Duncan Fallowell sets out to odd corners of the world in pursuit of some extraordinary and improbable characters who were, in most cases, momentarily famous – or infamous – and then simply disappeared.


Duncan Fallowell, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits, Ditto Press, 2011.
http://www.duncanfallowell.com/web/main.htm


WINNER OF THE 2012 PEN/ACKERLEY PRIZE
A haunting memoir on the nature of belonging and the lure of escape.
In this series of five brilliantly written and irrepressibly quirky travelogues, Duncan Fallowell sets out to odd corners of the world in pursuit of some extraordinary and improbable characters who were, in most cases, momentarily famous – or infamous – and then simply disappeared.
From an out-of-season Gozo and a becalmed Indian hill-town; to a remote Scottish island, where a German artist vanished immediately after he had bought a large island in the Hebrides, and a Welsh fishing village, where Fallowell tracks down the model for Sebastian Flyte, the aristocratic anti-hero of Evelyn Waugh’ s Brideshead Revisited, How to Disappear winds through the eerie abyss that can open up between someone – or something – being both real and phantom.
Written with a fierce intelligence and charmingly offbeat humour, How to Disappear is one of the most unusual ‘ autobiographies’ – not to mention collection of travellers’ tales – ever written.




In five dated yet beautifully crafted essays, Fallowell (Going as Far as I Can: The Ultimate Travel Book, 2008, etc.) mines some early trips he took for literary inspiration.
The destinations included sparsely populated Gozo, Malta and the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The author also searched for the fabulously wealthy buyer of a Scottish island, Maruma, who made art with “fire energy” and hunted for the inspiration behind the character Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Fallowell’s essays take a sweet, circuitous route, which he self-consciously describes as “a progressive revelation, as a painter starting with a few lines scattered about the canvas will eventually end up with a portrait as complete as he can make it.” The author drops hints that then reappear to guide him on his pursuits, such as happening upon an entry in The Indian Yearbook 1941-2—while stoned out of his mind in Ooty in 1975—for a woman named Bapsy Pavry who seemed to encapsulate an entire era of British imperial organization and who haunted the author for the next 20 years. Fallowell’s hopeless pursuit of Maruma in the summer of 1995, luring the author fruitlessly to the Isle of Eigg to meet him, inspires a virtuosic dissertation on the subject of the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The author’s odd journalistic persecution of the shut-in Alastair Graham, living in quiet solitude in Wales, exposes more about the sexual proclivities of the author than the once-darling “it” boy and intimate of Waugh. Fallowell ends with a swooning chronicle of London’s mad grief at the death of Princess Diana (“Beyond the Blue Horizon”).
A delicious throwback memoir, writerly and rich. - Kirkus


Just three years after Going as Far as I Can–Duncan Fallowell’s account of an ill-starred visit to New Zealand – comes thishandsome hardback, in which the ever-characterful author fails entirely to disappear from his prose. It’s not about a particular trip, but How to Disappear is asmucha travel book as To Noto,Fallowell’s 1989 record of a car journey to Sicily, or OneHot Summer in St Petersburg, his 1994 account of a Russian affair.
It ranges from Malta to India to Britain across three decades. “Sailingto Gozo”, an extension of To Noto, finds our herosetting sail from Catania to Malta on a whim, drawn as usualby the planet’s backwaters: “I…don’t want to discharge where all the rest have discharged”.
Gozo – erstwhile Mediterranean pinprick of British colonialism – suits nicely. Fallowell heads for the Duke of Edinburgh hotel, a cobwebbed relic boasting a mounted letter of thanks from Winston Churchill’s secretary. He stays until thebooks run out – at which point, by the magic of editing, we accompanyFallowell on a climb of the Nilgiri Hills (Tamil Nadu) in pursuit of one Bapsy Pavry, “Dowager Marchioness of Winchester”, nonagenarian social climber and personifiedpostscript of Empire.
Bapsy leads to the Isle of Eigg, owned by dilettante German artist “Maruma”. Isolated Eigg turns out to be theoneplace you can’t meet its owner, one of those people “who stand you up or cut you dead, and then express surprise if you’re put out or hurt”. Maruma is too frightened to own his own kingdom.
The fourth chapter starts in 1979, and follows another “misfit”, Alistair Graham,whomFallowellmeets in a pubinNew Quay, Wales. Graham turns out to have been the model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, a discovery which hooks Fallowell for 60 pages (and 30 years) of fine intrigueandexcavation.
In the final episode the author finds himself carrying a white cyclamentoKensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana. For all his protests, the scene struck this reader as too mundane – until the comparisons to Cleopatra in her funeral barge… How to Disappear is magical, original and an unforgettable read: vintage Fallowell. - Richard Canning                  
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/how-to-disappear-a-memoir-for-misfits-by-duncan-fallowell-2376271.html


