Mike was born in London in 1957, and brought up in Oxford. He was educated expensively up to the age of 14, at which point he was thrown out of boarding school; this was, he says, a good move from everyone’s point of view. He passed through a number of schools and colleges and became a journalist of sorts, and worked in rock music publishing and as a traffic broadcaster. In 1987 he signed on with VSO, the British equivalent of the Peace Corps, and spent two years in the east of Sudan in the wake of the 1984-85 famine. This led to a book, Even the Dead are Coming, which was eventually published in 2009.
He stayed on the road for many years, living in such diverse countries as Ecuador, Bhutan and Syria. His travels inspired another autobiographical book, The Nine Horizons (2014), and a novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (2014). He is also the author of Crops and Carbon (2011), a scholarly work on climate change, and a book of novellas, Three Seasons. For the last few years he has been working as an editor in New York.
If memory serves, I first learned of Mike Robbins and his books through a listing on Goodreads. I was interested enough to contact him and ask if he’d like to be promoted on Reading Recommendations. Since then I have read most of what Mike has published and have really enjoyed his writing.
When I contacted Mike by email earlier in the week about this promotion, he told me he was reading my novella, That Last Summer, which made me very happy! I explained that the story was based on my own childhood of spending summers at the family cottage, and he said he’d experienced an Ontario cottage with his family who had travelled to Canada together for his father’s work: “We arrived in Canada in August 1968 and the next weekend a colleague’s son drove us out to their family cottage on a lake west of Ottawa. I remember it very clearly; a “cottage” doesn’t mean quite what it does in England, being made of wood, with the insect screens and the canoe drawn up at the water’s edge. I remember hot summer days but also cooler ones at the end of the season, when the sky was grey and a cold breeze rippled the surface of the water. The lakes always seemed huge; it was my introduction to the sheer size of Ontario. Later we took the train to Winnipeg and it took two days, across endless forests and lakes.” So that was another, and kind of cool!, connection that I now have with Mike Robbins. (Mike directed me to this blog post he wrote of his experience travelling to Canada for that year. Very interesting, and great travel writing!)
And I especially enjoyed this novella by Mike Robbins, his most recent publication …
In the summer of 1976 a young Mike Robbins was startled, as was everyone in
Britain, by a TV programme in which a Welsh hypnotist, Arnall Bloxham, regressed three subjects to their past lives. One had served on a ship of the line in the Napoleonic Wars; another remembered being a hunter-gatherer in the prehistoric Balkans; and another recounted fleeing from a pogrom in medieval York. The programme, The Bloxham Tapes, generated some debate in later years as to what it did and did not prove.
No-one under 50 would remember watching The Bloxham Tapes, and it may not now exist. (An Australian university has a VHS tape, apparently; but those tapes do not always survive so well.) However, Robbins never quite forgot the programme. What happened after death? If you were reborn, would it be as a human again, and if not, why not? Forty years later, stuck on a book that was going too slowly, he broke off to write the novella Dog!, the story of an elderly rescue dog who is not quite what
Dog! isn’t religious. It was the dramatic possibilities that Robbins wanted to explore. What if that pug you saw in the park was actually Henry VIII? It’s actually not a new idea, according to Robbins; he cites Rumer Godden’s first book, Chinese Puzzle, which revolved around a similar idea, and the late James Herbert’s Fluke. But Robbins wanted to have a bit of fun with the concept. The dog’s owner is a cheerful slob called Bazza (the English often abbreviate names into Baz, Caz, etc.), a university lecturer in a provincial English city. When not teaching logical positivism or medieval ontology, Bazza chills with a spliff and a beer or browses porn sites. He’s also adopted an old dog, but finds it dour and unaffectionate. Still, the two of them live together happily enough, despite the dog’s contempt for humans and its habit of licking itself in front of guests. Then a Himalayan monk comes to stay for a few
weeks while teaching courses in the city. He senses at once that there is something strange about the dog. He is right. As the book’s blurb says: “Dog! is a powerful story of love and loss, sin, redemption and dog mess. You’ll never see your pet the same way again.”
What Mike Robbins is working on now: “Since 2011 I have been working on a novel set in postwar Britain, but the research and the writing have both been tough. But it’s half-written now, and I hope I’ll finish it in the next year. I have also nearly completed a collection of “think pieces” and book reviews. Also slated for this year is a Spanish translation of The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (there is already one of Dog!).
Mike has also offered up to readers a few of his own reading recommendations:
Mike says there’s too much to mention! His best-loved novel of all time is J. B. Priestley’s Bright Day. But he also recommends Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; a long slow read but the ideas in it are more important than ever. He is also a fan of Rumer Godden and recently wrote on his blog about her life in India. Of more recent books, he’s strongly enjoyed a couple of books by Kevin Brennan, who’s also been featured on Reading Recommendations (and is part of this Authors-Readers International series), and also recommends Alison Layland’s new thriller Riverflow. Finally it’s well worth checking out Rebecca Gransden’s strange and compelling novel anemogram. (sic), and her short-story collection, Rusticles.
For more information about Mike Robbins, his writing, books, book reviews, and travels, please see his website.