As one of the true greats of SF literature turns 75, Jonathan Wright talks to Michael Moorcock about worlds old and new…
Hallucinations, at least when not induced by drugs, are usually taken to be frightening symbols of a troubled mind or body. But what happens if, instead of being scared, you accept hallucinations as part of how you see the world. Might this not be the sanest response? If anyone should know, it’s novelist Michael Moorcock.
“From a very early age I would see visions all the time, I still do,” he says as if this is the most natural thing in the world to be chatting about 20 minutes or so into an interview when a journalist comes visiting at his Paris apartment. “Nothing to do with drugs or anything else. In the ’ 60s, I was regarded as being the great drug writer, everybody was convinced I was doing acid to write the books, which I wasn’t – not to write the books. What drugs I was doing I would do as a leisure activity, not in order to work.”
He’s talking about a childhood when he would see “what people would probably call ghosts, but which I knew was my own imagination imposing itself on the light”. These visions took the form of medieval characters, Renaissance characters, even “a complete Jesus with a bleeding heart” at one point. “When I was out walking in Yorkshire, I saw choirs of angels and whole Blakeian visions,” he says. “The difference between me and Blake, apart from talent, is that Blake believed what he was seeing was some kind of inspired vision, whereas I knew this was coming from within me somewhere.”
If this suggests Michael John Moorcock, who turns 75 this month, has an unusual worldview, this shouldn’t perhaps be too surprising. We are, after all, talking about a man whose work as a novelist and also an editor, especially through his time at the helm of New Worlds, the house magazine of the 1960s SF New Wave, has helped to define how we see the modern world in all its terrible, ragged, contradictory glory.
To achieve this, he had to learn to channel his imagination. “I can’t have it all coming through at the same time or I’d be crazy,” he says. “I think my mother, who was fairly nuts, a very nice woman, a very loving woman, but she was barmy as a fruitcake, she had quite a lot of that in her, but without the vocabulary to control it and explain it – she was just scared of stuff that happened to her.”
She was also, he says, “psychic” in other ways. She was able, for instance, to choose winners on the horses, yet didn’t like sharing
her insights because it might bring bad luck. “It meant oddly enough I grew up very sceptical of anything mystical or any kind of religious imagery and stuff like that,” says Moorcock. “I have very little in the way of mystical beliefs or anything like that, I never did have either.”
What he did have from an early age was an appreciation of pulp fiction. Having started out doing fanzines, Moorcock became editor of Tarzan Adventures aged just 17. And forget William Blake, it was The Sexton Blake Library that gave Moorcock his second pro gig. These early experiences taught him to work fast and, especially through his comics work, taught him story structure too. “On Sexton
Blake, we were very contemptuous of poorly constructed things like James Bond,” he says. “We would never allow a deus ex machina of any kind, it just wasn’t allowed in our fiction.”
By the 1960s, still in his early 20s, Moorcock was writing longer fiction. Famously, he would dash off fantasy novels in just three days, in part because it was all the time he could spare if he was to make the same day rate as he did from writing comics. Nevertheless, even if the money wasn’t as good, it was a conscious decision to make a change. Too many comics writers, Moorcock saw, became “embittered” by the work. Also, he adds, it’s easy to “get exhausted” writing comics. By contrast, with novels, “You get feedback, it works for you.”
This feedback, you’d guess, remains important to Moorcock. He’s affable,
“i would see visions all the time”
charming, if maddeningly difficult to pin down on things like specific times and places to meet up. He’s dapper and has an actor’s ability to command attention, yet never comes across as affected. If a Ballardian world is austere, alienating, lonely, a Moorcockian world is about connections, a place of chance encounters and conversation. This in itself probably made him ideal for New Worlds, a title he took over in 1964, despite his in many respects not having any real interest in SF. Rather, what Moorcock saw was an opportunity “to use science fiction” to do something new, “to borrow tropes from science fiction that were useful in writing a kind of fiction – if you like a literary fiction, but it was a popular literary fiction”.
