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The Background to the Moorcock Multiverse: London Peculiar

by Karin L Kross
Tor.com
March 30, 2012

Is there anything Michael Moorcock hasn’t done? Creator of some of our greatest literary anti-heroes—Elric of Melniboné, Jerry Cornelius, Colonel Pyat. Editor of the seminal New Worlds magazine. Musician. Counter-culture hero. Cosmopolitan resident of London, Paris, and Texas. Friend and correspondent of talents as lasting and varied as Arthur C. Clarke, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Andrea Dworkin, Mervyn Peake and Maeve Gilmore, Tom Disch, Iain Sinclair, Leigh Brackett, and Brian Aldiss.

He’s even written a Doctor Who tie-in novel. Somehow, amidst all this activity, he has sustained a prolific journalistic career as an essayist and reviewer.

Much of this work originally having been published in the UK, it may be largely unfamiliar to American readers—even those of us who, like me, share a Moorcock obsession with the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock” and who also get most of our news and reviews from British papers like the Guardian. London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction isn’t the first such compilation of Moorcock’s work; in 2010 Savoy Books released the massive and beautifully designed anthology Into the Media Web, edited by Moorcock bibliographer John Davey. It’s now out of print, but even if you were lucky enough to get hold of a copy, you will be glad to know that London Peculiar—edited by Moorcock and Allan Kausch—isn’t simply a “best of” extracted from the larger volume. Inevitably, there’s some overlap, though where Into the Media Web covers Moorcock’s career up to 2006, London Peculiar also contains many more recent works. There’s also several previously unpublished pieces, including a review of Iain Sinclair’s The Falconer and Slow Chocolate Autopsy that is a masterful pastiche of Sinclair’s own dense, multilayered style.

The wealth and richness of the material (grouped by theme: “London,” “Other Places,” “Absent Friends,” “Music,” “Politics,” and “Introductions and Reviews”) is a little dizzying; Moorcock is, of course, a terrific raconteur, and his varied life has provided him with ample material. The net effect of these essays and reviews is a kind of multivalent memoir, written in transparently clear prose that is a real joy to read. Certain themes and elements are repeatedly invoked: Moorcock’s strong populist instinct, deeply felt egalitarianism, outrage at injustice, and a firm and healthy streak of skepticism toward all manner of establishment, whether it be government or dyed-in-the-wool genre convention.

As the volume’s title suggests, London casts a long shadow, and is central to many of Moorcock’s social and political concerns—it’s the city where he was born and where he has lived much of his life, and to which he paid loving tribute in the brilliant Mother London. But Paris also puts in a key appearance, as does the Texas Hill Country, where Moorcock has lived part-time since the early 1990s as a kind of cultural immersion education in an area where the lifestyle and politics are as different from London as you can get; it’s a part of the country for which his deep affection is obvious in the diary entries from 2001 to 2010 collected here. (His Lost Pines home, the Circle Squared Ranch, narrowly escaped the devastation of the Bastrop county wildfires that swept the area in September of last year.)

Moorcock is a staunch English liberal who believes that the quality of the state is measured by how well it cares for its least fortunate citizens. In writing about the theme-park transformation of London—“the bizarre ruralisation of the city, with Home Counties yuppie colonists confidently moving in to take over traditional working-class and middle-class strongholds”—he is driven less by an outraged conservative nostalgia than by the way in which these changes marginalize the poor and homogenize a city, the greatest strength of which is its diversity. “The threatened sub-culture, enduring and benefitting from many transitions, represents a currency of memory, identity, and political power. Its loss to London would attack the depth and balance of our national narrative. Our rich inheritance would be replaced by a commercial heritage industry substituting a sentimentalised and corrupted version of what it destroys.” The first passage quoted there was written in 1988; the second in 2006. The “ruralisation” marches onward, as many a London East Ender could tell you.

