Interview by Bruno Bayley


Duncan Fallowell is one of the figureheads of modern British journalism. At 21 he was the Spectator’s first rock critic. He then released the anthology Drug Tales in 1979, before promptly giving up drugs to prevent “burning out”. Fallowell, who nearly became the lead singer of Can after Damo Suzuki left, was a friend of William Burroughs, has written on film, music and books, and has also penned novels that people seem to have a tendency to burn. Over calvados and shortbread in his west London home, Fallowell told me what drugs do to writing, and why this should be called the Literature Issue, not the Fiction Issue.

Vice: Your first book, Drug Tales, is not about what most people might expect. There are stories in it about green tea, for example.

Duncan Fallowell: I take a broad view of what a drug is. I included the elixir of youth in the anthology. One shouldn’t be too pharmacological in reading the book; it is meant to be a literary experience.

How did the book come about?

I used to know someone called Roger Machell, who was the editorial director of Hamish Hamilton in the buccaneering days of independent publishing. He sent me an anthology of short stories they were publishing about cricket—what a total yawn. That is for the Sebastian Faulks people of this world; no self-respecting author can get passionate about cricket. It was embarrassing, even in the 70s. It was meant to be for fans of writing and fans of cricket, but it fell between those two stools very silently. But I told Roger I would like to do an anthology of drug tales. He dropped his glass and said, “Oh, what a good idea,” then promptly issued a dodgy contract—that was another feature of the good old days of independent publishing.

So DrugTales was a sort of summary of drug writing to date?

I edited Drug Tales, but I actually included one story I wrote under the invented name of Peter Riviera. Then I found out there was actually a person called Peter Riviere or something, who was the son of a record producer, who threatened to sue me. It came at the end of a drug-taking era. They always seem to coincide with the Labour Party being in government. The 60s and 70s were Labour eras and drug eras. The 80s and 90s were not. People talk about yuppies and cocaine and that equation is true, but I am talking about drugs as part of the creative world and being accepted as having a role in the imagination.
The Thatcherite, coke 80s was very much about making more money. When I came into drugs it was a cultural movement that, with acid, came to be called psychedelia. That drug era was followed by a culturally dry period of “Sit up straight and wear a tie!”, Dynasty, Joan Collins, green wellies, etc. And then, at the turn of the century, we launched into another drug period, which I suspect is now coming to its end too.
There are drug problems in the world, but they are now linked with far more serious problems, political dissent being funded by heroin trade and then fading into organised crime. It much resembles the world of my first novel, Satyrday, which is full of terrorists, drug dealers and pornographers all somehow coming together and popping up at embassy receptions.

You first came into the drugs scene at Oxford, right?

Yes. It was rather an age of innocence. It came from that much earlier experience of Isherwood and Huxley on the west coast of America, Alan Watts and Zen. California during the last war was very much a crucible of what would burst out with the Beats and Existentialists and later the Hippies.
I was attracted by the Beats in terms of how they so much enlarged the territory— of what you were allowed to write about. I didn’t find them very interesting technically. I remember once writing somewhere—when I was very young, one of my first book reviews, I think—that all revolutions in art were technical. I said that human beings have had the same general problems throughout history, but that the way these were expressed or dealt with could evolve. Graham Greene wrote a letter to the paper saying that it was a load of cobblers. I have been thinking about it ever since.

What is your view of the effects of drugs on writing and literature?

Well, in my own case, it rendered my work unpublishable. I was taking all of the drugs that were available at the time. I was never addicted to anything, I was never that organised. Taking drugs was never the objective, which it is in an addiction. Take dope, speed, alcohol, cigarettes, and sit down with a purple pen and you think you will be Gogol. And you are! Until you present your results to other people. They may get a Gogolian atmosphere, but your powers of communication have been impaired. My journalism too was very off-the-wall at that time; you were allowed to be then, even in straight papers.

It doesn’t sound like drugs were particularly helpful.

The thing about drugs is that they were not a distraction for me. They were very much part of my personal exploration. But they did inhibit my publishablity. What they did is they taught me to absorb at a very instinctive level the sculptural, sensual and musical aspects of language. This was more the cannabis and acid side of things. Words were no longer just cars that carried meaning. The meaning and the word were one.
At the age of 30, I came off everything. I was burning up; it was all becoming either repetitive or plain dangerous. Mark Hyatt, who wrote the poem “Randel” in Drug Tales, died very young. He might have become a professional writer if he had stopped taking drugs. That’s the other thing—there is a level of professionalism in anything. A writer must have a voice, a vision and something to say, but you must be able to get things across, as opposed to just fouling your own nest. Fouling your own nest taken to its logical conclusion is self-extinction.

Is there a drug that works best for writing? Or is that a silly question?

No, it is a very interesting subject that has not really been well addressed in what has passed for debate on it. I used to use a lot of speed, and people know that speed turns you into a bore in these terms, because you lose your objective judgment. But it’s very exciting and wonderfully rewarding to involve yourself in a verbal universe. But that is not the same as writing a book. I don’t write for myself, I write to turn other people on. My whole drug period was in a sense an apprenticeship. I had produced this amazing material and some of it has found its way, in an altered form, into published work. But mainly I realised it was training, learning how to use the greater possibilities of language, for the books I’d begin to write in my 30s.

How did your attitude to writing change once you had stopped taking drugs?

