Charge up your time machine, boil a pan of Brussels sprouts, take a healthy swig of Harveys real ale and transport yourself into the Victorian-themed home of novelist and steampunk overlord, Robert Rankin – the eccentric 62-year-old raconteur who’s been tickling readers with his psychedelic blend of fantasy, sci-fi and occult fiction since the early 1980s.
An amalgam of showbiz Satanist Anton Le Vey, Winnie The Pooh and spooksome magick man Aleister Crowley, Rankin writes curious novels such as Sex And Drugs And Sausage Rolls and The Fandom Of The Operator, which defy easy definition. “I called my writing ‘far-fetched fiction’, thinking I’d get my own shelf in WHSmith,” says Rankin. “Not a chance!”
Suavely dressed as a Victorian gent, the Brentford-born Londoner struts like a caricature of a stiff-upper-lipped English explorer, and his pastel-painted terraced home on a seaside street in Brighton is like a late 19th century museum inside. Rankin’s father, a carpenter and globetrotter, was a fantasist whose eccentric stories about being a strongman in the circus or hot air ballooning over the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan were sometimes true.
And Rankin has inherited his dad’s wanderlust. Past the narrow hallway, decorated with a signed Captain Beefheart record sleeve and a model Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, lies a living room bursting from floor-to-ceiling with multi-limbed stuffed animals, customised dummies and brass cog steampunk jewellery.
“I had a happy childhood, so I can’t blame my parents for the fact that I’m barking mad, but I was locked in my own world as a boy,” Rankin remembers. “My father taught me to ‘look up’ and see the sky – to see the wonder of life, rather than the mundane things.”
Following that philosophy, Rankin had 41 jobs before becoming a writer, 39 of which he was sacked from. “One or two were memorable,” he grins. “I had a stall in Brick Lane for a few weeks in the 1960s. When the rent on the stall went up I started complaining, muttering about the ‘bloody council’. But the chap on the next stall told me that the market had nothing to do with the council. ‘It’s owned by the Kray twins,’ he whispered. I didn’t come back the following week, but at least I can put the Krays down as an employer on my CV.”
Struck by the creative buzz of the swinging sixties, Rankin went to Ealing Art College at the same time as Freddie Mercury and Alan Lee, chief conceptual artist on Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings, and now creates most of his own book covers. “I wanted to be an illustrator, but all my art stuff got nicked out of a car and no-one wanted to pay me for my work, so I quit,” he shrugs.
In the 1970s, Rankin worked for a film prop supplier and left his mark on cinema history when a production buyer came in looking for futuristic drinking glasses. “The guv’nor gave me 20 quid and sent me to the street market,” he remembers. “I found a stall that sold fake Tupperware and the buyer sold me pretty much me everything he had. I thought nothing more of it, until I saw Star Wars – my containers were in Luke Skywalker’s house and the alien cantina. I reckon they ‘made’ that movie,” he laughs.
Rankin decided to become a novelist after meeting Alan Aldridge, a graphic artist in the 1960s and 1970s who helped define the style of the era through his illustrations of The Beatles’ lyrics, album sleeves for bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Who, and book covers for Penguin. Rankin showed Alan some of his short stories, and was promised a publishing deal if he could write a novel in the same style.
Rankin scribbled down his first book and Alan kept his word, but the novel shamelessly plagiarised John Steinbeck, Jack Vance, William Burroughs and Spike Milligan, so was heavily cut by the publisher. “I learned my lesson and I’ve never read any fiction since,” he confesses solemnly.
Spinning off on his own twisted path, Rankin wrote the Brentford series of eight novels, including The Antipope and The Sprouts Of Wrath, which were based on loopy locals in the London suburb in which he lived. “The people who drank in the pub where my ex-wife worked as a barmaid were wonderful,” he says. “They grew mandrake on their allotments, brewed beer from Brussels sprouts, and one of them discovered a network of tunnels under the town which he thought led to an ancient subterranean civilisation.”
Rankin’s encounters with the Brentford eccentrics wormed their way into his books, many of which quickly became bestsellers, although one of his friends in publishing stresses that his 2002 novel, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies Of The Apocalypse, which won the SFX Best Novel Award, was only popular because it had the word ‘chocolate’ in the title.
Toying with the absurd keeps Rankin going, but behind the surreal humour of his recurring characters, such as Hugo Rune, a self-styled guru, or the 1950s American private detective, Lazlo Woodbine, lies a childlike exuberance for poking fun at society, religion and authority.
“I feel like an outsider and I’m lucky that I can get my ‘otherness’ out of my system by writing books. I’d probably have been sectioned years ago if I didn’t have a creative outlet,” he explains.
But even though Rankin feels detached from mainstream movements, steampunk has embraced him. “I’ve been dressing as a Victorian on-and-off all my adult life, but I didn’t know what steampunk was until a fan told me that The Witches Of Chiswick (2003) was a steampunk novel,” he grins. “When I met others in the subculture I was suddenly among imaginative people who liked what I liked and at last I was part of something.”
He’s an integral part: last year, the Victorian Steampunk Society made Rankin a fellow, and presented him with a specially minted gold medal he keeps in his living room.
Like a time traveller from a bygone age, Rankin is wary of the modern world, and writes all his novels in exercise books. “I can’t make head nor tail of typewriters, so I’m shafted when it comes to computers,” he says. “I write 200 words per page, 20 pages per book and 25 exercise books per novel. Scribbling 4,000 words every day, Rankin doesn’t stop until his latest book’s finished, but the creative process baffles him.
“I don’t have the faintest idea how I write these books. I don’t know how a book will end when I start or who will be in it – it all comes out of the end of the Biro.”
But help is at hand from Rankin’s imaginary friends and a Brussels sprout called Barry sits on his desk “dictating novels in his ear”. Sprouts, Brentford, Beefheart and Brighton all come together in the Rankin Looniverse, which keeps expanding.
The Brightonomicon – his novel about Sally Hurst’s Brighton Zodiac – a map of road constellations in the city, was adapted for a BBC audio drama in 2008, starring Andy Serkis, and production of the sequel, Retromancer, starts early next year. In September he’s launching his latest novel, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl And Other Unnatural Attractions and will be appearing at the UK Steampunk Festival in Lincoln.
But outside of work, Rankin’s lust for life comes from love. Embracing his wife, Lady Raygun, Rankin beams, “My perfect evening out is sushi for two with my wife followed by chess games with her in the real ale pub down the road, drinking Harveys. That’s heaven.”
The pair met four and a half years ago on the Brighton open-topped bus tour and were married six weeks later in Las Vegas by an Elvis-impersonating chaplain. Lady Raygun is Europe’s top female steelpan soloist, and Rankin’s musical too, although he’s given up the debauched lifestyle and psychedelic drugs he indulged in while playing with 1970s bands such as Astro Laser, The Flying Starfish From Uranus and The Plasma Jets, and now sticks to ukelele performances of George Formby ditties and ‘Anarchy On The Ukelele’.
But while Rankin’s still fit and chipper for a man of his years, he’s already picked the engraving for his cemetery headstone. “I want my review quote from the Observer,” he says: “Stark raving genius”. Tipping his cap to Barry the sprout, that’s just what Rankin is.
The Japanese Devil Fish Girl And Other Unnatural Attractions is published by Gollancz in September
For more, visit Thegoldensprout.com and Steelpan.co.uk