In five distinct chapters woven together through a deep sense of nostalgia and a detective-like wistfulness, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits by Duncan Fallowell offers the reader a glimpse into what it means to be (and to search for) those that have been forgotten, either through time or because of their own reclusiveness.

In Fallowell’s first chapter, “Sailing to Gozo,” he introduces us to the ancient Maltese island of Gozo, a place that time has (and most tourists have) forgotten and which has been left alone to develop its own unique characteristics and qualities. Using geography as jumping off point, Fallowell cannily examines the importance of place in the lives of these outsiders.
“The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry,” Fallowell’s second entry, is a chronology of the author’s search for Babsy Pavry, an Indian Parsi socialite who married an English nobleman. Attempting to use her (semi-) socialite birth and married title to climb the social ladder, she was forced out of a loveless marriage and exiled to writing letters to the famous and royal, attempting to garner a place at their social table. Pavry proved a misfit trying to blend. She was outcast by others but saw herself as one of the group. She was always on the outside looking in; even when she was gallivanting with the famous we get a sense that her social successes were merely superficial.
In his third chapter “Waiting for Maruma,” Fallowell takes us to the Isle of Eigg, a 24-square-mile island off the western coast of Scotland with a population of about 65. German New Age artist Marlin Eckhard, known as Maruma, impulsively buys the island after flying over it. With a recent history of bad lairds—the Scottish title for the owner of the main island manor—the people are both skeptical and hopeful that Maruma’s big talk will actually turn into real benefits. The islanders, Fallowell later finds out, would purchase the island for themselves once Maruma’s deal collapsed. They are able to retain their outsider and misfit status.
In the fourth part, “Who was Alastair Graham?”, Fallowell writes of a chance encounter with Alastair Graham, the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Bridesheads Revisited character Sebastian Flyte. Eventually visiting Graham, Fallowell is rebuffed and only later learns of the circumstances surrounding Graham’s exit from Waugh’s life through an archive of letters and family memories by Graham’s niece. Like other sexual “misfits” of his day, Graham was forced into seclusion based on his homosexuality and retained the very real fear of stigmatization.
Fallowell concludes his work with “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” reflecting on the effect the death and funeral of Princess Diana had on the public.Connecting us back to the first chapter on Gozo where a barmaid asks, since he is English, if the author has ever met Diana, Fallowell offers the Princess of Wales as the ultimate misfit: one who was once outcast but was able to overcome that status to become a symbol of power and class, the embodiment of popular acceptance and fame. We are drawn to misfits; we feel as one with them.  Through their overcoming of what separates them, it gives hope for all of us.
Each story connects to the others either through a chance encounter, location or person. The chapters are each a manageable length, and Fallowell (first and foremost a travel writer) sprinkles stories of discovery—of Venice, Pompeii, hotels’ histories, etc.—throughout, offering the reader brief leisurely detours before returning to the main story.
Extremely readable, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits works as a travel book, a nonfiction detective story and a self-help exploration of what it means to be a misfit. Fallowell presents a collection accessible on different levels. We the reader feel the author’s anxiety of almost finding his answer or meeting his mark but then falling short or getting there too late. We also understand the role of serendipity in research and life. Often, there is no control over those who enter and exit our lives, those who may have a lasting (or cursory) effect on us. All we can do is soak up such experience.
This book made me want to search my family photo albums, diaries and letters to find a mystery to solve. The whole work has the feeling of a genealogist that starts her research only after all of her elder relatives have died—that feeling not really of nostalgia but of a lost collective experience. Graham’s recollections of Waugh go with him; Babsy’s true personality hidden under her socialite exterior dies with her; Gozo and Eigg feel as if they are on the cusp of progress and development but never realize either. We are finally left with Diana, who did actually overcome her misfit and outcast persona. Fallowell offers that maybe there is hope yet for all misfits and outsiders who strive to find their place in the world. - Eli Arnold
https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/memoir/09/28/how-to-disappear-a-memoir-for-misfits-by-duncan-fallowell/




