from Poirot-Noirot, Paris 1998/Interview/ Mike Fabulous, A Singular Life
Mike Fabulous, bookseller, concept and performance artist, and expert on celebrity, talks to Thierry Bouguereau about his past and present life.
Mike Fabulous, A Singular Life.
So it was that after a year of telephone calls, faxes, emails and letters I came to be walking into The Wig and Mitre pub in exquisite uphill Lincoln to meet the man who has made books central to his life and yet has been described by Jonathan Coe (an old friend) as 'the most ill-read man I have ever met'. He was sitting upstairs, alone, with a half-empty bottle of 91 Shiraz in front of him. He looked surpisingly well for a man who had for many years taken mind and body to their limits. 'My own brand of autohypnosis,' he said, when I commented on his appearance, ' I learnt a few simple techniques when I visited Australia recently. I travelled out into the bush and lived with a group of Northern Territory tribespeople for a while. You can learn a lot from such simplicity.'
It is almost impossible to describe Fabulous without using superlatives. He is a Man of Letters in the old-fashioned sense ('my grandfather was a journalist, my great-grandfather a postman, therefore both 'men of letters' - genius runs in the family like a river'), a conceptual artist, publisher, polymath, bookdealer and recently an acclaimed expert on the nature of celebrity. Such is his own cult status that even his juvenile scribblings and drug-inspired drawings from university days have been snapped up by collectors from Germany and Japan. A Japanese bibliophile, Mr Fukuto, paid $30,000 at a New York auction house last July for a copy of The Rings of Uranus, a photostated poem pamphlet made by Fabulous in London in 1979.
Born in a council house in the North of England Fabulous distinguished himself academically and physically from an early age. 'I attended an historic grammar school by a beautiful river. It inspired me - I came first in every subject in my class every year. Except for Mathematics in my third year, when I took my eye off the ball, as it were. And I won the Under-14s High Jump and played for the school at both rugby and fencing.' Despite all this, however, he admitted, 'I never felt fully stretched.'
Despite offers from Merton College, Oxford (who at the time had the best cook in Oxford - a great enticement to the budding gastronome Fabulous) and King's College, Cambridge, he chose instead the provincial University of Leeds. 'Their offers were naturally unconditional, but I decided to go somewhere more in touch with reality. Somewhere, in other words, there would be plenty of women'. Here he developed his amazing capacity for self-indulgence and brilliant scholarship at the same time. 'I was like a sponge,' he said, ' I absorbed everything.' One fellow student, now a Managing Director of a large pharmaceuticals firm, commented on his acquaintance with Fabulous, 'I never saw the bastard upright'.
It was at this stage also that he made the life-changing decision to change his name from the rather dull Anton Swarbrick to Mike Fabulous. 'I sloughed off the remnants of my former life like an old skin,' he said, 'I was reborn. I dedicated myself to my own talent.'
Fabulous's first novel, Arteriophobia, a stunning amalgam of existential philosophy, eroticism and schlock-horror - a sort of William Burroughs crossed with George Eliot - was published by a small and short-lived publishing house when he was only in his second year. Despite its unlikely provenance, this precocious display of pyrotechnic wit has now been acknowledged as one of the first postmodernist novels in England. Then, however, it was greeted with indifference by the literary establishment, though Brian Aldiss enthused: 'when confronted by such a work the truest response is silence'.
Fantastic ploughed on with his debauchery and emerged with a First Class Honours Degree. Typically, he only discovered this when he popped into the School on his way back from a night at a local brothel. 'Up till then I always got it free (sex, that is). I decided it was time to pay for it for once'. Despite numerous offers from various departments he decided to quit academe and study life at its rawest. 'I was already fascinated by the iconography of celebrity and fame. I wanted to know more. I wanted to plumb the depths of the human psyche and know why we need to have stars.'