Of the fellow travellers in this adventure – among them Brian Aldiss, M John Harrison and the pop artist ( later Sir) Eduardo Paolozzi – Moorcock says it was JG Ballard who was his most important cohort. “We were the two who drove that whole agenda,” he says. “Other people weren’t so interested but they had to go along if they wanted to be in New Worlds.”
As this agenda gave us Moorcock’s hipster secret agent Jerry Cornelius and many of the stories in Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition as it reengineered literary SF, the importance of New Worlds can hardly be overstated. The magazine fed off the counter- culture too, so that Moorcock’s Ladbroke Grove flat became a centre to meet and talk – “rock‘ n’roll people, painters and writers, it was normal”.
But such scenes never last. By the 1970s, change was in the air. “I felt any battles we’d fought around New Worlds had been won or lost and were over,” Moorcock says. “There wasn’t any point in fighting those battles anymore. I felt we’d achieved what we were going to achieve and the magazine was no longer needed.” Moorcock and Ballard, “a sort of Lenin and Trotsky of the revolution”, had “begun to diverge”. Change was evident in London too as Ladbroke Grove gentrified, represented by a new lawyer neighbour forming a committee to oversee the communal garden in the square where Moorcock lived.
“That’s when I started shooting at his dinner parties,” he says with some satisfaction, “which nobody ever knew [ Mike’s wife Linda, laconically: “They’ll know now…”] because I was able to bounce the shots off their enamelled stove and bounce it into their dining room when they were having dinner
parties. They always thought the shots were coming from somewhere else and they’d start running out into the garden to look for these people doing all this stuff. ‘ Michael, have you seen anything, somebody is shooting at us!’ ‘ Oh no, squire, I haven’t seen them.’”
A London Moorcock loved was passing into memory, although not before he had written a paean to the capital and perhaps his own mother too, the Whitbread- nominated Mother
London ( 1988), an extraordinary, deliberately fragmented book which follows the lives of three outpatients at a mental hospital from the Blitz to the era of high Thatcherism.
“They’ve killed the centre by doing exactly what Thatcher said things had to do,” says Moorcock. “Places had to earn their own keep, which means all the secrets of London, all of the little places where I used to go for quietness, where I used to go to think about the past or whatever, they’ve become consumerised.”
Partly as a result, and partly because Linda was too often at the receiving end of antiAmerican comments – “She’d got a lot of crap from snotty- nosed Londoners. If I hadn’t been with her when this happened I’d have thought she was a raving paranoid” – Moorcock now divides his time between Paris and the USA.
“I wanted to move to Texas so I could live somewhere there was no British enclave, so I would have to live by whatever rules there are,” he says, “so that I would understand American thought better because we are constantly baffled by Americans for not being Europeans. We wonder, ‘ They’ve got all this, they do all that, why aren’t they socialists?’” One answer, he says, is because “constitutionally they’re anarchists, and certainly many Texans are anarchists, they believe in total freedom of the individual”.
Nevertheless, with the Tea Party on the rise, he’s ready to return to Europe full- time. He should be feted as a returning hero, but that overlooks the way he’s still regarded in some quarters. For all that his literary fiction has grappled with such big themes as, in the Pyat novels, the Holocaust, the fact that he also writes epic fantasy confuses people, he says.
“It frustrates them, they know there’s all this trash out there,” says Moorcock. “They say, ‘ Why does he do it?’ They very rarely say it to my face, but you know that’s what they’re thinking and often writing. It irritates people. They think, ‘ If he’s capable of doing Mother London or the Pyat books, then why doesn’t he keep going?’”
Well, why do you do it then, Mike? “I do it because I can and I want to,” he replies without hesitation. “I like writing fantasy – science fantasy really is the best term for it, and I really get a kick out of doing it.”
Michael Moorcock enjoys the autumn sunshine, November 2014.