Copyright 2007 by Madame Arcati
The news that April Ashley’s recent memoirs The First Lady had been pulped broke exclusively late last year on Madame Arcati. My source (no less) was Duncan Fallowell himself, the aggrieved party in the plagiarism row. He’d discovered that at least two-thirds of the book was a straight lift from his own 1983 book April Ashley’s Odyssey – the original account of the beautiful transsexual’s life. She blames her co-writer Douglas Thompson (who has ignored all my emails). Fallowell holds Ashley accountable. Whatever the truth, publisher John Blake has had to compensate Fallowell for the theft. A delightful outcome.
And so to Duncan Fallowell: novelist, travel writer, celebrity interviewer, cultural observer and critic, lyricist, librettist, bisexual athlete (though he’s grown a bit tired of that …), and more. It would be simpler to list the publications his work has not appeared in worldwide.
His thematic range is vast – he seems to have a fully developed, often perverse, view on just about everything (except The X Factor) – and he has cornered the market in what I shall describe as hardcore high camp, fiction and non-fiction departments. Even at his most intellectually severe there is a hint of mischief or teasing, of amusement, about him. His most marvellous recent sentence is this one from his regular column in The First Post in a review of Samuel Beckett’s Proust: “What we have is Beckett trying to be more affected than Proust - and succeeding! Into the plush vaginal Sargasso of Proustian circumscription Beckett's penile hyperfocus is decisively plunged.”
His three novels – Satyrday, The Underbelly and A History of Facelifting – have prompted varying degrees of outrage, tending as they do to dwell on the seamy undertow of suburban or shire life. Bernard Levin once wrote in the Sunday Times of Fallowell’s “extremely unpleasant imagination” only redeemed by its “fierce honesty”. One Literary Review critic was so appalled by Satyrday - “a post-punk world of unspeakable violence, snuff movies, non-stop sex, perversion, greed and genocide” – that he flung his copy across the room in disgust.
Personally I regard Fallowell as one of the best celebrity writer-interviewers in the world. He’s walking-talking Rohypnol in his seductive effect on his subjects. Only he could have somehow lured Germaine Greer into a comparative analysis of all her lovers by nationality: the papers had a field day. His long piece in Prospect on Barbara Cartland sheds much generous light on the late romantic novelist. Twentieth Century Characters showcases many of his best starry encounters. For more on his work go to his unofficial website.
Duncan agreed to an email interview ….
Now Duncan, have you made up with April Ashley? She seems most hurt by it all …
April is a cunt trapped in a sex-change’s body. But when I was a young man, she gave me something priceless, so I’ll always love her.
What was your relationship with April. I mean, did you – to use a Johnny Rottenism – squelch? Share with us one memory – non-squelching if you must.
We tried to squelch a few times. One memory? Johnson’s Baby Lotion, ice-cold, on the window-sill of an unheated bedroom in Clarendon Road, London W11, January, 1969.
Your three novels to say the least are studies in comic perversity and oddity. Would you be comfortable in the box called “decadent writer”?
Of course my writing isn’t decadent. None of my contemporaries has produced work more vigorous.
You once wrote that to be decadent you have to be bent in some way. Describe your particular U-bend.
Space itself is curved.
Do you have a favourite review of all your work and a least favourite? – please identify. What’s your general view of book criticism and do you have a favourite literary publication (this includes newspaper books sections). In one of your bios about your work: “Graham Greene didn't like his novels but thought they belonged to the 21st century. William Burroughs relished his books and Camille Paglia has described them as 'mordant, energetic and outrageous."
I don’t moan about reviews. Great reviews have kept me going. Reviews – and women. I couldn’t’ve survived without the women. Favourite literary publication? I read none systematically, all occasionally – except The Times book section on Saturdays. What’s wrong with it? Everything is jittery and broken up; it repels the eye; obviously it’s terrified of text, of writing.
A Tardis takes you back to Oxford and you’re aged 19. Did you dream or imagine where you were headed? As a writer? And have you arrived to your satisfaction?
Please don’t use ‘headed’ for ‘heading’. You’ll be saying ‘bored of’ next. I was writing before I could read. Making marks on paper and clipping them into little books. When I write I’m inside the language; something is coming out through the language. I’m not writing from the outside in. Polishing is tertiary – but I love it more than the original writing: one has the animal breathing quietly beneath one’s hands. I am largely unrecognised.
Your life at a distance at least seems golden – the first Spectator pop writer, the Ashley book, glittering journalism, an Oxford scholar … do you feel lucky or will you tell us of hard work?
Never make this error about the lives of others. Life for everyone is a struggle.
Did your family of origin help or hinder your career as a literary and sexual adventurer?
My father had a wire factory in Reading. It was an enormous help.
Your ideal sexual scenario?
At the moment – lads of the Empire.
Is it possible to speak of “best lovers” (ie the best in bed) in your case …
All lovers are unique. Bad sex can be very thrilling for the heart.
You’re a very sexual writer. I remember in To Noto your description of sexual frustration – I think on some wasteland. Give us a snapshot of the Duncan Fallowell libido, orientation. Is he serially monogamous, promiscuous. He has written of rent boys
I make it up as I go along. I’m not a box-ticker but a swimmer. Drowning’s good too.