His quest took him to London where he worked for a while as a computer prgrammer with a large company producing proprietary medicines. At this point in the interview, Fabulous leaned over and stared at me: 'I have a computer in every room of my house. Every room.' He sat back and downed the remaining wine in the bottle - 'They said they had never seen anybody who write code like me. 'Fabulous', they said, 'you are incredible'. But I was still dissatisified. I was asked to leave after an incident one night in the bar upstairs. An Operations Manager in his fifties came in after a session of squash. He was too old for games like that and he was purple all over. He looked like he would die there and then. I went up to him and said - 'JV, act your age. Another game like that and your head will go pop. Your blood will be all over the walls.' End of my career as a computer progammer.'
By now, though, Fabulous had amassed a unique collection of celebrity memorabilia and autograph materials. Among his most prized items were the wrappers of two Hershey Bars eaten by Marilyn Monroe on the set of 'The Misfits' and a terse reply by T S Eliot to a letter by Fabulous asking for his old biros. 'Written with a fountain pen, of course,' commented Fabulous with a wry smile, 'and a rather cheap Osmiroid at that.' I had forgotten Fabulous was the author of one of the most famous monographs on the history of the fountain pen, entitled The History of the Fountain Pen.
Fabulous refused to talk about the rest of his life in London and the subsequent fifteen years. 'All the world knows it. Everything's in 'Star-Moth Serendipity'. Everything.' Star-Moth Serendipity, if there is anyone in the civilised world who doesn't know, is the multi-art project Fabulous embarked upon in 1983 and which utilises all art forms known to man, and a few more besides. 'It is the autobiography of a man besotted with stardom and celebrity,' said Fabulous. 'It is art, it is love, it is obsession, and yes, it is also commerce.'
Sections of the project have been exhibited and sold all over the world, including the infamous 'Letter from Debbie' - a letter from Deborah Harry which Fabulous copied a thousand times, placed in envelopes and mailed to himself. The exhibit consisted of 996 copies of the sealed envelope (the remainder having been lost in the post). Since the original letter was destroyed in a boating accident and the envelopes remain unopened, the actual contents of the letter remain to this day a secret. 'Mystery', said Fabulous, 'is the quintessence of celebrity'.
The genius who was once memorably, if unkindly, dubbed 'the man who drank his friends to death' now lives in semi-reclusive traquillity in Lincoln. 'People come to Lincolnshire to drop out of sight. No-one from London knows where it is. I have named it The County of Total Obscurity.' Fabulous continues to make a living out of pursuing his celebrity work, buying and selling books and memorabilia, as well as building up his own, highly distinctive artistic oeuvre. His friends and clients includes a glittering array of figures from the arts, entertainment and politics. 'I told Nigel (Planer) to get rid of his boat on the Thames because it was bad Feng Shui,' he said, 'and I suggested my good friend Mr Battle remove the piles of newspaper from his office to allow him more space in which to practise the special physical exercises I gave him. That was when he just a humble MP, now he's the government minister for energy.'
I asked him about his future and he laughed. 'I no longer think about the past or the future. I am writing a new version of the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching. And I am completing a catalogue of Aleister Crowley memorabilia' - Fabulous's catalogues are themselves highly-prized collectibles - 'I managed to obtain the telephone he used when talking to Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, when they were conjuring spirits'. He leaned across the table and whispered, 'I have had death threats from them, but I know a lot of powerful people.' I quizzed him about this but he refused to speak, shaking his head violently from side to side. At that point a man fom behind the bar interrupted our conversation, saying, 'Mr Fabulous has had enough. It is time for you to leave.'
As I was escorted quickly from the premises I saw that Fabulous himself was glaring at me with Sphinx-like impassivity. It was only after I picked up my notes from the ground that I heard laughter emanating from within the building - pure Olympian laughter, filled with innocent but mischievous delight at the opacity of the world. I remembered the words of an old drinking partner of Fabulous, Harry Novak, himself a creature of legend -'He'll empty your wallet and your mind then laugh in your face. I should know, my mind's been empty for years'.
Shortly afterwards I found my credit card had been mysteriously charged with £550. I accepted it as the privilege it was - I had been an essential actor in one of Fabulous's infamous 'provocations'. I, too, would be in the art history books. It was a bargain. Fabulous life, Fabulous laughter.
© Poirot-Noirot/Bouguereau 1998.