Mad, Mad Michael Moorcock
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 Â 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!