I wrote this piece for SFX 134, (I think). By 2005, I had known Robert for several years. I first met him at Euroctocon in Dublin in October, 1997. He and I got on very well and have remained good friends ever since. Rankin is one of life’s singular gentlemen. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is, if anything, even more bizarre than his characters., while the stories he tells in person are all the more astounding for being (mostly) true. I treasure the rare occasions we get to sit down, drink beer and, as he puts it in his Londony way, “talk toot”.
Rankin is a teller of tall tales who comes from a long line of tall tale tellers. Few could be taller than his latest book, The Brightonomicon. It takes a cue from New Age movements who saw a zodiac engraved into the earth about Glastonbury and applies the idea to a streetmap of Brighton. Not just any old Zodiac has the author discovered, but one of truly Rankin-esque proportions. Armed with a felt tip Rankin set to, tracing out his new cosmology on B-roads; no Gemini or Taurus here, but the Nazca-like lines of the Hound of the Hangletons and the Woodingdeane Chameleon. There are twelve in all, and each has a story, a case, attached to it which must be solved by old favourite Hugo Rune and his new teenage sidekick, Rizla.
“I wanted a reason for each of them to be there, you also wonder where these names come from – why is Hangletons called Hangletons? We have these dangerous areas, like Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb. So, in the book, Moulsecoomb is inhabited by a pirate captain called Moulsecoomb, who stills comes out and attack the pier from time to time.”
Of course, these dangers of the genteel town, jewel of the south coast and home of the exotic pavilion are imagined…
“Er, no,” interrupts Rankin, “You don’t want to go to those areas with anything less than a tank.”
And that is his power. Rankin so effortlessly mocks our world that it’s difficult to see which parts are pure fiction and which are not. Indeed, sometimes you suspect he makes none of it up, and is privy to a portal to some alternate reality where backchat is the highest of arts. You get the feeling of reverse dramatic irony – here it is not we the audience who know more, but that his character Hugo Rune knows everything.
Rankin is fascinated by magic, so it is no surprise that Rune owes much to that infamous wizard, Aleister Crowley, whose self-portrait hangs in Rankin’s hall. But, when you look closer, there’s a lot of Rankin in there too. Rune is the master of the scam, a man who pronounces, “I offer the world my genius, all I expect is that it cover my expenses.” Rankin himself is as much raconteur as writer. We could discuss some of his escapades here, would it not bring certain agencies of the crown upon his head. His true, if no less astounding, tales include that of the Blue Peter badge, or the strange case of the cash machines, a story he regaled many an audience with until a kindly policeman took him to one side and asked, gently, that he desist.
“Rune’s not based on me,” counters Rankin. “He is a mix of my father and Crowley. He knew Crowley, actually,” he says. “He met him in the war. My father didn’t fight – using the famed Rankin common sense he thought to himself: ‘I’ll get myself a nice reserved occupation – fireman should do it.’ Which meant standing in the middle of the blitz holding a hosepipe!” he laughs. “Anyway, he met Crowley in a pub in 1943 or ’44. My father didn’t believe in the magic, but he did think Crowley was the greatest poet of the 20th century. So he cultivated him by buying him lots of drinks. I remember my dad pointing out Crowley on the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover and saying ‘I know him.’ Then he told me he had a couple of first editions signed by the man himself. I was amazed. Of course, my mum, the fundamentalist Christian, had burnt them as Crowley was, after all, the Great Beast. I was gutted.”
Maybe there is more of Rankin Jnr in Rune than he suspects. Or perhaps there have been a long line of Rankins behaving like Runes. He is the fourth Robert Fleming Rankin – a connection to Alexander Fleming now lost to history and, like his father, his life has been full of cameos of unusual people (he went to art college with Freddie Mercury, for example). He’s done many bizarre things, such as convincing the inhabitants of Brentford a Griffin lived there, but he seems as oblivious to how unusual this track is as he is of the genuine reverence with which his fans hold him, fans whose numbers are growing. Rankin was ecstatic to see his previous book, The Witches of Chiswick, advertised in a railway station and, and has begun to force open the American market. Full of tall tales he may be, but you could never accuse him of boastfulness, however, you don’t get posters in Paddington if you’re small fry, old chap.
In true generous style, Rankin has one last thing to say. “That’s the best picture of me that I have ever had taken” he says of his portrait to the left [not included here, sorry folks]. “And I’d like to say thank you to the man who let us use his carousel. Beautiful it was, built in 1888. He even stopped it for us, whereas the pier wanted to charge us £150 to take our shot there. So thank you, and sod the pier.”