a complete innocent, and neither is she as dumb and vapid as her Instagram persona makes her out to be. Furthermore Lachlan turns out to have his own agenda and even Nina’s mother is not all that she seems to be…

The more we learn about Vanessa and Lachlan, the more we start to sympathise with Vanessa and the more we come to despise Lachlan. Nina too finds her loyalties changing as she discovers more about her victim, about her colleague and about her mother.

I’m sorry to be so vague, but there’s a lot going on in this novel, most of it below the surface, and almost none of it is what it seems to be. So if I start discussing details it becomes completely impossible to avoid spoilers. You see, this complex, clever, twisty and mesmerising novel works as well as it does because everybody in it lies all the time. They lie to each other and sometimes they even lie to themselves. And when they are caught out in their lies and swear that they are telling the truth this time, they are often still holding things back, twisting what they say to suit their own purposes and lying by omission as well as directly by commission. The novel is brilliantly structured and Janelle Brown never puts a foot wrong. I am lost in admiration at the cleverness of the story and the adroit way that she manipulates the reader’s expectations. The only way I can tell you anything about what actually happens in this novel would be if I told you lies. And you don’t want me to do that, do you?

When the actual truth is finally revealed (or is it?) and the false assumptions are all peeled away (or are they?), the revelations are truly shocking. Time after time after time, the reader, and the characters in the story, have the rug pulled out from underneath their feet when it turns out that they have completely misunderstood the situation. The whole story is a very clever psychological game of cat and mouse, but it’s never completely clear just who is the cat and who is the mouse. Often they swap roles.

Because I enjoyed this novel so much, I immediately sought out another Janelle Brown book to read. I chose All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, partly because the title intrigued me and partly because it was her very first novel. It turned out to be another quite fascinating psychological study, though the psychologies involved are very different from those explored in Pretty Things. Also, it isn’t really a genre novel unless you consider mainstream literary fiction to be a genre. If you really want to pigeon-hole it, you might consider it to be chick-lit, but that cheapens it – it’s just a book, and a very good one. It kept me enthralled all the way through.

Paul Miller is an entrepreneur. He has had his ups and downs over the years but as the novel opens, his pharmaceutical company has shot up in value and he has become very, very rich. Clearly now is a perfect time to send a typed note to his wife Janice by special messenger. The note tells Janice that he is leaving her and moving in with the new love of his life who, just to rub salt in the wounds, is Janice’s tennis partner and oldest friend. Breaking up the marriage that way and at that time means that he gets to keep all his new money. Janice won’t be able to get her hands on any of it. That makes Paul feel good. And with a whole new relationship to enjoy, he gets to have his cake and eat it too!

Janice and Paul have been married for three decades when all this takes place. They got married when they were both still in college and Janice became pregnant with their first daughter. That daughter, Margaret, is now 29 years old and living in Los Angeles where she manages and edits a feminist magazine called Snatch. Janice and Paul also have another daughter, 14-year-old Lizzie who is still living at home and who has recently discovered that having sex with any boy who asks her for it makes her very popular at school.

Now that her world has collapsed around her, Janice is unsure how to cope and she starts to fall apart a bit. She drinks heavily and begins to indulge herself with methamphetamines that she buys from the man who cleans and maintains her swimming pool. She indulges herself with his body as well.

Margaret too has her problems. She has racked up close to $100,000 in debt running Snatch (mainly because all the articles in it are pretentious twaddle that nobody wants to read) and so she rushes home ostensibly to care for her distraught mother but really in an attempt to escape from her creditors. Meanwhile, Lizzie has discovered that her promiscuous lifestyle, while it certainly makes her superficially popular in the short term, also leads to her being regarded as a bit of a slut in the longer term. When she comes across a graffito that describes her so in no uncertain terms, Lizzie rebels against her previous way of life. She joins a Christian youth group and takes an oath of abstinence. Unfortunately she’s left it a bit too late to start saying no – she is pregnant…

So here we have three women living together, all of whom have significant personal problems and all of whom quickly come to depend on the others for support and understanding. Janelle Brown explores these interdependencies with a bitingly satirical wit that fleshes out the clichéd situations and the stockpot characters. It is her clever wit and insightful observations that raise the novel above its simple soap opera trappings and which turn it into a thoughtful and very gripping story.

