December Twenty First, Twenty Five Years On

I stand on top of Parliament Hill and look out at the city.  Up here I can see it all. The mass of brick and concrete cut through with tangled roads and alleys, the rich complexity of the old stones piled up one on top of another.  Every day millions of people walk among them, carrying their past, their present, their future.

I’ve done my share of walking these streets.  Night, day, drunk, sober, there isn’t much of the city that I haven’t seen.  I once walked from here to Tower Bridge, late one drunken night.  It was a very long way past increasingly old landmarks: Camden Lock, the gothic façade of St Pancras, the long dead length of Grays Inn Road to St Paul’s, the Monument, Cheapside, the Roman wall, to the Tower of London and the distant Thames flowing slowly in the grey dawn.

That’s six miles, as the crow flies.  Six miles.  I look up into the sky.  The contrails of two planes have left a giant X across the heavens like the signature of a great illiterate god.  I look back down in the direction of the Thames.  Six miles.  A long way to fall.

London Peculiar/London Personal

“Michael Moorcock died of lung cancer, aged 31, in Birmingham last year. The whereabouts of Karl Glogauer are presently unknown”.
James Colvin, introduction to Breakfast In the Ruins.

On a trip back to the United States from India earlier this year I left my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ on the plane. I didn’t realize it until I cleared customs and immigration, and once I did it felt as though I had abandoned a friend. I could visualize Mike’s mischievous face looking out from where I’d left it in the storage pocket of the seat in front of me. It was a strange sense of loss and one that brought home to me how much I’ve enjoyed reading this collection of his essays and diary entries.

Mike is very much still with us, of course, and that moment of realization reminded me of an experience I had back in Maidenhead, England, where I finished my high school education in the late 70’s. I bought a copy of ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ at Sneath’s Books in a run-down row of shops off the high street. I had been a big fan of Moorcock’s fantasy writing since picking up ‘The Stealer of Souls’, and regularly scoured the few local bookshops for new titles or reprints.

In those pre-internet days, as a middle class kid in a mid-sized, anodyne commuter town, I didn’t see many options for finding the books I loved and didn’t yet have common sense enough to ask the bookshop to order them for me or to take the train to London to the treasure trove of Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Those things came later, along with wandering Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road looking for a scene and people that had long since departed to other destinations on the moonbeam roads.

The sense of loss and confusion when I opened ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ and read the introduction is tempered by time but remains real to me to this day. It may seem ludicrous now, but I didn’t know then that Colvin was a pseudonym and I took the introduction at face value. As far as I knew Moorcock was gone, and we were left with whatever he had written up to that time, and there would be nothing else to come. To a teenager invested in the heroes he’d come to know from his writing, this was a real sense of loss.

Some time later – I don’t recall when but mercifully before I saw him walk on and perform ‘Coded Languages’ onstage with Hawkwind on the Sonic Attack tour – I learned that this was not true. I was grateful that he was still very much alive and kicking and that there was much more to come.

‘London Peculiar’, then, has special resonance for me, drawing together as it does writing that spans his life. In doing so it touches on many of the places where his writing and the scene in which he moved has been a part of my life. This is a personal selection, and it is easy to respond to it personally.

The book is divided into sections – London, Other Places, Absent Friends, Music, Politics, and Introductions and Reviews – but I’m a peripatetic reader of collections such as this, so I found the organization largely irrelevant. Each piece in the collection stands independently from any other, so sampling at random is as good a way as any to enjoy it and given Moorcock’s prolific and diverse writing perhaps the best.

In fact, the breadth of the selection makes the title of this volume a little misleading. There is discussion of London here, but equally as much of Paris and Austin and Barsoom, and more besides.

London is where it begins, though, and the first piece, ‘A Child’s Christmas In The Blitz’ is one of the standout pieces in the collection. You don’t need to have read a Moorcock story or be a Londoner to appreciate it, but the essay will resonate more fully if you have experienced his descriptions of ruined cities, the perfect sanctuary of Tanelorn, and the theme of entropy that he returns to periodically. I’m a generation later than Moorcock – my father was born the same year – but the essay evokes stories my aunts and uncles shared of their experiences during the Blitz.

