Mad, Mad Michael Moorcock

Reading & Writing


First, an apology for the shot of Jon Finch; it seems insulting to start a piece on Michael Moorcock with a still of the film he must hate (‘The Final Programme’) – but  it’s not easy to pin down quicksilver. For a long time he was seen as primarily a fantasy writer – a genre I struggle with no matter how good the writing – but he has written much more besides, and his work is informed by his wayward, wonderful talent. So consider this a love-note to a London original from a layman.

I had a few emails with Michael Moorcock a few years ago; he was looking for a house in France and had heard I lived there. He was very nice. I don’t know why I’m so surprised; I grew up on his books, purchased from the Popular Book Centre, Greenwich, whose owner must have been a fan as he kept supplying the shelves with them.

The self-described anarchist/pragmatist produced a lot of madly psychedelic and hippyish work, of course, but one thing all of those wild swirls of stylistic colour did at the time was obscure how well his stories are constructed. There were some volumes I didn’t get on with so well, mainly in that fantasy universes – but the man is so damned prolific that it’s fine, you don’t have to totally love everything – and others, specifically the many variants of Jerry Cornelius, that I loved and still love.

If there’s one word to sum up Moorcock, it’s probably ‘kaleidoscopic’. It seemed that in each new volume a prism had shifted, moving some elements out of focus and making others sharp. His alter-ego Cornelius changes name, sex, time period, circumstances, but remains a figure of the 1960s while other cult figures like Dr Who have been so desperate to shake off their origins.

What did it take to produce such a unique writer?

Well, the first obvious answer to that is the times in which he began, the dippy, trippy, druggy sixties that crashed and burned into incoherent decadence in the seventies – it’s all there in the books. But there’s a muscular structure to his writing that stops it from collapsing into a morass of rainbow-coloured babble, something which can’t be said for many of his peers. In fact, his books seem to strengthen with passing time.

While I was in Vietnam I tried to read Stephen Wright’s ‘Meditations in Green’, often cited as the archetypal Vietnam book of the sixties, and hated it so much for its psychedelic stream-of-consciousness writing that it drove me to literature from the Vietnamese side of the conflict. Moorcock appears to construct in steel, then clads his writing in peacock hues afterwards. He’s a trickster, a mage, a miso, a conjuror of dreams whose ideas are wild, frivolous and deadly serious – no wonder he’s so hard to pin down. Occasionally he has written a traditional SF novel like ‘The Black Corridor’ and suddenly you see this structure stripped of stylistic nuance to reveal its gleaming splendour.

For many people, though, SF and fantasy is a tricky call, and the kaleidoscope-world of Moorcock is a giant leap too far, but there are so many other elements, from his passion for music to his love of London, which he best expressed in ‘Mother London’. Moorcock’s views on writing match my own; he loves Peake and dismisses Tolkien, whose ‘Lord of the Rings’ he described as ‘Epic Pooh’. Equally he has trouble with the right-wing views of Heinlein and Lovecraft. But only a man of generous spirit could write as he does.

His adventures in the screen trade were described in a series of letters to JG Ballard, ‘Letters From Hollywood’ (a book he says his non-fantasy readers prefer) and his fantasy sequences still pour forth in abundance. If there’s a problem with him it’s that this Dickensian larger-than-life character has been so ridiculously prolific that it’s impossible to know where to start, but I began with ‘The Loves and Times of Jerry Cornelius’, although many will recommend the Elric books.

I wish I still had my paperback copy of ‘The Final Programme’, with its fabulous Alan Jones Cover!

10 comments on “Mad, Mad Michael Moorcock”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    As a simple fan, Moorcock’s criticisms always have a point, yet I still like Tolkien for the depth of his world-building and still enjoy Lovecraft for his lunatic brand of horror, not his conservative and racist worldview. As for epic pooh, Moorcock himself authored one or two sad “supplemental” stories for his assorted Eternal Champions, though probably because his publishers at the time asked him to do so. Anyway I Ioved his Elric, who was a necessary and playful reaction to the endless Conan clones, and ‘Mother London’ was my introduction to Mervyn Peake -as for Cornelius, it was brilliant to read his adventures after Bryan Talbot’s ‘Luther Arkwright’, it was like discovering the original well! Yes, I got it backwards.