And the way that Janice, Margaret and Lizzie finally come to terms with their problems at the end of the story is an absolute masterpiece of twisted plotting. What could be better a better outcome than that?

Gillian Flynn has a reputation as a writer of very gloomy, very grim stories. Dark Places is the first of her novels that I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. It’s evil and nasty and and the places it goes to are very dark indeed. It makes you despair for humanity. And as an added bonus, it’s got lots of gore and grue and kinky stuff to enjoy. In other words, it’s just my kind of book so, of course, I loved it to bits.

The story is mostly narrated by Libby Day. When she was a small child, some time in the early 1980s, her whole family, apart from Libby and her brother Ben, was murdered. Some sort of satanic ritual appears to have been involved. There was lots of that kind of thing going on in the 1980s – everything from murder  down through child abuse in schools and crèches and even the playing of heavy metal music too loudly seemed to involve satanic rituals of one sort or another. How supposedly rational people could believe that kind of nonsense even for a moment completely bewilders me, but nevertheless they did. The stories are all to be found in the archives of every newspaper. Flynn captures that improbable and creepy zeitgeist so perfectly that it gave me horrible shivers of déjà vu...

Anyway, Ben was charged with the murders and, largely on the basis of Libby’s testimony, he was sentenced to life in prison. Libby has not seen or spoken to Ben for more than twenty years...

She wrote a book about her experiences and for a time she lived quite well on the royalties from it sales. But now the money has dried up and she needs a new source of income. She is contacted by a man from an organisation he calls a kill club – a group of enthusiasts who spend their time (and their money) investigating old murders. He is convinced that Ben is innocent and he persuades Libby to visit Ben in prison to talk about what happened. She agrees because she is certain that she can make the kill club pay her a substantial fee for her cooperation.

The story is told in alternating sections set in the past and the present. The flashbacks to the past are told from the points of view of Libby's mother, Patty, and her brother, Ben. Patty's story tells of her problems trying to keep the family farm going while raising her four children all by herself. Her husband, an abusive drunkard is long gone. From her point of view, there is nothing ahead of her now but poverty and despair. She’s at her wits end. Ben’s story, not unexpectedly given his situation, tells the common tale of how he fell in with a bad crowd, started to commit petty crimes and generally made a bloody nuisance of himself.

But what caused the killings to take place? Was Ben really responsible? The more Libby learns about what happened that day, the more contradictions she finds, and the more she starts to believe that while Ben is almost certainly guilty of something, he might not be guilty of the murders he was charged with. So who committed the crime? Why did everybody in the house have to die? The answer, when it finally comes, is truly shocking – but it doesn’t come out of left field. In retrospect, all the clues were always there, hidden in plain sight. But you’ll never notice them, I promise you. Gillian Flynn is a very clever writer, fully in control of her material.

Apart from being a first class, classically structured, murder mystery, Dark Places is also a rather creepy character study. Libby, Patty and Ben are all deeply flawed individuals and as Gillian Flynn peels back the surface camouflage of their lives and pokes a stick at what is hiding underneath, the mood gets blacker and more horrifying, And yet you can’t help feeling some sympathy for the three protagonists. They are all faced with impossible choices; each has their own very tangled Gordian knot to unravel. Can you really blame someone for unravelling the knots with a sharp sword rather than picking away at them strand by strand?

When you finally find out who did what to whom and why they did it at all, you probably won’t be able to find it in yourself to condemn them too much because by then you will have a complete understanding of the pressures that forced them to that point. But all those wrongs do not make it right, of course, and that moral ambivalence is perhaps what makes this novel work so wonderfully well.

Robert Rankin I Robert Far Fetched Books
Robert Rankin Sprout Mask Replica Doubleday
Charles Platt An Accidental Life
Volume 1. 1944-1964
How I Failed at Almost Everything
Charles Platt
Charles Platt An Accidental Life
Volume 2. 1965-1970
The New Worlds Years
Charles Platt
Janelle Brown Pretty Things Random House
Janelle Brown All We Ever Wanted Was EverythingS Spiegel & Grau
Gillian Flynn Dark Places Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Previous Contents Next