The Antipope – Robert Rankin

The first in the increasingly inaccurately titled Brentford Trilogy (currently eleven books with at least one more to come, which is claimed to be the last of the series) The Antipope also has the most straight forward title. Rankin has a passion for punning titles but as this was also his first ever book, originally published in 1981, maybe he felt something more mainstream was required. My copy is the 35th anniversary limited edition privately published by Rankin and signed by him, it is also the first time the book has appeared in hardback. Rankin himself describes his work as far fetched fiction, indeed his privately published volumes are by Far Fetched Books, at the time of writing the limited edition of The Antipope was still available and is illustrated internally by the author, the cover is by the brilliant Josh Kirby

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The full list of Brentford Trilogy books so far is as follows; and from this you can see his love of wordplay with other book titles and songs:

  1. The Antipope (1981)
  2. The Brentford Triangle (1983)
  3. East of Ealing (1984)
  4. The Sprouts of Wrath (1988)
  5. The Brentford Chainsaw Massacre (1997)
  6. Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls (1999)
  7. Knees Up Mother Earth (2004)
  8. The Brightonomicon (2005)
  9. Retromancer (2009)
  10. The Lord of the Ring Roads (2017)
  11. The Chronicles of Banarnia (2018)

The Brightonomicon and Retromancer (2009) are included above although they aren’t in the list of Brentford Trilogy books at the front of this book which only has the first seven but equally on the dust wrapper it says:

The Antipope was the first book in the Brentford Trilogy which now includes at least nine books and will feature one more with the launch of The Lord of the Ring Roads – the first book in a new Brentford Trilogy – some time in the not too distant future.

The reason for the confusion in the number of books to be officially counted in the series is probably due to the appearance of several characters from the set appearing in other books by Rankin which means that those may, or may not, be part of the canon. The books also do not appear to have a specific reading order; things that happen in one book are ignored in later volumes, characters even reappear when they were apparently killed off or written out in earlier books and never with any explanation. Individual volumes are consistent within themselves however just don’t expect a sweeping narrative across them all.

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Brentford itself is one of the least eventful places in the UK and certainly contests strongly for the top spot for this amongst towns within Greater London. Looking on the time line on the wikipedia page reveals that the only act worthy of mention in the last ninety years is the 1965 opening of the elevated section of the M4 motorway, an opportunity the express road took to bypass Brentford entirely. This makes the location all the funnier for the ‘far fetched fiction’ that Rankin has take place there and the cast of odd characters that populate the books. Chief amongst these are John Omally and Jim Pooley who are the reluctant, and frequently drunk, heroes of the book. They are never happier than when enjoying a pint of large in The Flying Swan served by Neville the part time barman at that establishment. It should be noted that Neville appears to be the only barman at the Flying Swan so he does seem to be full time although is always described as the part time barman. The other main characters for this tale are Professor Slocombe who understands more than most what is going on and guides the characters to the ultimate defeat of the Antipope; Norman Hartnell (always described as not to be confused with the other Norman Hartnell) who is a mad inventor and runs the newsagents; Soap Distant explorer of the inner Earth; Captain Carson from the Seaman’s Mission and Archroy who, at least at the start of the book, is working at the local rubber factory.

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The plot starts with the arrival in the Flying Swan of

a beggar of dreadful aspect and sorry footwear

All those who encounter him feel compelled to cross themselves even if they are not Catholic and he slowly encounters most of the main protagonists most especially Captain Carson as he moves in and then takes over the Mission house. Quite what a seaman’s mission is doing in Brentford is also a mystery, the town is on the Thames but a long way from the sea. The plot gets odder and odder with each flight of fantasy by Rankin including ‘magic’ beans, vast underground chambers, an attempt to wade the English Channel and a cowboy night nobody will ever forget amongst other things.

Now I’m going to have to read the others in the series…

To conclude with Robert Rankin’s own explanation of Far Fetched Fiction from a 1999 interview in Dublin

 I’ve said this before, when I went into writing I wanted to create a new genre of fiction that wasn’t like anybody else’s. It was going to be called Far Fetched Fiction, I would have my own book shelf in Smiths, with just my books in them and it would be bliss. But it didn’t quite work out like that, I ended up in a general fiction section, and then they realised that I didn’t write general fiction and I ended up in science fiction, which I feel a bit of a fraud for being there. Because people who write science fiction don’t know what I write, and… I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, what was I going to say?

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