They are, if you like, quests. The first is to know an obscure place, the next three are to discover obscure (sometimes wilfully obscure) persons, the last to understand a unique mass phenomenon. Everyone or everything here is a misfit, including the author, who is a connoisseur of misfits.
In Sailing To Gozo, a quirky travel essay, Fallowell visits the island off the coast of Malta, arriving by ship from Sicily. “Is Gozo like Sicily?” he asks a fellow passenger and Gozo resident. “Not in the slightest,” comes the reply. “Sicily is civilisation.”
Once on the island he stays at the Duke of Edinburgh, a rundown, colonial-era hotel. It is cheap enough that one could stay for a long time and disappear. On a beach he meets an expatriate American artist named Gregory who has been living on Gozo since 1968 and has invented his own private language. A chance encounter with a frowning man on Fallowell’s first day on the island is echoed each time this man reappears. Does he betoken danger or sexual adventure or both?
Having discovered that the hotel is scheduled to disappear as part of a redevelopment Fallowell leaves. Let “the sense of loss” be “replaced by the sense of expectancy”, he says.
In The Curious Case Of Bapsy Pavry, Fallowell starts his quest during his hippy travels in southern India in the early Seventies. He buys a copy of The Indian Yearbook 1941-2 at a jumble sale and finds the entry for Miss Bapsy Pavry, a Parsi and the daughter of a Zoroastrian high priest who had been presented at court in England and had met Mussolini and Hitler.
Later he reads an obituary of Bapsy, who had become the Dowager Marchioness of Winchester, only to discover later still that he had somehow imagined the obituary, though not her title.
Years later he tracks her down, a dweller in hotels with no perceptible domestic circle, whose “whole life was a campaign to become one of the great figures of the age and doomed on that account because she never really did anything except social-climb”.
In the end she bequeathed large sums to institutions on condition that they give her some sort of obscure memorial. It is a deeply affecting essay.
In Who Was Alastair Graham? Fallowell has a chance encounter in a pub in the south Wales seaside resort of New Quay with an elderly toff who tells him en passant that the novelist Evelyn Waugh was not “well-endowed”.
This turns out, Fallowell later realises, to be Alastair Graham, a friend and lover of Waugh’s at Oxford and the model for Sebastian Flyte, the love-object of Charles Ryder in Waugh’s most famous novel Brideshead Revisited. Gradually Fallowell peels back the layers of Graham’s life. After retreating from London in the Thirties Graham had settled in New Quay, a place “as remote as anywhere on mainland Britain”.
Had he been advised to leave the metropolis by the police, who knew about his actively homosexual and therefore criminal life? Spurned by Waugh, though with ample family money and a couple of servants, he began his disappearing act.
After Graham died in 1982 without any obituaries his ashes were scattered at sea and “he was finally able to do what he so often wanted to do, to disappear from the world without memorial or trace”.
These essays are polished jewels of consciousness, presented with this author’s trademark mixture of profundity, wit and joyful naughtiness. They drink the elixir of loss, though with an eye fixed on the horizon. -
https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/268726/Review-How-to-disappear-A-memoir-for-misfits-By-Duncan-Fallowell





Duncan Fallowell, History of Facelifting, Arcadia, 2003.


This extraordinary roller-coaster ride into deepest England begins as a mysterious thriller, when an unknown woman arrives at a silent village in the dead of night. But the plot takes on a wild, unpredictable energy, as her search for love draws her into lives on conflicting journeys of their own. As though Evelyn Waugh and William Burroughs had somehow collided in the 21st century, this novel is sometimes shocking but surprisingly warm-hearted, and has already been hailed as a comic masterpiece.


‘ . . . very strange and involving . . . the combination of manic farce with warmth and wisdom seems quite new to me . . . certainly deserves to become a classic of English eccentricity.’ -  John Fuller


‘The writing is so elegant and malicious in its tone . . . The text delights in lush torrents of weirdness . . . Fallowell has constructed an alternate England, heavily distorted for comic effect . . . one of the best books of the year . . . ’-  Andrew Biswell, Scotland on Sunday



‘The novel possesses a mad, bucolic festiveness that one might wish to meet with at a country fete but sadly rarely does.’-  Harriet Waugh, Spectator


‘This grotesque, gothic, theatrical fantasy . . . an extraordinary, far-reaching book . . . it takes us back and forth through great swathes of English life.’- Andrew Barrow, Literary Review