To Noto and St Petersburg are “quest” books as much as travel books (combining diary, travel, memoir etc). Do you plan to write any more in this vein?
I have lately finished my third - and last – in this vein, called Going As Far As I Can, about wanderings in New Zealand. It’s been rejected by three big publishers so far. They don’t want New Zealand and they don’t understand my freaky version of it (the book uses New Zealand as a touchstone for general cultural crises – but doesn’t spell this out in big letters, so they are clueless).
Who’s your publisher now? Friends with Arcadia again? Do publishers do their best for authors?
Arcadia are publishing A History of Facelifting in the USA on April Fool’s Day of this coming year. Do publishers do their best for authors? The problem is publishers are frightened by writers. Haven’t you noticed that publishers and writers don’t talk to each other at parties?
In general do you feel at odds with the world or a fully paid up member of the chorus? You strike me capable of great anger …
Sometimes in, sometimes out. Occasionally from my towering rage I reach down to grope a lamb.
Quite apart from the novels and non-fiction, you have interviewed a great many notables – could you thought-associate on a few of them. Who was the biggest bastard? Who the most admirable? Any fanciable? And tell us of Barbara Cartland – nice teeth?
I seem to detect four principal artistic influences in my life from among the living: Sacheverell Sitwell, John Betjeman, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs. I knew three of them well. I fancy about twenty people a day but funnily enough the only celebrity I’ve ever really fancied was Jamie Oliver in his young days, probably because I never met him, and a boxer whom I shan’t name because I had him (I can get into sporno a bit). No bastards really, more ‘monstrous egos’. Norman Foster, whom I interviewed for the Financial Times, was heavy, trying to influence the piece afterwards behind the scenes. James Brown was also quite heavy, with bodyguards in the room, but would never have been underhand like Foster. Brown was fantastically direct. I was thrown off the set of Tina Turner’s video but that wasn’t her fault. Peter O’Toole gave me gastritis exacerbated by duodenitis. The only celebrity who was actually nasty was Bryan Ferry who called me ‘a shit’ and slammed down the phone, but of course he was a friend. Because of that I decided never to interview friends again.
Gore Vidal has been quite rude about you over the years – (to me) he once called you “lazy”. You once upset him terribly in the Spectator – he sent a long raging response which he now prefers to forget about. But he loves you really? One can't imagine a Vidal biopic a la Capote ....
Gore was mortified by his appearance in To Noto which he said was a pack of lies but it’s a very accurate account of our meeting in Ravello (I jotted everything down immediately afterwards). The trouble with Gore is that he hates everyone on sight – he may in time come to like those who let him get away with murder.
Hello! magazine has been sent to your home. Where would it find you and would you care to describe how such things as your laundry and garden get done.
I have a flat in Notting Hill, plus a house near Saint Tropez co-owned with my brother. My London garden is a dragon tree in the sitting-room which, despite every encouragement, refuses to die. I have a Bosch washing-machine from Peter Jones. It’s always full of white cotton sheets.
You wrote the Gormenghast libretto – are you still writing for opera?
No. But I would love to. Writing is so solitary that collaboration feels like a holiday. Micky Karoli said that the Gormenghast libretto was the best thing I ever wrote – which goes to show how partial people are. Music was always big in my life. I worked a lot with Can.
No one’s ever heard of him so in a few words sell us your intellectual pin-up the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran.
Cioran is the dandy of ontological pessimism. Despair as cosmic joke. Autobiography as abstract expressionism. Metaphysics bursting through the sound barrier. The sentence as crooked laser beam. He wrote skin-tight, erectile French and has the best translator into English, Richard Howard.
Have you ever had a clairvoyant or psychic reading? If so what was foretold?
Yes, I had my hand read at a Rolling Stones party at Blenheim Palace – forgotten what she said. I had it read again at the Kinsham Court fete – forgotten what she said too. Just as well. I’m terribly suggestible. I’ve only got to read about cancer to precipitate lumps.
And now one-liner response questions:
Iraq – if democracy can’t take root in the Muslim world the Islamic religion will destroy itself.
Pete Doherty – one of nature’s bottoms.
Tesco – I can’t stand supermarkets. I get the horrors in them, unless a woman is with me taking the brunt.
Blair – when I voted for him in 1996 or 7, whenever it was, it was the first time I’d ever voted (abstention is a legitimate political act). I knew a number of queer Tory MPs and their hypocrisy was disturbing. Now? We need tough decisions to take us through global warming and the potential collapse of European society from waves of hot-country refugees.
Ideal country – hills & woods & streams & meadows.
The X Factor – don’t understand.
Green taxes – of course.
Will Self decadent? - why are you hung up on this word? ‘Decadent’ applies to an artistic mood of the late nineteenth century. It is only used elsewhere by religious and political tyrants. Never read any Will Self. I saw him once, at Oscar Moore’s funeral.
And tell us of your next project.
My next project is plural. The aforementioned New Zealand book is ready to go. So is another little book, of a weirder kind still. Plus a second collection of showbizzy/arty meetings/interviews/occasions called Sketches From Café Society. Plus a third, more literary/nostalgia, called Portraits In A Distant Corridor.
Keep up the good work, Madame A, and have a prosperous, provocative 2007!
And you Duncan.