How We Met; Iain Banks And Paul Roberts

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The Independent Culture
The author Iain Banks, 43, published his first novel, 'The Wasp Factory', to great acclaim in 1984. He has written 15 more novels, including 'The Crow Road', serialised on Channel 4 last year, several works of science fiction, and 'A Song of Stone', recently published in hardback. He lives in Fife with his wife Annie. Musician Paul Roberts, 37, replaced Hugh Cornwell as the frontman for the Stranglers in 1990. He began playing in bands at 16; since then he has worked with a string of top industry names, including the Lightning Seeds. He lives in west London with his girlfriend, Rusty, and son Jody

IAIN BANKS: It was 1990, lunchtime in Chiswick - an area of London I don't know particularly well but had a vague idea of as being slightly upmarket. I was giving a reading in Dillons, the bookstore. This chap waltzed in, wandered in my direction, and said he liked my stuff. I remember thinking he was dressed better than the average fan: shades of Chanel and Moschino.

He had a band calling-card, and asked if I was interested in being interviewed for their fanzine. I asked which one he was with. The Stranglers: I recognised the name. I had some time to spare and as it was just after lunch invited him for a pie and a pint. My memories after that are slightly hazy largely due to the injurious effects of alcohol, but I was struck by his sense of energy. He's definitely a live wire; my wife accuses me of being fidgety, always on the move and talking too much, but I think Paul outstrips me in that department.

I wasn't overawed at meeting a professional musician. I've met famous people in my time and have gone beyond that. We just got on well, were easy in each other's company and the conversation flowed. There's never a stilted silence with me and Paul; we're usually trying to break into the other's conversation as each tends to monopolise the proceedings.

You meet people sometimes and realise you could probably be very best friends. Paul has the potential to be a very close friend. Unfortunately we have to surmount distance and workloads: we get together mainly in London and we don't see each other often enough. When we do meet it's not in the cinema, theatre or football ground but, because we're both great talkers, in a large group of mutual friends who have a penchant for Indian food. Our favourite curry house is Gopals in Dean Street, Soho, where we're on first-name terms with both the proprietor and the local police. Paul and I should never be seated together at gatherings: we bring out the worst in each other. We lapse into second-childhood behaviour: "I'm going to put a poppadum on my head", "Well, I'm going to put a nan on mine", finding new ways to exit from behind a table. It's infantile but enormous fun when you're squiffy. It turns rowdy and noisy and it's only the fact that we consume vast amounts of food and drink without causing damage that stops us being thrown out. Middle-aged men will be boys.

A strong connection is a mutual dislike of the Tories and bad critics. Critics, because the only response worth elucidating from certain people is disgust, revulsion, hatred, enmity in general. People you like, you want to like your work. There's something wrong in pleasing people you despise through what you've written. Paul empathises with that. And the Conservatives? Well a little foible of mine used to be ordering T-shirts in bulk with the monogram "FTT" painted on the breast pocket. It stood for Fuck the Tories. Underneath is written Have Carnal Knowledge of the Conservative Party and Their Supporters. Now it is TDF: Tories Duly Fucked.

We work in our respective areas of the media but we've got something to learn from each other. We saw that instantly. You recognise a kindred spirit. We both love what we do now; we followed our dreams and came this far through tenacity. Paul gave up everything to be a musician. He did daft cleaning jobs and drove vans at night to make time to hone his musical skills. It was no mean feat, especially with a child and no proper income. I realised I was going to take the plunge and give up the day job in order to write full time when the royalties from The Wasp Factory started to roll in. Anybody who gives up everything to follow something they strongly believe in is to be admired. It bonds people together.

We share a love of laughter. We laugh all the time. We have a similar sense of humour: comics like Eddie Izzard, programmes like Mr Bean and Men Behaving Badly have us in stitches. We are close on a certain level of fame, used to having fans around and playing to the gallery. And we both like a good argument. We tend to argue good-naturedly for the sake of it, to kick-start the other. I've never seen him row with anybody else, he's equable that way. We fight to pick up the tab; pride and honour are at stake.

Paul is not a stereotype in a business full of stereotypes and cliches. He's articulate and intelligent, which is reflected in the breadth of subjects we find ourselves talking about. The films of Luc Besson and Ridley Scott, art in its many forms. He may be egotistical, but not in the conventional rock-star way: he's refreshingly sure of himself, but aware of the nonsense and bullshit that surrounds him, and doesn't take it seriously. In fact the foundation stone of our friendship is that neither of us takes ourselves or the business we're involved in too seriously.

