M What were the Brentford Poets?
R Well, it was great. I was interviewed by a magazine, and they said ‘Do you know anything about this arts centre they’re building in Brentford?’, and this thing had been being built and we hadn’t even noticed. We just thought it was building site. I said ‘No, not an arts centre. Not in Brentford. Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody would go there.’ They said ‘Oh yes. Would you go and interview the director?’ I said ‘That’ll be a laugh, won’t it’?’ So I went down and interviewed him for this magazine called Riverside, and he said ‘Are you looking for a job?’ I said ‘I’m always looking for a job!’ He said ‘How would you like to be Writer in Residence?’ I said ‘That sounds grand, doesn’t it?’ Across between ‘grand’ and Pseud’s Corner! I said ‘What do I do’?’ He said ‘I dunno, we’ll make up something. You could write a play for the theatre.’ I said ‘A play!’ He said ‘You could start some writing groups.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ He said ‘You could have sort of poetry evenings.’ Poetry? Fuck off! Anyway, this was written into the contract, I had to do this. I wrote two plays – one of them was Armageddon: The Musical as a play, which later became the book – and started off this poetry group. The first week, four people came up and they were exactly as you’d expect: duffel coats, shoulder bags. The next week there was a few more, few more and a few more. By the time we’d been running it about six months there was about 45 people there, once this word went around. And it was a mistake, you see? The woman behind the bar said ‘It’s called Pints &. Poets. Does that mean that everybody who reads a poem gets a pint?’ and I said ‘Yeah, that’s what it means.’ The director came and he said ‘What the fuck...? What are you doing?’ I said ‘Yes, but it’s bringing them in, isn’t it?’ So they all got their pint of beer. And there’d be this bunch who would sit in the corner with really manic poetry – ‘My mind is exploding with a thousand shreds of this’, you know – and about terrible things like being fist-fucked and stuff. And I couldn’t understand them. They used to applaud each other’s poetry. It was years later, I listened to a programme on the radio and found out these were manic depressives, and manic depressives always write this same kind of poetry which other manic depressives recognise and admire. And they all go to poetry groups! So this lasted for two years, and it did become the biggest poetry group in England. They just flocked in when they knew there was a free pint in it. After two years there was all that trouble with Red Ken – Ken Livingstone – and all the funding was cut off. I was called into the office, and he said ‘It’s either you or the bloke who runs the art gallery.’ I said ‘Well, it’s got to be me, hasn’t it? - Unless you’re going to close the art gallery.’ He said ‘Well, do you mind?’ I said ‘Of course not! I thought I was here for a little suffrage.’ He said ‘Here’s your wage-cheque. Piss off.’ But I had got to do all the things. I got to run one of those weekend things – one of those mystic’s fairs – and I managed to invite every author I really admired down here to give a talk. Unfortunately it was the same weekend that Live Aid was on, and nobody came, so there was me sitting around for the weekend with writers I liked.
M Name some names. Who are these people you admire?
R Oh, these are people like Hilary Evans, Guy Lion, people who had written books on the paranormal, Fortean stuff. Brian Inglis came down. Oh, I can’t think. This was 1985, it was a while back. But it was all the people who wrote on the paranormal which, as you can see, is what I read.
M Do you consider yourself a writer of paranormal books or science fiction books?
R When I set out to write, all I wanted to do was write Robert Rankin books. When people like Flann 0’Brien and Saki were writing, you couldn’t pigeon-hole them. I mean, how do you pigeon-hole William Burroughs? What is he? He writes William Burroughs books.
M He’s Burroughs-esque.
R Exactly! So I wanted to be Rankinesque. I wanted to write Robert Rankin books. But it was quite evident that when the first ones came out and they went into the general fiction section, they were lost. And the big query then was ‘What do we put on the back of these books? What do we call these books? Are they science fiction?’ You’ve then got people, who probably are the kind of people who are going to read what you write – that’s the section they go into. Science fiction people for the most part don’t go into the general fiction section. They go ‘Woh-ho-ho!’ into the real section. It’s like being a heavy metal fan, you pass the Take That counter straight away! So after that, after the Brentford books, when we went into Armageddon, I said ‘Well, I have to say, I am writing science fiction, aren’t I? I can’t get away from that.’ I realised that when I was a kid, that’s all I read. I thought ‘Well, it must have influenced me considerably’. Do you now call science fiction ‘science fiction’ or do you call it ‘imaginative fiction’? Or ‘fiction of the mind’? What do you call it? It’s got this term ‘science fiction’ but is it science fiction any more’?
M Whatever it is, that’s what you write.
R Oh, that’s what I write, and proud of it.
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