    My favorite Moorcock books today, the ones I reread regularly, are the Hawkmoon stories and above all ‘Gloriana’: wonderful characters, spectacle, and emotion. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ indeed, and a real treasure.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I like Moorcock and Lovecraft, but the later in small doses – I find it hard to be frightened by an ancient, intergalactic space thingamajig whose name contains so many seldom used consonants that you can’t begin to sound it out, except by stalling the forward motion of the story. He was a strange man indeed.
    A writer of fantasy that I particularly like is Peter S. Beagle, who wrote and sold his first novel at 19. (Yeah, I agree) The book is A Fine and Private Place and has a wonderful opening: a raven flies into a Deli, steals a salami and flies out again. The bird takes it to an old man living in a cemetery on Long Island – the man’s withdrawn from the world and his best friends are the bird and the ghosts of those who have not yet accepted that their life is over. He is sort of a ghost whisper and befriends a young boy who sees the raven deliver the salami. This book was enjoyed by every age level in my family.
    I took my well read first edition to Kabul, loaned it to my future wife, strapped in onto the back of my motorbike, and when I arrived home I found it had dislodged and was lost in the chicken bazaar. Probably resold in a used bookshop. I have been meaning to write this trivia to Beagle, but haven’t got around to it. Some day.
    His far better known second book about a unicorn is better, sells better, but has too many feel good tassels attached for my taste. I still read his other stuff, but prefer a bit of bite to a tale, which he can also provide, I am pastel adverse in my reading.

  3. Steve says:

    Moorcock was my favourite author as I was growing up, although I’m pretty sure that I didn’t understand most of what he was writing at the time. The remarkable thing was that he was published at such a young age, and his early work is very confident. Had a quick look to see which cover I had to my version of Final Programme, Malcom Dean 1973 edition. Definitley influenced my art at school.. teachers not too impressed! There’s a website dedicated to his work which he occasionally has some involvement in- for long lost fans its titled Moorcock’s Miscellany.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Clarification may be needed; By pastel adverse, I mean writing that is without clear definition, washes of friendly color suitable for those still playing Candyland and just about ready to start reading Tolkien, something I haven’t been able to do and complete. There is a wide Gulf between what I like Tolkien.

  5. snowy says:

    Couldn’t quite ease myself into Moorcock, though I probably started at the wrong end.

    Tangentally related to the theme of ‘fantastic fiction’ the Beeb is having a bit of purple patch from next weekend. A mix of classics and new writing.

    The Illustrated Man
    (Saturday 14 June, 2.30pm – Saturday Drama)

    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    (Sunday 15 June, 3.00pm & Sunday 22 June, 3.00pm – Classic Serial)

    The Bee Maker
    (Monday 16 June, 2.15pm – Afternoon Drama)

    (Tuesday 17 June 2.30pm – Afternoon Drama)

    The Zone
    (Wednesday 18 June & Thursday 19 June, 2.15pm – Afternoon Drama)

    The Two Georges
    (Friday 20 June, 2.15pm – Afternoon Drama)

    The Martian Chronicles
    (Saturday 21 June, 2.30pm – Saturday Drama)

    A Message of Unknown Purpose
    (Sunday 22 June, 12.30am)

    Dark Minds
    (Friday 27 June, 9.00pm)

    The Keepers
    (Sunday 29 June, 12.30am)

    Broadcasts as above or listen on-line, [or be very naughty and access them in other ways]. BBC page linked above.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    To be honest I like both, still have to get round to reading Peake, although I’ve lent my Titus books to quite a few people.

    Dispatches by Michael Herr about Vietnam, of course journalism not fiction, I would recommend.

    Snowy, this season looks good, on BBC Radio 4 under the banner Dangerous Visions, I was reading about these on the BBC media centre. The wonders of radio.

    Admin. Can’t remember if I mentioned this here, but I read Film Freak, finished it a few weeks back. Wonderful book, thanks for the enjoyment and knowledge imparted. Brentford Nylon’s crikey, there is a name from the past. Is Cannes really that bad?

    By the way admin, are there any pictures of you in roller skates?


  7. Alan Morgan says:

    Ah, the great man! There’s quite a streak in many a young man where our early teenage years were Moorcok driven, and I was quite the freak.I enjoy the Final Programme greatly, though he does indeed dislike it. A couple of years ago it was on at the BFI and Mike was there to once again shake his head at us all having to sit through it. It was the director that spoiled it all and the cast that dragged it back with most of the good lines improvised I hear. When the crowd descended upon him at the end he was bustled to the side rooms and I was lucky enough to have the protective Mrs Moorcock sweep me along with them – although being bearded at the time and suffering with gout (so I was on a stick) I almost apologised for seeming to be taking the piss. The only thing I had to sign at the time was the cope of Black Static with the Campaign For Real Fear and so in a twist in keeping that brings up back here.

    Moorcock is an important writer to many. When I was about ten my ma threw a copy of the Sleeping Sorceress at me when I was mooching about, so he bounced off my head and then remained within it. So much of what he has written, and as you say that’s a lot, is just so jolly good. His fantasy tales especially could perhaps be a lesson to many more modern epics where within about 45,000 words he spans a plethora of colourful worlds with a very colourful brush and to a conclusion where nowadays it seems that barely suffices for some detined lad to leave the farm. This was a time when fantasy novels were creative and innovative. Not the accepted post-Tolkien elves/dwarves/faux pretend Europe literary porridge that abounds everywhere now. Moorcock, Vance, Leiber. Tight and imaginative, Powerfully bursting fireworks that you can read over the course of a good bath.