‘It manages to capture the curious world of darkly frozen hysteria that is our English countryside . . . painstaking dedication to describing nature . . . the madness going on is paradoxically familiar and surprising . . . extremely funny’- Paul Pickering, Daily Express


Two decades ago, Duncan Fallowell attributed the birth of the modern English novel to the 1920s writer Ronald Firbank. Only a small cult has ever attended Firbank, whose best-known work is probably Valmouth, on account of the musical treatment by Sandy Wilson. Still, Fallowell's point was sound. An important tradition of social comedy may be traced through Firbank - from Peacock and Austen to Waugh, Wodehouse, Mitford and Powell. None of the latter quartet could have written as they did without the example of Firbank's rococo prose.What would Firbank - the "tea-cup vampire with a stammer", in Fallowell's phrase - make of 21st-century Britain? A History of Facelifting provides a kind of answer. There are many other reasons to commend this, Fallowell's third novel. But the knowingly-deployed Firbankian zest, wit and love of the improbable are good starting-points.
Fallowell may currently be more familiar for his journalism and travel writing: the lost classic One Hot Summer in St Petersburg, and To Noto, recently republished by Gibson Square. A History of Facelifting should change this, bringing its author the wide readership he deserves.

No cosmetic surgery is involved. Fallowell's true subject is the de-wrinkling of rural England. This relentless ironing-out of local traditions is effected by an unholy trinity of "enterprise" culture: the free market, national and European governments, and ubiquitous media culture. Don't be misled, however; the novel romps through such concerns without a let-up in the satiric pay-offs and memorable lines. Quite a stack of corpses is accommodated without any risk of seriousness.
The plot concerns the village of Milking Magna, long subject to aristocratic feuding between the Craddocks and the Popjoys. The latter own the Heavenshire estate, as well as Polpotto's masterpiece "Massacre of the Innocents" and - more important - a long-lost volume of poems by Leonardo, which might restore the family's dire finances. In no sense up to these challenges is "JJ", the debauched, pot-bellied Marquess of Heavenshire. He longs only to preserve "his lovely ankles, his only slimness" - and to keep in sight his roving catamite, "Glory Boy".
More immediately threatening to the wellbeing of the village - home of the church of Saint Wendy's and the Beowulf Caravan Park - is a new-town development. The government's Machiavelli, the "Minister for Power", has proposed a monstrous "City of Cognitive Neuroscience". It would swallow Milking Magna whole.
Embroiled in the plot's hairpin bends is a pantomimic cast. Stormy Weather, a cross-dressing cabaret singer from Hong Kong, is shacked up in the nearby resort of Puckermouth, home of "King Lear: the Musical". Ragamuffin the shepherd is the proud winner of the pub's hairiest bottom competition. Sylvia Wetmore's apotheosis arrives in the form of a hit BBC series, "The Fat Gardener". One memorable arrival is Mrs Glottle-Ganges, the Hindu intellectual.
As in Firbank, such sharp portraits occasionally draw blood. There's a sort of democracy of insult, however. Only the most mirthless of the politically correct will not be cajoled into a broad smile. Perhaps that's just the sort of facelift Duncan Fallowell has in mind.  - Richard Canning

NOT MANY novelists still operating can put a puff from Graham Greene on the back of their work. To that extent, Duncan Fallowell certainly has literary pedigree. But I am not sure that, despite the promising title, he does himself justice in A History of Facelifting.
It is one of those frustratingly uneven novels which by turns charms and alienates the reader. Keen satirical shafts - like a Covent Garden performance of L'Eremittaggio di Liverpool - are interspersed with embarrassingly unfunny moments. What humorist worth his salt, for example, would call a character Mrs Bladder-Williams? Again and again, writing of real elegance gives way to bathos: "Time hung heavy like an unmilked udder." Tougher editing would have produced a stronger book.
The action takes place in the county of Heavenshire, a clumsy substitute for Herefordshire, at some unspecified point in the future. Fox-hunting still flourishes, but the country is ruled by a King-Emperor who has recently sold Sandringham to the Chinese. The main plot, although it will later be swamped by a myriad of subplots, features Alice, formerly the mistress of the Minister of Power, who has moved from London to take up an administrative post in a stately home. The Marquess of Heavenshire is on his uppers, it seems, and needs a few conferences organised to make ends meet.
So far, so clear. But Fallowell tries to keep so many other balls in the air that he ends up dropping up half of them. A Whitehall scheme to establish an artificial intelligence park in deepest Heavenshire runs foul of the villagers of Milking Magna. Someone puts a fake severed foot in Alice's bed. There is a wedding, a funeral, babies swapped at birth, a gay policeman, the kidnapping of a cabinet minister, a long-lost manuscript, an ecumenical gathering . . .
It would take Tom Sharpe in his prime to marshal this wealth of material into a satisfying whole. But if Fallowell is a hit-and-miss writer, his heart is in the right place. This satire on rural England under siege is suffused with tenderness towards a way of life we interfere with at our peril. Some of the best passages evoke traditional country celebrations - the Harvest Festival, Hallowe'en, Christmas - and the dotty English charm they epitomise. If the novel as a whole disappoints, it should raise some affectionate chuckles in far-flung Herefordshire villages. - DAVID ROBSON





