Glaswegian exile Martin Millar has mapped out the Brixton underground as ; his fictional territory. ’ Alastair Mabbott encounters the man who has been dubbed ‘the , post-punk Tom Sharpe‘.
‘lt‘s a world worth recording. this South London squattie culture. It‘s good and interesting and quite vibrant in its own way. and worth taking some note of. and for some reason it doesn't receive much attention. It’s difficult for bands to do well here. as opposed to (‘amden or lslington or other places north of the river. It's easier to get reviews and things. This area is not really viewed the same way.’
With several interviews in the music press and style mags under his belt. Martin Millar is getting more fluent at talking about his books-— ‘becoming like an American‘. as he puts it. Whilst he doesn't think it's necessarily a positive development. he puts his misgivings down to British reserve as much as his conviction that art. or whatever you want to call it. shouldn't be entirely explicable.
He may be tnore articulate about his work than when his first novel. the wildly funny .lIi/k. Sulphate and xflby Starvatimt. was published in 1987. but today he‘s groggy. battling against a cold which has confined him to his ('lapham flat for the past week. He eventuallysuggestsa whisky for his hacking cough. and pecks unenthusiastically at it long after my glass is drained. A flowery bandana pulled tight around his skull could well be serving as a symbolic bandage.
A (ilaswegian. Millar has set his three published novels— Milk. Sulphate and A [by Starvation. luv the Poet and Ruby and the Stone Age [)iet— in the Briston ‘squattie culture' he joined after moving to London. where he was drawn in 1977 by the energy of the punk rock beast. (These days. he resides in a housing co-operative — one rung up the social
ladder— but. even so. accommodation is not yet something to be taken for granted.) And while legions ofauthors will say they are outside the literary scene for credibility‘s sake. Martin Millar would appear to have some foundation for his claim. ‘I don‘t know any other authors.‘ he says. and the discomfort he felt on the few occasions he has attended literary functions was no doubt mutual.
This is the man dubbed ‘the post-punk 'I‘om Sharpe'; a label which has hung around his neck since the long-suffering Alby Starvation first tried to tap a prescription from his equally long-suffering doctor. This tag will probably stay there until somebody comes up with something better. Perhaps surprisingly. he doesn‘t resent the label - ‘things like “punk author“ and "cult author" are all right. because they‘re just trying to give people some idea that they‘re not mainstream novels‘ — and he‘s read and enjoyed two of Sharpe‘s South African novels. Another. set among the dreaming spires of academia. didn‘t appeal. This is not so surprising.
‘Most writers come from a different . . .adifferent class. really.‘ he begins. reasonably. "I‘hey're doing different jobs. [was looked on as the lowest form ofclerk. l was filling invoices. and that struck people as funny. because I was writing and getting my books published. and getting reviewed in The Face and everything — and I was a clerk for ILEA. But that‘s the sort of job that normal people do. They just don‘t manage to get their books published. that‘s all.‘
And those that do. don‘t start their careers with a book like Milk. Sulpltate and A [by Starvation either. ‘Amateurish‘ is the word Millar feels best fits it now. but it's a comic gem. weaving a preposterous series of plot lines around the paranoid hypochondriac Alby Starvation. whose fears become flesh when he finds himself the target ofa contract killer sent from the most unlikely of sources— the Milk Marketing Board.
Similar corporate paranoia surfaces in Lux the Poet. but neither book. Millar stresses rather self-consciously. is intended as a platform for conspiracy theories. The focus of the latter is the devastating Lux. a vain. cheerful loser with a garish bush of Vaselined hair extending two feet from his
head. the greatest legs since Betty (irable and enough cocaine up his
nose to turn the Thames into a bubbling slough of (‘reamola Foam. Lux swans through riot-torn Brixton convinced that his poetry is of far tnore interest to the 'l'\" crews than insurrection. ()n his travels. he keeps running into an exiled goddess called Kalia. who seemingly only puts up with him because she has developed the patience of a saint after spending thousands of lifetimes doing good deeds.
A Greek mythology bu ff. Millar populates luv and Ruby and the Stone Age [)iet with gods and goddesses. l liS third and tnost accomplished novel. Ruby put the wackiness of the first two on the back-burner in favour of the tnore downbeat and personal topic of ‘what it feels like when your girlfriend leaves you‘. Consequently. I fear l’ve blundered when I ask if he intends to write novels that aren’t in a comic vein.
5 The List 30 April — 3 May 1990