    The Cornelius and the Pyatt novels, the world be a far poorer place without them. And so too Hawkmoon, and Corum.

  8. Kevin says:

    I’ve been reading Moorcock’s writing since the mid-seventies – back then the paperbacks used to be adorned by beautiful psychedelic artwork, (some of my all-time favourite book covers), which you would find in most bookshops, second hand or otherwise.

    They are part of my childhood memories, like daytime repeats of Dept S or The Avengers, and my aunties record collection, full of equally colourful artwork which contained mysterious wonders like Magical Mystery Tours, and Tubular Bells.

    But inside Moorcock’s books, there was tight, easy-to-read prose describing fantastic worlds – even with the relatively short, quickly written fantasies, there was a basic level of plotting and imaginative invention that left everyone else in the dust.

    My favourites are Hawkmoon, for the world that he inhabits – where the English are an evil empire in which everyone wears masks, and the hero is German; and the Nomad of the Timestreams, in which he helped to define what is now called Steampunk. In both cases making me think, a bit more than was probably normal for a young boy of my age, about empires and imperial behaviour. There was always a good story, but for those that wanted it, there would usually be something a bit more to think about. Such as the fact that most of his heroes are engaged, not in the struggle between good and evil, but in the struggle between Law and Chaos – where it isn’t always as clear where the hero’s allegiance should lie.

    Then there is Jerry Cornelius – when I first read those stories, I really had no idea what was going on – they are a bit like the literary equivalent of Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ – but I knew that they were somehow connected to his fantasy stories, and yet they were set in the world in which we live, and had something to say about the our world. It wasn’t just the usual hippy trippy nonsense – there is something meaningful there. I still come back to them every now and again, to see what else I can get out of them.

    And as his books have become more ‘literary’, such as the Pyatt novels, and Mother London, I’ve kept reading them.

    I’ve read Tolkien and enjoyed his work for the depth of his imagination – it’s the archetype – but his prose and plotting is heavy going in places. Comparing his work to Moorcock’s is like comparing Vaughan Williams (who I like) to The Beatles. And I don’t mean ‘Please Please Me’, I mean ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, where they (in the words of my Aunty) ‘started to go a bit weird’.

    One of the things that I find most fascinating is that the same character, with the same name, can crop up in one of his most far-out fantasies, and in one of his most realistic ‘literary’ novels, and there isn’t necessarily anything in the one portrayal which contradicts the other. They are the same person, simply revealing a different aspect of their character.

    It’s also thanks to Moorcock that I found myself reading Ballard’s books, such as ‘High Rise’, ‘Crash’, and ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ at what now seems like a highly unsuitably young age, not to mention everything I could get my hands on by Philip K Dick, a fair amount of Brian Aldiss, and others who Moorcock published in New Worlds. Not to mention the effect that he had on my record collection, which contains far more music by Hawkwind, and similar behemoths of prog, than is probably allowed under European law.

    More than a few writers that I like tend to cite him as an influence. Some of his books I like better than others, and there are a few that I don’t like, but I’ve never felt that I’ve wasted my money. Which is more than can be said for a lot of others.

  9. Keith says:

    My shelves used to groan under the works of Moorcock, he was my favourite fantasy author for many years. All those trilogies and trologies. We used to correspond too, and we swapped rare proof leaves and manuscript pages for Dutch pictorial stamps that he used to collect. I once made the mistake of trying to sell an early manuscript of The Vengeance of Rome which he’d written 10 years previous to the published novel. He came down on me hard 🙂 I probably should have known but hey, people sell rare books and manuscripts all the time. But I retracted the item and still have it. I’m now so glad I do. It’s so different from the published version. I also have all of his musical ventures with Robert Calvert, Hawkwind, Friends & relations. The Dancers at the End of Time sequence, Mother London, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse and the Between the Wars books are my favourites.

  10. Guy Lawley says:

    Yes indeed.

    For me it started with one of those imported US paperback anthologies on a spinner rack in a Cornish seaside town.
    (Did they come in as ships’ ballast like the comics?)
    I bought it for a Conan short (he was just getting started in his Marvel comic incarnation & the Barry Smith artwork was doing it for me). But it was the Elric story that really grabbed me.

    Soon I was ordering Mayflower editions at my local bookshop and, yes, scouring the Populars for old editions.
    Dancers at the End of Time trilogy became a firm favourite back then.
    But really, I loved all of Moorcock in the round.

    When I wrote a brief piece trying to sum up the Cornelius books I too turned to the image of a multifaceted jewel whose scenes shift as you turn it. Don’t think I used the word kaleidoscopic but I should have!

    Final Programme with an Alan Jones cover… hmm, possibly that one leaked in from some other plane of the Multiverse.
    Here’s a link to most if not all of the covers published this side of a shifter.
    If you recognise one of these you will be well on your way to replacing that lost copy.
    John Davey at Jayde Designs (has a side bar at Moorcocks Miscellany) usually has most editions in stock.
    Good hunting.

Comments are closed.