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Imagine we have been lied to and that all the fantasy fiction of the Victorian era was in fact true. That 19th Century England was in fact full of airships and automata, where Oscar Wilde was a notorious ladies' man and Queen Victoria was the Empire Bike. Airships and automata are familiar enough to any reader of alternative histories. They crop up in anything where Rome didn't fall or the Nazis weren't defeated. To combine this kind of earnest but far-fetched academic speculation with outrageous humour should be a sure-fire hit. And I suspect it would be if it was written by anyone other than Robert Rankin. A man who must surely only have got into print by virtue of people getting him confused with the man who created Rebus, Rankin is the slow-thinking man's Terry Pratchett. The author of a string of 'comedy' novels set around the London borough of Brentford, these books lure you in with admittedly brilliant punning titles such as '101 Damnations' and things. The contents are generally (I've read three or four over the years, hopefully I've learned my lesson now) meandering tales full of one-note characters, interminable and unfunny authorial digressions and euphemisms for the male member. I have never read anything aimed more solidly at the physics undergraduate. In this particular tale of not-very-much, a young chap called Will Starling goes on a time-travelling voyage of discovery after he discovers a wristwatch on a painting in the Tate. I was just about giving this wandering narrative the benefit of the doubt when 'Barry the Time Sprout' was introduced. Starling wanders around avoiding his destiny, which is apparently to defeat the evil cabal of witches known as the Chiswick Townswoman's Guild. Along the way, he enjoys an orgy with the Elephant Man, steals Mary Poppins's clothes and solves the case of Jack the Ripper, all of which sounds funnier than it is. Isaac Asimov once observed that comedy is the hardest style of all, because while a love story can be moderately romantic, and a tragedy can be almost upsetting while retaining some dramatic credibility, a joke which is 'nearly funny' is still a failed joke, whichever way you look at it. Any page of this novel will yield a good half-dozen illustrations of why this is such a good point. Rankin fires gag after gag at the reader in the hope that some will stick. Tastes vary, but I was tickled roughly once every five pages. Rankin's status as the Vauxhall Conference Pratchett is further confirmed by his use of footnotes to deliver punchlines and further authorial intrusions. These are rarely worth even reading, and certainly never up to the standard of the asides in the Discworld novels. Having realised that the humour was duff, I then turned my attention to the storyline. Big mistake. At one point one of the characters even makes a joke about writers making things up as they go along. Astonishingly, this seems to be how the book was written. Twists in the plot occur almost at random before being dropped a couple of pages later. Key characters are introduced far too late in the story. Other key characters seem to be killed off and resurrected with cartoon-like implausibility. This is an untidy, rambling story, and deliberately so. The idea of making up a novel as you go along is an interesting one, but frankly a lot of people do it and it's one of the main reasons there are so many unpublished authors out there. Robert Rankin is not a Beat Poet and he's not James Joyce, his wordsmithery is simply inadequate to construct a comedy fantasy novel out of whatever comes into his head at any given moment. To be honest, in assuming he was making it up as he went along, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. There are some patches of quality, obviously, or I'd never have lasted through the whole book, even if I was bored on a train. The promiscuous Elephant Man is crude but engaging (right up until we learn he's an alien hybrid from Mars), the fashionably skint Hugo Rune is an endearing old rogue (right up until he wanders into the final scene having been absent for most of the book and yet still does bog all), and the invisible H.G. Wells makes for a briefly amusing take on that novel. But the whole thing is just such a MESS that it's impossible to recommend it to anyone with any conscience. I paid 20p for the book at a car boot sale and I'm still feeling cheated. The cover price on my copy is £6.99, and I imagine it's at least a quid more than that these days. Perhaps if you'd just had surgery and needed something to read while you recovered in hospital but didn't want to have to concentrate too hard, then this might be the ideal book to read. It's the only way you'll be in stitches while reading it.
Robert Rankin's fondness for demented conspiracy theories is complicated by time travel in The Witches of Chiswick--which demonstrates again that everything you know is wrong, that Brentford is the true centre of the multiverse, and that nobody is quite as weird as Robert Rankin. Will Starling lives in a dystopian 23rd century where Brentford Utility Conurbation is crammed with 303-storey tower blocks and synthetic food has made everyone vastly obese. Except for Will, who's mocked for morbid slimness and eccentric tastes--art, for example. When he notices the digital watch in a well-known Victorian painting, a murderous cover-up begins. The sinister Witches of Chiswick are determined to erase all traces of the other past. Time-travelling Terminator-style automata keep arriving, not from the future but from that lost Victorian age of Babbage supercomputers, flying cabs running on beamed power from Tesla transmitters and the imminent launch of Her Majesty's Moonship Victoria. Thanks to the convenient time machine of a Mr Wells, Will finds himself in that other 19th century, complicating the stories of his own ancestors. There he's tutored by the flamboyant guru or conman Hugo Rune. He stands in for Sherlock Holmes--called away to a Dartmoor case--and investigates the Jack-the-Ripper murders. As tends to happen in the Rankin universe, he acquires a Holy Guardian Sprout called Barry. Will even meets himself, another Will from a very different future. Even aided by his best friend Tim, by the Brentford Snail Boy (raised like Tarzan by wild animals, not apes but snails), and by the deadly martial art Dimac, can Will hope to foil a witchy plan to reprogram time and send high-tech Britain back to gaslight as midnight strikes on December 31, 1899?