He is no less passionate about the state of science fiction and fantasy. He is deeply impatient with the most conventional manifestations of the genres: science fiction that is “ritualised, sterile—having neither social nor literary pretensions and becoming quickly stale,” and deeply conservative fantasy in the Tolkien vein that is obsessed with old orders of royalty. (His famous critical essay “Epic Pooh” is not included here, but you ought to seek it out. Even if you disagree, it’s a thought-provoking read.) Though he certainly doesn’t deny his own status in the world of SF&F, it’s worth noting that many of the references to his own writing in London Peculiar have more to do with the “Between the Wars” quartet, Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands, and The Vengeance of Rome. These novels follow the gloriously unreliable narrator Colonel Pyat on European civilisation’s collective road to Dachau, a path paved with, among other things, the betrayal of principles and history “merely by avoiding minor social discomfort,” as he describes his reaction an uncomfortable shipboard incident in the essay “A Million Betrayals”.

In writing about other authors and their work, his enthusiasm is infectious; though the “Introductions and Reviews” section is perhaps the most diffuse and disjointed (roaming as it does very rapidly from, say, Mervyn Peake to H.G. Wells to Alfred Jarry), it’s packed with work that is a solid master-class in book reviewing. You might have never heard of Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome or R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript, but when you read what Moorcock has to say about them, you immediately want to tackle them for yourself. He analyzes classic characters who we have all come to take for granted—the “glorious all-American hero” Conan, John Carter of Mars—and invests them with new relevance. (I imagine he must be rather dubious about the forthcoming John Carter film, the trailer for which often bears a distressing resemblance to Attack of the Clones; in the foreword to Richard A. Lupoff’s Master of Adventure: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he writes, “It makes me wonder whether, for instance, John Carter’s Martian adventures will ever be successfully brought to the screen . . . It would need the same sort of loving attention which brought The Lord of the Rings to the screen, but it would definitely beat anything Star Wars has yet been able to offer.” Alas.)

And you would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the remembrances in “Absent Friends”. He remembers J.G. Ballard as a flawed but loving father; pays tribute to radical feminist Andrea Dworkin’s bravery and mourns her as a lost sister; and wryly recalls his first meeting with Arthur C. Clarke, where he and a host of other guests were subjected, sans any ameliorating alcoholic beverages, to Clarke’s home movies of the Great Barrier Reef—“The projector breaking down was the high point.” The catalogue of great writers, artists, and musicians whom Moorcock has called friend is fairly stunning; even were he not a literary giant in his own right, his connections to all of these people alone would make him remarkable.

The finest piece in this collection, and the one that it seems all the others revolve around, is “A Child’s Christmas In the Blitz,” originally published in Alan Moore’s magazine Dodgem Logic. It is a gorgeous memoir of five-year-old Michael Moorcock’s Christmas 1944, of a childhood shaped by war and by parental separation, and the passions and beliefs that were in turn shaped by those early experiences. There is the dazzling color of the Christmas grotto at the Portland Stone department store, the smell of a father’s shoe polish, the uncle who worked for Churchill and his Christmas present of a ten-shilling note, promptly deployed to shore up a legion of toy soldiers. There are the ruined houses from which lead could be unrolled from roofs, later to be sold to scrap dealers. Friends and neighbours vanish in a moment, destroyed by the flying V-2 bombs; meanwhile young Michael’s Jewish grandmother teases his Anglo-Saxon father, insisting that if the English win, all the Anglo-Saxons will be rounded up: “Better hope the Germans win, Arthur.”

All of these experiences and the years of rebuilding that followed, Moorcock writes, shaped his fiction: “We tried to create a new literature which expressed our own experience—Ballard of his years in the Japanese civilian camp, Aldiss of the terrors of being a boy-soldier in Malaya—all the great writers who contribted to my journal New Worlds were rejecting modernism not from any academic attempt to discover novelty but in order to find forms which actually described what they had witnessed, what they felt.”

London Peculiar
is thus a kind of career-spanning director’s commentary on Moorcock’s fiction.

This is where you’ll learn about his history, influences, and contemporaries, and about the politics and social concerns that inform his work. As such, it’s invaluable for the Moorcock enthusiast, but even a newcomer will find a lot to enjoy here. Like a map or a guidebook, it’s filled with irresistible routes and destinations, from London to Melniboné to Mars and beyond. And you’ll want to follow, whether you’ve traveled those paths before or are lucky enough to be visiting them for the first time.

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