‘Something for the twenty first century.’ -  Graham Greene


‘Satyrday takes up where Petronius’s Satyricon left off.’ - Roger Lewis


‘Mordant, energetic and outrageous . . . ’  - Camille Paglia


‘ . . . a post-punk world of unspeakable violence, snuff movies, non-stop sex, perversion, greed and genocide . . . I couldn’t clench my fist after reading it . . . the single most shocking scene I can remember reading in a novel . . . I flung it across the room.’ - Richard Dorment, Literary Review


‘Beware. Do not read this book while travelling to work by train or bus: you will laugh so much, your fellow passengers will think you’re having an attack of something nasty.’ - Lok Now







‘Duncan Fallowell’s long-awaited hedonistic masterpiece’
Roger Lewis, 
Spectator
‘Opinionated, unpredictable and quite fearless, Fallowell has penned a travel classic.’
Richard Canning,
Independent
‘I LOVE your book!  It's the best possible kind of travel writing - funny, personal, informative, varied, omnivorous.’
Edmund White, novelist
‘Fallowell decided on New Zealand on the grounds that he couldn't go any further, to cure himself of the need to travel and, though he doesn't admit it, to write a kind of anti-travel piece, which is part of this elegant and companionable book's charm.’
Chris Petit,
Guardian
‘He has an enviable knack of holding the reader.’
Francis King, novelist
‘Fallowell’s travel books have acquired something akin to cult status’
Anthony Sattin,
Spectator
‘A frisky little masterpiece’
Andrew Barrow,
Country Life
‘A caution: you may need to steel yourself to take in certain details of the author’s sex life.’
Simon Carr,
New Statesman
‘Sebald with laughs’
Jonathan Keates, author and critic
‘So far I’m only a third of the way through the book, laughing, nodding agreement at the choleric ideas, gasping at the prose . . . My copy has been borrowed – always a good sign.’
Peter Stothard, editor of the
Times Literary Supplement, editor’s blog
‘Certainly timidity is not one of his shortcomings . . . The real, audacious adventure isn’t supposed to be a journey through New Zealand; it is into Fallowell himself.’
Rory Maclean,
Sunday Telegraph
‘I like the way he talks about gayness. It makes the heterosexual world seem very heavy.’
Nicholas Mosley, novelist
‘Fallowell is certainly no stranger to bad behaviour, and there are echoes of William Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson in his writing. Part memoir, part travel journal, this is a colourful, hedonistic and oddly moving journey, illuminated by Fallowell’s keen eye for detail, and unnerving ability to seek out the absurdities of life. I loved it.’
Clover Stroud, Travel Section,
Sunday Telegraph
‘Amusing, informative and perfectly paced, this is travel writing at its finest . . . Little wonder he includes William Boyd and Simon Callow among his fans.’Sainsbury’s Magazine
‘Not a dull page in it . . . I liked the format too, sections of very varied length running like ciné-montage . . . a rich and flowing mix.’
John Fuller, poet and academic
‘Book deal? Someone get Fallowell his own chat show, quick!’
Lee Randall,
Scotsman
‘A flash-lit red carpet to New Zealand and the gaudiest of additions to the Thubron-Chatwin-Morris library.’
Madame Arcati blogsite
‘Intoxicating in many different ways: fantastically cinematic and richly atmospheric . . . but all done with real discipline and lucidity which holds the focus  . . . Reminded me in places of Truman Capote's Answered Prayers, in others, perhaps more strangely, of passages by Ian Fleming; it’s that very cut, pared away and honed style.’
Michael Bracewell, author and critic
‘Funny, perceptive and disconcertingly honest, Fallowell’s book is in part howl of rage . . . but also an eloquent, almost painterly evocation of a country which, for all its faults, he came to love.’
Jeremy Lewis,
Mail on Sunday