I came back to what was publishable very slowly and carefully. I went to live in Hay-on-Wye, and I wrote a book about someone else, about a transsexual who was also a close friend of mine. And that was when the absolutely enormous effort involved in writing a book, that another person can read with enjoyment and excitement, dawned on me. At the same time I had no desire to write conventionally in order to be published. In art there is no thrill in doing something which has already been done. I saw writing as a major art form that should be pushed forwards, and one that demanded total commitment. One of the by-products of my attitude is that some people can get extremely jealous of that dedication. You can’t marry them because you’re married to your books. Awful! I used to be bisexual, I am now pretty much gay, but I live here alone. I am a very gregarious person, and I hate the necessary solitude required to produce a significant book. I find writing difficult and in order to get it done, I have to put myself in places where there is nothing else to do, which means being alone in rather remote circumstances. The first drafts of all my books are written in alien or isolated locations. It’s the opposite with journalism – I can only do journalism in the city. It’s the difference between short-term and long-term pressure.

On the phone, you mentioned that you wished we had called this issue the Literature Issue, not the Fiction Issue. Why?

Fiction is such a turn-off word. Not because I am against imaginative work—far from it—but because there is so much crap published under the banner ‘fiction’. Fiction is like footwear or dairy products—I am not interested in it. I am interested in literature, whether it be history, poetry or philosophy in addition to so-called fiction. What I am talking about is high-performance language. Not crap language to get the story across, not some commercial idea that is simply verbalised. I want high performance language operated by an expert.

When you travel on the tube these days, you notice that everyone is reading the same crappy book about vampire cheerleaders.

I haven’t been on the tube since the 1981 so I’ll take your word for it. What you are talking about is probably a fads, a marketing phenomenon. Such books are not adding anything. This is commerce. Mind you, there is always a place for that; I am terribly high-minded about what I do, but I am not going to start telling people they shouldn’t be reading something. The choice is theirs. But for me a book that is not performing at a high level linguistically is boring. Why should I waste time on it? I know many, many people who can read good and bad books and enjoy both. I can’t myself. Jean Cocteau, who has a reputation in some circles as a high-art fiend, used to love reading cheap detective fiction on the beach. Far too much money and energy goes into making sure there are bad books out there.

I have been re-reading books I read when I was a child, such as John Buchan novels.

He has become very fashionable recently. People talk about Greenmantle as the ultimate page-turner, but I found it tiresome. I kept seeing Peter O’Toole standing on top of a train. At the moment I am trying to get to grips with Dante, but it’s not easy. If you want to talk about what Europe is you have to go back to such authors, and back much further - to the classical world. You have the Pope and others these days issuing statements about the influx of Islam and the dangers of imported beliefs. But that’s hogwash if the implication is that Christianity is not imported. It is of course an imported religion too and not, may I point out, the religion of Christ. Jesus was an interesting guy, an exceptional man, but he was hijacked by the same old farts, I’m afraid.

Are your literary interests firmly anchored in the European tradition?

.Well, I should hope that by 60 I would be anchored in something! We all need anchorage. If I’d got to this age without it I would probably be some awful piece of glop that gets flushed out the back of a supermarket. I don’t think I have to apologise for admiring European values and what they mean in terms of the human spirit. I think that Europe has, in intellectual terms, been the powerhouse of the world, but then you have to wonder if this is necessarily a good thing given the way the world seems to be burning up.

Your novels aroused some uproar, did they not?

Someone described my novel Satyrday as a late-20th-century version of Vile Bodies. But it’s much more discursive and weird than Vile Bodies. People got very annoyed about the second novel, The Underbelly, because they thought it contained extreme violence. One critic said that as he was reading a passage from that book his hand clenched so hard he couldn’t let go of the thing for a minute, but that when he was able to, he threw it across the room. He wrote about it in the review. Another person, a friend of mine who read it in the south of France, said her husband took it off her and threw it in the fire. A third, a Roman Catholic living in Fulham, also threw it in the fire.
My fourth novel, which I’m just finishing, is a ghost story; I describe it as a post-spectralist ghost story. I discovered the most frightening thing is gradually to undermine the methods by which you tell whether something does or does not exist—that is what it’s about. About a very straight man who gradually loses his techniques of verification. Most of us live in this abyss most of the time, but it’s only when you become aware of it that it becomes alarming. I suppose that is what happens to mad people.

Your Wikipedia page says the following: “Graham Greene did not like his first novel, but thought it belonged to the 21st century. William Burroughs relished his books”. How do you feel about that as a summary of your life’s work?

Well, that is a very 20th-century quotation, and we are now in the 21st. Graham Greene was an awkward bugger, he wouldn’t be interviewed. I trailed the names of the Sunday Times, the Telegraph—he wasn’t interested. Finally I said, “What about Penthouse?” and he said, “Oh yes, I will do it for Penthouse.” Good Catholic. I also did Anthony Burgess for Penthouse. I arranged a date with Greene, went down to Saint Tropez where my parents were staying, and rang him up. He blew me out. I can’t be bothered with an interview now. And I’d gone all that way. My mother said ‘Give him 24 hours and try again’, which I did and he was sweetness itself. So I drove over and we got on very well from then on. But he had highly conventional tastes and was very censorious about all kinds of things. Yet he was attracted by the opposite of that. His sitting-room in Antibes was dominated by the collected journals of Byron, which he seemed very engrossed in. I sent him Satyrday, which he described as “not his cup of tea”. He obviously felt bad afterwards, being down on a young writer, and added, “It’s something for the 21st century.” Bill Burroughs was more of a friend. In old age Bill made a decision to be charming – and he was. Always kindly and encouraging. In his last years he used to send out Christmas cards - can you imagine it?

What is your favourite type of reader?

A slow reader.