While the underlying framework of the city – the river, roads, ancient buildings, parks – remain constant London has changed since then, in many ways. In reading the essays that have London as a theme, it’s easy to share with Moorcock the sense of sadness at the work of the commercial heritage industry in co-opting and exaggerating every exploitable corner of the city. Those dark corners and strange alleys, little-visited pubs, baroque architectural growths, and peculiar odds and ends that we think of as our own.

As a native of Fulham, and a long time wanderer of London’s streets, I feel rather proprietary about the city. Like most Londoners who take the time to think about it I have my own version of London mapped out in my thoughts and feelings, and it’s jarring when you find someone has layered an ersatz version on top of it. It’s an invasion of your own experience of the city’s psychogeography.

And there’s a word I hadn’t heard until relatively recently, although it has a long history, and one that gets a good deal of discussion in ‘London Peculiar’. I’ve more or less given up reading modern fiction, since most of it isn’t worth the effort. I have the good fortune to have a brother who sends me things he thinks I’d like, though, and he’s usually spot on. ‘The Sunday Books’ was a recent hit, along with ‘Slow Chocolate Autopsy’. If you’re a fan of Sinclair, you can imagine the feelings I experienced on picking up one of his books cold.

Moorcock visits the theme of psychogeography repeatedly in ‘London Peculiar’, providing context and insight into Sinclair’s writing, and adding further perspective through his commentaries on other authors – Ackroyd and Kersh, for example – who have filtered London through their own unique consciousnesses. The term psychogeography seems to me to be in danger of literary overuse these days, but Moorcock’s essays show you the original masters and help you understand why their writing is important.

And the mention of those authors brings me to a more general observation about the book. This is a truly literary collection, encompassing Mike’s thoughts about art, literature, politics, music, and other artists. The reflections on writers – Ballard, Peake, Carter, Sinclair, Kersh, Story, and others – are rich with the sort of personal observations that are only born of close relationships. You’ll also get a cracking reading list out of his mentions of authors that you’ve never heard about before. Many years ago I read ‘The Urban District Lover’ because of Moorcock’s involvement with Savoy books and his mentions of Jack Trevor Story, and I have just picked up a copy of ‘Fowler’s End’ because of his review here of Kersh’s novel.

Beyond that there is the broader context of the development of fantasy and science fiction, the pathways opened up by writers such as H.G. Wells and the many unique and individual voices, now largely forgotten, that brought the genres new life. You’ll also find here discussion of the role played by Mike and his peers in breaking open the comfortable enclave that those genres lived in. If you know nothing of the impact that ‘New Worlds’ magazine had in leading the New Wave of science fiction during the 60’s, this is as good a place as any to learn from the man who made it happen.

And there is so much more than the literary world in here. Mike’s often humourous observations on life in general, and particularly for me (also an expatriate) his asides on life in the United States, span a wide range of interests and encompass a broad understanding of history, art, music and politics. Whether you agree with his point of view or not, you won’t fail to be entertained.

A final point. Mike’s work includes repeated motifs, themes, characters, and the complexity of their interrelationships rewards wide reading of his books. Readers of this volume will also be rewarded more greatly in proportion to their familiarity with his work and those around him. This is a very enjoyable collection in its own right for those who are completely unacquainted with his work but the more you know about it the more nuggets you will mine.

I hope that whoever picked up my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ from that Air France Airbus doesn’t drop it into the rubbish or the lost and found, but takes the time to open the pages and read just one of the essays contained within. I know that if they do they’ll take better care of it than I did.

‘London Peculiar’ is a wonderful collection. To my grateful eyes it’s a happy artifact that my 15 year old self never could have hoped for after reading that introduction back in the 70’s. There are very few people outside my immediate family and close friends who I shall miss when they are eventually gone, but Michael Moorcock (for the second time) will be one of them.

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