‘Fielding with knobs on . . a twentieth- century Tom Jones.’ -  Literary Review


‘Dudley Dennis is the most repulsive and terrifying fictional creation I have come across for years . . . What redeems the book, and even its author’s extremely unpleasant imagination, is the fierce honesty of it.’- Bernard Levin, Sunday Times


‘An increasingly horrific black humour marks out The Underbelly as a masterpiece of suburban satire.’  -  Nick Drake, Hampstead & Highgate Express


‘ . . . a wonderful accumulation of scenes at the close of the world.’-   Angus Wilson







‘In a class of its own. A journey you will never forget.’ - William Boyd


‘A book which takes risks: stylish, clever and spiced with amoral high spirits.’ - Colin Thubron


‘He is stylishly at ease with the louche, the camp, the intellectual, the vaguely criminal. His prose combines baroque extravagance with a shiny demotic smartness. A rich and spicy entertainment.’ -  Patrick Taylor-Martin, the Listener


‘Palermo is invested by Fallowell with such an intense and luminous light that its attraction is irresistible.’ - Anthony Blond, Literary Review

‘If travel writing needed a textbook to show would-be scribblers how to convey the right balance of detail, atmosphere, dialogue, intrigue, humour and honesty, then this book would surely be it.’ -  Hello!


‘An extraordinary personal style that seems personal to the reader too.’- Nicholas Mosley
 
 ‘Unique. A bizarre late-20th-century rake’s progress.’ - Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times







‘An irresistible collection by a master miniaturist.’- Selina Hastings, Daily Telegraph


‘Though Fallowell is a teasing, irreverent man, none of his subjects is made to look small or odious . . . Less preachy than the Jacobean character-writers, and less aggressive or facile than his best-known contemporary rivals, he shows exemplary intelligence. His puckish, self-effacing yet moody book is like Aubrey’s Brief Lives in twentieth-century accents. The effect is of a rich, energetic frivolity and passionate curiosity about human types.’- Richard Davenport-Hines, Times Literary Supplement

‘ . . . the best book of interviews ever.’-  Lynn Barber

‘Of contemporary British interviewers I nominate Duncan Fallowell . . . His performances – for that is how they come across – have a coruscating quality and superb sense of mood.’ - Christopher Silvester, editor The Penguin Book of Interviews

‘A glorious mélange of personalities.’ - William Sitwell, Sunday Express





‘An absolute knockout. Brilliant, passionate and very alarming . . . as exhilarating on St Petersburg as Isherwood’s writings on Berlin, but the sexuality is much less coy . . . candour of every kind . . . It has everything.’ - Michael Ratcliffe, Observer


‘Fallowell is a consummate stylist and his book is an immensely original picture of life and love in the new Russia. Wild energy and louche humour.’ - The Scotsman

‘High energy and disarming courage . . . If you’re tired of life, read this and be revived.’ - The Big Issue

‘The narrative is ablaze . . . a writer in and of our time.’- Lesley Chamberlain, The Times




In 1972 on a long summer vacation in a near-empty apartment; in September 1987 to track down the designer Valentino; in 2013 for a winter’s stay which – somehow – finds the author entering one of the most astonishing secret places in the world: three eras, three different approaches, but clearly all from the same hand. As original and provocative as ever, Duncan Fallowell takes the reader through his personal experience of the city on an eerie spiral of romance and comedy and wonder. This is Rome as you’ve never read it before.


London-born novelist and travel writer Duncan Fallowell has been described as 'the best living interviewer', travelling all over the world to meet the celebrated and notorious. This is the story of why he did it, how he did it, what happened when he did do it, and why he's not doing it any more. His interviews have appeared in The Times, the Sunday Times, Observer, Independent, Playboy, Penthouse, Playgirl, Vanity Fair, Tatler, Marie Claire, Harper's, Prospect, Paris Review, American Scholar, Prospect, Sydney Morning Herald, La Repubblica, Tages Anzeiger, Time Out, Brigitte, and many more.


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.
-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.

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