I'd be very surprised if we didn't stay friends well into our dotage. He'd better stick around - he'd leave a gap. A lot of people would be poorer for his departure.

PAUL ROBERTS: It all started in my local high street, in Chiswick, when Iain did a reading. I'd been an avid fan of his novels since 1984, when someone gave me The Wasp Factory. After that I would wait hungrily for Iain's books to come out; I'd never done that in my life (except for the Dandy and Beano every Saturday). I'm not normally pushy, but I thought I'd go along with something for Iain to sign, and the intention of asking him to do an interview for the Strangler's fanzine.

I'd first seen him years before on TV, talking about The Wasp Factory. He had lots of curly hair back then, and was wearing a black polo-neck: he looked an interesting chap, in an existentialist or beatnik way. In the flesh he looked like someone not particularly vain, someone happy with himself. And he was re- assuringly tall, unlike Tom Cruise or Al Pacino. Basically, he had this nice vibe.

Soon after, I approached Iain's publicist to ask for the interview, and she invited me to a little party that same evening. I'd only just joined the Stranglers, yet I skived off rehearsal that evening to go to this junket. I don't normally do things like that but I made an exception in Iain's case and I'm glad I did, with hindsight. This "little party" turned out to be a scrum of 300 people. It was like a music-business party with critics milling around (I don't warm to them as a breed), a lot of book fans, lots of sci-fi freaks, weirdos, including the transsexual Ru Paul. "She" sported a long red wig and swished around, flirting outrageously. Thankfully she didn't make a pass at me. I would have declined - not for chivalrous reasons, she would have broken my back, all 6ft 2ins of her.

The party revellers began to thin out around midnight and just a few hardy stragglers were left gathered round a table. Iain had fulfilled his professional obligations by then and made his way to our table and became ensconced with our group. Iain has the ability to be at ease with virtual strangers, to attract people around him and have a good crack. We were a group of five who just connected and off we went. We got savagely drunk and staggered off into the night to a little club in London that a lot of sci-fi buffs frequent.

I did the running for a while after that: sent him an album, let him know when he were playing gigs in Scotland. It's awkward when you're separated geographically; we couldn't just drive over to one another's homes. But when you meet someone you get on with it doesn't matter when you see them. They're always in the back of your mind, they're always with you. More often than not now we reconvene at book launches and sci-fi conventions. And we enjoy a curry and a few beers when Iain's in London. We'll choose an Indian restaurant in the West End, then go back to his hotel room afterwards and order room service. We don't get much time to do anything else. Perhaps one day we'll go the cinema. He loathes football, bless him.

A lot of people outside the media business think it's great if you know someone very successful, especially in the public domain. I just appreciate knowing people who understand where I'm coming from, who can go with the flow and not have to worry about what I say or do, or justify who I am. Iain and I began our friendship before I had any considerable success with the band. I feel he likes me for myself, warts and all.

Iain can relate to anybody. He's academic, intelligent, intellectual and witty. It's unusual to find those qualities in one person. I usually find that very talented people can be absolute jerks, but the bottom line is Iain is a really good bloke. He's blessed with a light and cheery disposition and doesn't get annoyed easily. One of his most amusing bad reviews was one by the Times, for The Wasp Factory. When Iain found out the reviewer was a failed author who worked at the Conservative Party central office he punched the air with glee. That just about sums him up. He bears no malice.

Iain loves his friends, family and cares for people in general. That's a common bond. And we're similar in that we both acknowledge that you have to be selfish and determined in order to excel at what you do. Also, we both believe in working and playing quite hard. The older you get the less chance you have and the less society expects you to go bloody mad. Everyone owes themselves a holiday a year or a party. Men don't grow up, for the most part.

The other connection is a love of Scotland and the great outdoors. When we're both in Scotland we take long walks in the rugged countryside, toss cabers, worry sheep, look under stones. We drink, eat and have fun. It's spontaneous, projectile sometimes, definitely infantile.

I'm glad I met Iain when I did. We're a good foil for each other. I'm brash and reactionary, Iain is reflective. He's a very cool person, so centred he doesn't judge or get shocked easily. He was, and still is, a very clever, entertaining, well informed and extremely funny man. He's always a joy to be with. And, on top of being the best writer I can think of, I feel lucky to know someone who I admire. It's like knowing Jimi Hendrix. !

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